Backstage at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California, on May 23, 2015, J. was thrilled that her 19-year-old daughter’s music career was going to make a major leap forward from recording demos and performing at talent shows to the chance of stardom — thanks to the help of an R&B superstar.
“When we got to go backstage with R. Kelly, we stayed there over two hours,” said J. “One-on-one with just me and my daughter and him. We went back to talk about the music. He listened to her CD. He was going to help her with her CD, and I was really impressed with him at first, because I have always been an R. Kelly fan.”
J. said that Robert “R.” Kelly, who turned 50 in January, met her daughter backstage at a concert in Atlanta earlier that month. Soon enough, he’d invited her to fly out to the Indio concert on his dime. J. said she’d heard about past sexual misconduct accusations against Kelly, but wasn’t overly worried. She is a fiercely devoted stage mom — she and her husband of 22 years, Tim, a car dealer, had moved from Memphis to Atlanta to help their eldest child’s career — and was confident she could protect her daughter.
“In the back of our minds, we were thinking [my daughter] could be around him if I was with her,” J. said. “It didn’t really hit home. Even with the Aaliyah situation, now that I think about it, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’ … but you don’t think about that. You grew up with the song, and you like the song.”
Two years later, J. and Tim are in a desperate fight to bring their daughter home. (BuzzFeed News verified their identities and full names in public records, but is withholding the alleged victim’s full name and her parents’ last name to protect her privacy.)
As part of their efforts, the mother closed her businesses, became a relentless amateur detective, and shared her findings with the FBI and police in two states. But their daughter isn’t a missing person — at least not in the eyes of the law. She still lives with Kelly and says she’s doing fine, despite her parents telling the police that she is “being held against her will” in what they call a “cult.”
Three former members of Kelly’s inner circle — Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee — provided details supporting the parents’ worst fears. They said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.
The last time J. saw her daughter was Dec. 1, 2016.
“It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” she said. “I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her. I don’t know what to do. I hope that if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults. They can reprogram her. But I wish I could have stopped it from happening.”
J. and Tim said they have only heard from their daughter twice since they last saw her. They got a one-sentence text from her on Christmas Day: “I hate Christmas has to be this way this year.”
And J. received another text on May 14: “Happy Mother’s Day from me and Rob.”
Kelly has sold nearly 60 million albums during his 25-year career, and though his relevance is fading somewhat from the heyday of “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Trapped in the Closet,” he remains a major star in high demand for concerts, endorsements, television and radio appearances, and glossy magazine profiles. When he’s not performing, Kelly splits his time between his suburban Atlanta home and Trump Tower in Chicago. Extensive interviews with Mack, Jones, and McGee and a review of legal documents by BuzzFeed News paint a picture of what Kelly’s life offstage is like today.
The women in Kelly’s entourage initially think “This is R. Kelly, I’m going to live a lavish lifestyle,” said Mack, who worked as Kelly’s personal assistant for a year and a half starting in 2013 and has remained in touch with some members of his inner circle. “No. You have to ask for food. You have to ask to go use the bathroom. … [Kelly] is a master at mind control. … He is a puppet master.”
Jones and McGee both said they lived with Kelly and had sexual relationships with the star at different times over the past five years before leaving. Their documentation of this time is limited, however, as they said Kelly controlled their phone and social media use while they were under his roof, and they were not allowed to take photos with Kelly or of the rooms where they were living.
According to Mack, Jones, and McGee, the women living in Kelly’s Duluth, Georgia, “guest house” or his Chicago recording studio last summer included:
- A 31-year-old “den mother” who “trained” newcomers on how Kelly liked to be pleasured sexually. She had been best friends since high school with the girl in the videotape for which Kelly was tried in 2008. She recently parted ways with Kelly, these sources say.
- A 25-year-old woman who also has been part of Kelly’s scene for seven years.
- A recent arrival, a 19-year-old model who has been photographed in public with Kelly and named on music gossip websites — a rarity among the women in his circle.
- An Atlanta songwriter who began her relationship with Kelly around 2009, when she was 19. (She is now 26.)
- And an 18-year-old singer from Polk County, Florida. Mack said the Florida singer is Kelly’s “favorite — his number-one girl.”
Mack, Jones, and McGee claim that women who live with Kelly, who he calls his “babies,” are required to call him “Daddy” and must ask his permission to leave the Chicago recording studio or their assigned rooms in the “guest house” Kelly rents near his own rented mansion in suburban Atlanta. A black SUV with a burly driver behind the wheel is almost always parked outside both locations. Kelly confiscates the women’s cell phones, they said, so they cannot contact their friends and family; he gives them new phones that they are only allowed to use to contact him or others with his permission. Kelly films his sexual activities, McGee and Jones said, and shows the videos to men in his circle.
Mack, the star’s former personal assistant, said Kelly almost always tells the women to dress in jogging suits because “he doesn’t want their figures to be exposed; he doesn’t want them to look appealing.” She said when other men are in the same room, Kelly “would make the girls turn around and face the wall in their jogging suits because he doesn’t want them to be looked at by anyone else.”
If the women break any of Kelly’s “rules,” Mack and Jones said, he punishes them physically and verbally. For example, Jones claimed that Kelly held her against a tree and slapped her outside of a Subway sandwich shop in spring 2013 because she had been too friendly with the male cashier there. McGee said she never saw Kelly hit anybody, but also said he was running a “cult” and manipulated her emotionally and sexually.
“R. Kelly is the sweetest person you will ever want to meet,” McGee said. “But Robert is the devil.”
Of course, the law says that consenting adults may take part in any relationship they want, no matter how nontraditional. Welfare checks by police in both Illinois and Georgia in the past year didn’t lead to any charges; in January, the aspiring singer from Georgia told Cook County police she was “fine and did not want to be bothered.”
And all of the women in Kelly’s inner circle are of legal age — the age of consent is 17 in Illinois and 16 in Georgia — despite Kelly’s history of allegations against him regarding his sexual conduct with women. He was last tried in 2008 in Illinois, where he was acquitted on 14 charges of making child pornography. The case, which took a record six and a half years to go to trial in Chicago, focused only on a single videotape that prosecutors alleged showed him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. (While he was a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, this reporter received the tape anonymously and turned it over to the police; called by Kelly’s attorneys to testify, he took the Fifth Amendment rather than revealing sources.)
The trial, however, excluded claims made by girls or their parents that alleged Kelly regularly abused his position of fame and influence to pursue illegal sexual relationships with underage girls — which has also been the subject of a dozen or more civil lawsuits against Kelly that were settled out of court with cash payments from Kelly. The girls signed nondisclosure agreements when they accepted the payments. Also excluded was evidence of Kelly’s marriage in 1994 to his then-15-year-old protégé, Aaliyah, for whom he wrote the album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
Chicago attorney Susan E. Loggans declined to say how many settlements she has negotiated with Kelly before lawsuits were ever filed, but she said they were “numerous,” and recently included one for a 17-year-old aspiring singer from Chicago’s West Side who is said to have been part of Kelly’s inner circle. Loggans gave no other details, citing attorney-client privilege and the terms of the settlement.
Kelly also has been sued by other attorneys representing women over the age of consent in their respective states. In 2002, an Illinois lawsuit was filed by Montina Woods, a dancer who toured with Kelly’s friend Ronald Isley, in which Woods claimed she was unknowingly recorded by Kelly during sex. (Kelly eventually settled the suit, paying Woods an undisclosed sum.) And on April 21, a Mississippi lawsuit was filed by Hinds County sheriff’s deputy Kenny Bryant over an alleged affair between Kelly and Bryant’s wife.
The music industry has a history of stars using their fame to gain the trust of young women — and their parents — who expect professional relationships but end up in sexual ones. But numerous sources, including women who left his inner circle, made on-the-record allegations suggesting ongoing mental and physical abuse of several women in Kelly’s entourage far beyond that of the groupie culture. For two decades, Kelly has been accused of a similar pattern of mistreating women — some have called it “predation” — but because of his acquittal on the child-porn charges and the nondisclosure agreements in his numerous civil cases, the charges have remained in the realm of gossip instead of derailing his career. Major record companies, television shows, and other stars continue to work with Kelly. Lady Gaga recorded the duet “Do What U Want” with Kelly in 2013, Lil Wayne, Ty Dolla Sign, and Juicy J made cameos on Kelly’s 2015 album The Buffet, and he performed on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon last December. He recently starred in a digital campaign for Alexander Wang.
“I got trapped,” said former insider Jones. “I had people telling me I was an idiot. But it took me a long time to realize they were right, and I’m talking now because I hope I can help some of these other girls.”
After her backstage visit with Kelly in Indio, California, the aspiring singer from Georgia began secretly talking with Kelly on her cell phone, her mother said.
“As far as I know, we weren’t talking to [Kelly] anymore,” J. said. “Or at least I wasn’t talking to him anymore.”
In June 2015, J. and Tim said, their daughter lied to them about taking a weekend trip to visit a Georgia university. Instead, Mack arranged for her to fly to Oklahoma City, where Kelly was performing.
After the show, she had sex with Kelly for the first time, she later told her parents and at least two friends, including a record producer who goes by the stage name TONE.
As the Georgia singer and Kelly became closer, TONE recalled her saying she was frustrated with Kelly. She thought every time she tried to bring up her music career Kelly changed the topic to sex — and she wanted proof. So TONE and the woman decided to secretly record a phone conversation between her and Kelly.
BuzzFeed News was later given a copy of the recording. On the tape, it’s not just what Kelly said that shows his pattern of behavior with the women close to him. It’s how he said it, which is immediately clear from listening to the audio.
“I miss my baby,” Kelly told the woman, before asking her what she was wearing. After she replied, he told her: “I want you to get in the habit of telling me what color panties you got on every day,” he instructed repeatedly, revealing in his own words the early stages of their power dynamic and the demands her parents say have become criminal.
When she tried to turn the conversation to a song she was working on, however, Kelly seemed less engaged.
“Hello?” she asked him at one point, to make sure he was still listening.
After a few minutes, Kelly changed the subject. “I’m more interested in developing you. Songs are not an issue. We can always do a hit song.”
In June 2016, the daughter enrolled for summer classes at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville and began living in the dorms. Her roommate at the school, who is being identified by the initials T.S. to avoid retaliation, told BuzzFeed News that, at first, she did not believe her new friend really knew R. Kelly. But, T.S. said, the Georgia woman would often call the superstar and put him on speakerphone during their explicit sexual conversations.
The Georgia woman also began visiting Kelly at his homes in nearby Duluth and sometimes traveled with him to Chicago, according to T.S. She recalled the woman telling her that Kelly took away her cell phone and replaced it with a new one, with instructions that she should only use it to communicate with him and needed to obtain his permission to use it to communicate with others.
T.S. also recalled the woman telling her that one time, Kelly sent a cab to pick up the women at his guest house and bring them to a club where he would meet them. The Georgia woman told her roommate that she laughed when the cab driver told a joke, and one of the other women in the cab texted Kelly to report this violation of his “rules.” When the Georgia woman arrived at the club, T.S. said, Kelly “bent her over and he whupped her behind because she laughed at the cab driver, who happened to be a man.”
By the middle of the 2016 fall semester, the Georgia woman’s appearance started to change: She began losing weight, and she cropped her long hair short, permed what was left, and dyed it blonde, said her parents and the former roommate. T.S. recalled her friend telling her that’s how Kelly liked her hair to look.
The Georgia woman eventually began skipping all of her classes, and she did not show up to take her finals in mid-December. Her parents confirmed the school considers her a student who is “no longer in good standing.”
She had already broken off all contact with her mother and father before she started skipping school. “My calls were all forwarded to voicemail,” J. said.
In the middle of the fall semester, during their quest to bring their daughter home, J. said she called the new cell phone Kelly had given her daughter, who broke one of Kelly’s “rules” by texting her parents from the phone to say she was fine.
J. said Kelly himself got on the phone after the daughter picked up and denied anything was wrong.
The parents filed a missing persons report with the Gwinnett College campus police. A spokeswoman for the school confirmed the report and the case number, but said that when an investigator called the parents and learned that they knew their daughter was with Kelly in his suburban Atlanta homes no action could be taken. Their daughter was not technically missing, and at 21, she is of legal age to do what she wants, campus police said.
The last time her parents saw her was in December 2016. “What we really wanted to do was an intervention,” J. said, but her daughter would not listen.
On Dec. 27, 2016, J. and Tim requested that the Johns Creek Police Department, which is responsible for the section of Duluth where Kelly rents the two houses, perform a well-being check on their daughter at the guest house. The police report obtained by BuzzFeed News said J. believes her daughter is part of the R. Kelly “cult” and that he is “abusive and is controlling her daughter.”
When police arrived, the report noted, the “door [was] open, house clear, no one there.” No further action was taken.
A month later, the Cook County Sheriff’s police performed a well-being check in Chicago. The Georgia singer told officers she was “fine and did not want to be bothered with her parents because her father was threatening people,” according to the police report. (Tim denied this.) She told officers she instead keeps in touch with her grandmother, who she calls Nana.
When reached by BuzzFeed News, Nana said that she had spoken to her granddaughter by phone only two or three times since December, most recently on July 11. She said her granddaughter emphasized that she’s an adult in a consensual relationship with Kelly, and was mad at her parents for intervening. In text messages reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the granddaughter said she thought her parents were trying to ruin Kelly’s career.
Despite her granddaughter’s insistence, “I’m gravely concerned about her,” Nana said, echoing J.’s belief that she is being held against her will. If she could talk to Kelly today, Nana said, “I would tell R. Kelly to send my granddaughter home. He knows it’s not right and he would not want anybody doing this to his daughter.”
Multiple attempts by BuzzFeed News to reach the Georgia woman on her Kelly-issued cell phone were unsuccessful.
J. and Tim said they even reached out to the FBI about their daughter and spent hours being interviewed by an agent. Special Agent Stephen Emmett, an FBI spokesperson in Georgia, said the bureau’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny investigations into specific people or matters. But the parents are hopeful that perhaps federal law enforcement can help where local police have not.
“It’s not about my daughter, per se. It’s about all the girls,” Tim said. “It’s about my daughter, and I understand that. But the abuse that my daughter is actually enduring, nobody should go through.”
Two other parents are fighting to get their daughter back. The parents of an aspiring professional singer from Florida said their daughter met Kelly when she was 17 years old, and she moved into one of his rental properties once she was over the age of legal consent. (BuzzFeed News verified their identities and full names, but is withholding the alleged victim’s full name and her parents’ last name to protect her privacy. Her mother asked to be called by her middle name, Theresa, for the same reason.)
Theresa said she initially let her daughter spend time with Kelly because it was “supposed to be a music relationship.” She now regrets that decision.
“My thing was I trusted. I have never been in the music industry before, ever,” Theresa said. “He is a lyrical genius — he is R. Kelly! And the fact is he went to court, he was never found guilty — he was acquitted — and we were led to believe there was no truth in it. Now I got all of these people asking about why my daughter is there, telling me, ‘All of that, the charges against Kelly, was true.’ Well, how come you didn’t tell me that before?”
The Florida singer first met Kelly when her parents took her to see him perform at Funk Fest in Orlando on April 18, 2015.
“During the show, they were pulling people out of the audience,” Theresa said. “A guy said, ‘Oh yeah, her.’ He pulled her up onstage.”
After the show, a member of Kelly’s entourage gave the star’s phone number to the then-17-year-old high school senior, Theresa said.
“We called, but he wasn’t answering, so we left it alone,” she said. “Then I guess he must have got back later on or texted her later on.”
As with the Georgia woman, the relationship between Kelly and the Florida woman developed over phone calls and text messages that were kept secret from her family, the parents said.
“And then one day we were looking for her because she should’ve been coming home from school,” Theresa said. “Then finally we get a text message saying that she’s OK, that she had met up with R. Kelly in his hotel. And I’m like, ‘You met up with R. Kelly at his hotel?’”
Theresa and her husband, Angelo, said they rushed to the hotel and called the police, who advised them to deal with hotel security. Their daughter finally came down to see them, they said, but Kelly refused to talk with them.
After the incident at the hotel, the Florida teen “was only [supposed to be] talking to him when one of us was around,” Theresa said.
“We needed to make sure it was about music, because he was going to mentor her,” she said. “And then from there he wanted her to travel with him so she could see how the music game really was. … We thought it could be an opportunity, and that she was going to be with a guardian — a female guardian that would keep an eye on her.”
But that may have been wishful thinking. Soon enough, the Florida singer was living with Kelly. Angelo said he initially received short text messages from his daughter every few weeks saying she was fine and the parents should not worry or try to contact her. Those have stopped.
McGee, one of the women who left Kelly, said the Florida woman is “head over heels” for Kelly. And McGee said Kelly is “obsessed” with the Florida woman, noting that he “would go into the kitchen and cook for her.”
But McGee’s feelings about the Florida woman were nuanced. “I have a 17-year-old daughter myself,” she said. “When I saw [the Florida singer] with him, it took me back. This could be my daughter. I just knew that it was not right and I just couldn’t understand what a man almost 50 is doing having sex with someone the same age as his daughter. That’s when I realized it was more of a mind-control thing.”
McGee also said she witnessed Kelly punish the aspiring Florida singer for breaking his “rules.”
“He left [the Florida woman] on the [tour] bus for, like, three days and she was not allowed to come out,” McGee said. “He said she didn’t do her homework — that’s why she was punished — which was very confusing, because she had just graduated [high school] over the summer.”
Multiple attempts by BuzzFeed News to reach the Florida woman on her Kelly-issued cell phone were unsuccessful.
Theresa said she is frustrated that lawyers and police have said they cannot help, and she fears that even if the relationship ends, she may not get her daughter back. On Dec. 24, 1996, Kelly was sued for $10 million by Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins, an aspiring singer and then–high school student in Chicago, who claimed she met the star when he lectured her choir class. According to the lawsuit, Hawkins began having sex with Kelly in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 24. The relationship ended in December 1994, when she was 18, the court documents state; distraught, she slit her wrists in an attempt to kill herself.
“I desperately want my daughter back but I’m not [sure] what will [be] the repercussions if she doesn’t come willingly,” Theresa said. “These girls think this man loves them. Matters of the heart are a touchy subject.”
The parents said they’ve tried numerous other tactics to bring their daughter home.
In August 2015, the daughter texted Angelo that she was in Chicago with Kelly, the parents said. On Aug. 26, 2015, they sent their older daughter to Kelly’s recording studio to check on her sister, according to her parents. Kelly and men in his entourage allegedly got involved in an altercation with the older sister when she tried to take her younger sister away, said the parents, who claimed the star and the other men pushed, shoved, and hit the older sister.
A police report obtained by BuzzFeed News indicated that one person allegedly struck the Florida singer’s sister in her face, but she did not seek medical attention. The case is classified as a simple battery and nobody has been arrested, according to the report, which said the investigation was initially suspended until a detective could contact the victim. A supplementary report was filed more than a year later, on Jan. 18, 2017.
“I have not talked to my daughter in more than a year,” Theresa said, adding she has left countless texts and voicemail messages that have not yet received a response. “We’ve had deaths in the family, birthdays, and I haven’t heard from her and she hasn’t been here for any of it. I didn’t even hear from her on Mother’s Day. All I want to do is bring her home.”
On Friday, July 14, after Kelly and the Florida woman had been asked for comment on this story, Angelo said he got a surprise phone call from his daughter, who invited him to come to see Kelly perform in Indiana on Saturday. Wary of Kelly’s motivations, Angelo said he declined the invitation. He also is angry over the other surprise news from his daughter: She said Kelly had recently paid for her to have breast enhancement surgery.
“I am beyond furious,” Angelo said. “I said to her, ‘How could you do this? What the hell were you thinking? What if you died on the operating table?’ I don’t even know what we can do anymore. I just know we got to get her home.”
Kelly has long maintained his innocence on allegations of underage sex, and in recent interviews he has either persistently dodged questions about his past behavior or stormed off when he was unable to do that.
Multiple attempts to reach Kelly were unsuccessful. Kelly’s RCA Records publicist Theola Borden, who was promoted to senior vice president of publicity for the label in 2014, did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.
Linda Mensch, a civil lawyer in Chicago who represents the superstar, responded via email to the accusations outlined in this story. Mensch was asked about the on-the-record allegations that Kelly physically and mentally abuses women and that Kelly allegedly met one of the women in his inner circle when she was 17.
“We can only wonder why folks would persist in defaming a great artist who loves his fans, works 24/7, and takes care of all of the people in his life,” Mensch wrote. “He works hard to become the best person and artist he can be. It is interesting that stories and tales debunked many years ago turn up when his goal is to stop the violence; put down the guns; and embrace peace and love. I suppose that is the price of fame. Like all of us, Mr. Kelly deserves a personal life. Please respect that.” ●
Jim DeRogatis is a Chicago-based music journalist and critic. He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago; the co-host of “Sound Opinions,” the weekly rock-n-roll talk show originating at WBEZ Chicago and heard on some 125 Public Radio stations nationwide as well as on podcast at soundopinions.org, and the the author of nine books about music.