Thirty-one years ago, R. Kelly, an aspiring R&B artist from Chicago in his mid-20s, was signed to his first major record label. Around the same time, he began having sex with a 15-year-old girl, according to her subsequent lawsuit.
The allegations piled up over the decades. They became more and more horrible. They came out into the open. Still, the superstar-turned singer leaned on his fame to mask the predator beneath the persona — and to protect himself from the consequences.
Wednesday, Mr. Kelly, 55, can no longer escape the consequences: he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for extortion and sex trafficking. When the judge read his term, he did not respond, and outside his victims expressed deep relief at the decision.
The sentencing that followed one in September culminated in Mr. Kelly, from a chart-topping hit known as the king of R&B to a pariah whose musical legacy is inextricably linked to his abuses. His trial revealed harrowing and systematic torment directed by the musician and enabled by those in his orbit.
U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly, who presided over the federal trial in Brooklyn, said in court there are “few crimes more serious” than Mr. Kelly, and that he had manipulated girls and women. “You taught them that love is slavery and violence,” the judge said, recalling the scenarios he had devised to humiliate them.
“This case is not about sex. It’s about violence, cruelty and control,” Judge Donnelly said. “You had a system that lured young people into your job — and then you took over their lives.”
The lawyer of Mr. Kelly, Jennifer Bonjean, said outside the courthouse that she would appeal the verdict. She had searched for 10 years. Kelly was prepared for jail, she said, but “is sorry and sad.”
mr. Kelly was one of the most successful American musicians of the 1990s and 2000s, as charts like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix)” catapulted him to some of the world’s biggest stages.
But when the entertainer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, created an image as a sex symbol, he abused access to young fans and aspiring musicians to fulfill his desires, the government said.
For an hour in court on Wednesday, seven women and one of their fathers gave heartbreaking testimonies, describing the destruction of their self-esteem and how the trauma continues to affect every facet of their lives.
A woman, known in court only by the pseudonym Jane Doe No. 2, said she had sex with the entertainer in 1999 when she was 17, and said she still often “sobs uncontrollably at random times of the day.” “.
“I was a teenager. And you were a pedophile, ready to destroy another young lady’s life,” the woman said. “You made me do things that broke me. I literally wished I could die because of how you made me feel.”
She had mr. Met Kelly for the first time hoping to help a friend audition, she said, but the singer forced her into sex. The courtroom became tense at one point when Mr. Kelly and his attorney whispered at their table.
“I’m sorry I don’t want to interrupt his conversation,” she interrupted, pausing until the room went quiet again.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be whole,” the woman continued. “What you’ve done has left a lasting stain on my life that I’ll never be able to wash away. I’m sure you never think about that.”
After the women told their stories, Mr. Kelly refused to speak. He is still facing a trial on August 15 in Chicago on federal charges of producing child pornography and enticing minors into sexual acts, which his attorney says led to the decision.
The facade that had long protected the singer according to federal prosecutors began to crumble in late 2010, after years of inaction despite whispers about his abuse in the music industry.
The explosion of the #MeToo movement has coincided with a protest campaign against his music, a disturbing Lifetime documentary about his treatment of women, and the new charges brought by prosecutors and their families. This time the control was too much to dodge.
On Wednesday, the women in court said the moment was a much-anticipated catharsis.
“We are recalling our names from under the shadow of your inflicted trauma,” said a woman who spoke in court under a pseudonym but identified herself to reporters as Jovante outside the court. “We are no longer the beleaguered individuals we once were. We will be able to live again.”
Ms. Bonjean argued in court that the government’s portrayal of Mr. Kelly as a “one-dimensional” predator and “evil monster” was misleading and that he endured challenges in his childhood, including his own sexual abuse.
From about age 6, she said, the singer was molested, sometimes on a “weekly basis”. Mrs. Bonjean said it was not an excuse, but a consideration.
Indeed, the judge considered abundant evidence in its decision. The government called 45 witnesses, including 11 victims, who gave detailed accounts of Mr Kelly’s brutality. Jurors were also faced with hours of shocking audio and video recordings, including one in which, at the behest of the singer, a woman tainted herself with her own garbage.
Other accounts were also disturbing. One of the two men who testified that they had been sexually assaulted by Mr. Kelly, recalled a time when he was at the singer’s home gym in Illinois. mr. Kelly snapped his fingers twice, he said, and a “young lady” crawled out from under a boxing ring to perform sexual acts on them.
“I’ll never forget that,” Judge Donnelly said of the story. She added that she was stunned by the hundreds of enablers surrounding the singer. “I don’t know why all these people are turning a blind eye,” said the judge, who also ordered Mr Kelly to pay $100,000. fine.
The case, like other high-profile prosecutions from the #MeToo era, illustrated how powerful people can sidestep the consequences in a glorious time, even as allegations of sexual misconduct persist. for decades. Many people were familiar with similar allegations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby.
The race of the accusers of Mr. Kelly may also have had repercussions: It has historically been more common than white women to mistrust or dismiss allegations of abuse.
“There wasn’t a day in my life, up to this point, when I really believed the justice system would come through for black and brown girls,” Jovante said outside the courthouse. “I stand here, very proud.”
Because of all this, Mr. Kelly’s stardom remained intact even during a 2008 criminal trial that centered on an infamous 27-minute tape that appeared to show he had sex with an underage girl. (He was acquitted on all counts after the girl refused to testify at trial.)
The singer performed at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics on the same day that Chicago police revealed they were investigating him. Hours after the singer pleaded not guilty to the charges leading to his trial in 2008, he sang with children at a Chicago church.
In the mid-2010s, he headlined major music festivals while collaborating with stars from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber to Jennifer Hudson and Chance the Rapper.
And while mr. Kelly still retains a significant base of support, the father of a victim, who pronounced his name Charles in court on Wednesday, detailed the threats and intense harassment his family endured.
“I want to ask you, Mr. Kelly, to look at me and imagine what I might be feeling. Put yourself in my shoes,’ Charles pleaded, turning to him. “We suffer because so many people love you. They hate us.”
Charles told the singer that he had no ill will towards him and encouraged him to seek forgiveness from God.
“But if he wants to forgive you, admit what you’ve done,” Charles said. “So it’s up to you.”
The singer’s gaze remained on the table in front of him and never met the man’s eyes.
Chelsea Rose Marcius and Hurubie Meko reporting contributed.