R. Kelly has been sentenced to serve 30 years in prison following his conviction for racketeering and sex trafficking. This marks the culmination of a disturbing saga that has stretched back for decades.
The sentencing follows Kelly’s September 2021 conviction by a New York jury, who found him guilty of twelve of fourteen accused criminal acts, including one involving Kelly’s marriage to a then-underage Aaliyah. Ann M. Donnelly, the presiding judge, handed down the sentence, which far exceeded the ten years requested by Kelly’s lawyers.
Kelly was first accused of sleeping with underage girls during the 1990s, when he was establishing himself as an R&B A-lister and reeling off chart-topping songs like “Bump n’ Grind” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” In 2002, Kelly was arrested on charges of child pornography connected to a tape that was obtained by the Chicago Sun Times, but in 2008 a Chicago jury ultimately found the singer not guilty. Though the allegations became a regular topic in the cultural zeitgeist, he continued to produce successful music for several years. Kelly’s illicit behavior entered the public eye again in 2017, when a Buzzfeed feature drew attention to parents who said that their daughters were being held by Kelly under cult-like circumstances.
“It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” one parent told Buzzfeed. “I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her… I don’t know what to do. I hope that if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults. They can reprogram her. But I wish I could have stopped it from happening.” Two years later, Lifetime aired the three-part, Peabody-Award-winning documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly, which led to him being dropped by his label, RCA, and multiple past collaborators, such as Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper, pulled their joint songs off of streaming.
Following today’s sentencing, U.S. attorney Breon S. Peace spoke to reporters in Brooklyn, saying, “This is a significant outcome for all victims of R. Kelly. He continued committing his crimes for almost 30 years and avoided punishment—until today.” Kelly’s own attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, asserted that her client “[is] not a predator,” but said he was ready for the sentence.
The New York Times reports the sentencing was filled with brave, harrowing impact statements from many of the women whom Kelly had abused during the course of his career, including some who appeared in Surviving R. Kelly. “Robert, you destroyed so many people’s lives,” Lizzette Martinez, who met Kelly back when she was a 17-year-old aspiring singer, told the court. “I personally don’t think it’s enough but I’m pleased with it,” Martinez replied when asked about Kelly’s sentence.
Kelly is set to face more federal charges in his native Illinois, which includes child pornography and obstruction of justice.