This week, R. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, was convicted of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines for prostitution.
R. Kelly still faces charges in Chicago for child pornography and obstruction of justice, as well as additional charges in state courts in Illinois and Minnesota. The musician, who was found guilty on all nine counts against him during a six-week trial last September, lured his fans and aspiring musicians into sexually abusive and controlling situations, including hostage-like conditions of locking them up in rooms without food or access to a bathroom for days.
A monumental moment in the continuous fight to hold abusers in power accountable for their behavior, the turn of events for R. Kelly marks a staggering fall from grace for one of the biggest hitmakers in R&B history — particularly because he had been trailed by damning allegations for decades, which went unchecked for years.
Throughout his career, R. Kelly was arrested and repeatedly accused of sexual abuse with young adults and minors. Yet still, he had the biggest hits of his career and topped the Billboard charts, even performing at the Winter Olympics in 2002 in the midst of a sex tape scandal with a young teen surfacing in the press. In 2002, R. Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of making child pornography, but was acquitted.
Years and years and numerous allegations later, the tables began to turn after he was subject of Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired in January 2019. The docuseries put his victims on-camera to detail the sexual abuse they claimed they endured at the hands of the singer. It went on to win a Peabody award.
“Surviving R. Kelly” attracted high praise from critics and garnered large viewership as Lifetime’s top program at the time. Shortly after the docuseries aired, R. Kelly was dropped by his label, and the following month, he was formally charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse. Many artists who had previously collaborated with the singer pulled their music with him from streaming services, including Lady Gaga.
“Surviving R. Kelly” is credited for putting a megaphone to the long-held allegations against R. Kelly by giving his survivors a voice. Following the Lifetime docuseries, R. Kelly then sat down for an infamously uncomfortable interview with CBS News’ Gayle King, which catapulted his shocking story even further into the mainstream limelight to the point where it could no longer be ignored, as it had been for so long.
Now, his survivors say that the 30-year sentence is a major step toward the justice that has been three decades in the making.
“He prayed on young girls and boys for over 30 years — it only seems fit that he’s put away for the same amount of time,” Lisa Van Allen tells Variety.
Van Allen was the star witness in 2008 when R. Kelly was in court for child pornography. At that time, she said the evidence was there, but no one listened. He was acquitted. Van Allen first met the singer on the set of a music video when she was a minor. She then entered into a complicated relationship with him, and was part of a sex tape that she said she was coerced into when appearing in “Surviving R. Kelly.”
“Reflecting back on trial in 2008, I’m so proud to see how far we have come 14 years later,” Van Allen says. “It brings me nothing but joy to know that I am, and will continue, to be part of the solution. I am thankful for everyone that let us be heard. I do it for anyone who feels voiceless — know that you are not alone. We aren’t victims. We are survivors. Our work isn’t done, this is just the beginning.”
Dream Hampton, an executive producer on “Surviving R. Kelly,” is grateful to the survivors who broke their silence.
“[The] sentencing must have his survivors feeling all kinds of ways today,” Hampton says. “But I hope they know that by finding the courage to tell their stories, they’ve helped prevent further harm. I’m honored they sat for our cameras. I’m grateful that ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ had an afterlife that is this impactful.”
Executive producer Jesse Daniels echoes that sentiment, telling Variety, “I’d like to acknowledge the bravery of the women for sharing their stories, and especially during this trial. They are more than survivors — they are heroes.”
And R. Kelly’s sentencing is much bigger than one person, according to Tamra Simmons, an executive producer on “Surviving R. Kelly,” who says his lengthy sentence should serve as a warning sign to all abusers.
“This sentencing sends a message to all predators out there,” Simmons tells Variety. “No matter how much money you have, no matter how much power you think you have, you are not above the law.”
Jem Aswad contributed to this report.