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Most music fans know Chicago's R. Kelly for his uplifting Grammy-winning hit "I Believe I Can Fly" and singing "The World's Greatest" at the Opening Ceremony of this year's Olympic Games.
But recently, following a series of negative media stories swirling around his personal life, groups are boycotting his music, his record sales have fallen, a tour was canceled and he has been publicly shunned by star rapper Jay-Z and other members of the hip-hop community.
The source of all this is the recent emergence of one, or perhaps more, videos that purportedly show a man who looks like Kelly (according to those who have seen one of the tapes) having sex with young females who appear to be underage. Kelly has attacked the footage as fake, but in the wake of negative publicity surrounding it, sales of his new album with Jay-Z, "The Best of Both Worlds," slipped 60 percent between the weeks ending March 31 and April 14.
For another artist, having a gold album (500,000 sold) would be worth bragging about. But for Kelly, it's a major disappointment, given the triple-platinum success of his last album, "TP2.com." And while some in the music business say the new material simply isn't up to snuff, recent controversies swirling around Kelly aren't helping the cause either.
The media coverage of the tapes has left Kelly "devastated," according to his lawyer.
The R&B singer Stephanie Edwards (who goes by the stage name Sparkle) has claimed in a radio interview that her 14-year-old niece appears in the video. Edwards, a former Kelly protege who has released at least two CDs, spoke earlier this month on Los Angeles station KKBT-FM 100.3, program director Robert Scorpio said.
"We are still playing Kelly's music but we have debated," Scorpio said. "If he is guilty, we will probably come out and take a different stand."
Meanwhile, groups here and nationwide are boycotting the singer's music.
"It's high time for adults to talk about issues such as these in our community," said Ken Dunkin, a Democratic candidate for state representative in the 5th District who is co-leading the local boycott. "The black community is very silent about adults dating young girls. We don't say anything. We have to start speaking up."
WBBM-FM 96.3 ("B 96") has stopped playing tunes from the new album, though not because of the Kelly sex scandal. B 96 program director Todd Cavanah said that "Take You Home With Me" from the new album failed to stir up excitement among listeners.
Chicago Police and the Cook County state's attorney's office refused comment on the sex scandal other than to say the matter is under investigation. No charges have been filed against Kelly, who grew up on the South Side and maintains residences and studios in the area.
"The fact is there is no tape of R. Kelly having sex," said John Touhy, Kelly's Chicago lawyer. "There have been reports in the media of different tapes, and none of them agrees with the other. If someone does say there is a tape out there, those claims are false -- absolutely false."
A `smear campaign'
For his own part, Kelly has just issued a statement that he is the victim of a "smear campaign." "It seems that there are people who want to bring me down," Kelly said. "Nothing short of stoning would satisfy these people. Unfortunately, the recent attacks in the media have refused to discuss the motivations of the individuals engaged in the smear campaign."
Asked if Kelly planned to sue any media outlets for libel, Touhy replied, "We are considering all of our legal options."
There is reportedly a tape of a man urinating and ejaculating on a girl who looks like a minor. Another tape allegedly shows a man having sex with at least three girls. The tapes are circulating around the country and on the Internet.
Kelly's alleged sexual relationships with underage girls became news after one of the sex videos was sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times in February. Since then, Kelly has hired Jack Palladino, a private investigator who worked on the FBI's Abscam probe in 1980. Palladino is investigating who might be bootlegging the tape and/or who might be behind a smear campaign to defame Kelly, Touhy said.
Several publications, including Time, Spin and Vibe magazines, as well as local TV stations have since reported the allegation that the man in the tape is Kelly. Even if police conclude that it is Kelly on the tape (or tapes), it may take months -- perhaps years -- before charges are filed, if at all. One reason is that such cases face many legal and investigative obstacles, experts say.
"They have to be able to establish it's really him," said Kimberly Hart, executive director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center in Holland, Ohio. "Then they have to prove she's underage. Sometimes it's pretty hard to tell. Then you've got the issue of whether the girl is cooperating with authorities. Any time the government does not have the [victim] on their side, they've got a headache."
A difficult case
"You're looking at something that's difficult for law enforcement, in terms of charging a crime," said Jay Howell, a Florida attorney representing sex abuse victims and a former prosecutor in Jacksonville. As for cooperation, minors have their reasons -- however unfounded -- for refusing to help.
"A lot of kids lured into relationships with adults believe there's an emotional, loving connection," Howell said. "When they find it's exploitative, they change -- but [authorities] have to be patient during that process."
When the child is unknown, prosecutors can still obtain a conviction. "You need anthropologists, sociologists and child development experts to testify to the age of the unknown victim," Howell said. "It's up to the state to decide whether the person is a minor."
He also added, however, that it's possible to fake such a video using digital technology. "Technology allows people to alter identities," Howell said. "Sometimes, there's a difference between what you are seeing and what you are trying to verify."
Local attorney David Gleicher, author of the book "Criminal Defense," said: "My guess is that because this is someone who is very prominent, you don't want to just go out and make an arrest. You almost want to handle this like a federal case, where you've got all your ducks in a row and make sure that a conviction is signed, sealed and delivered."
Innocent until proven guilty
If charges are filed, the legal assumption is "innocent until proven guilty." But in the music world, many agree the accusations are dogging Kelly, and a conviction would end his career.
"I don't know if it's true," rapper-producer Dr. Dre told MTV News. "I haven't seen the video, nor do I want to see it because there's a kid involved. . . . That's a no-no, you know what I'm saying? If he's guilty, he's over."
"Scandal tends to help records, just like death; singers tend to sell records after they die," said Bob Burke, vice president and managing director of the Friday Morning Quarterback, a radio industry trade magazine in Cherry Hill, N.J. "But this is where you draw the line. I would imagine that due to the nature of the allegations, this could be a problem."
But Quarterback founder and publisher Kal Rudman isn't so sure. Asked if Kelly could bounce back, Rudman replied, "Historically, yes. You've got to go back to Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his [13-year-old] cousin and went on to be an icon for all time." The same was true for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who confessed to having an affair with an underage girl in the band's 1997 authorized biography "Walk This Way." And among the many other performers linked to inappropriate relationships with underage girls was former Rolling Stones bassist Billy Wyman, who was talked about during his affair with the then 13-year-old Mandy Smith, who he married after she turned 18.
Because Kelly is a musical giant of this era -- his last album sold 3.5 million copies and his song "I Believe I Can Fly" won three Grammys -- he is a target, Kelly's lawyers maintain.
"We very much believe there is a person or persons whose motivation is to destroy his career," Touhy said. "He's devastated by this whole series of events. . . . In addition, there's the pain of knowing that people you formerly trusted are attempting to hurt you." Requests for an interview with Kelly were declined.
Earlier this month, Kelly settled out of court with former Epic Records intern Tracy Sampson, according to her attorney, Susan Loggans. Sampson alleged that between May 2000 and March 2001, Kelly induced Sampson "into an indecent sexual relationship," the suit stated. Sampson was 17 at the time, the suit said. Due to a confidentiality agreement, Loggans could not discuss the settlement between Kelly and Sampson.
In 1998, Kelly settled another sex-based lawsuit with Tiffany Hawkins, who was also represented by Loggans. That suit, also settled out of court, accused Kelly of engaging in a sexual relationship with Hawkins while she was a minor.
And in 1994, Kelly was briefly married Aaliyah Haughton, who reported her age as 18 on the couple's marriage certificate. The singer, who died last year in a plane crash, was 15 at the time of the marriage, which was annulled a short time later, according to news reports.
"A lot of people have asked why the state's attorney's office didn't look into this earlier," Loggans said. "He married Aaliyah and she was 15 years old. If this was the common man, he'd be in jail now."
Cook County state's attorney's office spokesman John Gorman said that Kelly's activities with Aaliyah happened "under a previous administration" and that the current office would have no idea why charges were not filed at that time.
Even as Kelly denies any wrongdoing, forces are now coalescing that could threaten the singer's career. A boycott against Kelly that began two weeks ago spread last week into a boycott against WGCI-FM 107.5. Protest leaders also asked two of the station's biggest advertisers, Burger King and SBC Ameritech, to take off advertising (Burger King representatives did not return phone calls; an SBC Ameritech spokesman said he was "unaware" of any boycott and that the company did not plan to pull ads.)
"We've given [WGCI] a week and they've refused" to stop playing Kelly's music, said Rev. Bamani Obadele, a community organizer and co-leader of the boycott. "This issue has gotten out of hand. For a radio station like 'GCI to continue to play [his music] it angers me. That's the bottom line, and I'm going to send a message as a black father and minister that I won't stand for it."
Marv Dyson, WGCI's president and general manager, said he would continue to play Kelly's music despite the protests and allegations.
"I understand the charges are very severe," he said. "But I'm not pulling R. Kelly at this point because he's innocent until proven guilty. I have deep concern for the African-American community, but I'm not going to take R. Kelly records off the radio until he's had his day in court."
The R. Kelly/Jay-Z single "Get This Money" was WGCI's second most requested single as of last week and 80 percent of people e-mailing the station support Kelly. But if he is found guilty, "I am absolutely certain it would end [his] career," Dyson said.
Record sales hit
National boycotts in cities such as Philadelphia have joined the Chicago protest, and consequences have materialized at the cash register. "The Best of Both Worlds" has sold 502,000 copies, according to SoundScan, which tracks album sales. Given Kelly's sales history, that's a dud and there's little chance sales of "Best" will rebound. Kelly and Jay-Z are no longer doing joint promotional appearances, largely because Def Jam is squeamish over Kelly's troubles, according to news reports.
"Best," which sold 138,000 copies on the week ending March 31, sold 82,000 copies on the week ending April 7 and 56,000 copies on the week ending April 14, according to SoundScan. Burke said other factors could be hurting sales, including Internet downloads and CD pirating.
While the stories that could be causing these falling sales numbers make for juicy reading, "Somebody needs to come up with some hard evidence and put it out there," Burke said. "I think a lot of people are saying the same thing: `He's being framed, how could this be true?' There's an obvious affection for R. Kelly.
"But then again, we don't have all the facts."
Tribune staff reporters Emily Biuso and Raoul V. Mowatt contributed to this article.