R. Kelly’s sham marriage to Aaliyah foreshadowed decades of sexual abuse allegations

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R. Kelly and Aaliyah. AP Photo
  • Witnesses in R. Kelly’s sex crimes trial have testified about their fascination with Aaliyah.
  • The singer became Kelly’s protege as a teenager, and the two were secretly married when she was just 15.
  • Many of the accusers in the ongoing trial also said Kelly promised to help with their music careers.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A few years before being indicted on more than a dozen federal sex crimes charges, R. Kelly gathered his several girlfriends together one day as they hung out in a park.

He normally had strict rules governing their conversations: The girlfriends were to praise him constantly and could talk among each other about light subjects like hair, nails, and sex. But they couldn’t have personal discussions around each other.

On this occasion, he relaxed the usual rules and told them they could ask him anything they wanted.

They all had the same question: What was it like to be with Aaliyah?

The R&B prodigy had died in a plane crash more than a decade earlier, in 2002. She was also, at one point, Kelly’s protege and wife. The women were dying to know what she was like.

“We asked many questions. All of us took turns and we asked him about that situation and why they got married,” one pseudonymous accuser, “Jane,” testified last week during Kelly’s trial.

Prosecutors say Kelly arranged an illegal marriage with Aaliyah

Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah in 1994 – when she was 15 and he was 27 – plays a role in one of the charges against the singer.

Indictments filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn in 2019 mainly accuse Kelly of directing employees to procure women for sex, and then sexually abusing the women under his control. But there is one charge that stands apart: He’s accused of directing an employee to bribe a government official to falsify an ID for Aaliyah and misrepresent her age.

Aaliyah’s career was brief but canonical in R&B music. She released three albums in her lifetime, all of which were critically acclaimed and sold millions of copies.

Her career got its start in the early 1990s when she was 12 years old and her uncle Barry Hankerson introduced her to Kelly, who he managed, and signed her to Jive Records. Kelly acted as a musical mentor for Aaliyah and produced all the songs on her 1994 debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.”

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Cook County clerk Carolyn Harris testifies about the 1994 marriage between R. Kelly and Aaliyah during Kelly’s sex abuse trial at Brooklyn’s Federal District Court in New York, U.S., August 20, 2021 in a courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

A few months after the album release, in August 1994, Kelly was distraught.

Fearful he had impregnated Aaliyah – who was still a teenager – Kelly wanted to make sure she would get an abortion, according to several witnesses who testified in the singer’s ongoing trial. But he believed that, because of Aaliyah’s age, she would need permission from a parent or a spouse.

So he cooked up a scheme where he’d marry Aaliyah, prosecutors allege. His manager at the time, Demetrius Smith, testified that he paid a Chicago government official $US500 ($AU679) to make a fake ID for Aaliyah saying she was 18 so that she could get married.

Kelly left his tour to fly back to Chicago, whisked Aaliyah into a hotel suite, and arranged a secret marriage ceremony for the two of them, according to witnesses. It wasn’t very romantic: They wore matching jumpsuits and the whole thing took ten minutes, the minister testified Wednesday.

Kelly’s accusers had musical ambitions of their own

In 2021, with the hindsight of years of reporting on decades of sexual misconduct allegations against Kelly, his relationship with Aaliyah is a sordid story.

But for a teenage fan of Kelly, it’s possible to see it from a different angle: Kelly had the power to lift the career of a talented young musician to unimaginable heights.

If Kelly took a liking to you, not only were you in the high-flying orbit of a charismatic celebrity, but you could see a glimmer of your own superstar career on the horizon.

The promise wasn’t lost on Kelly’s accusers as they testified in court.

Jane described how a member of Kelly’s entourage gave her his phone number at a 2015 concert she attended as a 17-year-old. While she harbored no romantic interest in Kelly, Jane said, she had a fledgling music career. She was a member of a selective singing group in high school and performed for charity benefits on weekends. Jane texted and Facetimed with Kelly, hoping he could critique her work.

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Jane Doe #5 is cross examined by R. Kelly’s defense attorney, Deveraux Cannick. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

At Kelly’s behest, Jane agreed to meet for an “audition” at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel in Orlando. She testified that Kelly made it clear at the hotel that he wouldn’t listen to her sing without first sexually satisfying himself. Kelly persisted even when she declined and, after sexually assaulting her, listened to the accuser sing “Mamma Knows Best” by Jessie J., Jane said.

Kelly appeared impressed by the performance, she said, and said he wanted to meet again to offer mentorship, promising that multiple visits would help advance her music career.

Jane was not the only accuser who gravitated toward Kelly because of career ambition. Many of the people who testified against Kelly met him as teenagers who attended high schools specializing in performing arts. One woman who said Kelly sexually assaulted her was an aspiring dancer. Another woman said she met with Kelly in hopes of getting an audition for her best friend, who was an aspiring singer.

Kelly’s celebrity could blind the accusers’ parents, too. The accuser who sang for Kelly in that Disney World hotel room hadn’t initially planned to contact the singer, but her mother started a conversation about an audition with him. Aaliyah had Hankerson, a family connection in the music industry, who brought her to Kelly. The parents of Kelly’s accusers may have understood that they could play such a role themselves.

Kelly ultimately did nothing to help accusers’ careers

Jane’s parents sought to play a personal role in Kelly’s entertainment machine. She testified that they proposed business projects: a food truck, a “Bluetooth dildo” that “would sync to his music.”

But Kelly never replicated his success with Aaliyah, nor did he have any apparent desire to do so.

Prosecutors repeatedly asked the accusers what, if anything, Kelly had done to advance their music careers after months or years of alleged sexual abuse. They all gave the same answer: “Nothing.”

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John Doe ‘Louis’ testifies. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Occasionally, after repeated sexual encounters, accusers said Kelly would agree to sit in on auditions.

The first male accuser to testify in the trial persuaded Kelly to listen to a song he made. Kelly didn’t seem impressed, the accuser testified, and turned it off after five seconds. But the accuser still lingered in the singer’s orbit and said he endured repeated sexual abuse.

But the accuser, testifying under a pseudonym, said on the stand that he was undeterred. He had a few singles on Spotify.

None of the songs had more than a few hundred streams. Still, he said, he harbors hopes that he’ll make it in the music industry.