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The Trial of R. Kelly
Sensemaker audio

The Trial of R. Kelly

The Trial of R. Kelly

After nearly three decades of alleged sexual abuse, the trial of R. Kelly has begun. But why did it take so long to get here?


Andrew, narrating:

Hi, I’m Andrew – and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, after nearly three decades of alleged sexual abuse, the trial of R. Kelly begins. Why did it take so long to get here?

“Journalist: Do you like teenage girls?
R. Kelly: When you say teenage girls, how old are we talking?

Journalist: Girls who are teenagers… “


Robert Sylvester Kelly, or R. Kelly, was the king of RnB.

But as he climbed the charts, collected awards and nominations, and fortified his place in the world of superstardom, rumours started circulating. Whispers about a darker side to R. Kelly. Allegations were made that he used his fame to abuse underage girls.

Well, almost 30 years later, those rumours have been investigated, and have turned into criminal charges. And last week, R. Kelly’s federal racketeering trial began in Brooklyn, New York. It’s set to last for four weeks.

“Federal prosecutors say that R. Kelly is a predator who dominated and controlled underage girls. The 54 year old RnB singer’s racketeering trial got underway in New York yesterday. It’s just one of the criminal cases he’s facing. Joining us now…”


R. Kelly is being accused of leading a criminal enterprise that used his talent and fame not only to sell music but also to sexually abuse young girls and produce child pornography. The prosecution has also accused him of bribery. R. Kelly has denied all of the allegations.

If he’s found guilty he could be facing decades in prison. But the thing is, we’ve been here before with R. Kelly. A few times actually.

He’s been in and out of court since the mid 90s, settling lawsuits brought against him by underage girls and young women who allege that he abused them.

And in 2002 he was actually charged on 21 counts of child pornography after a video surfaced which appeared to show R. Kelly sexually assaulting a minor. He was eventually acquitted of all charges because the girl in the video decided not to testify.

But the questions about his conduct… they never went away.

Throughout the 90s, R. Kelly was able to keep the allegations relatively under wraps. That was until 2000, when an anonymous tip landed on the desk of the Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis, a music critic and investigative reporter.

“Robert’s problem, and it’s a thing that goes back many years,” the fax read, “is young girls.”

One name in particular came up – Tiffany Hawkins. So he, with a colleague, got to work. And just like the tip said, they found a lawsuit that was filed against R. Kelly in 1996 by Tiffany Hawkins.

She’d met him when she was 15 at Kenwood High School.

R. Kelly was 24.

She alleged they had a sexual relationship. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, reportedly for $250,000.

But the discovery of this lawsuit made the journalists at the Chicago Sun-Times revisit one of the most controversial allegations against R. Kelly from the 90s.

His relationship with his protege and RnB star Aaliyah.

“Journalist: Okay let’s clear something up because you know I’ve been getting a rundown on the street. Everybody seems to think that y’all either are girlfriend and boyfriend or cousins or something…
Aaliyah: No we’re not related at all, we’re just very close. He’s my best friend… in the whole wide world.”


That’s the voice of Aaliyah in 1994. She’s sat beside R. Kelly – they’re wearing matching outfits and she’s shyly avoiding questions about whether or not the two are dating. For context Aaliyah was 14 here.

R. Kelly was 27.

A year later the two secretly got married. Now, marrying a minor without parental consent is illegal. So to get around this R. Kelly’s former manager allegedly bribed a government official and falsified documents to say Aaliyah was 18.

The marriage was later annulled and they both denied ever having wed.

Because of an NDA, Tiffany Hawkins’s lawsuit never saw the light of day and eventually rumours of his relationship with Aaliyah faded away.

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times published their first big story about R. Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct in 2000. And the allegations went from rumour to open secret… to something of a punchline.

Actor playing a lawyer: Mr Chappelle, are you aware that Robert Kelly is being charged with Child pornography?
Dave Chappelle: Yes I’ve heard of such things.
Actor: You’ve seen the video tapes?
Dave Chappelle: Have I seen it? Like 80 times!
You know the part where he’s waiting for her to come over and he’s looking into the camera like…

Skit from The Chappelle Show, Comedy Central

His career never really faltered – in those years it actually went from strength to strength.

So what’s changed?

17 years after the Chicago Sun-Times‘ first investigation into R. Kelly, another story dropped by the same journalist at a different publication. This one followed the story of six women that lived with R. Kelly in what numerous sources called a cult.

But this time round the allegations spark a movement.

“Mute R. Kelly! Mute R. Kelly!”

Chants from a rally

And people begin to call for R. Kelly to be brought to justice. But still he batted away the allegations

“It’s too late they should’ve did this shit 30 years ago. It’s too late. The music has been injected into the world.”

R. Kelly

But things took a turn for the worse for R. Kelly when a docu-series called ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ was released.

“News clip: Kelly is accused of videotaping himself having sex with an underage girl…

News clip: Taking advantage of minors will not be tolerated. Jurors…”

Surviving R. Kelly trailer, LifeTime

Scores of women came forward. It wasn’t just Aaliyah and Tiffany Hawkins anymore. And they all had something in common.

The survivors that have come forward are overwhelmingly black. And many feel that the allegations weren’t taken seriously for so long because of this.

“Breaking just now sources tell CNN that singer R. Kelly has just been indicted in Cooke County Illinois…”


The mounting public pressure and the new evidence led to R. Kelly’s arrest in 2019. So how is this time round any different?

Well, R. Kelly faces much more formidable charges now. At least three of the six women mentioned in the indictment are expected to testify at the trial. And even if he is acquitted, his legal troubles are nowhere near over. He still has other state and federal trials pending.

Things are changing.

And it seems for R. Kelly… his past might finally have caught up with him.

Today’s episode was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.