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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Witness says R. Kelly offered fame for sex: ‘I Just Wanted to Sing’

Several of the artist’s accusers are expected to testify against him during the monthlong trial, long anticipated since his sexual conduct came under fresh scrutiny during the height of the #MeToo movement.

By: New York Times | New York |
August 24, 2021 11:39:59 am
Kelly, 54, has pleaded not guilty to all nine counts against him, which also include violations of an anti-sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act. If convicted, he could spend life in prison. (AP/File)

When Zel was a 17-year-old aspiring singer, she was eager to meet R. Kelly, she said, and hoped that the R&B star could help jump-start her professional career.

She received his phone number at a music festival and was told she could audition for him, she said. But after she arrived at his hotel, Kelly was interested in only sex, Zel, who testified under a pseudonym, told jurors as the second week of Kelly’s criminal trial began in New York.

Zel said Kelly told her that he needed to relieve himself sexually before he could listen to her sing. “I was against it — I told him I did not come to please him,” she said. “He continued to persist and told me I didn’t have to do anything, just to take off my clothes.”

As Kelly’s pressure continued, Zel, who had told him she was 18, said she acquiesced and allowed the entertainer to perform a sex act on her. He told her that if she agreed, he would allow her to audition — and would “take care of me for life,” she testified.

“I didn’t necessarily care for that,” she told jurors. “I just wanted to sing.”

As she recounted the story of her first meeting with Kelly, Zel, who is now 23, became the second accuser to take the stand against the singer at the trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. She previously defended the singer publicly as recently as 2019, even as claims against him mounted, but later made her own accusations of sexual and physical abuse. She testified under a pseudonym because of privacy concerns, and she is identified as Jane Doe No. 5 in court documents.

Another woman, Jerhonda Pace, told jurors last week that she and Kelly started a six-month sexual relationship when she was 16 and testified that the artist had physically abused her, including once choking her until she passed out, after she failed to abide by one of the strict restrictions he demanded guests follow.

Several of the artist’s accusers are expected to testify against him during the monthlong trial, long anticipated since his sexual conduct came under fresh scrutiny during the height of the #MeToo movement.

Kelly is not charged with felony sex crimes related directly to his accusers. Rather, he faces a broad racketeering case that portrays him as the kingpin of a decadeslong operation to recruit women and underage girls for sex by capitalizing on the singer’s fame.

Kelly, 54, has pleaded not guilty to all nine counts against him, which also include violations of an anti-sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act. If convicted, he could spend life in prison.

During the first portion of her testimony, Zel, who spent five years with Kelly, took jurors through her time with the singer. They first had sexual intercourse in 2015, she said, and eventually she became his girlfriend. He controlled the minutiae of her life, she said, and infected her with herpes.

Once summer arrived, Zel, who was in school, said she began to split time between the singer’s hometown, Chicago, and his residences in Atlanta. As the fall approached, she said she told him that she needed to return to school — and revealed that she was 17.

But, she said, the singer “laughed in my face,” slapped her with an open hand and walked away. Later, she said, he told her the two of them would get through the situation.

Throughout her time with Kelly, Zel said, she was required to abide by a strict set of rules, similar to the descriptions that Pace, the singer’s first accuser to take the stand, gave in her testimony last week.

Zel read several of the rules to jurors, testifying that she began writing them down around age 17: She was to stay “beautiful” and “innocent,” to remind Kelly of his mother and child; she needed to trust Kelly’s direction without pushback, noting “anything Daddy says is to help me”; and she was to offer him positive quotes and affirmations to “lift him up.”

She also recalled being diagnosed with herpes at 17, as her voice broke with emotion. She testified that she told Kelly about the discomfort she felt while having sex, but that he laughed it off.

But eventually, she told jurors, “it got to the point I couldn’t physically even walk.”

During the first week of the trial, one of Kelly’s longtime doctors testified that he had begun treating the singer for herpes as early as 2007 — at least eight years before he met Zel — and notified him to inform sexual partners that he had it.

But Kelly did not show concern when Zel discussed her diagnosis and treatment, she said.

“He was agitated and told me I could have gotten that from anyone,” Zel said. “I told him I had only been intimate with him.”

As her sexual relationship with Kelly continued, so did additional outbreaks, she said. In one instance, while she was in pain during sex, Kelly called her “broken.”

It represented a large departure from the first time that Zel said she interacted with Kelly — at a music festival in 2015 when he appeared to direct extra attention toward her. At the festival, one of Kelly’s associates approached her with a piece of paper, which had Kelly’s phone number written on it, she said, warning her “don’t tell anyone” that she had received it. Zel said she later gave it to her mother.

But, she added, both she and her family believed the professional connection could be an opportunity to start her career as a singer. At the time, she was doing paid gigs, performing in school choirs and taking performing arts classes.

She later met Kelly outside his hotel, where he said she could audition for him. The singer was waiting in a black van and told her to sit on his lap and give him a kiss.

They went inside after a few minutes, but Kelly told her that he needed to relieve himself sexually before she could perform.

She told jurors that she repeatedly tried to decline. But Kelly’s requests persisted, and he eventually requested that she walk through his room while wearing only undergarments, she said. She acquiesced, she said, and later agreed when Kelly asked to perform a sex act on her.

During their interactions, she said that police officers came to the hotel room after her parents, who could not reach her, called for help. (Kelly, she said, had told her to turn off her phone.) Kelly grew anxious, she said, and told her to go into the bathroom. When he again inquired about her age, she lied and said she was 18.

The police officers checked her driver’s license, which showed that she was 17, she said. But she testified that they did not appear to be concerned.

They instead handed the singer business cards and told him, she said, that “anytime he was in Orlando and needed security, to let them know.”

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