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R Kelly abused his victims for decades. Why did it take just as long to bring him to justice?

The 30-year sentence follows a public fall from grace for R Kelly, but it won't be the last time he faces court.  (Reuters: Kamil Krzaczynski/File photo)

R Kelly will now spend decades behind bars – but the disgraced R&B star spent just as long evading justice.

Accusations were first levelled at the Grammy-award winning singer in the 1990s. 

But despite multiple women coming forward, Kelly continued to tour and rack up millions of streams.

So why did it take so long for Kelly to be brought to justice?

Who is R Kelly?

R Kelly (whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly) is considered one of the most influential R&B artists of his generation and has sold more than 70 million records worldwide.

He's best known for the 1996 hit I Believe I Can Fly, which won three Grammy Awards.

But before that, he had developed a reputation for his take on R&B with songs like Bump & Grind and Sex Me.

He's also written and produced for many artists, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Aaliyah.

What did R Kelly do?

The former R&B star has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for using his fame to subject young fans — some just children — to systematic sexual abuse.

Back in September 2021, Kelly was found guilty of all charges in his sex trafficking trial in New York, including one count of racketeering – essentially, running a criminal enterprise – and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which makes it illegal to take people across state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

A courtroom sketch of R Kelly during his sentencing hearing in federal court.  (AP: Elizabeth Williams)

The Brooklyn federal court jury convicted him after hearing that he used his entourage of managers and aides to meet girls – some plucked from crowds at his concerts – and keep them obedient, an operation that prosecutors said amounted to a criminal enterprise.

His alleged victims included the late singer Aaliyah, who Kelly briefly and illegally married in 1994 when she was 15. Kelly was 27 at the time.

Aaliyah worked with Kelly, who wrote and produced her 1994 debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number. She died in a plane crash in 2001 aged 22.

Why did it take so long to bring R Kelly to justice?

Kelly was one of the most prominent people tried on sex charges during the #MeToo movement, with accusations dating back decades.

Despite allegations about his abuse of young girls, which began circulating in the 1990s, Kelly continued to be adored by legions of fans and sold millions of albums.

Journalist Jim DeRogatis first covered the singer's alleged crimes in 2000, and broke the story about the infamous Kelly video tape, which showed the singer allegedly abusing and urinating on a 14-year-old girl.

Back then, court records showed the same pattern: Kelly was using his fame to coerce underage girls into sex.

After years of accusations, pressure was mounted on Sony Music to drop R Kelly, with protesters rallying outside the company's New York headquarters in 2019.  (AP: Richard Drew)

DeRogatis says there existed what amounted to a "settlement factory", where any accusers would be paid for their silence – sometimes before a case was even publicly filed.

This method was partly what allowed Harvey Weinstein to continue abusing women for as long as he did.

But DeRogatis says systemic failures and racism also allowed Kelly to evade justice.

"I'm not so sure we would have seen the conviction or the sentencing today if he still had the money and fame that he had at the height of his powers through the 90s, through the 2000s," DeRogatis told RN Breakfast following the sentencing.

"He's broke. As he sang in the last song he released to the world: I am a broke ass legend.

"Justice is bought in America too frequently by money and fame and that's what happened when he was first tried for making child pornography in 2008."

R Kelly still faces child pornography charges in Chicago.  (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

Kelly's trial saw 22 witnesses testify, many of whom DeRogatis hadn't interviewed during the 30 years he's spent reporting on the case, despite having spoken with 68 women.

"But you have to realise women in general are not believed. America just revoked a woman's right to control her own body. The repercussions of not believing our sisters, our wives, our daughters have never been starker in America than they are today.

"Chicago has a lot to answer for and the United States has a lot to answer for.

"They all enabled him to continue preying on girls as long as the money kept flowing."

What have Kelly's victims said?

The judge imposed Kelly's sentence after hearing from several survivors who attested to how his exploitation reverberated across their lives.

"You made me do things that broke my spirit. I literally wished I would die because of how low you made me feel," said one unnamed survivor, directly addressing Kelly.

Many of Kelly's accusers say they're grateful for the sentencing.

Lizzette Martinez told reporters R Kelly "ruined" her life and that she's grateful he "will not be able to harm anyone else." (Reuters: Brendan McDermid)

"Today was a very special but hard day for us," Lizzette Martinez told reporters outside court.

"I was an up-and-coming singer. I was a girl full of life. Very innocent but very driven, and preyed upon, basically, at the mall in Aventura, Florida, and promised just a mentorship and quickly turned into, I would just say, a sex slave.

"This happened to me a long time ago. I was 17, I'm 45 today. I never thought that I would be here to see him be held accountable for the atrocious things that he did to children.

Kitti Jones, who featured in the doco-series Surviving R Kelly after dating the singer from 2011 to 2013, also testified, and told reporters the outcome was "a long time coming."

Kitti Jones called the outcome a "victory" and said "it feels like the beginning of me reclaiming my life." (AP: Elizabeth Williams)

"A lot of people have been waiting for this, not just the survivors, but families of survivors," she said.

"I'm not upset [it took so long], it was just a different time when a lot of these things occurred. It's all about timing. And we were in the right time.

One of Kelly's most prominent victims was the late singer Aaliyah, who Kelly briefly and illegally married in 1994 when she was 15. Kelly was 27 at the time.

Aaliyah worked with Kelly, who wrote and produced her 1994 debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number. She died in a plane crash in 2001 aged 22.

Fans mourn the death of Aaliyah during a candlelight vigil in her memory on August 27, 2001 in Los Angeles.  (Reuters: Adrees Latif)

During last year's trial in Brooklyn, DeRogatis says a three storey billboard rose across the river in lower Manhattan that said 'Aaliyah is coming', advertising the release of the late singer's music on streaming platforms.

"Someone very close to the family told me it was also a message for R Kelly, so today's sentence is in part vindication for the damage he did to Aaliyah," DeRogatis says.

What happens next?

Kelly has been jailed without bail since 2019.

He is still facing child pornography and obstruction of justice charges in Chicago, where a trial is scheduled to begin in August.

DeRogatis has called the next proceedings "horrifying" as multiple underage victims are set to testify in a trial featuring video evidence, something which wasn't present in the 2021 trial.

"I'm certain he'll be convicted there and the sentences will be served consecutively. Even with the 30 years he got today, he'll be 85 before he gets out.

"He's spending the rest of his life in prison."