Will R&B's self-described Pied Piper finally get his day in court? Looks like it can go either way. R. Kelly, whose sexually charged lyrics are occasionally redeemed with forays into gospel music, is scheduled to stand trial here Friday on charges he videotaped himself having sex with a female whom the authorities say he knew was at least 13 years old. The case has dragged on since 2002, for often bizarre reasons: One time, because Kelly needed an appendectomy. Another time, the presiding judge broke several bones while climbing a ladder. One of the case's lead prosecutors had a baby. Then, last December, Kelly failed to make a scheduled court appearance because Utah police stopped his speeding tour bus. Just today, the Chicago Tribune reports that Kelly's defense team filed a motion to delay the trial yet again because of "a torrent of publicity surrounding the case." Now, many are wondering if this will prove to be another case of a celebrity evading justice.
Kelly's stellar career is at stake. Robert Kelly, 41, was born on Chicago's South Side, raised by a mother who worked as a singer and, occasionally, a waitress. He hardly knew his father. Kelly got noticed performing hits by Stevie Wonder and the Isley Bothers on Chicago street corners. In the early 1990s, he burst onto the national music scene as both a solo singer and the producer of hits like Michael Jackson's 1995 silky "You Are Not Alone."
With his own songs, like "Bump N' Grind," Kelly was hardly shy about his sexual proclivities. In 1994, Kelly married one of his earliest proteges, the singer Aaliyah. She was apparently just 15 years old, but said she was 18; the marriage was annulled. But as Kelly's fame grew, so, too, did word on the street that he liked to prowl suburban shopping malls and even a downtown Chicago McDonald's for young women. Kelly's spokesman, Allan Mayer, told TIME earlier this week: "Look, he used to hang out at the Rock 'N Roll McDonald's they'd get on his bus with his crew and hang out there. He realizes he can't do that anymore."
Then, in 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times received a videotape that featured someone who very much resembles Kelly having sex with a female at a home in an upscale section of Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. In a 2002 interview with Black Entertainment Television, Kelly denied he was the man in the video, or had engaged in sex with a minor. In the video, eventually circulated on the Internet and sold on DVDs on inner-city street corners, the man authorities believe to be Kelly is seen urinating and, then, ejaculating, on the alleged victim. That June, Kelly was arrested at a rented Florida house and charged with 21 counts of child pornography. "Sexual predators are a scourge of our society," Chicago's top prosecutor, Richard A. Devine, said at the time. Seven of the charges were eventually dropped. If convicted, Kelly could be sentenced to 15 years in prison, without parole.
Fast-forward six years, to the courtroom of Vincent M. Gaughan, a Cook County circuit court judge known for his prickly demeanor. Gaughan barred attorneys and nearly all court personnel from discussing even basic details about the case. He regularly closed pre-trial hearings and refused to release the transcripts. Gaughan's essential goal, according to one of his orders: "To preserve the dignity of the court and the integrity of the proceedings." That's an especially powerful, ironic argument, given widespread concern that Kelly is receiving preferential treatment because of his celebrity status. Ronald Allen, a Northwestern University professor of constitutional and criminal law, says gag orders and closed hearings are used rarely, partly to keep prospective jurors from being influenced by harsh or sympathetic news coverage. Still, Allen says, "The public does have a right to know, in a high-profile case, whether advantages are being given to the rich, or people in the public eye." Nevertheless, on Monday Illinois' Supreme Court denied several news organizations' petition to force Gaughan to release those transcripts.
If the trial ever opens, it is expected jurors will be shown the video. One odd burden for prosecutors: They must prove that the female in the video was actually a minor at the time of the recording. The alleged victim, now 23 years old, has denied she is in the video. However, prosecutors are expected to call to the witness stand several people, including the alleged victim's relatives, to identify her as the person in the video and establish that she was a minor. In another strange twist, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last weekend that prosecutors will also call to the witness stand a woman who claims to have engaged in ménages a trois with Kelly and the alleged victim. Further complicating matters is Gaughan's gag order, which has terrified court clerks from releasing public documents that could help substantiate some of these claims.
It certainly doesn't help Kelly that in "Double Up," the title song from his 2007 album, he boasts of his affection for threesomes. It also doesn't help that Kelly has in recent years settled at least three lawsuits filed by women who alleged they had sex with him while they were minors. One of the women charged he forced her to have an abortion. Mayer, Kelly's spokesman, said that the singer reluctantly settled the suits on the advice of his attorney. Kelly's attorney, Edward Genson who, coincidentally, represented Mel Reynolds, the former Chicago Congressman convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker did not return calls seeking comment. Prosecutors declined to discuss the case, citing Gaughan's gag order.
Meanwhile, it's difficult to sufficiently gauge what impact, if any, the current case's publicity is having on Kelly's career. There's no disputing his talent, and that he remains a highly sought-after producer by many artists. His Trapped in the Closet hip-hopera was cheered by critics and fans alike. Double Up sold just 936,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's a respectable figure, but far below the 3.9 million albums 12 Play, his best-selling album and solo debut, sold. (It's worth noting that consumers' music-buying habits have changed dramatically since 1993's 12 Play came out.) Just last week, Kelly released his latest single, "Hair Braider," and this summer he's expected to unveil a still-untitled album. In 2002, many black radio stations refused to play Kelly's songs, provoking an outcry from some of his most loyal fans: young black women. Such loyalty strikes black women like Gina McCauley as bizarre. "The reason people are buying his CD is the same reason they were purchasing that DVD on street corners: When it comes to [this kind of treatment] of teenage black girls, they don't see it as an immoral abomination," says McCauley, a 32-year-old Austin, Tex., attorney who is monitoring the case on her popular blog, www.whataboutourdaughters.blogspot.com.
Law enforcement officials are bracing for a media barrage. Reporters have been forced to apply for special credentials to gain access to the courthouse. Others must register for a "daily media lottery" for one of a handful of courtroom seats. It's unclear if the man at the center of the case will testify. These aren't all of Kelly's worries: He's embroiled in a divorce from his wife, Andrea, one of his former dancers and the mother of his three children. Mayer, Kelly's spokesman, says the singer has been holed up in his suburban Chicago home, recording in a basement studio from 6 p.m. to about 1 a.m., afterwhich he breaks to play basketball in a nearby gym. He's recorded enough songs to release one album a year for the next three decades. But, Mayer says, Kelly didn't build the music stockpile as a money-generator "in case he goes to jail."