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The R. Kelly Scandal
(Posted April 12, 2002)

It was not even six months ago that R. Kelly was sitting on top of the world, with six Billboard Music Awards, an appearance on the Ali soundtrack and a performance at the Winter Olympics to his credit.

Now, with the spring season just beginning, you can bet that Kelly would love to erase the memory of 2002.

The reason for his reversal of fortune is the growing public criticism following the discovery of tapes allegedly showing the singer engaged in sex acts with several females, including a 14 year old girl (the niece of former Kelly protege Sparkle). Police have launched an investigation but have yet to charge Kelly with a crime. The tapes have reportedly been circulating on the underground circuit for years, but assumed greater importance when the Chicago Sun-Times received copies in February.  Since then, the tapes have become this year's equivalent of the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee tapes, being openly sold by street vendors and traded on the internet.

After slowly building momentum, the furor over the tapes is reaching critical mass. On April 4, religious leaders in Kelly's hometown of Chicago called for a boycott of his music pending an explanation of his actions, a move mirrored by other groups across the nation.  R. Kelly responded by phoning popular radio station WCGI and denying the accusations, but also telling his fans that "I'm not God."

The bad publicity has torpedoed the commercial viability of The Best of Both Worlds, the highly anticipated album he recorded with Jay-Z.  At the press conference announcing the album's completion in January, celebrities such as Johnnie Cochran, Russell Simmons, Ronald Isley and Sean Combs lined up to praise the album, with Jay-Z stating that he hoped the record would be a display of black unity.  After selling over 200,000 copies in its first week of release, sales have dropped considerably. Last week, the label that released the album, Def Jam, canceled all tours, videos and promotion for the record.  Def Jam president Kevin Lyles told Time magazine that "we don't want any negative associations that might come with a video, any accusations or anything."

This is not the first time Kelly's name has been linked to questionable sexual conduct. In 1994, he married 15-year old Aaliyah without her parents' consent; the marriage was later annulled and all parties declined comment on the matter. More recently, he paid a $250,000 settlment to Tiffany Hawkins, who claimed she was urged to have group sex when she was 15. Last week, the entertainer agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of money to settle another lawsuit filed by Tracy Sampson, who alleged he coerced her into having group sex when she was 17 years old. There are two additional girls who are making similar claims against Kelly. Finally, Tina Woods, one of the participants on the infamous tapes, is suing Kelly because she claims she was filmed without her knowledge.

All of these actions seem to be more than mere coincidence or the result of frivolous lawsuits.  Rather, they indicate that Kelly needs to seek professional help for his obsession with underage girls.  Kelly is in his early-to-mid 30s and appears capable of having his choice of adult women, yet is drawn towards relationships with children whose inexperience allows them to be easily manipulated.  He is also married with two kids.

Yet surprisingly, many people are rushing to Kelly's defense.  Other artists, perhaps in a show of solidarity, are withholding judgement until the facts are clear.  That is fine.  More troubling are comments blaming the underaged girl for getting involved with Kelly. On message boards across the internet, statements such as "the girl probably set him up," "that girl is a pro in the bedroom no doubt about that," and "she knew what she wanted when she agreed to lie with him" (all taken from the www.bet.com website) reflect a belief that a sexual relationship between a minor and adult can somehow be seen as normal, particularly if the minor is sexually experienced.

This is a very dangerous message to send to society, and specifically black girls.  Popular culture tells girls that their worth is largely defined by their sexual desirability, and black girls are especially vulnerable to images of sexualized video dancers and the casual use of "ho," "freak," and "bitch" in the community.  Without a strong voice to counter these images, these influences can create a lack of self-esteem that leads many underage girls to unhealthy relationships with older males.

These relationships often have destructive effects.  As the lawsuits by Kelly's former victims attest, it sometimes takes years for those involved to realize the harmful nature of their situations.  Support for R. Kelly in this matter, if the allegations are true, not only reinforces the thought that celebrities are above the law and condones the behavior of sexual predators, but tells young women that the stereotypes about them are true, that having sex with men old enough to be their fathers is not a cause for concern, since, after all, "some girls are like that."  Given this message, how can the community expect the type of responsible behavior that is needed to uplift society?  If children are the future, we owe it to them, and ourselves, to shield them from such potentially destructive people as R. Kelly. 

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