Who Is R. Kelly?
Born in Chicago in 1967, R. Kelly is an American R&B singer-songwriter and record producer best known for his gospel-tinged vocals and highly sexualized lyrics. Lauded as the “King of R&B,” Kelly won three Grammy Awards for his hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” and had more Top 40 hits than any other male solo artist in the 1990s. His personal life has been imbued with controversial sex scandals, including child-pornography charges that were dropped. He was arrested multiple times in 2019, on charges ranging from aggravated criminal sexual abuse to sex trafficking.
Born Robert Sylvester Kelly on January 8, 1967, in Chicago, Illinois, singer-songwriter R. Kelly has enjoyed tremendous success on both the pop and R&B music charts. He has also made headlines with his legal woes. Kelly grew up in a Chicago housing project, where he was raised by his single mother, and began singing in his church’s choir as a young child.
One of five children, Kelly was later able to attend Kenwood Academy. There, he was persuaded by his music teacher, Lena McLin, that he truly had a gift for performing. “She’s my second mother,” Kelly later explained to Ebony magazine. “She took me under her wing in high school. She told me I would be a big star.”
R&B Star: ‘Bump N’ Grind’ to ‘I Believe I Can Fly’
After singing on the streets for a time, R. Kelly got his first big break in 1990, when he landed a recording contract with Jive Records. The following year, he released Born into the 90’s with
Public Announcement, his backup group. The album quickly proved to be a hit, featuring two top R&B singles, “Honey Love” and “Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ).” Just as quickly as his album shot to success, Kelly became known for his sexually charged lyrics.
In 1993, Kelly continued his meteoric rise with 12 Play, scoring his first No. 1 single on the pop charts with “Bump N’ Grind.” That same year, the singer-songwriter suffered a great personal loss: the death of his mother. He continued to live up to his nickname, “Prince of Pillowtalk,” with the release of R. Kelly, but threw some of his gospel influences into the mix as well.
Lauded as the “King of R&B,” Kelly showed that he could also be the “king of the ballad” with 1996’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” The song, which appeared on the soundtrack for the Michael Jordan movie Space Jam, earned him three Grammy Awards in 1997. Kelly also contributed the song “Gotham City” to the Batman & Robin (1997) soundtrack.
Collaborations and Romance
In addition to creating his own music, Kelly worked with such artists as Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, for whom Kelly penned the 1995 chart-topper “You Are Not Alone.” Working as her producer, Kelly helped teenaged singer Aaliyah with her 1994 album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
The pair became romantically involved, despite Kelly being nearly 12 years her senior, and were even married briefly, but her family had the union dissolved. Aaliyah had lied on the marriage certificate, claiming to be 18 years old when she was only 15. Not long after, in 1996, Kelly married dancer Andrea Lee. The couple had three children together before divorcing in 2009. In a tearful 2018 interview with the daytime talk show Sister Circle, Lee opened up about alleged domestic abuse.
Kelly remained an impressive force in the world of R&B and pop music. His 1998 album, R., featuring a duet with Celine Dion entitled “I’m Your Angel,” sold more than 7 million copies. He had other successful collaborations around this time, as well: He and Sean “Puffy” Combs made the charts with “Satisfy You” in 1999, and two years later, Kelly joined with Jay-Z to create another Top 10 hit, “Fiesta.”
In 2002, Kelly and Jay-Z released the collaborative album The Best of Both Worlds. However, the record was overshadowed by Kelly’s alleged involvement in a sex scandal. A video reportedly showing Kelly having sex with an underage girl was given to a journalist, who turned the tape over to the police. Kelly claimed that he was innocent.
In June 2002, Kelly was charged with 21 counts of criminal acts related to child pornography in Illinois. He was charged again in Florida the following year on similar charges, but these were later dropped.
Despite the scandals, Kelly still enjoyed strong commercial success. His 2004 album Happy People/U Saved Me sold more than 2 million copies, and he introduced his famous related song series, Trapped in the Closet, on the record TP.3 Reloaded in 2005. Additionally, he remained a sought-after collaborator, working with Snoop Dogg and Ja Rule, among others.
Kelly was finally put on trial in May 2008. By this time, several of the charges against him had been dropped. Then, the young woman who allegedly appeared in the video refused to testify, and several of her family members stated that it was not her in the video. After several weeks of testimony, the jury concluded that Kelly was not guilty of all 14 counts against him.
Back in the Studio and Autobiography
While no longer the leading star he once was, R. Kelly continued to create new music and perform live. He released Write Me Back in 2012, which follows in the footsteps of stars like Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass.
That same year, Kelly published an autobiography, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. Kelly explained his reason for writing the book on his website, writing that he “felt it was time they met Robert, the mama’s boy, Robert the brother, Robert the father and most of all Robert the person.”
Kelly delivered his next album, Black Panties, in 2013, and followed with The Buffet two years later. In 2016, he put out an album of holiday standards, 12 Nights of Christmas.
More Sexual Abuse Accusations
In 2018, Kelly found himself back in hot water for his personal affairs with the release of the BBC documentary R. Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes. The doc featured a former girlfriend of Kelly’s claiming that the singer “groomed” her to have sex with other females, one of whom was as young as 14.
In April, another young woman stepped forward with accusations against Kelly. According to her lawyer, the woman began an eight-month relationship with the singer in June 2017, at age 19, during which time he infected her with an STD and tried to incorporate her into his entourage of sex partners. The alleged victim had already filed a complaint with the Dallas Police Department and was preparing to hit Kelly with a federal civil complaint.
Later that month, Kelly landed in the crosshairs of Time’s Up, an organization created by influential artists and executives to protect sexual harassment victims. The organization published an open letter that demanded “appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now” and called for companies like RCA, Spotify, Apple and Ticketmaster to sever their professional ties with him.
In May 2018, Spotify scrubbed R. Kelly from all playlists due to its new Hate Content & Hateful Conduct Policy to “be consistent with our distinct roles in music and media.”
Kelly released a 19-minute track, “I Admit,” on July 23, 2018. On the song, he addresses his illiteracy, financial situation and sexual misconduct allegations. “They brainwashed, really? / Kidnapped, really? / Can’t eat, really? / Real talk, that sounds silly,” he sings.
Documentary and Arrest
In January 2019, Lifetime began airing a six-part documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, which explored the accusations against him over the years through interviews with girlfriends and associates.
Shortly afterward, RCA dropped the controversial singer from its label. In February, lawyer Michael Avenatti revealed that he had provided a videotape to authorities which allegedly showed Kelly engaged in sexual activities with an underage girl.
On February 22, one day after two more women stepped forward with accusations, Kelly was formally charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Cook County, Illinois. He turned himself in to Chicago police that evening, and left jail three days later after posting the $100,000 bail.
Kelly surfaced for a highly charged interview with Gayle King of CBS This Morning on March 5, at one point standing, screaming at the camera and crying as he proclaimed his innocence. He also dismissed the notion of holding women against their will in a sex cult, saying the two young women living with him were “handed over” by their parents.
The artist was again arrested in July 2019, this time on a slew of federal charges that included sex trafficking and production of child pornography.