The booze was flowing, the bass was thumping, booties were shaking and all around the Cotton Club in Chicago men were – in time-honored fashion - pitching woo.
I hadn’t the foggiest idea who the dude was seated alone at the table next to mine in the hip nightspot, but judging by the women pilgrimaging to his table to congratulate him, to shake his hand or kiss his cheek, I knew he was a wheel.
Sometime later, I discovered that the man basking in the adulation was Robert – that’s “R.” to you – Kelly, and apparently, because his fame hadn’t yet extended beyond Chicago, he had just released his first album (ask your mama what that is) or signed his first recording contract.
Mr. R is now about to enter into a new contract, though, one with the federal government that’ll last from 10 years to life after he was found guilty of, among other things, sexual exploitation of a child, bribery and sex trafficking.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York convinced a jury that Kelly had been the head of a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to lure girls, boys and women to the R&B singer for his sexual gratification.
Before the contract for those crimes begins, he faces similar charges in Minnesota and Illinois for ruining the lives of young girls, women and boys.
R. had help.
Concert promoters, music industry executives who released his records, the radio stations that pumped out his music long after he’d squandered any “benefit of the doubt” one could give him – they all bear culpability for the trauma inflicted by Kelly.
I asked a friend, formerly program director of the hottest r&b/hip hop stations in North Carolina, if his stations stopped playing Kelly’s music once his predilection for underage girls became known.
“It wasn’t ‘known,’ but the talk about it was there,” he said. “When I was there, we stopped playing R’s stuff.”
Good for him.
But what about the others? What about, also, the fame-hungry parents?
During testimony in previous trials and in a disturbing documentary two years ago, we learned that parents who thought Kelly could make their daughter a star, another Aailyah –his child bride and the late r&b star - willingly presented their children to the self-proclaimed “pied piper of R&b” even though it was rumored that something was amiss in Kellyland.
Nobody cared, because R. was selling records, putting butts into seats at concert venues, making good music.
Think I’m kidding? Ten years ago, I ended a friendship with a female friend who insisted that – despite all the credible allegations of R. being a predator – his song Step In The Name Of Love was just too good to delete from her ipod. (Again, ask your mama.)
My former friend wasn’t the only one. Spotify and other streaming music services report that demand for R's music has increased tremendously - 500 PERCENT - since his conviction. Jim Derogatis, the Sun-Times reporter from Chicago who began writing about Kelly and underaged girls in 2000, said in a recent NPR interview that Kelly's crimes “happened in full view of the world for 30 years while he sold 100 million albums, opened the winter Olympics… It all happened as everybody watched and nobody did anything.”
Several years ago, I wrote a heartbreaking and disturbing account about a man who beat his girlfriend all through the night, her screams piercing the paper-thin walls of their apartment, her body banging into those walls, and the neighbors lifted not a finger to call the cops.
After he was convicted and sentenced in her death, I wrote that his cell should be big enough for those neighbors who, through their silence, were complicit.
The people who failed to protect the children whose lives were ruined, whose spirits were destroyed, by Robert Kelly deserve the same fate as he.
Maybe they can sit around the cell and sing I Believe I can Fly.
Damn them all to hell.