R. Kelly was in trouble again, and it was really bad this time.
It was 2002, and police were investigating a sex tape that appeared to show the R&B superstar with a 14-year-old girl. Of all the scandals that had stirred around Kelly in his decade of fame, this one felt especially dire.
But Kelly remained a potent talent, a hitmaker who suavely skipped from sexy make-out jams ("Bump n' Grind") to inspirational tear-jerkers ("I Believe I Can Fly"), and the industry wasn't done with him yet. Even as bad publicity swirled, Kelly could always retreat to the studio, where he wrote No. 1 hits for some of the world's biggest stars, including Michael Jackson and Celine Dion. And that's just where David McPherson needed him.
A rising young executive at Epic Records, McPherson had made his name by signing the Backstreet Boys and Mandy Moore and was eager to launch the label's new boy band, B2K, with Kelly's behind-the-scenes guidance. He did, however, ask one question about the star's offstage life.
Is this stuff true? he asked Rocky Bivens, a Kelly assistant, according to Bivens.
"Did you watch the tape?" Bivens recalls saying.
McPherson told him he had not. Bivens said he hadn't either.
"Because, Dave, if I watch the tape and that's him, I'm gone and you're not getting those records," Bivens said he told McPherson. "I'm glad you did not watch those tapes."
In February 2003, B2K soared to No. 1 with "Bump, Bump, Bump," a hip-hop earworm featuring P. Diddy, written and produced by Kelly. Two months later, McPherson soared to a new job, promoted to run the new urban music division for Epic's parent company, Sony.
McPherson, who has since left Sony, did not respond to multiple interview requests. He is far from the only industry figure who worked with Kelly and benefited from the partnership, even as a cloud of allegations — mostly involving the sexual abuse of young women — began to grow around the star.
For more than two decades, the recording industry turned a blind eye to Kelly's behavior as his career continued to thrive and he was afforded every luxury of a chart-topping superstar.
A Washington Post investigation found that this disregard for the singer's alleged behavior played out on many levels, from the billionaire record executive who first signed the dynamic young vocalist in the early 1990s to the low-paid assistants who arranged flights, food and bathroom breaks for his traveling entourage of young women.
Six women once connected with Kelly spoke to The Post about what they say were abusive relationships. Two of those women, Tracy Sampson and Patrice Jones, have never publicly spoken about him before.
"He makes you feel like he's a wounded puppy, like he's hurt so deeply, that there's good there — he just can't get it all out," said Sampson, who was a 16-year-old Epic Records intern when she says Kelly first approached her in 1999. "Being so much older [now], I see how wrong stuff was and how ultimately gross and pedophile-ish it was, but that's something you have to have your adult brain process."
Back in 2002, Sampson didn't speak, silenced by a familiar, legal tool: A non-disclosure agreement. Kelly continued to settle with more women as allegations against him mounted, but music industry luminaries remained silent, instead smiling for pictures alongside him at platinum record ceremonies.
That chilling code of silence remains today, almost 25 years after the singer's illegal marriage to 15-year-old protege Aaliyah, and only weeks after a Dallas woman accused Kelly of knowingly giving her herpes. (Kelly denies the allegations made by the Dallas woman.) Kelly remains an active recording artist for RCA Records, a division of Sony, and continues to get booked for arena shows that are promoted by local radio stations.
But a shift seems to be taking place, sparked by a damning 2017 reportby BuzzFeed's Jim DeRogatis that focused on the women who remain with Kelly, combined with the growing power of the #MeToo movement.
The Time's Up's Women of Color, a powerful anti-sexual-harassment group that includes producer Shonda Rhimes, actress Rashida Jones and director Ava DuVernay, demanded this week that RCA drop Kelly and that "over two decades" of allegations be investigated.
A Kelly representative called the effort the "public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture."
Mika El-Baz, executive vice president of RCA Records and Sony Music, declined to comment.
Kelly's management provided a statement to The Post early Friday saying that the singer "has close friendships with a number of women who are strong, independent, happy, well cared for and free to come and go as they please. All of the women targeted by the current media onslaught are legal adults of sound mind and body, with their own free will."
Kelly himself declined, through his manager, multiple requests to comment for this story. In February, he was approached by The Washington Post in the lobby of the DoubleTree Suites hotel in Detroit after a concert. He ignored a request for an interview and was shuffled away by associates.
As early as 1994, Kelly's tour manager Demetrius Smith recalls warning Clive Calder, the founder of Jive Records, the first label to sign Kelly.
"I said, 'Clive, you all need to tell him that you all aren't going to put out his records if he continues to have these incidents with these girls after the show,' " Smith says he told Calder. "Because it was going on at every show."
Calder, who is rarely interviewed, was reached at his home in the Cayman Islands. He said he regrets not trying harder to get help for Kelly.
"But I'm not a psychiatrist, and this guy is a troubled guy," said the mogul, who sold Jive for $2.7 billion in 2002. "Clearly, we missed something."
In his 2012 memoir "Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me," Kelly described a childhood wracked by abuse and neglect. Robert Sylvester Kelly grew up in the Chicago projects, his father gone before his birth, his working mother often leaving him in a house chaotic with "cousins, aunties, friends of my aunties."
One day, Kelly stumbled upon two people having sex; they called him in and told him he could watch. Later, they gave him a camera and asked him to take pictures. Kelly was 8. That's also when an older woman in the house, whom Kelly did not name, performed oral sex on him.
"Every time she did it — and she did it repeatedly — she warned me what would happen to me if I snitched," he wrote. "I was too afraid and ashamed. All I could do was stash the secret — and hide it in my imaginary bread box."
As an adult, Kelly set up a system of rules to maintain secrecy. Certain rooms in his studio are off-limits to colleagues, who may be sitting just feet away at the mixing board. But Peter Mokran could guess what was going on behind those doors.
"There was a constant flow of women," said Mokran, an engineer whose production work on Kelly's 1993 solo debut, "12 Play" led to jobs with Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige. "I'd have to be like, 'Hey, Rob, come listen to this.' And it'd be, 'Oh, he's in a room with a girl.' "
This culture of open secrets and official avoidance became entrenched around the time of Kelly's relationship with Aaliyah Haughton, the teenage singer who rose to one-name stardom before her death in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22.
She was 12 when they met. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was Kelly's manager at the time. By 1993, Aaliyah was flying from her home in Detroit to work with Kelly in Chicago. Jive released her debut album in May 1994. "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number," produced and written by Kelly, that would go on to sell millions.
That summer, the pair appeared on BET's "Video Soul." Leslie Segar, the show's co-host, remembers Jive representatives telling BET it should not ask about their personal relationship or Aaliyah's age.
But Kelly, then 27, and Aaliyah, 15, came before the cameras wearing conspicuously matching plaid shirts. Segar found it impossible to not to go there.
"Okay, let's clear something else," she said on air. "Everybody seems to think y'all either boyfriend or girlfriend, or cousins or friends. Let's just get the record straight."
"No, no, we're not related at all," Aaliyah replied. "We're just very close. This is my best friend."
Later, Segar broached the second topic.
"For the record, you are how old?"
"That's a secret," Aaliyah said, playfully putting a finger to her lips. "Shhhhh."
Kelly decided they should get married. At 15, Aaliyah would need her parents' permission. But Kelly didn't tell them of his plans. In late August, he flew her to Chicago, where Demetrius Smith, his tour manager, says he took her to get a fake ID stating that she was 18. Kelly and Aaliyah were married Aug. 31, 1994, at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Ill., according to paperwork filed with the Cook County Clerk on Sept. 6, 1994.
The marriage collapsed within days, after Aaliyah returned home and told her parents. The Haughtons eventually got the marriage expunged. (Michael Haughton died in 2012. Diane Haughton could not be reached.)
Hankerson said he was "legally" prohibited from discussing Kelly. When asked if he had regrets, Hankerson grew emotional.
"Let me tell you something. I'm a Muslim," he said. "I do my prayers every day, and I lost my niece in a plane crash, and please excuse my language, but I don't really give a f— about none of them people you're talking about."
Later in 1994, Hankerson and the Haughtons came to Calder's office. There was no talk of reprimanding Kelly. Instead, the family demanded that Jive let Aaliyah go.
"And they basically tell me that they want a release from the contract," Calder said, saying they thought Aaliyah would never get the proper promotion if she was on the same label as Kelly.
Calder agreed to let her leave, but only after securing a percentage of her future album sales on a new label.
One thing Calder didn't do: Press pause on Kelly's recording career. In 1995, Jive released his self-titled second album. It went to No. 1.
In response to questions about Kelly's relationship with Aaliyah, Kelly's management team said the following: "As is well known, Mr. Kelly wrote and produced Aaliyah's recordings.
Their collaboration created great music and the world along with Mr. Kelly mourned the loss of her great talent."