R. Kelly’s musical legacy in question as he goes on trial for sexual assault

Data shows that the popularity of R. Kelly's music online has remained remarkably steady in recent years. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - For some, a rejection of R&B star R. Kelly's music has been long overdue, a belated reckoning for a star dogged by accusations of misconduct.

Yet, even as his federal trial begins in the New York City borough of Brooklyn - he faces charges of racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping and forced labour - his musical legacy remains far from simple.

In some ways, Kelly, 54, stands out as an emblem of so-called cancel culture, his music - including hits such as I Believe I Can Fly and The World's Greatest - all but erased from the radio and other commercial placements, his high-profile concerts and record deals a thing of the past.

Yet, data shows that the popularity of his music online has remained remarkably steady in recent years.

Since January 2019, when the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly finally turned public opinion against him, Kelly's music has had about 780 million audio streams in the United States - not counting YouTube videos, where he also remains popular - and his work is promoted on hundreds of official playlists. On Spotify, he draws 5.2 million listeners each month.

Such a dichotomy may be the fate of superstar entertainers accused of serious misconduct - pariahs in certain places, but with enduring bodies of work that still draw large audiences. In the case of Michael Jackson, the subject of another 2019 documentary alleging sexual abuse, the commercial effect has proved minimal - in fact, streams of Jackson's songs have grown.

Critic and film-maker Dream Hampton, executive producer of Surviving R. Kelly, called what Kelly has experienced in recent years a kind of "social death", in which corporations and everyday members of society make a collective decision to stop embracing an artist.

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Even before 2000, when The Chicago Sun-Times published the first major investigation into allegations of abuse by Kelly, the singer had been followed by rumours and accusations of misconduct.

Throughout the 1990s, he settled lawsuits accusing him of having sex with underage girls. In 1994, at 27, Kelly married Aaliyah, his then-15-year-old protegee, allegedly using forged documents. In 2002, Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges.

But Kelly thrived before, during and after the controversy, releasing 12 platinum albums in all. He collaborated with stars such as Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga and Chance The Rapper, and headlined major festivals into the 2010s.

The tide started to turn against Kelly in 2017, when Jim DeRogatis, who had long covered the Kelly case, reported for BuzzFeed News that the singer was holding young women in an abusive "cult". A grassroots campaign called #MuteRKelly gained traction that summer.

By then, Kelly's influence was waning - he had not scored a Top 40 hit in a decade - and the campaign against him coincided with the momentum of #MeToo.

After the broadcast of Surviving R. Kelly, with gripping first-hand accounts from his alleged victims, in January 2019, RCA dropped the singer from its roster and some of his past collaborators apologised while law-enforcement investigations in multiple states pursued the allegations anew.

"There was a long period where you could have enough plausible deniability, and then, in one moment, it just collectively ended," said Peter Rosenberg, a DJ and morning show host for New York's Hot 97, who called Kelly "completely dead" at the station.

"There are a lot of people who have a lot of controversy who get played," Rosenberg said. But for Kelly, "it was the documentary that really resonated so strongly that it just brought people to a place of never playing him".

Since the Lifetime documentary, airplay of Kelly's music plunged and has never recovered.

According to MRC Data, a tracking service used to compile Billboard's charts, streams of Kelly's catalogue have remained essentially flat in the United States over the past four and a half years.

These days, it is a little more than six million a week, having hovered in that range continuously over the past four years.

The only exception came in early 2019, when Surviving R. Kelly was broadcast and Kelly's weekly numbers briefly spiked to about double their usual level, presumably from interest stirred up by the film.

Ms Kenyette Tisha Barnes, a founder of #MuteRKelly, said she considered the campaign a success, despite the remaining interest in the singer's back catalogue. "He's on life support as an artist," Ms Barnes said. "It took 30 years to bring him down to this level."

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