In R. Kelly’s fight for his freedom, he faces a straight-talking prosecutor whose life in some ways parallels his own.
Though the singer was dogged for decades by allegations he victimized women and girls, his fate only came into question after a documentary brought renewed public derision and charges were meted out by Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney whose own story shares some similarities with the defendant.
They are both products of 1970s Chicago childhoods with absentee fathers and protective mothers who would later die prematurely of cancer. Two black Americans who said they suffered poverty and sexual assaults in their early years, who escaped public housing complexes to climb to positions of power in their respective fields. Two people whose stories diverged and brought them to opposite sides of a legal fight that could forever define them.
After Kelly’s hearing Saturday , Foxx went before a phalanx of cameras, calmly reciting the graphic accusations . Her short, just-the-facts appearance, similar to one a day earlier, bared nothing about a woman who even a year ago said she saw more of herself in defendants than her fellow attorneys.
“I have more in common with the young people who come through our detention center than the attorneys who work for me,” the 46-year-old Cook County state’s attorney said last year in a talk at a suburban Chicago library, the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald reported.
Foxx grew up in the notorious Cabrini-Green project. For a time as a teenager, her family was homeless, and as a young child, she said, she was sexually assaulted multiple times, by both a relative and some neighborhood boys. As a 6-year-old accompanying her mother to court for a child support hearing, she said she first dreamed of her eventual career as she was awed by attorneys who seemed to be champions for powerless little girls like her.
She eventually made it to Southern Illinois University for undergraduate and law degrees before working as an assistant public guardian representing child victims, an assistant state’s attorney handling child protection cases and juvenile offenders, and as chief of staff for the president of the board of commissioners in Cook County, which includes Chicago.
Foxx invoked her powerful personal story repeatedly after she made an improbable bid to unseat a two-term incumbent, her former boss, for the top county prosecutor’s job, three years ago. Days before sailing to victory in her primary, she told campaign staffers what it signified.
“As someone who came from a neighborhood like I did to be able to step into this moment right now where we can transform our criminal justice system and have the support of all of you, you have no idea how much that means,” she said, according the Chicago Tribune.
The woman who as a child cowered in a bathtub when she heard gunfire was now standing beside luminaries such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, earning financial backing from billionaire George Soros and gaining attention from 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Foxx hasn’t been without controversy, from a campaign finance violation that brought a hefty fine to overstatements of her trial experience that she later walked back and her announcement Thursday to recuse herself from the case of “Empire” actor Jussie Smolett . That decision raised the eyebrows of many, including the woman she unseated, Anita Alvarez, who mused “maybe I should have just recused myself from the difficult cases that came across my desk.”
After the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary series last month reignited interest in the purported crimes, Foxx pleaded for victims to come forward and proclaimed herself “sickened as a survivor … sickened as a mother … sickened as a prosecutor.” Kelly claims to have been a childhood sexual assault victim himself.
Kenyette Tisha Barnes, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, said she took some satisfaction in seeing a woman of color prosecuting a case whose victims are women of color who have long been ignored. As cautiously optimistic Barnes is, she questions why it has taken authorities, including Foxx, so long.
“Lately, I think she has been pitch-perfect, I think she has used the power of her position to really drive these cases to this point. However, survivors have come forward to her prior to this and they have not had favorable interactions and I think that, to some degree, there has to be some accountability for that,” Barnes said Saturday. “I really believe that these DAs have obfuscated their responsibility for too long and now they’re doing damage control.”
Foxx took no questions Saturday but has framed herself as a warrior shaped by her life story.
“I’ve deliberately chosen a career where I’ve worked with people who work on issues that deal with those who have the least among us,” she once told the Tribune. “Because I’ve never shaken, never been able to shake the caste that I come from.”