R. Kelly is in hot water again. Nearly a decade after he was acquitted of child pornography charges, Buzzfeed reports that the R&B singer has been running a sex cult in Georgia, where he controls and abuses young women. Former members of Kelly’s entourage have testified to this, calling him a “puppet master” and claiming that he runs every aspect of these women’s lives.
This revelation has led to many referencing Kelly’s first marriage to singer Aaliyah in 1994. Like the women currently in question, Aaliyah was underage, and their union was mired in controversy.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kelly Met Aaliyah When She Was 12 Years Old
According to The Chicago Sun-Times, Kelly was introduced to Aaliyah Haughton when she was 12 years old. They met through her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who was a veteran in the music industry, having managed popular singers like Toni Braxton and Gladys Knight. Hankerson also served as the executive producer on Kelly’s solo debut album 12 Play (1993), which spawned the hit singles “Bump N Grind” and “Your Body’s Callin.”
In a 2012 interview with GQ, Kelly said the first thing that caught his eye was Aaliyah’s talent. “I heard first of all this soft voice, but very… a lot of charisma,” he said, “And I saw her as a star the minute I heard her sing and dance. Saw her dance. She wasn’t the greatest dancer, but the dance moves she was doing were different than the other dancers that I’ve seen on television. And I said, ‘This girl’s gonna be a star, whether I work with her or not.’ ”
A romance quickly developed between the singers, and they were married in August 1994. You can read the official marriage license below.
They were married by the Rev. Nathan J. Edmond of Chicago, according to the marriage certificate they filed with the Cook County Clerk. Kelly was 28 at the time, and Aaliyah was 15. In order to marry, however, Aaliyah lied about her age, signing the marriage certificate as an 18-year-old.
When GQ asked him to discuss the marriage, Kelly politely declined. “Out of respect for her mother who’s sick and her father who’s passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone,” he said. “But I can tell you I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close. We were, you know, best best best best friends.”
2. Kelly Wrote & Produced Aaliyah’s Debut Album ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’
As their romance blossomed, Kelly also took Aaliyah under his wing artistically, shaping her image and writing original music for her. They began recording the album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number at the Chicago Recording Company in Illinois in 1993, according to her biography Aaliyah Remembered (2005).
Whilst there, Kelly coached her and had her sing songs multiple times in order to achieve “excellence.” He later told biographer William Sutherland that Aaliyah was “one of the best young artists” he had ever worked with.
Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number was released on May 24th, 1994 and spawned the hit singles “Back & Forth” and “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” Both songs were written by Kelly, with the former peaking at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
During the promotion cycle of the album, Aaliyah said “[Kelly] is great is to work with, because really, it’s not like work because we’re really close. So it’s just like fun really.” You can watch the full interview above.
Time magazine‘s Christopher John Farley later commended the way Aaliyah’s “girlish, breathy vocals rode calmly on R. Kelly’s rough beats. While other R&B divas turned their songs into workouts or prayer revivals or wild romps in the sack, Aaliyah’s work was calm, almost prayerful.”
3. Their Marriage Was Annulled in 1995
Kelly and Aaliyah tried to keep their marriage a secret, but word soon got out. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Aaliyah’s family was outraged when they learned the news, and demanded she get an annulment right away. Their marriage, and their subsequent working relationship, came to a close in 1995.
Their union reentered the public eye in 1997, however, during Kelly’s court battle with a woman named Tiffany Hawkins. Aaliyah filed suit in Cook County, successfully sealing all her records relating to the marriage. When asked about her decision, the singer told The Sun-Times “I don’t really comment on that because I know that’s not true. When people ask me, I tell them, `Hey, don’t believe all that mess. We’re close and people took it the wrong way.’ ”
A spokesperson for Aaliyah’s record label, Virgin Records, added “When R. Kelly comes up, she doesn’t even speak his name, and nobody’s allowed to ask about it at all.”
In a 2014 interview on the Ryan Cameron Morning Show, Aaliyah’s cousin Jomo Hankerson revealed that the singer had trouble maintaining her career after the controversy:
What was surprising to me was that after it all, Aaliyah got villainized. That’s the part that I never understood. That’s what made the transition to the second album difficult. It was hard for us to get producers. We were coming off of a multi-platinum debut album and except for a couple of relationships with Jermaine Dupri and Puffy, it was hard for us to get producers on the album. She was 16, 17 at the time.
4. The 2011 Book ‘The Man Behind the Man’ Claims That Kelly Got Aaliyah Pregnant
In 2011, an excerpt from the book The Man Behind the Man: Looking from the Inside Out leaked online. Written by a former member of Kelly’s entourage, Demetrius Smith, Sr., the book claimed that the singer had gotten Aaliyah pregnant when she was 15:
I think she’s pregnant’ he said, in a voice that sounded as if he wanted to burst out in tears. ‘Oh man, Rob’ was all I could say at the time. Derrel McDavid arranged for a car to pick Aaliyah up at O’Hare airport and she had a hotel room available on arrival. This was crazy! How were we going to get through this without causing ill feelings with Barry Hankerson.
Smith said that he asked Kelly “How you gone marry Aaliyah Rob? I wanted him to relinquish his idea on how that was going to happen.”
While Kelly has never publicly addressed Smith’s allegations, fans were quick to revive them in 2016 when Aaliyah collaborator Timbaland posted a Mother’s Day tribute to her on Instagram. “Does @Timbaland know something we don’t?” asked The Shade Room.
5. Kelly Has Since Been Involved in Numerous Sex Scandals
While the rest of Aaliyah’s career played out with little controversy, Kelly has gone on to acquire a reputation for preying on underage women. In 2002, he was charged with 21 counts of child pornography, the most notable of which was a video of him having sex with, and urinating on, a teenage girl.
When asked about these charges point blank, Kelly told The Huffington Post “You hear a few rumors here and there, but as far as from me to you, I’d say ‘f**k that.’ If they hate me, love me, they want to destroy me, I love them all.” Watch the full interview below.
The case took nearly seven years to get to trial, and when it did in 2008, Kelly was acquitted of all charges. When asked why Kelly was acquitted, witness Lisa Van Allen said “Star power. Definitely. I came forward. I told the truth. That’s basically it. That’s all I could do. I’m disappointed.”
On Monday, Kelly was the subject of a revelatory piece on Buzzfeed. The piece claimed that he’s been running an abusive “cult” of young women in Georgia and Illinois. Former members of Kelly’s entourage confirmed that he dictates “What they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”
A representative for Kelly has denied these accusations, telling TMZ “Mr. Robert Kelly is both alarmed and disturbed by the recent revelations attributed to him. Mr. Kelly unequivocally denies such accusations and will work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name.”