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Chicago’s Blues for R. Kelly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voice on the other end of the phone was tiny and wounded, nothing like the supple tenor that made R. Kelly the most popular R&B; singer of his generation. He said he was sitting in front of a television watching Mike Tyson’s boxing career descend to a bloody, pitiful low, but it was a feeble distraction from his own battles against prosecutors and public opinion.

“Terrible, that’s how I’m doing, just terrible,” rasped the singer, who faces 21 felony counts of child pornography, charges that carry a potential penalty of 15 years in prison. The charges stem from a home video that allegedly shows him in sexual liaisons with several partners, including a lurid encounter three years ago with a 14-year-old girl. He denied the charges in an arraignment June 6 and is free after posting $750,000 bond.

Kelly hung up the phone and returned to the refuge of a friend’s home here. If Kelly is found guilty, his name will be lumped with Jerry Lee Lewis, Gary Glitter, Roman Polanski and other celebrities who have seduced minors. But, no matter the verdict, Chicago is already struggling with the fall from grace of one of its favored sons.

Robert Sylvester Kelly, 35, grew up poor on the Southside but never strayed far. Even when he scored more Top 40 hits than any other male solo artist in the 1990s, you could find him most nights playing basketball with old buddies not far from his childhood home. With his recording studio in the shadow of the Cabrini Green housing projects, he was on a short list of stars in a big city. He will be tried here now too, for allegedly filming a sexual escapade police say took place in the sauna room of his Olympia Field home.

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“There’s Michael Jordan, there’s Oprah Winfrey and there’s R. Kelly,” says Derrel McDavid, who grew up on the Southside and is Kelly’s longtime friend and business manager. “After that, who’s next? This is a guy who rides around the streets of Chicago, plays basketball here, records his music here. He never wanted to leave, but now it looks like he has to. Maybe Chicago is not his home anymore.”

A young Kelly often lugged an electronic keyboard into subway tunnels, playing for the loose change of commuters. Years later he would be a superstar, with more than 14 million albums sold and such hits as “I Believe I Can Fly,” which won a Grammy in 1996. Kelly’s talents as a producer and songwriter too also made him coveted, and he has worked with Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Jay-Z.

All along, Kelly’s music was jolting in its dichotomy: His soaring songs were heroic enough to accompany the exploits of Batman and Muhammad Ali on film, but in concert he would follow them with a song in which he sings to a woman, “I like the crotch in you.”

To Gerald M. Margolis, who has been Kelly’s entertainment attorney for years, the split was the “conflict of the profane and the religious that goes back to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley.” But McDavid sensed there was a personal struggle in the lyrics.

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“A man who is torn,” McDavid said, his eyes moist from analyzing his friend’s tumble. “Torn and trying to figure himself out.”

The citizenry of Chicago has also been trying to figure Kelly out. Many have decided he is a crass predator disguised by false piety and celebrity. Popular Chicago station WBBM-FM has yanked him from the airwaves. A boycott of Kelly’s music has been organized by the Rev. Bamani Obadele, a community activist, and some local leaders describe Kelly’s crisis in terms of civic betrayal.

“It’s unfortunate to see Mr. Kelly’s talents go to waste,” Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hilliard said at a news conference to announce the grand jury indictment against Kelly. “But it becomes a tragedy when

Those closest to Kelly say it is the community that has betrayed the singer. They say the star stayed too close to his roots, making himself vulnerable to a plot to destroy him. Some claim a shadowy figure in the singer’s recent past set out to ruin Kelly by distributing the tape on the eve of the R&B; star’s performance at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

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“Robert has done some foolish things,” Margolis said. “But he has also been dramatically victimized. People have stolen from him, attempted to extort him, vilify him.... He allowed them extraordinary access.”

But even if someone intended to harm Kelly, to many that will be inconsequential if the singer is indeed the man on the videotape. FBI experts will testify that the tape has not been doctored, and prosecutors say that Kelly is clearly recognizable on it.

Those prosecutors will have to prove their child pornography case without the help of the girl in question--she and her parents have denied that she is the one in the footage. Last week state authorities said they will investigate whether the girl’s parents allowed her to be in a relationship with Kelly.

Kelly says he will not watch the tape.

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“First of all, if it’s as disgusting as people say it is and as crazy as people say it is, I have no interest in seeing some man with a woman whether she’s underage or not underage,” the singer told MTV last month.

Kelly becomes the latest in a seemingly endless parade of celebrities to march through the gantlet of scandal. Some salvage their career, others disappear. Michael Jackson, for instance, was never criminally charged with child molestation, but the lawsuits and rumors have tainted his career nonetheless. Polanski, meanwhile, lives abroad and is considered a fugitive from the U.S., but he was feted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In the music world, many of the stars who have worked with Kelly have shied away from visible stances on the matter, while others, such as rapper Nas, have taken public shots at the singer. Jay-Z, a rapper who this year released a high-profile collaboration with Kelly, has refused to promote the album or even be photographed with the R&B; singer, and sales of the disc have slumped. Dr. Dre echoed many when, in a television interview, he said he had not seen the tape, nor did he want to, but he did offer a career prediction: “If he’s guilty, it’s over.”

Kelly has a response: In the weeks before his arrest, he wrote and recorded a new song, “Heaven I Need a Hug,” which finds him delivering honeyed lines with a tremble in his voice:

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“I gave 13 years of my life to this industry.

Hit song or not, I’ve given all of me.

You smile in my face and tell me you love me,

But then before you know the truth you’re so quick to judge me.”

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McDavid, Kelly’s friend and business manager, a man with a steady gaze who wears a large diamond-studded cross on a necklace, is sentimental enough to tear up as he recounts how Kelly sang to McDavid’s dying mother, and practical enough to order the singer’s bodyguards to check the age of every woman he now meets. McDavid parked his sport utility vehicle along a bustling sidewalk in downtown Chicago one night last week and listened to the new song on his car stereo. Again, his voice grew thick with emotion. “Rob has given everything. He’s got a good heart.”

McDavid said the new track may be informally released to Chicago radio stations soon. It will also be included on Kelly’s next album, “Loveland,” which Jive Records has slated for November. The label, Kelly’s home for more than a decade, has issued only brief statements of support for the singer and has not addressed its plans for Kelly’s future releases.

This is not the first time the singer has been accused of an improper relationship with an underage partner. He has twice settled lawsuits by Chicago women who claimed they, as minors, had sex with him. A third lawsuit is pending. In 1994, he reportedly was married for a short time to the late R&B; singer Aaliyah when she was 15. Kelly produced Aaliyah’s first album, which made her a star. The title of the disc: “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.”

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Community Divided Over a Man’s Sins

Kelly is now married to a 28-year-old former dancer from his touring troupe. They have a newborn son and two young daughters.

The R. Kelly saga has evoked especially passionate and divided sentiments in Chicago’s black neighborhoods.

One local state congressional candidate has said the scandal should inspire soul-searching in the black community about the unspoken acceptance of adults dating underage girls, and local pundits have cited the proliferation in American pop culture of sexualized images of teen girls, especially young black girls, and the tacit approval of their exploitation.

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At a gospel music festival in Grant Park last Sunday, the mention of Kelly’s name elicited instant and often passionate responses from audience members and performers. Some offered prayers for the singer or the family of the young girl allegedly involved. Others indicted Kelly or the world that he lives in.

“Everybody’s been talking about it,” said Mable Stone, a 77-year-old native of the city. She has seen parts of the tape herself. “You can’t avoid it. The whole thing just makes me sick. He was all right for a while, but now all this vulgar stuff. That’s what happens: They get famous, they get money and they just lose their minds.”

A few hours later, in suburban Matteson, more than 300 people, almost all of them African American women, gathered at a Holiday Inn for a hair fashion show. The exhibitions were staged productions that often recalled music videos, and none was more topical or ambitious than the one organized by Sharon Payton, or Ms. Sha Sha as she is known to customers of Trenz, her Southside salon.

“We use all R. Kelly music, about 12 songs,” she explained. “I’m his biggest fan. We use the new version of ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ the one where Robert asks God to forgive him for all of his unrighteous ways.”

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During the show, Payton, clad entirely in white, played the role of her favorite singer, ascending to the door of heaven and seeking admission as his music blared.

“Someone said we should send a tape of it to Robert,” she said. “R. Kelly’s music, though, has touched so many people. And he grew up here. So we got his back, no matter what.” *

A Question of Image and the Voice Inside

There are three typical R. Kelly images in his promotional photos and videos: scowling street tough, thoughtful man of prayer, sinewy bedroom vamp. The first, said business manager McDavid, is a fiction of sorts, an attempt by Kelly to reflect his old neighborhood, not his own personality. As for the second, Kelly only recently began attending church regularly. His longtime publicist, Regina Daniels, is hopeful that that will bring him some calm. “He is not an angel, I’ll tell you that. But he also isn’t the monster they are making him out to be.”

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Kelly told MTV last month that “I got a lot that’s in me that I’m dealing with personally, and I’m seeking help.”

Lena McLin, one of Kelly’s music teachers at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, is happy to hear that her former student may be gravitating more to churches than to nightclubs. After decades of recording her pupils, the back room of her apartment is a library of teenagers warbling show tunes and straining through arias. She played one for a visitor. The first two songs are crisp performances by 13- and 14-year-olds. The third is a solo by young Robert Kelly. The phrasing, the range and the confidence of the boy cut through the static of the aging recording and the scandal of today. “Just a child,” McLin says. “So rich in voice. Can you believe that is just a child?”

She saw and heard something special in the lanky youngster (“You always know. You just do.”) special enough that she sabotaged the choir student’s membership on the basketball team. She said Kelly was furious at first, but after a bravura performance of a Stevie Wonder song at a school talent show, he changed his mind.

Later, when he had become a star student, she visited his home to lobby for the youngster to travel to Atlanta to sing at a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The teacher remembers being struck by the family’s poverty. “It was bare. One table, two chairs. There was no father there, I knew that, and they had very little.” Was Kelly a tough kid? “He was respectful, shy sometimes. He was not the troublemaker.”

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In the corner of McLin’s apartment is a leaning stack of framed platinum records, sent by Kelly as souvenirs of his stardom. Another gift is the white grand piano that dominates her living room and sends music down to the leafy children’s park below her windows. She agreed to play a jaunty composition she wrote years ago.

“That friend who serves

And seeks for gain

Will follow just for form,

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Will pack when it begins to rain,

And leave you in the storm.”

“That song,” she said, “is for Robert now.”


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