The legacy of R. Kelly: From R&B icon to trafficker running a criminal enterprise?
The singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is one of the most prominent people tried on sex charges during the #MeToo movement, which amplified accusations that had dogged him since the early 2000s – accusations that in many cases came from underage African American girls.
Like Kelly, many of his accusers were Black, differentiating the case from recent #MeToo convictions of comedian Bill Cosby and movie producer Harvey Weinstein, Reuters noted. Cosby’s conviction was overturned in June.
On top of the conviction, Kelly still faces federal charges in Chicago on child pornography and obstruction, and state charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
Trial testimony from the 45 government witnesses portrayed, often in graphic detail, an unseemly side to Kelly’s 30-year music career, whose highlights include the 1996 Grammy-winning smash “I Believe I Can Fly,” according to Reuters.
Many accusations against Kelly were included in the January 2019 Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.”
The accusations also mirror many of the hallmarks of classic trafficking networks.
Moving money to hide your control and connections to a larger network, moving and manipulating women to engage in sex acts, all of these are the historical red flags of organized criminal groups engaging in human trafficking, according to analysis by Polaris, formerly the Polaris Project.
The Washington, D.C.-based non-profit founded it 2002 has worked to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America.
The group has assisted thousands of victims and survivors through the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, helped ensure countless traffickers were held accountable and built the largest known U.S. data set on actual trafficking experiences, according to its site.
At its heart, human trafficking is described as illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, in many cases for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation, according to analyses and media reports.
According to the U.N.-backed International Labor Organization (ILO), globally it is estimated that some 40 million people have been affected by this industry, both willingly in terms of trying to make a better life for themselves, and in other instances, taken advantage of by illicit organized criminal gangs.
The profits of this crime are also massive.
In a 2014 ILO report, human trafficking earns a profit of nearly $150 billion annually, with more than half of the profits coming from sexual exploitation.
That makes the sex and labor trafficking industry second only to drug trafficking as the world’s largest criminal industry, according to ILO and Polaris, key figures not lost on global watchdog groups, domestic and international investigative agencies and international banking groups.
Based on what Polaris learned through testimonies during Kelly’s six-week trial, here are a few other ways in which his tactics mirror what is commonly seen in more typical situations of human trafficking:
- Recruitment: Kelly often followed a standard sex trafficking recruitment pattern. He (or his associates) would identify underage aspiring artists, express an interest in helping them develop their talents, then manipulate them into sexual relationships with promises of love, a successful career, or other things of value. False promises of success or fame are frequently used by traffickers to lure victims into sex or labor situations.
- Isolation: Once Kelly recruited his victims, he frequently isolated them from their friends and families. One victim, Jerhonda Pace, testified that he confiscated her cell phone. While another, who went by Jane, testified that he discouraged all the women from communicating with or visiting their families by telling them they “did not mean anything” to their families. Isolation is a common way in which traffickers attempt to maintain control over their victims without interference from external parties.
- Monitoring and Surveillance: Those victims who lived with Kelly, or in one of his homes, were made to follow strict rules and their movement was restricted. During the trial, a former assistant testified that many of Kelly’s victims had to request his permission to do most things, like eat or use the bathroom, and Kelly or a manager were often called in if these rules were broken. It is not uncommon for traffickers to surveil and restrict the movement of their victims, often with the help of others.
- Threats of Violence: Traffickers often threaten to harm victims or their loved ones as a way to continue controlling them or prevent them from reporting. One witness, identified as Sonja, testified that after being abused and kept in a room against her will for days she was allowed to leave, but was threatened by one of Kelly’s associates who told her they had addresses and phone numbers for her and some of her loved ones. As a result, Sonja did not initially report the abuse she experienced out of fear and a concern that no one would believe her.
Rather than a star maker, Kelly was a dream breaker.
“Human traffickers profit from preying on people’s vulnerabilities – then offering them something they want or need,” Polaris stated. “What R&B singer R. Kelly had to offer was more glamorous on the outside, and certainly less common, but the elements of trafficking were the same. He preyed on young people’s dreams – their naivety in some cases, their material need in others.”
While Kelly promised to meet the needs of others, his only desire were his own desires.
“For some, he offered the promise of a career in the music industry; wish fulfillment at a level few young people can resist,” according to the group. “For others, he dangled the idea of a relationship or family. What he got in exchange was sex, obedience, subservience, whatever he wanted, from people he defrauded, manipulated and traumatized.”