It’s been an eventful week for celebrity justice, especially of the entirely predictable kind. First, Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to twenty years for recruiting and trafficking young girls. Now, the musician and pedophile R. Kelly has received a thirty-year prison sentence for sexually abusing girls, boys and women, showing the same eclecticism in his appetites that he did in his musical influences.
He was convicted of the offense last September so a lengthy prison sentence has been inevitable ever since. Still, thirty years is a long, long time. Should Robert Sylvester Kelly make it to the end of his incarceration — and the odds against a high-profile convicted sex offender surviving unmolested are not high — then he will be eighty-five upon his release. A once-stellar music career is over. His name is now a byword for infamy.
None of Kelly’s troubles will come as a surprise to observers. Two decades ago, he was first charged on multiple counts of making DIY sex videos with underage girls, anticipating the vogue for homemade pornography before it caught on. He was as much of an innovator in his criminality as he was in his musical achievements. Yet after a long, sordid trial, he was acquitted of all charges in 2008. That left him free to resume what was by then a very tainted career, consisting largely of his releasing installments of his increasingly bizarre R&B “opera” Trapped In The Closet. This was either a brave, boundary-pushing genre experiment or simply foolhardy, depending on your tastes.
Yet Kelly is not simply an arrogant multimillionaire with a taste for sexual deviance. Beginning with his 1992 debut album Born Into The 90s, and continuing with his far more successful 1993 release 12 Play, Kelly capitalized on a vogue for sexually explicit R&B music. His singles released included the megahit “Bump ‘n’ Grind,” as well as “Your Body’s Callin” and “Sex Me.”
He was an enormous commercial smash, but also attracted critical recognition. Kelly seemed like a musically innovative figure in a genre that had too often embraced a kind of antic conservatism. The New York Times wrote approvingly, “The reigning king of pop-soul sex talks a lot tougher than Barry White, the father of such fluffed-up pillow talk and along with Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway, [both] major influences for Kelly.” Yet he could also tickle the God-fearing mainstream, too; his 1996 single, “I Believe I Can Fly,” eschewed sexual innuendo in favor of leaden, all-purpose inspiration. Unsurprisingly, it has been much covered in talent shows, at least until its creator’s disgrace.
Kelly continued an imperial phase of success, collaborating with the none-more-savvy Jay-Z (at least until Kelly was fired from a joint tour over assorted misdemeanors) and enjoying hit records, even as his legal troubles threatened to overwhelm him. In 2012, he released an autobiography, full of braggadocio and swagger, entitled Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. It detailed, as is the way of these things, his impoverished and tough upbringing in Chicago as well as his rise to fame and then superstardom. There is unlikely to be a second edition dealing with his equally precipitous fall from grace.
Few will mourn the end of Kelly’s career. Even his most devoted fans had tired of him, not least because of his complete absence of anything resembling contrition for his crimes. His nicknames, “The Pied Piper of R&B” and “The King of Pop-Soul,” now seem grimly ironic rather than remotely appropriate.
Yet the music industry must shoulder their share of the blame, too. Under Kelly’s long-term record label boss Barry Weiss, blind eyes were turned so long as their star continued to produce hits. Now that those days are well and truly over, questions must be asked about complicity — both in Kelly’s case and others. A long, hard look must be taken at an industry that not just kept a dangerous man in the public eye but gave him the ability to embrace his sordid desires to his heart’s content.
This Pied Piper has well and truly left Hamelin. Let us hope that another one never arrives.