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R. Kelly Paid Bribe So He Could Marry 15-Year-Old Aaliyah, Government Alleges

The late R&B singer Aaliyah, posing backstage at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1995.
Catherine McGann
Getty Images
The late R&B singer Aaliyah, posing backstage at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1995.

When people talk about aquarter century of allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly, they usually point to one starting point: his relationship with his teenage protégée, the late singer Aaliyah. He mentored the burgeoning artist and produced her debut album, the coyly titled Age Ain't Nothing But A Number. He was 27 years old; she was just 15.

And then, on Aug. 31, 1994, Kellymarried Aaliyah Haughton — with an official Illinois wedding certificate that stated that she was 18.

Now, 25 years later, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York have filed a new charge against Kelly: that on the day before his wedding to Aaliyah, Kelly and others in his circle bribed a public official in Illinois to create a fake ID for "Jane Doe #1."

The new charge is an addition to a sweeping set of federal indictments filed against Kelly in July by prosecutors in New York and Illinois. Prosecutors have accused the singer ofabusing women and girls for more than two decades, including kidnapping, forced labor and sending child pornography across state lines.

Kelly continues to deny all allegations, which now include 19 federal charges andnumerous separate sexual assault charges in Illinois, as well as multiple ongoing civil lawsuits.

The allegation of a forged identity document made for Aaliyah is not new in itself. In journalist Jim DeRogatis' recently published Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, the singer's former tour manager and personal assistant, Demetrius Smith, said that he obtained a fake ID on Aaliyah's behalf. Smith repeated that assertion during an on-screen interview in the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired in January. But Thursday's indictment is the first time that Kelly has faced criminal charges in relation to his marriage to Aaliyah.

R. Kelly and Aaliyah's marriage certificate, seen here in an image obtained by Chicago member station WBEZ, was issued by Cook County, Ill., in 1994.
R. Kelly and Aaliyah's marriage certificate, seen here in an image obtained by Chicago member station WBEZ, was issued by Cook County, Ill., in 1994.

Within months, the marriage was annulled, but it remained a subject of intense speculation directed at both Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22, and Kelly, who has described their relationship as "deep friends," but has carefully avoided further comment. (For much of the 1990s, Kelly was managed by a man named Barry Hankerson, who was also Aaliyah's uncle.)

In 2016, Kellytold GQ, "Well, because of Aaliyah's passing, as I've always said, out of respect for her mother who's sick and her father who's passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone. Out of respect for Aaliyah, and her mother and father who has asked me not to personally. But I can tell you," he added, "I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close."

In aGood Morning America interview that aired in January in the wake of Surviving R. Kelly, the singer's lawyer, Steve Greenberg, shrugged off the controversy. "He was married to her when she was 15. Elvis was married to Priscilla," he said. (Presley was 14 when she met her future husband.)

"But my understanding," Greenberg continued, "is that she [Aaliyah] did not claim to be 15. And in order to get married, she had to lie about her age." Greenberg added that Kelly had "no idea" of Aaliyah's true age when they wed.

In most instances, 25-year-old allegations would be outside of legal statutes of limitations. Kelly, however, is facing racketeering charges, in which he is accused by New York prosecutors of being the leader of a mob-like criminal enterprise whose purposes, the government alleges, "were to promote R. Kelly's music and the R. Kelly brand and to recruit women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with Kelly."

Charging Kelly with racketeering allows prosecutors broad reach, and they can include allegations from any point in the existence of the purported enterprise.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.