This really happened.
Photo: Amr Alfiky/AP/Shutterstock
R. Kelly’s defense lawyer has tried to discredit one of the R&B star’s sexual-assault accusers by asking her whether she was incapacitated by MSG in Chinese food. Indeed, this eyebrow-raising exchange took place during testimony Thursday from Sonja, the eighth accuser to take the stand against Robert Kelly in his Brooklyn federal court trial on sex-crimes and racketeering charges, now in its fourth week.
Sonja said she met Kelly in August 2003, outside a Salt Lake City, Utah, mall. She was 21 at the time and working as an intern at a local radio station. Sonja and a friend headed to the mall after hearing that Kelly was there.
“I wanted to get an interview. It would have been my very first big celebrity interview,” she said. Sonja and the friend approached Kelly’s tour bus. “I just asked for an interview and he kind of pointed me in the other direction and [said], ‘Ask him.’” Sonja said she thought it was a manager.
“They said it wasn’t going to happen” that day; they weren’t keen on a phone interview, nor coming to the station. Instead, Sonja, her friend, and Kelly posed for a picture together outside the bus. While there, somebody slipped Sonja a piece of paper behind her back, with Kelly’s phone number on it. She doesn’t know who gave it to her.
Sonja testified that she called Kelly that day. “I was relentless, I was trying to get him to give me that interview.” Eventually, after multiple conversations, Kelly agreed to an interview, but again rebuffed a phone call or station visit.
“They kind of led me to a Chicago trip,” Sonja said. When asked who had the idea for a Chicago trip, Sonja answered: “Rob.”
Kelly’s team made travel arrangements and covered the costs. When Sonja finally arrived and contacted them, they told her to take a taxi to his studio. En route, the cab stopped at a gas station that struck Sonja as unsafe. She didn’t specify, but said, “There was numerous things going on.”
When she arrived at the studio, a man asked her a strange question. “He said, ‘Do you need protection?’ I didn’t understand the question,” she said. Sonja thought it was a question about the scary gas station.
“That wasn’t the type of question that he was asking. He came out and said, ‘Do you need a condom?’”
“No, I’m not here for that,” she replied.
Several men asked for her ID and cell phone, as well as addresses belonging to the first five or so people in her call history. (Her phone was returned to her.) Sonja was then led into a room, where two people were present. She was also asked to sign an NDA, as other alleged victims say they were asked to do at Kelly’s home. One of the people left to make a photocopy of it.
They told her about rules she had to follow at the studio. “I wasn’t allowed to look up. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody,” she said. Asked whether she was told anything about leaving the room, Sonja said, “I couldn’t.”
“[One man] said Mr. Kelly should be in shortly and he went out of the room.” The people left.
“A few minutes later, I tried to open the door,” she recalled. “Come to find out, it was locked from the outside.”
“I was scared, for one. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. It was beyond embarrassing,” Sonja said of her reaction. She thought, “Maybe it was an accident,” but “eventually, I just came to the conclusion that Okay, it’s locked from the outside.”
“I banged on the door, I tried to use the restroom as much as I could,” Sonja said. There was a phone in the room, which called downstairs. When Sonja asked for things such as bathroom access, someone told her “he had to get it cleared”; she was told that Kelly was the person who had to approve things. Eventually, she was escorted to the bathroom.
She said she called her friends as much as possible with her cell phone, largely to stay occupied. She said she did give one of these friends information about what was happening with her alleged captivity.
Sonja testified that she was locked in the room for several days. On what she thought was the third or fourth day, her request for food was filled. “It was in a bag and I want to say it was like a green tray.” There was a cup with soda. Sonja consumed “just a couple bites, a couple sips” when a fog came over her.
“I got extremely just, full … felt extremely full and tired. I felt something coming on, like, Okay, I’m done eating.”
“The next thing I remember [is] waking up to some commotion in the room. I was extremely confused,” she claimed. “I was looking over to my right. I see Rob. He’s pulling up his pants in the corner.” She was on a couch.
“There was some wet stuff between my legs and on my thighs.”
Sonja was wearing a nightgown with panties underneath when the food was delivered. She said she doesn’t know how she got from the chair where she was eating to the couch. Her panties were on the sofa. Sonja said she did not remove her underwear.
The situation “just made me feel like something happened to me.”
“I know my body. I know when something is wrong,” she alleged. “It just felt like somebody and something had been inside of [me].”
“I believe … I was touched sexually.”
“At any point did you consent to the defendant touching you in a sexual manner?” the prosecution asked.
Sonja got up off the couch and walked toward Kelly, to greet and give him a hug. This was the first time she saw Kelly since her arrival at the studio. He grabbed her backside and said “he would be back shortly.” At some point after, one of Kelly’s handlers came into the room and said the singer was not coming back, “and that I was able to go.”
The handler told Sonja she had to sign another confidentiality agreement.
“He said, ‘Don’t fuck with Mr. Kelly.’ It was a threat,” she claimed.
Sonja said she was scared not just for herself but her family, as Kelly’s handlers had taken contact information from her phone from those close to her, including their addresses.
On cross-examination, R. Kelly attorney Deveraux L. Cannick repeatedly asked Sonja about the fact that she didn’t call law enforcement, given that she had a cell phone.
Cannick also tried to undermine Sonja’s allegation about falling asleep, asking why she ate so little after going days without food.
“You weren’t famished?” he asked.
“I was starving,” she replied.
“You said it was Chinese food,” he continued. “Was it MSG?”
Cannick was referring to the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate. While MSG can be found in lots of foods, an incorrect claim persisted that MSG was largely unique to Chinese food which, some have alleged, made this cuisine unhealthy and led to a variety of symptoms. This is not true — health risks associated with MSG have been effectively debunked, as have the claims that people feel sick after eating Chinese food because of this enhancer. The wrongful notion that there is a Chinese food–MSG linked malaise has long been considered racist.
The prosecution objected to Cannick’s MSG-related question.
The judge asked Sonja: “Have you ever had MSG?”
“I don’t know,” Sonja replied.
Cannick again questioned Sonja about whether or not she called authorities while allegedly locked up. She said that she didn’t. She also said that she did not advise friends to call authorities, even if they didn’t hear from her after a certain period. Sonja was not asked why she didn’t ask for help.
Following Sonja’s testimony, a ninth accuser took the stand against Kelly. Anna said that she was 19 or 20 when she met Kelly backstage at a show in South Carolina, in 2016. She and Kelly exchanged numbers and started communicating. She saw him again in Atlanta, when she went there to visit a friend. Anna started living with him shortly thereafter.
During Anna’s testimony, her description of his alleged abuse and control was in keeping with that of other witnesses. There were rules to follow, including how she interacted with the other girlfriends. They couldn’t compliment each other or talk about social media. If she broke a rule, alleged punishments included “spankings or, you know, no going out and about. It was really an option between the two.” Sometimes, Kelly would take her cell phone if she disobeyed one of her rules, she said.
If they were on the road and she needed to use the restroom, Anna said she would sometimes “use a cup” if he couldn’t be reached for permission.
Anna also testified that Kelly made her record embarrassing videos, including one where she was “being sexual and seductive with bodily fluids.” Kelly directed her what to do in the video, she said. (This testimony echoes that of another Kelly accuser, who alleged that he had her touch her excrement and record it.) Anna said that she and Kelly broke up in late 2018.
Prosecutors maintain that his alleged sexual abuse of girls, boys, and young women is part of a coordinated criminal enterprise, not just ongoing vicious behavior. Thursday’s witnesses came after the third week of testimony in Kelly’s trial, during which the prosecution called more witnesses to bolster their claims of Kelly’s alleged patterns in reaching out and grooming his accusers — with the assistance of his personal and business associates. Some of last week’s testimony also supported the prosecution’s accusation that Kelly is a “predator,” in keeping with their opening statement.
This post has been updated throughout.