On Monday, BuzzFeed published a report alleging that 50-year-old R&B superstar R. Kelly has been holding several young women captive in what their families describe as a “cult.” According to the article, Kelly keeps these women — who range in age from 18 to 26 — almost completely cut off from the outside world, dictating what they eat, the clothes they wear, how and when they communicate with friends and family members and how they conduct themselves during sexual encounters with him, which he allegedly records and shows to his male friends.
The term “cult” may seem like an exaggeration here. For many Americans, it likely brings to mind images of carnage, like the 1978 mass murder-suicide at Jonestown or the grisly crime scenes left behind by the Manson family in 1969. But if the allegations are true, Kelly is exhibiting cult-like characteristics. Rick Alan Ross, a professional deprogrammer who has coordinated more than 500 interventions for families who fear their loved ones have been ensnared by cults, told me a cult is defined by three features: a leader who becomes an object of worship; coercive persuasion used to gain undue influence over victims; and the leader using their influence to exploit or harm their subjects.
“Those are the familiar patterns,” Ross said. “And those are the things I think the families are talking about in the BuzzFeed piece.”
Kelly has maintained his innocence throughout this process, and at least one of the young women living with him has publicly stated that nothing untoward is going on. But whether or not his actions constitute a cult, per se, the singer’s past conduct with young girls does little to support his innocence. From 1994 to 1995, when Kelly was 27, the singer was married to his 15-year-old protege, the late R&B star Aaliyah. (The marriage was later annulled.) In 2008, Kelly was tried and acquitted for allegedly having sex with a girl as young as 13 and recording it on videotape. His career has suffered little as a result, as he’s since gone on to record several more albums and collaborate with artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Lil Wayne and Juicy J.
On social media, soon after the BuzzFeed piece was published, critics suggested Kelly has been able to maintain his successful music career — despite this behavior — because his alleged victims have all been black. This may be true, but few have articulated that it’s much bigger than Kelly. For the past several decades, black women and girls have been exploited by cults, new religious movements and cultic relationships with startling frequency. And these victims have, for the most part, stayed invisible to the public.
The most obvious example is what happened in Guyana 40 years ago. Some of the most eye-opening details surrounding the Jonestown massacre concern its racial composition. Rev. Jim Jones, leader of the ill-fated Peoples Temple, was white, and most of his top lieutenants were white women. But the bulk of the 918 people killed by a lethal mix of fruit punch and cyanide that November day in 1978 were black. Almost half of them — 47% — were black women.
This is part of a larger pattern. Sikivu Hutchison — writer, educator and author of White Nights, Black Paradise, a novel about Jonestown — told me black women have been uniquely vulnerable to cults and new religious movements because of racism and misogyny. Racism has prompted them to seek out groups like the Peoples Temple, the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and even some early iterations of the Nation of Islam that promised equality and claimed to harbor ambitions toward advancing black self-worth, self-esteem and self-determination. However, misogyny required them to submit themselves to charismatic male leaders within these movements. The leaders were often black. But even Jim Jones served as a proxy, aligning himself with the Black Panthers, the anti-apartheid movement and the Nation of Islam.
“I think the common denominator is that black women are coming from this foundation of recuperating a sense of community and nationhood,” Hutchison said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, this often necessitates bowing to black nationalist masculinity.”
Ross, the deprogrammer, added that cults prey on people going through especially vulnerable times in their lives — particularly times of poverty, change or transition. It’s no coincidence the women allegedly being held under Kelly’s sway have been identified as being in their late teens to mid-20s.
“All of us go through times of transition,” Ross said. “But cults’ target group is people aged 18 to 26 who are not yet established in life. They’re at a point of transition. They’re open to new things, new ideas, new experiences. When you add to that some personal problem — maybe you’re having a hard time in school, or you grew up in a dysfunctional home and always wanted to be loved and have this experience of a loving family — [cults] find where that vulnerability is. They ooze into the cracks in people’s lives.”
While these movements and individuals have long exploited black women, black women have simultaneously served as their backbone. The Peoples Temple survived so long largely because of money donated by its mostly black and female member base, including funds from their Social Security and welfare benefits. The Nuwaubians, a religious group led by Dwight York, claimed to be similarly preoccupied with black liberation. Drawing from influences as disparate as Islam, Judaism, Kemetism and UFO religion, the organization built a massive compound near Eatonton, Georgia, in 1991 — funded again, in part, by public assistance benefits women were made to sign up for.
In some cases, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these same women were impregnated by male members of the group so they could have more children and qualify for even more government benefits. But sexual exploitation proved to be the Nuwaubian Nation’s downfall. In 2004, York was sentenced to 135 years in prison. He had been molesting girls in the organization for years, some as young as 6 years old.
R. Kelly is not a religious organization in the mold of the Peoples Temple or the Nuwaubians, nor has it been confirmed that he’s running an actual cult. But cultic relationships can be interpersonal, too. The families and friends cited in the BuzzFeed article describe the same abusive, controlling dynamic that cults thrive on — the isolation and unresponsiveness of loved ones, the total submission to a leader’s whim. Hutchison told me the behavior attributed to Kelly reflects how sexual assault gets normalized within cults. Charismatic masculinity becomes the altar at which black women and girls must prostrate themselves to exist in these spaces. This often includes sexual exploitation.
When I asked Ross about how we should react when suspected cult victims claim nothing is wrong and that they’re in these situations by choice, he explained why this topic is so complicated to navigate.
“They say that all the time,” Ross said. “All you can use is moral suasion — allegiance to family and friends. The family knows this daughter. So why are they concerned? How has this [relationship with Kelly] affected her ongoing relationship with [them]? Is she still a part of family events? Does she still stay in touch? Or is R. Kelly now the defining factor, the driving force in her life?”