In November 2000, Jim DeRogatis, then a music critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, received an anonymous fax: "Robert's problem – and it's a thing that goes back many years – is young girls," it read.
"I will confess, I thought 'this is somebody who's trying to tear down a successful black man,'" says DeRogatis, now 56. "It arrived on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I went home and left it in the pile at work, but there was a level of specificity which played on my mind.
"After the weekend I called the Chicago Police Department... I got connected and said 'look I'm calling about your ongoing investigation into R Kelly', and she [the sergeant] said: 'Oh I was wondering how long it would be before somebody called about that. I can't talk to you.' Then she hung up."
This week, 21 years after that fax was sent, the R&B singer – one of the top-selling recording artists of all time – was convicted in New York of being the ringleader of a violent sex-trafficking scheme that allowed him to abuse underage girls, boys and women over several decades. Along with the eight counts of sex trafficking, Kelly, 54, was found guilty of racketeering, a charge normally associated with organised crime.
During the six-week trial, harrowing details emerged of a sexual predator who forced his victims – some as young as 14 – to call him "Daddy", dictated when they ate and used the loo, filmed sexual encounters, and became violent if they disobeyed. Assistant US attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said he "maintained control over these victims using every trick in the predator handbook" – aided by his entourage. Gloria Allred, the women's rights lawyer who represented several of Kelly's victims called him "the worst" of all the predators she has pursued.
It all begs the question: how did it take so long for the world to sit up and take notice?
Born in Chicago in January 1967, Robert Sylvester Kelly and his three siblings were raised on welfare by Joanne, a single mother and talented church singer.
The Kelly family's home life was troubled. He and his brother Carey have said that they were sexually abused by a female family member as children. Kelly dropped out of school after being bullied, and began busking. He had already taught himself music by ear and met his teacher turned mentor Lena McLin (who also guided Chaka Khan). In 1990, he won a TV talent contest and signed to Jive (later acquired by Sony).
His 1996 hit, I Believe I Can Fly, topped the charts in eight countries including the UK and earned five Grammy nominations. Kelly amassed a fortune of over $100 million, producing, recording and writing music for Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jay-Z and Celine Dion.
It wasn't until January 2019 that the singer's career began to crumble, in the wake of an explosive docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, featuring more than 50 interviews with women who claimed they were lured into underage abusive sexual relationships with the singer. Kelly denied all claims but was dropped by Sony. Fellow musicians began to speak out against him, with Lady Gaga apologising for duetting with Kelly in 2013.
The allegations date back to the early 1990s.
In 1994, Kelly married his 15-year-old protégé, Aaliyah. During the trial, the court heard how the singer had illegally obtained paperwork, listing her age as 18, before their secret wedding. The marriage was annulled months later (Aaliyah tragically died in a plane crash in 2001) and during the trial, a former backing dancer told how she'd seen Kelly sexually abuse Aaliyah when she was 13 or 14.
In 1996, he was sued by Tiffany Hawkins for "inappropriate sexual conduct" when she was 15. Kelly denied it and countersued, later settling and paying her $250,000. In 2001, three more women made allegations of underage sex, forced abortion and non-consensual filming during sex, but the cases never went to trial.
Then, in 2002, Kelly was charged with making child pornography after a video emerged of him having sex with what prosecutors claimed was a 14-year-old girl. He was acquitted in 2008 after the jury concluded they could not prove the girl on the tape was a minor. A further arrest in 2003 on the same charge was also dropped.
Much has been made of the fact Kelly was "hiding in plain sight". Several of Kelly's former friends and alleged victims – including his ex-wife Andrea Kelly, who met him at 19 while auditioning as a dancer – tell stories of a controlling character.
Backing singer Jovante Cunningham met Kelly when she was 14 and claims the star would groom his victims to recruit others. "He'd say: 'Go and get us some girls,' she said in the documentary. "We were just trying to make it; we thought we were going to be somebody."
Some of the most distressing trial testimony came from a woman who was a Chicago radio station intern in 2003. She told the court that he took her to his recording studio, where she was kept locked up and drugged before he sexually assaulted her while she was passed out. "I was scared. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed," she said.
Another woman testified about being picked out at a Kelly concert aged 17 and taken backstage, where the singer raped her. The court also heard from a then 17-year-old boy who alleged that, in 2006 after meeting Kelly in a McDonalds restaurant, he was invited to the star's studio and assaulted.
Kelly had previously said that women who have made claims against him were spurned lovers with a grudge or "disgruntled groupies" as his lawyers put it. In 2018, he released a 19-minute song I Admit, denying the allegations. And in March 2019 – four months before being arrested – he jumped out of his chair during a TV interview, yelling: "I've been assassinated... I'm fighting for my f---ing life."
DeRogatis – who went on to uncover and publish the stories of scores of underage girls who made allegations against the singer – claims to know the names of 45 women who say they have been victims of Kelly. He believes they weren't listened to because of the colour of their skin.
"Predators know who to pick on. These were kids with incredible talents, often from broken homes," he says. "They thought this guy was a Svengali and would make their musical dreams come true, like he did for Aaliyah. But they were ruined… The single thing I've heard more than anything else is: 'I was just a young black girl; I didn't matter'."
"Every system failed these girls – and I am confident there are more," he adds. Kelly already faces more charges in Chicago, Illinois and Minnesota, all of which he denies. At least two former associates have pleaded guilty in separate cases related to attempts to silence his accusers.
For DeRogatis, it's too little too late. "The police largely failed," he says. "The church failed, the schools failed, he would return to Kenwood Academy for years after stardom to pick up young girls. And the press failed. Nobody took this story seriously and nobody cared about those young women for decades, and the result is unprecedented."
Does he feel any sense of closure?
"The sleepless nights. The ulcer… I never started smoking until this story," he says. "It all pales in comparison to the courage that these young black women had in stepping forward to speak out… To tell their stories about a man with tremendous wealth and power and the ability to cause them physical or financial ruin.
"Their lives were ruined by their encounters with R Kelly. I don't think that's hyperbole. Nobody came out the better for this."