The year was 2008. R. Kelly was a massive cultural force—his album the year before had gone platinum. But he was already then a fading force—he would never again go platinum. I was a host at BET who was sometimes dispatched to do special interviews like Jay-Z and Nas together after they ended their beef and began working together; when T.I. came out of prison.
As soon as I heard that R. Kelly was going to talk to me, I know it was a huge opportunity to get after the truth. And I think the tool to get it was chosen at the last second; one of the questions I asked R. Kelly was, “Do you like *underage* girls?” and as soon as I asked it, before Kelly could speak, his crisis manager, a stern and serious man in a stuffy suit, jumped up and yelled, “No, you can’t ask that!” He filled the air with noise to halt the production and let Kelly breathe. But Kelly stopped him. No, he said, I want to answer this. So the crisis manager sat down. But this time I didn’t ask “Do you like *underage* girls?” At the last second I changed it to say; “Do you like *teenage* girls?” I think because I wanted something more clear—underage feels legalistic and up for debate whereas everyone knows what a teenager is. But of course, Kelly completely flubbed the question.
Let me back up a bit. Kelly had long been rumored to be into young girls. It was sort of openly known which makes it all the more shocking that it’s happening once again right now with a houseful of women who are being played in the way that Kelly has been playing women for decades.
I was working at MTV News as a news writer in the ‘90s when it was rumored that Kelly had married Aaliyah, the teenage singer. The two denied being married but at the direction of my boss I called the Cook County clerk’s office and asked them to fax a copy of their marriage certificate. They did so. MTV News was the first place to broadcast that. The certificate said that she was 18 but she was not. She was 15. And he was 27. The marriage was annulled the following year and people seemed to let it go. But you kept hearing stuff.
There was the VH1 Behind The Music where journalists openly discussed watching Kelly finish shows, walk backstage, survey the available women and walk past them to find the youngest-looking girls, maybe the shy ones with braces. There are women in Chicago who say that R. Kelly knew what time recess was at various Chicago middle schools and he would sometimes pull up in an expensive car and talk to girls. There was also the tape.
The tape was like a cultural phenomenon but it was also like something out of a movie. There was a sex tape, a VHS tape. It showed Kelly in various sex scenes, having sex with several women. In one of the scenes a woman is very purposely hiding her face from the camera. In another a girl gets peed on. In another Kelly is vigorously intercoursing with a woman while a man is yelling at him from another room because there’s a phone call for him. It’s a hot mess. And it’s a virtual shrine to Kelly’s hyper masculinity. It’s a bunch of scenes of Kelly having sex in front of cameras on tripods and it doesn’t look like he meant for it to be released but it was, one seems to show Kelly urinating on a naked girl who was very young. The tape was copied over and over and it was passed around from friend to friend. You had to know someone to get it and you had to go to them to get the tape from them—no Googling and zapping links. It was practically gumshoe work. No one really wanted to hold on to it because—wasn’t it child pornography? And if it is, then why isn’t Kelly in prison?
When he went on trial for child pornography after years of delays, it looked bleak for him—14 witnesses testified as to who the girl in the tape was and what her age was. But he was acquitted because the jury said they could not be certain who was pictured in the tape. (Even though there was that scene with the guy yelling his name.) A few weeks after his acquittal we met in a swanky hotel in Chicago for our interview.
He was nervous. We spoke briefly beforehand and he was aware that it was a big moment for him. He had a message he wanted to convey to his audience. But he wasn’t the messenger he needed.
The mood was fairly tense from the start. After a few questions about music meant to warm him up, I launched into what was intended to be a three-question series meant to get as close as I could to an admission that he liked young girls. He would’ve never said that but I figured it was possible to get him to somehow subtly signal that he couldn’t help himself. Because it must be a deep compulsion to transgress such a serious taboo so blatantly. I can’t recall what the second and third questions were because he failed the first. I thought it was a softball: “Do you like teenage girls?” Of course, he was going to say ‘no’ and in the follow up I would elicit something more honest but he tripped and face-planted right out of the gate.
"When you say teenage, how old are we talking?” he asked me.
I was dumbfounded. I thought of that as pretty much an admission. He was so unable to just say no that he truly did not know what to say and responded by asking me a dumb question. I thought, ‘Don’t let him see on your face how dumb that was.’ I failed. I basically did like a spit-take.
After years of reflection I think he may have been trying to get me to accept talking just about “underage,” which he would define as under 13 and say no, but I insisted on discussing all teenagers, a wider group for which he could barely hide his affinity. I had to keep going, this was the crucial moment. What do I mean by teenage? I said, “Girls who are teenagers.”
He said, “Well, I have some 19-year-old friends.” Wow. I felt like he was laughing at us all. That he was the cat with the canary in his mouth saying ‘I’ve never eaten bird in my entire life!’ Meanwhile, he's snickering at all of us as if he just can’t be caught.
From there the interview went downhill as things grew increasingly tense. I tried to ask him about his nickname the Pied Piper if he would stop using it but he refused to see any connection. Late in our 40 or so minutes together I asked if he could tell his fans that this would never happen again. I meant his child pornography trial. He knew that. But he looked at me disdainfully and said, “Oh I can promise you this interview will never happen again.” I don’t recall how the interview ended—he didn’t storm off but I can tell you it wasn’t a warm goodbye.
The interview aired on BET once because as soon as Kelly’s team saw it they demanded that it never be shown again. But that one airing set the world on fire. It’s crazy to have Aziz Ansari do a bit where he’s talking about R. Kelly and you.
But what’s truly crazy is that Kelly’s been able to survive these allegations for so long. My heart goes out to the families of the women who are in his home. For years Kelly has used his fame and money to lure in young women. Some want to be close to fame, others are promised that he’ll make them famous. Either way they’re making a mistake.
Kelly has never made anyone a star except for himself.
I looked him in the eyes as he struggled to deny liking young women. I've heard the many, many allegations have been lobbed at him over many, many years that suggest R. Kelly is a sexual predator; like Bill Cosby but with victims who are young and awake—a monster.