I was around 14 or 15 years of age circa 1983 when I sat in the auditorium of Kenwood Academy High School, the same trendy Hyde Park area that former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama would temporarily make their home, and really saw Robert Kelly — as “R. Kelly” was known back then — as the superstar he would become. I didn’t know much about the young man who teacher Lena McLin had taken under her wing, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, and convinced to drop basketball for singing, with McLin comparing Kelly to the next Stevie Wonder.
“You’re going to be the next Stevie Wonder.”
The whole high school would know who R. Kelly was after Robert appeared in the center of the stage during a talent show, wearing dark sunglasses, doing a riff that mimicked Eddie Murphy singing Wonder’s “Mon Cherie Amour” song from SNL. Girls screamed. A superstar was born in Kelly that day. “R.” would join the ranks of beautiful singing voices of Wonder and Murphy. Kelly looked toward the heavens in this 1984 Kenwood Academy High School yearbook photo, with Robert in the top row, third from the left.
R. Kelly Drops “Honey Love”
By 1992, I was back in Chicago and sitting around the basement apartment of another Kenwood Academy High School graduate when the “Honey Love” video came on TV. My best friend, who had also been one of McLin’s students when Kelly spent plenty of time in that southeast wing of the school, began talking about Kelly as if she knew him. I didn’t immediately recognize the crooner pouring honey over a woman in the sexy video. After all, it had been nearly a decade since we’d gone crazy over R. Kelly on that high school stage, and I don’t remember Kelly graduating with us. Rumors of Kelly going on to graduate from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School (Michelle Obama’s alma mater) circulated.
“That’s R. Kelly! Robert Kelly!”
My friend reminded me that the guy whose “Born into the 90’s [sic]” debut album that would soon blow up airwaves was the self-same person who roamed our high school halls.
“That’s so sad.”
My immediate words about seeing Robert on TV, and not in the flesh, were some of the most honest words I first spoke about Kelly’s success — words that drew a quizzical look from my best friend, until I explained myself and she understood and silently agreed with her gaze.
“Look at what he’s doing with his life, and look at what I’m doing with mine.”
In the 10 years since Robert blew us away on that stage with his powerful vocals and was himself blown away by his high school classmates’ rousing approvals, I’d learn that Mr. R. Kelly had sung on subway platforms and been grinding away (pun intended, since Kelly would hit big with “Bump N’ Grind“) at his singing career until he’d made it big. I squeaked out of Florida A&M University with a bachelor’s degree and a 2.7 GPA and was just starting my corporate career.
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That career would keep me in touch with some of Kelly’s friends along the way, like the ex-boyfriend I ran into on a downtown Chicago lunch break. He knew Robert from high school too and had just gotten off tour.
“It was wild. Do you want to see the photos?”
I imagined photos from an R. Kelly tour like a modern-day Caligula in the split seconds after my ex asked if I wanted to see them.
Eventually, R. Kelly would release the 12 Play album in 1993, and over the years, one song stuck out to me in particular, as I played the entire CD ad nauseam. It was the below song, a short song from the 12 Play album titled “Intermission,” which detailed all the girls who turned Robert down for sexual escapades before he became famous. And R. Kelly makes a point of saying the girls told him, “No, Robert” — using the first name that the viral BuzzFeed article calls the devil as parents recounted their nightmares of trying to get their teen daughters away from what they allege is Kelly’s abusive cult.
In listening to “Intermission,” wherein Robert talked about all the girls he asked “time and time again” to get with him and let Kelly “knock boots,” there’s a pain felt in those searing lyrics. I imagine those pretty Kenwood girls who we just knew would be the singing superstars, the ones who got plenty of solos and held the microphone cords with professional ease as they walked across the stage. I imagine a particular fair-skinned beauty being the choir girl that turned him down, or perhaps the gorgeous cheerleader with the green eyes being the one who “didn’t want to give me no play,” as Robert puts it in the song.
I think of the area under the elevated “L” train in Chicago being the one Kelly sings about “putting money on it and playing ball right on 18th Street.” And I think of the accounts I’ve read of Kelly returning to high school as a big shot, even after he was past high school age, hanging out in the parking lot with fierce cars he couldn’t afford before his fame, attracting the young high school girls.
When I read that account, I couldn’t help but liken Kelly to a character stuck in a Groundhog Day sort of sick cycle: Hurt by teen girls who rejected his advances in high school, but addicted to the feeling of the “come up” or turn around when some young women finally started to give him the “12 Play” he desired. I think of the The Grief Recovery lessons I’ve learned, wherein some people get stuck in a cycle or period of time where they experienced great hurt that they need to move beyond and reframe, lest they are doomed to repeat it.
Kelly seemingly needs a way out of the “Trapped in the Closet” thinking that allegedly has him targeting young women and using his musical cache and stature to lure them into his lair, where a 30-something year old “den mother” trained the teens (all reportedly older than the 17-year-old age of consent, according to BuzzFeed) on how to sexually please Robert.
As I watch people on Twitter and Facebook debate back and forth about how some people could support an alleged monster and not pay enough attention to Kelly’s alleged victims, and the new horrifying accounts of alleged mind control, abuse, and cult-like behavior that reportedly includes spankings, girls forced to wear sweat suits and look at the wall so as not to be admired by other men, I no longer envy Robert’s life like I did 25 years ago.
Instead, I pray for his alleged victims, and I still pray for Kelly himself — going back through a mini-retrospective of the man who I keep telling myself has got to be a Christian somewhere left inside — and has to somehow let God rescue his soul out of the demonic-sounding realm before long. I think of the day my friend picked me up for church in 1996, when I was blasting “Trade in My Life,” and told her I had just been “going to church with R. Kelly.”
What other kind of man could thank “Jesus for being the head of my life” and sing apropos verses with such conviction in the wake of his beloved mother’s death?
“For what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
Either a wolf in sheep’s clothing, quoting the Bible almost as accurately as Satan did to Jesus during that 40-day fast, or a sinner saved by grace that’s still working out that salvation with a whole lot of fear and trembling. And yet, I admit to being one of the guilty ones who still does the “bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce” each time the remix to “Ignition” comes on the radio, skipping over singing the part about going to the hotel room to “f*** somebody,” when I imagine that somebody could be an impressionable teen girl.
However, since I sat as a teen girl in that same room with Robert when he was only a teen, recognizing the power his singing gift could have on women, there’s part of me that still somehow roots for his soul, and for any alleged souls he’s harmed along the way. There’s sadness for Robert and his alleged victims. But there’s hope, too.
[Featured Image by Tim Boyle/Getty Images]