OPINION: Writer Touré recalls his 2008 BET interview with R. Kelly, in which he asked the singer if he liked teenage girls. His answer said it all.
The year was 2008 and I was in a swanky Chicago hotel suite sitting across from R. Kelly, both of us surrounded by BET cameras. It had been an open secret for years that the superstar was into underage girls and I was one of the few journalists who had the chance to interview him on camera in years. I asked him some questions about the rumors of him and underage girls but he kept saying you can’t listen to rumors and that he didn’t mess with 13 year olds.
Finally, I said it straight out — “Do you like underage girls?” I saw it as a softball question. It was a prelude to two others I had in mind but we would never get to those. As soon as I finished asking the question his crisis manager — an older gentleman in an expensive suit — leapt up from his nearby chair and yelled, “You can’t ask that! You can’t ask him that!” But Kelly put his hand up and said, “No, I want to answer this.” So the crisis manager sat down and we resumed and I prepared to ask him again.
Of course, I knew the answer. Years earlier, in 1994, I was working for MTV News as a writer, when a rumor floated onto my radar: 27-year-old Kelly had married Aaliyah, a 15-year-old rising R&B star. R. Kelly and Aaliyah, of course, denied it but there had been some weird TV appearances where they seemed very close, like giggly-couple close. I called the Cook County registrar’s office. The woman who answered the phone was very nice. I asked if they had a marriage certificate for the two. She said they did and faxed it over to me. That day MTV News broke the story that Kelly and Aaliyah had married — she had claimed she was 18 to get the marriage license.
That news caused a firestorm but didn’t even dent R. Kelly’s career. Maybe people thought this was real love and went right back to loving him. But in the years after that, more “rumors” floated around — that Kelly loved driving to Chicago’s high schools when it was recess time so he could get to know the girls. He allegedly invited some of them back to the studio. There was a VH1 Behind the Music about him in which a journalist said after his shows Kelly would walk backstage and see a lineup of women waiting for him and walk past the shapely brickhouses and find the skinny girl with braces. And what made that really remarkable to me is that it aired over and over and R. Kelly didn’t sue or demand VH1 stop airing it. It was almost like he wanted this to become part of his reputation. When he started to be called “The Pied Piper,” and the original Pied Piper had seduced children with his music led them away, I said what is going on?
All of that was in my head that day in that Chicago hotel suite. I had to ask him a direct question; I felt like it would probably be the last chance that any journalist would have to talk to him for a long time. As I began to re-ask my question — Do you like underage girls? — I thought about how he had repeatedly defined underage as 13. I needed a word that was more precise and less vague. So when I re-asked at the last second I changed my word. This time I said, “Do you like teenage girls?” Kelly did not say, “No.” That would have been easy. He said, “How old are we talking?” I was shocked.
I thought that gave him away. What grown man (he was in his early 40s then) needs to ask that question? I clarified, “19 and younger,” as if teenager needs to be defined. He said, “I have some 19 year old friends.” That interview aired on BET once and went super viral before viral was a term. But it still didn’t change R. Kelly’s career. He continued to have massive hits and tours and be beloved throughout the Black community. It was as if we all were pretending to not know.
Now that Kelly is on trial in federal court it’s all coming out. Several women have testified to sexual encounters with him when they were teenagers. One man testified to Kelly fellating him when the man was 17. The minister who performed Kelly and Aaliyah’s wedding testified. It’s been a parade of horrific stories.
It’s hard to watch all this and know that all of it was already there on the surface for all to see. We have more detail now but we already knew Kelly liked teenage girls. How much more detail did we need? We knew that he married Aaliyah — everyone saw the marriage license. We already knew that he was a predator who was a danger to any girl who came to his show and, really, to any girl in the Chicago area. And yet despite all of that we continued to love him and listen to him and let him lift us up as if he was an inspirational figure. What does the gospel-tinged inspirational ballad “I Believe I Can Fly” mean if it comes from a monster? Can you possibly put Kelly’s deeds out of mind and just be inspired?
We do not need our pop stars to be choir boys but pedophilia is one of the most hated crimes in society. How does R. Kelly’s music sound good when you know that he’s raped an untold number of teenagers? How do we bop to it when we know that? If you love Aaliyah — who is like an angel to many Black music lovers — how can you ever forgive Kelly for what he did to her?
Touré is the host of the podcasts Toure Show and Democracyish and the podcast docuseries Who Was Prince? He is also the author of six books.
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