Music sprinkles a particular type of magic on the burgeoning adolescent psyche, emotions, and memory. No matter how awful, misogynistic, or lyrically challenged the music was in anyone’s middle, high school, and even college years, people tend to have a particular affinity for that music whenever it comes on. Those songs are forever associated with a first kiss, moving into a dorm freshman year, a first road trip with friends or any number of life’s milestones.
For those in my age range (I was born in 1979), R. Kelly’s music is firmly implanted in our youthful exploits. “She’s Got That Vibe,” “Honey Love,” “Your Body’s Calling,” “Bump and Grind,” and other hits were impossible to escape in the early 90s. From family house parties to nightclub excursions, folks in my generation (aka hormone filled sponges at the time) were enthralled with his catchy, adult music. It felt mature to listen to such sexually explicit lyrics and of course every teen thinks of themselves as grown.
It is against this backdrop as a high schooler in Detroit, that some of my girlfriends and classmates were being wooed by older men in their 20s and 30s. These men would literally pull up in front of high schools in their cars, maybe even playing some R. Kelly or whatever was popular at the time. They collected phone numbers and gave giggling girls their pager numbers. I definitely took a few numbers back in my day, but I never actually went off with anyone, especially after a man’s wife called me because she found my number in his pants pocket. Apparently he was married with three kids. She asked me how old I was. I told her I was 15. She sighed in disgust. To her credit, the woman did not threaten me or yell at me, but she did caution me to be careful about exchanging numbers with men.
Older men seducing young, impressionable women is nothing new and has been happening all over the world since time immemorial. Because this is Detroit we’re talking about though, the creepy Romeos were not wealthy per se, but they had “good jobs” at the auto plants, their own cars, and their own homes. That’s pretty basic as far as the grown-up checklist is concerned, but for a teenage girl that was a far cry from going on a skating rink date with Jimmy in algebra if he could get his mom’s Ford Probe for the night.
Attention from older men felt like a validation that we were in fact grown and capable of making important life decisions. Of course that could not have been further from the truth. Those men could smell our naiveté over our fruity Bath and Body Works fragrance sprays. Attempts at looking grown with too much make-up and clothes from older cousins surely only added to the obvious fact that we were clueless. In general, teenage girls are no match for an adult man’s (even a “regular” man’s) manipulation.
At the same time in Detroit that I was learning a lesson about older men, Aaliyah was also in high school in Detroit and learning about older men. Only her older guy was R. Kelly. Add wealth and celebrity to the equation of grown men giving chase to teenagers and you have Kellz. Imagine being regaled by attention and praise from a celebrity when you don’t even have a driver’s license yet. It’s virtually impossible to not be mesmerized.
Every teenager in “the D,” as Detroit is known, at that time either knew Aaliyah personally or knew someone who knew her well. She was the (adopted) hometown girl who had made good. Her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number was written and produced by R. Kelly and had launched a slew of infectious hits. Her laid back, girly tomboyish look and vibe influenced many teen girls, including myself.
Rumors had been buzzing about the relationship between Aaliyah and R. Kelly and his alleged interactions with other underage girls. In 1995, VIBE published a copy of the couple’s 1994 marriage certificate. Aaliyah was 15 (though she listed her age as 18) and the “Pied Piper of R & B” was 27. That rumor at least turned out to be true and industry whispers about the other girls became news stories after investigative journalists like Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis began publishing long form articles about civil suits filed against the singer by girls who said the platinum-selling singer manipulated them into having sex with him when they were not yet of age. He allegedly wooed them with sneakers, bits of cash, and studio visits. Kelly settled a number of civil suits for undisclosed amounts and then managed to escape a prison sentence when he was acquitted in 2008 of all 14 charges of child pornography related to a tape that purportedly showed the singer having sex with and urinating on a teenage girl.
R. Kelly’s known and alleged behavior felt like a betrayal. All of his music that served as the soundtrack for my life was sullied. I could never again hear Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” hit single that he wrote without being disgusted that he wrote that about somebody’s teenage child. All of that “sexy” music from him became perverse.
But industry colleagues and millions of fans disagree because over the past two decades, even with this cloud of disgusting behavior hanging over him, he has managed to sell millions of records and sell out concert venues. Most recently though, DeRogatis—dogged reporter that he is—published yet another scathing article for Buzzfeed about Kelly, alleging that he has been holding six women against their will in cult-like settings in Atlanta and Chicago. The rub? All of the women allegedly living on R. Kelly’s properties are over 18. Barely. He’s 50. Even if he did start grooming them at a younger age, the fact that they are of-age now means that they would have to decide to go to authorities. Their families no longer have any legal sway over their children’s decisions.
At 38 years old, I am now old enough to have a kid around the age that Kelly allegedly likes to groom these young girls. I recall very vividly being that age and not knowing shit. Like most teenage girls, I was highly susceptible to manipulation by older men and that was without the cache of celebrity status. Many of our favorite male celebrities past and present, have problematic private relationships with women and girls. Kelly is hardly on his own in that club, but he has the added distinction of having two decades worth of public allegations about sexual misconduct and it’s always the same m.o. Remember when Touré asked Kelly if he liked teenage girls? Kelly’s response was “When you say teenage, how old are we talking?” Right.
It’s time to stop supporting predators. The safety of our girls is worth far more than a jaunty two-step.
R. Kelly Sued Over Alleged Affair