Untangling R. Kelly's Sordid Web of Scandal in the Wake of Lifetime's Damning Docu-Series

"I'm handcuffed by my destiny. It's too late. They should've did this s—t 30 years ago. It's too late."

By Billy Nilles Jan 05, 2019 11:00 PMTags

"I'm handcuffed by my destiny. It's too late. They should've did this s—t 30 years ago. It's too late."

That's what R. Kelly had to say while toasting a room full of friends in May of 2018, referencing efforts to silence his music career via the #MuteRKelly campaign after years of allegations that he sexually abuses underage women and has been for quite some time. And it's a quote that's come back to light thanks to Lifetime's recent staggering six-part docu-series Surviving R. Kelly, concluding with its final two hours on Saturday, January 5. 

And while Kelly has a point when he goes on to say that the music's already been "injected into the world," making it a bit impossible to snuff out his voice altogether, the totality of what's been levied against him in filmmaker and cultural critic dream hampton's production, via interviews with women who allege to have been victims of the man born Robert Sylvester Kelly, certainly ought to give even the most die-hard fan pause before cueing up any of the man's myriad hits.

Stars Who Have Spoken Out Against R. Kelly

Many of the stories surrounding Kelly that are chronicled in depth in the Lifetime special have been around for years, if you were paying attention close enough. First, there's the Aaliyah of it all, of course. The Chicago-based singer met his protege, then just his manager Barry Hankerson's niece signed to the man's label Blackground Records and only 14. He wrote and produced nearly every track on her debut album, entitled Age Ain't Nothing but a Number. The album came out when she was 15. At this time, Kelly is 27.

Amid an uncomfortable media tour in which the pair repeatedly wear matching uniforms and tease the true nature of their relationship as if it was some marketing ploy, it's revealed that the pair were married on August 31, 1994 in a Sheraton Gateway Suites hotel room using a falsified Cook County marriage document, later published by Vibe, that listed Aaliyah as being 18. 

Demetrius Smith, Kelly's former tour manager and personal assistant, spoke about the day in Surviving R. Kelly, admitting it was he who falsified the documents. "I'm not proud of that," he said. "I had papers forged for them. Aaliyah was underage. We got the marriage license, we were at a hotel in Maywood, Illinois. It was just a quick little ceremony, nothing elaborate. Aaliyah didn't have a white dress, Robert didn't have on a tux, just everyday wear. Robert said 'I do.' Him and Aaliyah."


According to Smith, Aaliyah appeared "worried and scared" in the hotel room. "I wanted so much to grab Aaliyah and talk to her. She gave me a look like she wanted me to talk to her," he said, adding that he did not act on that look. "I knew that it had changed the course of everything."

The marriage was annulled in October once the teenager's family learned that it had happened. The Chicago Sun-Times obtained a copy of the settlement arranged between the singers' lawyers, in which both parties agreed to never speak of the marriage or relationship. Kelly paid her $100 and Aaliyah agreed to not to pursue any further legal action for "emotional distress caused by any aspect of her business or personal relationship with Robert" or for "physical injury or emotional pain and suffering arising from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person."

Sometime later, Aaliyah's mother Diane Haughton would tell the Sun-Times, "Everything that went wrong in her life began then [with the relationship with Kelly]."

Aaliyah's Mother Slams "Lies and Fabrications" of R. Kelly Sex Allegations

In the Lifetime special, Kelly's former backup singer Jovante Cunningham alleges that she witnessed him and the late "Try Again" singer, who died in 2001 after a place crash in the Bahamas at only 22, having sex—and, as she claims, it wasn't the first time she saw him committing statutory rape, either. "The first time I witnessed a sexual act in the studio was during the recording of 'Slow Dance (The Remix),'" she alleges. "He had one of my teenage friends in the booth with him, bent over. And we were all right there. I will not say with whom, but none of us were of age. None of us." ("Slow Dance" was released in 1992 on Kelly's Born into the 90's album, released as a collaboration with his group Public Announcement.)

As for the Aaliyah incident, Cunningham purports it occurred on while the two were on tour. "We were out on the road with Aaliyah," she said. "On a tour bus, there really aren't many confined spaces. When you get on the bus there are bunks and so these bunks have little curtains you can pull at night if you don't want anybody to see you sleeping."

She explained that people on tour were "laughing" and at one moment, "The door flew open on the bus. Robert was having sex with Aaliyah." As for what she claims to have seen, Cunningham said it was "things that an adult should not be doing with a child."

In response to Cunningham's claims about her daughter, Haughton released a statement to E! News, calling the woman a "liar."

"The woman and so-called back up singer that describes seeing, meeting or ever breathing the same air as my daughter, Aaliyah, is lying and is a liar," Haughton said. "My husband and I were always on tour with her and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career. Whoever this woman is, I have never seen her before anywhere on planet earth, until now."

She added that the claims were "lies and fabrications" that "can not be tolerated and allowed to be spewed from the forked tongues of saboteurs of Aaliyah's legacy."

She continued, "My daughter only wanted to realize her dream of sharing her talent with the world, and give her all performing on stage and in front of the camera for the fans she adored so much. She realized that dream, thanks to those true fans who still love and support her legacy unconditionally to this day. Shame on all those involved in this project who thought it kosher to drag Aaliyah's name into a situation that has nothing to do with her today. Once again, this will not be tolerated."

After the annulment, Aaliyah and Kelly would never work together or speak again. She would dodge questions about him until her death.

R. Kelly Addresses Sexual Abuse Allegations in Explicit New Song "I Admit"

It might seem like the ickiness surrounding the Aaliyah situation, however unconfirmed the allegations remain, would be enough to derail a man's career. And maybe if it had happened in 2018, it would've. But in 1995, it certainly did not. Not even when the allegations kept pouring in. 

In December 1996, around the same time "I Believe Can Fly" becomes a hit off of the Space Jam soundtrack, he's sued by Tiffany Hawkins for "engaging in inappropriate sexual contact," including "group sexual sexual intercourse with [her] and other minors" years prior when she was 15 and he was 24. The case is settled out of court in 1998 and not reported on until the Chicago Sun-Times first investigative piece on Kelly in 2000.

The same year, he married backup dancer Andrea Lee. And as she claims in the Lifetime series, the circumstances of the wedding were quite unconventional. "My wedding was a surprise wedding. I did not know I was getting married," she said. "We went to Colorado and I remember going into a hotel room and there was a violinist, there was a cello player, he had the cake, he had the food, he had everything. He went over the top."

"And it was like, ‘Robert, what if I wanted to do it in a church?'" she added. "‘What if I wanted to wear a wedding dress?' I don't think he even understood crossing that line from being generous to controlling."

They went on to have three children before Lee filed a restraining order against her husband in 2005 after an alleged assault when she asked for a divorce. Their divorce was finalized in 2009.

"There's certain things that Robert's done to me that I'm not willing to talk about today because the pain, the disbelief still. And the darkness of it," Lee said in the special, tears streaming down her face, after nodding when asked if her ex-husband had ever locked her up.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for BET

At the turn of the millennium, the public picture of Kelly turned darker when, in 2001 and 2002, two 27-minute tape sent to Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis appearing to show the singer having sex with and urinating a very young woman. In the docuseries, Kelly's former mentee Stephanie "Sparkle" Edwards, claims that the girl in the videos was her niece, whom she introduced to Kelly at 12.

"I wanted him to do what he was doing for me for her," Edwards reasoned, claiming that, at the onset, she always accompanied her unnamed family member into the studio. "I wouldn't take my eyes off her."

As time went on, Edwards claims, that changed. "There were a couple times that I came into the studio while I was still under Rockland, that my niece would be in the studio room. And I would walk in like, ‘What you doing here? Who's here with you?' She was like, ‘Oh, I got dropped off.'" 

When the video was sent to the Sun-Times, where it was quickly handed over to Chicago police on the fear that it was evidence of a felony, Edwards ID'd her family member to the newspaper and authorities. "On the tape, my niece has the same hairstyle she had when she turned 14. That was her, for sure," she claims in Surviving R. Kelly. "And that was him. Definitely."

"It still haunts me. It shouldn't have happened. I should have never introduced her to him," she added. "How dare you? How dare you?"

In a disgusting sign of the times, bootleg copies of the tape were quickly being sold on the streets. By June 2002, Kelly had been indicted on 21 counts of making child pornography, as State's Attorney Dick Devine claims in a press conference that the tape was authenticated by the FBI Crime Lab in Quantico, Va., and experts there said it was not a forgery. Kelly was arrested at his home hours later in Florida, where he would find himself indicted on another 12 counts of making child pornography. He plead not guilty.

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By February 2004, after netting perhaps one of his biggest hits ever with the 2003 release of "Ignition (Remix)," seven of the 21 counts in the Illinois indictment were dropped. In March, the Florida indictment was dropped entirely. Astoundingly, Kelly's career continued to flourish. He was invited to perform a September concert held by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation before heading out on a joint tour with Jay-Z. The pair of musicians would release their second collaborative album a month later.

The case wouldn't go to trial until 2008. Despite Edwards and another woman in Kelly's circle, Lisa Van Allen—who also appears in Surviving R. Kelly and claims to have had threesomes with the singer and the underage girl in question—swearing the girl in the video was Edwards' niece, the young girl and her parents say it was not her. After one day of jury deliberations, Kelly was found not guilty.

According to Edwards, Kelly's legal team tried to buy her silence and she points to her family's continued involvement with the singer as evidence that he may have bought them off. "I really don't know if my family was paid off," she said in Surviving R. Kelly. "I know the family was still hanging out with him, that my brother-in-law was still playing guitar on a number of his songs. And that's what it is."

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Speaking on-camera from an Illinois prison, Kelly's older brother Bruce Kelly appears to admit that the legal team was, in fact, offering people hush money by telling the following story about their younger brother Carey in the series. "Robert simply asked Carey to tell the truth, and do a deposition with his attorneys saying that the things that he was saying were not true," Bruce alleges. "And he said, ‘If you do this deposition with my attorneys, I will give you $100,000 and a one-record contract deal. I'll never understand that as long as I live. You could have been rich. I'll never understand that."

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In recent years, Kelly's had even more serious claims levied against him, with the 2017 allegations of some sort of sex cult, followed by Jerhonda Pace's claim that she was paid off by the singer after having sex with him when she was 16. "I would be isolated. I felt like a prisoner," Pace claims of the six months she says she spent with the singer in 2009 in the docu-series. "The breaking point for me was when Rob slapped me and he choked me until I blacked out. He was about six feet tall and I'm only five-one and a half. And he lift me up and I was about eye-level with him and then I remember just blacking out and I hit the floor. That was the straw that broke the camel's back and that's why I had to walk away. After that incident, I powered my phone off and I never looked back."

Watch: Parents of Alleged R. Kelly Victims Tell Their Stories

As the final two hours of Surviving R. Kelly document in harrowing detail, building on similar stories in the previous four hours from women who claim to have endured abuse at the hand of the singer throughout the course of his career, abuse they say kept them in isolation, there are families whose daughters, as of press time, remain in Kelly's orbit after meeting him while still underage or just barely legal. In the case of Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary, their parents attest that they haven't had contact with their children in years.

Both sets of parents, JonJelyn and Timothy Savage and Alice and Angelo Clary, respectively, tell stories of their aspiring singer children lured by the man who actually goes by the audacious nickname The Pied Piper with promises of stardom. Those promises, they say, quickly gave way to sexual relationships and the abandonment of their families with zero communication with the outside world.

"We haven't seen our daughter since December 2016 and she's been isolated from the entire family, including grandparents, cousins, old college roommates. Missed funerals. Everything," JonJelyn claimed in a December interview with E! News alongside her husband and Angelo Clary. "So, it's completely an isolated situation."

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The Savages have set up a hotline for women who claim to have experienced abuse or coercion at Kelly's hand to call and share their stories. And hopefully, to hear from their child. "We are pleading to hear from our daughter," Timothy told us. "Not just our daughter. The Clarys' daughter as well."

And maybe, just maybe, they say, put an end to Kelly's alleged practices. "There's power in numbers," JonJelyn added. "We're not looking just to talk about the situation. We're looking for a resolution to get justice."

When claims first arose that Joycelyn and other women were being held by Kelly against their will in 2017, the Savages' daughter appeared in a video on TMZ in an attempt to discredit the allegations. "I just mainly want to say that I'm in a happy place with my life. I'm not being brainwashed or anything like that," she shared with the outlet. "I just want everybody to know—my parents and everybody in the world—that I'm totally fine. I'm happy where I'm at and everything is okay with me."

Watch: Family of Alleged R. Kelly Victims: "We Need the Real Truth"

But the stories in Surviving R. Kelly, as well as the claims from the still missing girls' parents, stand in direct opposition of her admission. "Let me address the living," Angelo said in our interview. "They're not living like everybody want to put out in the media and get his concept that they're living this luxurious life." He went on to claim that they're being kept the same weight to wear the same clothes, while claims in the docu-series detail explicit orders to never speak unless spoken to and only refer to Kelly as "Daddy," with punishments for disobedience involving being kept from food.

"My daughter hasn't probably [driven a car] since she left and she's been driving since she was 15," Angelo claimed. "So what type of lifestyle is that for a teenager?"

"I talked to R. Kelly personally," Timothy told us. "He strictly told me it wasn't time for me to talk to my daughter. And after the he hung up the phone because I wouldn't go by whatever his wishes were."

"Me and my brothers, we all have our ways with our girls. We're very jealous guys. We don't want our girls doing certain things," Bruce said in Surviving R. Kelly. "You're not going to see our girls talking too much to people. That's just the way we are."

Kelly has firmly asserted his innocence with the arrival of each new allegation over the course of his career. His lawyer James Mason told E! News there was no comment about Surviving R. Kelly or the allegations made therein. While a last-ditch effort to get Lifetime to scrap plans to air the series via a threat of lawsuit proved unsuccessful. "Lifetime has always been a brand that champions women's stories," the network said in a statement released to E! News. "The documentary will air as scheduled, starting tonight at 9pm ET/PT."

Since the publication of his 2012 memoir Soulacoaster, Kelly has been open about the fact that he was molested as a child at the hands of someone in his family. And in 2016, speaking with GQ, he had this to say about it: "As I'm older, I look at it and I know that it had to be not just about me and them, but them and somebody older than them when they were younger, and whatever happened to them when they were younger. I looked at it as if there was a sort of like, I don't know, a generational curse, so to speak, going down through the family. Not just started with her doing that to me."

And maybe, if you believe everything that's been presented in Surviving R. Kelly, it didn't end there, either.

Surviving R. Kelly concludes Saturday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.