“Illinois Authorities are looking into a Cook County marriage license issued three weeks ago in the names of Robert Kelly and Aaliyah Haughton,” a 1994 issue of the Detroit Free Press reads.
“He’s R.Kelly, a 25-year-old R&B singer known for subtle tunes like ‘Bump ‘N Grind’ and ‘Sex Me.’ She’s his opening act, a vocalist whose first single is titled ‘Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number.’ Speaking of which, she’s 15.”
The news clip, a brief entry in Neil Rubin’s “Names & Faces” column, epitomizes the way many mainstream media publications in the 1990s and early aughts addressed the then-rumored marriage between R. Kelly and Aaliyah. Rubin doesn’t express particular concern about the alleged union of a grown man and a girl under the age of legal consent; despite being a journalist, he doesn’t attempt to confirm or deny the persistent speculation.
In fact, his cursory tone almost pokes fun at the scenario, using jokes that shift the onus of blame onto Aaliyah, the minor, rather than the man 10 years her senior.
Two and a half decades later, the way journalists regard Kelly’s conduct has shifted dramatically. Today, his “marriage” to Aaliyah (which was later reportedly annulled) is accurately understood to be abuse. Moreover, most journalists failed to probe a revered public figure in the 1990s and early aughts, and it’s now rightly viewed as professional malpractice.
Following the Jan. 3 premiere of the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-episode investigation into the abuse Kelly allegedly inflicted, current and former entertainment reporters began revisiting how the media covered ― and failed to cover ― this disturbing moment in pop culture history.
“If you look back at the reporting during the R Kelly-Aaliyah marriage, it was a massive failure,” Jemele Hill, a writer for The Atlantic,tweeted on Jan. 3. “Zero understanding of sexual abuse. Nobody treated this seriously. It was a collective shrug.”
The “collective shrug” can be attributed, in part, to the fact that fans and journalists alike saw Kelly as a “hitmaker” beyond reproach. As writer and former entertainment journalist Alexia Hudson-Ward put it, “some folks want to enjoy his music without guilt,” and that included writers and reporters within the entertainment industry. This much is clear in Nekesa Mumbi Moody’s 2001 obituary of Aaliyah for the Associated Press, penned after Aaliyah’s tragic death in a plane crash, where she refers to Kelly as an “R&B superstar” who had “the greatest impact on [Aaliyah’s] career.”
“Her artistic pairing with R.Kelly allegedly turned romantic when the singer was just a teen,” Moody wrote. Her breezy characterization of their relationship is preceded by a description of how Aaliyah’s “midriff-baring clothes and suggestive lyrics raised some eyebrows.” Moody appears to be more critical of Aaliyah than of Kelly’s apparent predatory behavior.
A 2001 Montclair Times opinion piece remembering Aaliyah’s life by Jeff Harrell similarly places the onus on the young singer for Kelly’s allegedly criminal behavior. “Aaliyah’s life was not filled with enough sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to kill a rock god,” Harrell wrote, referring to the singer’s public persona. “Of course, if the bare midriffs in her videos and lyrics like ‘going all the way with an older man’ are any indication, there was sex. Aaliyah was a mere teenager when she reportedly married her producer, the Grammy winner and older man R.Kelly.”
Alluding to Aaliyah as a “teenager” fails to clearly demarcate that she was under the age of 18 when the marriage license was allegedly issued. Claiming “she married” her much older producer negates the abusive dynamic at play and makes her seem like a willing participant in a union that by law is non-consensual.
“It assigns her and other teenagers with a kind of agency that we know is wrong, but that you can skirt around,” said Treva Lindsey, a women’s studies professor at The Ohio State University.
Moreover, blithely referencing the content of her first album ignores the fact that Kelly helped write those songs, and reducing Kelly to an “older man” in this scenario effectively normalizes his behavior and absolves him of accountability.
“There are many instances of [older male] celebrities marrying 15-year-old girls — Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis ― all these icons of American music who had these stories,” said Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. “For some folks, R. Kelly just fit neatly into that narrative.”
What was missing from early mainstream discussions of the marriage between R. Kelly and Aaliyah was a black feminist critique of the relationship. Instead, critical analysis of Kelly’s conduct was confined to fan magazines serving mostly black readers. Major papers weren’t covering allegations of the “urban” artist’s predatory behavior, nor were they exploring how misogynoir, which describes how hatred directed toward black women is influenced by both their race and gender, affected how the story was being framed.
But that doesn’t mean the criticism didn’t exist.
“I was an entertainment journalist in the early 90s. Many of us reported on his predatory practices,” Hudson-Ward tweeted in response to Hill. “I remember people being horrified. It seemed ‘quiet’ because we didn’t have the internet & R. Kelly was ‘urban.’”
Author and activist Kevin Powell was a senior writer at Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine when the publication printed Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage certificate in 1995. “I interviewed Aaliyah first for the publication, and I remember her sounding deeply connected to R. Kelly in a way I thought was not right, given she was a minor and he an adult, about my age,” Powell wrote in an email to HuffPost. “I mentioned that fact to folks at Vibe and to the best of my recollection we were the ones who published their marriage certificate first, and talked about the marriage being annulled.”
“But pretty much most media simply never touched it,” he added, “and it remained a rumor only, for years and years after.”
“We did not do a good job in the media, in the music industry, in the community — even in social justice spaces — of saying this guy is a sexual predator and his victims are young black girls with aspiring music careers,” said Kenyette Tisha Barnes, co-founder and national organizer of #MuteRKelly.
Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage certificate was the standout element of Vibe’s cover story, a Kelly profile by Danyel Smith that included quotes from Kelly fans and members of his inner circle, offering a snapshot of how the producer’s supporters were complicit in his behavior, long before the Me Too era uprooted preconceptions about what constitutes and who enables abuse.
The piece opens with a scene at a Philadelphia hair salon, where women getting ready for a Kelly concert are discussing his rumored marriage.
“I can’t believe R.Kelly got married to that child,” one woman says.
“But then I heard she ain’t no child,” another retorts.
“I heard she is. And that nigga needs more than any 15-year-old can give him.”
The conversation illuminates the way many Americans understood sexual violence at the time — especially as it pertains to black girls, who are often perceived as older, less innocent and more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers. Like the women in Philly, many of Kelly’s fans were shocked and dismayed by Kelly’s relationship with Aaliyah. But they aimed their disgust at the younger woman, who was presumed to be either sexually unsatisfactory or suspiciously seductive ― never a victim or a survivor of abuse.
“Black girls are likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of black women,” said Dr. Monique W. Morris, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, in her book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. “This compression [has] stripped black girls of their childhood freedoms [and] renders Black girlhood interchangeable with black womanhood.”
“If you’re underage, there’s no such thing as consent,” Neal reiterated. “People still can’t wrap their heads around that, and so much of the blame gets placed on the ‘black girl being fast,’ which is a false narrative.”
Near the conclusion of her Vibe profile, Smith confesses her desire to confront Kelly about “what a grown-ass man is doing with a teenage girlfriend. What’s going on with him that he doesn’t want or can’t get with a girl his own age? I want to know if Aaliyah is being ravished and manipulated.”
Ultimately, however, Smith doesn’t ask those questions. The same year Smith’s Vibe story was published, LA Times reporter Cheo H. Coker profiled Kelly in a piece titled “Media Shy, Music Savvy: R. Kelly ― a writer, producer and singer with the Midas touch.” At one point Coker describes Kelly’s demeanor as “drained, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders,” almost as if questioning Kelly was subjecting him to unjust suffering. Even after Smith opened the doors to discussing Kelly’s past, reporters were still hesitant to press the celebrity on what appeared to be his documented marriage to an underage girl, fearing they’d lose access to him.
“Had [the abuse] occurred in 2018 everybody would know, and there likely would have been some handheld device that captured it,” Neal said. “It’s really not until the videotape emerges that we start to get a different type of narrative attached to R. Kelly.”
In 2001, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis anonymously received a tape that appeared to show Kelly having sex with an underage woman and turned the tape over to police. The year prior, he’d received an anonymous fax tipping him to the fact that the sex-crimes unit of the Chicago police had been investigating Kelly for two years.
“Robert’s problem is young girls,” the fax ― later confirmed to be written by one of Kelly’s assistants ― said. “I’ve known Robert for many years, and I’ve tried to get him to get help, but he just won’t do it. So I’m telling you about it hoping that you or someone at your newspaper will write an article about it and then Robert will have no choice but to get help and stop hurting the people he’s hurting.”
DeRogatis’ groundbreaking investigative piece accusing Kelly of being a sexual predator published in December of 2000, marked the beginning of a slow sea change for entertainment journalists. After DeRogatis’ bombshell investigation, rumors solidified into legal allegations. The artist’s mysterious public aura transformed from controversial to possibly criminal.
Yet even these revelations failed to turn the tide of public opinion, because, as Powell put it, “the lives of women, and especially poor or working-class women like the ones Kelly preyed on, are simply not valued.” The media’s reluctance to report on Kelly was ultimately the result of a tangled web of racism, rape culture and celebrity obsession that took years of reporting from DeRogatis and others to untangle.
As DeRegotis put it in an interview with the Village Voice, “a lot of people who are critics are fans.”
Today, Powell believes entertainment journalists are responsible for holding powerful stars accountable for their actions, even and especially when those actions bleed beyond the boundaries of business as usual.
“I think the job of a journalist is to tell the whole truth, if they know something, if you have real facts and real sources,” Powell said. “Part of the challenge with R. Kelly for many years[...] is that there were all kinds of enablers around him, and it appeared that many people who made allegations or knew things were paid off. On top of that fame, celebrity, is a very destructive thing. People turn their heads and ignore things because of their addiction to the famous, to celebrities.”