Kelly’s sweet, aching voice, raunchy lyrics, and a bump ‘n’ grind delivery carried him from Chicago street corners to triple-platinum record sales. Now, amid troubling allegations that he has secretly married his 15-year-old protegee, Aaliyah, Danyel Smith asks: Is he the R&B Man of the Year or just a…SUPERFREAK.
“I don’t even know why I’m going to the show,” says DeeDee. She’s sitting in Splinters, in the Gallery Mall in Philadelphia, gettin’ the ‘do done. The hair on the back of her head is being tapered close to her scalp with electric clippers. The Braxton-esque crown is blow-dried straight and bumped under softly. “I can’t believe R. Kelly got married to that child.”
“But then I heard she ain’t no child” — this from another chair, where someone’s getting finger waves.
Then the girl with the electric clippers speaks. She talks out of the side of her mouth as she folds back DeeDee’s ear. “I heard she is. And that nigga” — now she looks up — “needs more than any 15-year-old can give him.”
The sprawling Gallery Mall — like the depressed, faded Philadelphia neighborhood it’s nestled in — was probably real fly about 15 years ago. Now only the most stalwart of chains — the Gap, Foot Locker, the Limited — remain. Stores stand empty; nowhere is there that mall bustle, except at the Hair Cuttery and at Splinters, and that’s because it’s Friday and sisters are getting ready for the weekend. They’re discussing R. Kelly because he’s headlining at the Spectrum tonight and because, word is, he just married his teenage protegee, Aaliyah.
Like the jocks on the radio in New York, Philly, Oakland, and L.A., folks are yammering about Kelly’s marriage, making comparisons to Marvin Gaye and Jerry Lee Lewis, joking about jailbait and robbing the cradle.
After arrangements were made for an exclusive interview with VIBE, R. Kelly pulled out at the 11th hour — on the advice of his lawyers. At press time, it was chaos within the Kelly camp, with no spokesperson for Kelly or Aaliyah (both are managed by Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson) commenting on the marriage or on her alleged pregnancy. The various rumors were helped along by everyone from MTV News to USA Today. But no one can answer the question Right On! posed months ago: “R. Kelly and Aaliyah: Are They Just Friends?”
The distilled hearsay goes something like this: First everybody thought Aaliyah and R. Kelly were so much in love that when he went on tour, they missed each other terribly. So he supposedly sent his bodyguards to Detroit to get her and bring her to Florida, where he was on a tour date. Then, supposedly, she traveled with him to Chicago, got a phony ID, and married him in a hotel room. Aaliyah’s parents were supposedly flipping, and her father supposedly wanted to put Kelly in jail. Supposedly the father went and got his daughter from Chicago, and forbade her to see him and vice versa. But, supposedly, that didn’t stop R. Kelly from calling Aaliyah and — when her dad answered — from supposedly saying, Put my wife on the phone. Instead, Aaliyah’s father put her on a plane to Europe, then Japan, where she’s supposed to tour for several months.
Then there’s the story that says Aaliyah is supposedly 19, and none of this is as scandalous as folks would like to make it. There is, after all, an Illinois marriage license dated August 31, for Robert S. Kelly and Aaliyah D. Haughton, which lists their respective ages as 27 and 18. (Of course, the marriage would be null and void if the ages are not legit.) The only problem is, while promoting her million-selling Jive Records debut, Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number, Aaliyah has been evasive about stating her age. Her official bio says 15, and a record company publicist has said, “We stand behind the bio.” Obviously, performers have been lying about their ages since the dawn of time. But that’s show business: smoke and mirrors, mikes and sound checks. Marriage, however, is something else, and if Aaliyah and R. Kelly’s is real, then her pseudo-Lolita image becomes reality. And R. Kelly’s sex-man image gets that much murkier.“
WHAT the fuck kind of dressing room is this?” says Scoop, one of Coolio’s boys. We’re deep in the bowels of Philadelphia’s Spectrum — it’s the Budweiser Superfest’s Philly stop. Coolio has just come offstage. Next up is Warren G, and then Heavy D & the Boyz — who are now girlz. R. Kelly tops the bill, and Aaliyah was supposed to be here too. She was dropped because the sponsor thought she was too young to represent a beer company.
Coolio and I are sitting in a hallway on aluminum equipment cases. As he languidly nurses a bummed Newport, pipe cleaner dreads limp with postset sweat, we talk about Los Angeles and Lakeside, the Chi-Lites and Billy Paul. Shaquille O’Neal passes by with an ALL ACCESS sticker pasted onto his jacket, and Coolio barely looks up. “He’s all right with me,” he says of Shaq, “as long as he stays on the court. He can’t rap.”Coolio says everybody on the Superfest is cool with each other, but that none of the crews really hang. They do play pickup hoop games together during downtime, under the big portable NBA hoop and backboard that travels with the tour. It belongs to R. Kelly, who hates to miss a day on the court.
But the conversation with Coolio has to wait, because Scoop has a serious problem with the dressing room.
“This is luxury compared with what we usually have,” says Coolio resignedly, barely glancing into the musty five-by-eight-foot room with a toilet and a mirror.
“Have you seen R. Kelly’s shit?” Scoop wants to know. “It’s big. Wall-to-wall carpet, big-ass color TV, food…” He rolls his eyes, pissed.
Coolio gives Scoop a buddy-to-buddy, get-out-my-mix-for-a-minute look, and then picks up where we left off. “R&B today is repetitious,” he says. “Everybody bites everybody else. Everything sounds like everything else.”
“Like R. Kelly sounds like Aaron Hall?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Coolio says, eyelids low, legs stretched in front of him — too chill, really, to be described. “Kelly bit Hall, Hall bit Charlie from the Gap Band, Charlie bit whoever he bit.”
I ask him whether he likes R. Kelly, his music.
“I checks,” says Coolio after a slo-mo exhale, “for dat nigga on the court.”
ROBERT Kelly grew up in Chicago’s infamous South Side. He loved basketball as a kid, rarely thinking about music, except when he sang in church. “My goal,” he has said, “was to be the next Michael Jordan.” That was cool, but R. Kelly’s mom, Joann Kelly, made sure her kids knew life wasn’t all playtime, especially after Robert, age 13, was shot in the shoulder as someone tried to steal his bike. (He still carries the bullet.) All four Kelly children took the academic tests necessary for admission to Kenwood Academy, a prestigious, multiracial public school in Hyde Park. They all got in.
When Kelly first came to Kenwood — the school that gave us talents as disparate as Chaka Khan and Da Brat — he couldn’t play a note. At the suggestion of music department head Lena McLin (Kelly would come to call her his second mother; he lost his own to cancer in 1993), he appeared in a high school talent show. He sang Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” and, according to McLin, “brought the house down.” Kelly has said he laughed at her when she asked him to sing. “But when I sang, people paid attention. I felt a sense of power, sort of like when Spider-Man got bit.
”Now retired after a 36-year career, McLin teaches privately from her Chicago home. From her tone, it’s easy to tell she loves and respects Kelly: “He was a fine student. Music history, theory, piano, choir, opera workshop, jazz workshop — Robert took it all. He wrote some gorgeous music. These are things he’s not singing now.”
No. Now he’s singing songs like “I Like the Crotch on You,” or the platinum single “Bump n’ Grind.” That song was the top pop single for three weeks and No. 1 R&B single for 12 consecutive weeks — reigning longer than any song since 1958. The album it springs from, 12 Play, stayed in the pop Top 10 for 20 consecutive weeks, held the No. 1 R&B album spot for nine weeks, and will reach quadruple platinum soon. Two other singles from the album, the limp “Sex Me (Parts I & II)” and the hypnotic “Your Body’s Callin’,” are certified gold.
12 Play didn’t come from nowhere. Kelly’s first album, 1991’s Born Into the ‘90s, went platinum. Though nearly invisible on pop playlists, the album had almost as solid an R&B fan base as Luther Vandross had on every album before Power of Love. Sure it sounded like a Guy tribute record, but R&B heads were sparked. Since then, Kelly has written and produced hit tracks for Changing Faces and for his bride, Aaliyah. Her “Back & Forth” was the single that nudged “Your Body’s Callin’ ” out of the No. 1 spot.
Both Michael and Janet Jackson are also reaching out for R. Kelly’s Midas touch: He’s done remixes for her, and he’s written and produced a few new songs for Michael’s greatest hits package. Kelly has also worked with Toni Braxton, Lisa Stansfield, N-Phase, Ex-Girlfriend, and the Winans. “What I do now,” Kelly has said of his music, “is what I know people want to hear. Sex sells.” But there’s more to it than that. He’s definitely got a sound: People speak of “that R. Kelly feel.” His music moans almost as much as he does.
His second mother understands, kind of, what Kelly is up to. “He’s not an old-fashioned soul singer,” laughs McLin. “A lot of salable flash is what he’s doing now. We’ve not yet seen the heights to which Robert can go.”
“Robert is an immense talent. I don’t say that to build him up, I say it because I know what’s there. Where he chooses to go with it is his decision.” Out of nowhere, she adds, “Robert Kelly does not burn bridges.”
“I took him to perform at major universities all of the States,” she offers as explanation for the last remark. “Even took him to a music educators’ conference in Austria. He was a sensation there, and everywhere he went. At Kenwood he performed My Fair Lady, Carousel, Purlie….. He knows the Italian bel canto school of singing. He can sing classical music. My students learn breath control, diction, a little German, Italian, and French. When they get through learning that, they can sing what they want to sing.”
ONSTAGE at the Spectrum, R. Kelly’s dancing girls preen and dance around like they did last summer when he was opening for Salt-N-Pepa. Kelly’s moves are mostly the same too, but now he spends more time actually singing and less milking hormonal screams from the audience. In Philadelphia there is the same Kelly-directed, Kelly-as-superlover-fugitive short film to open the show; the same operatic intro to “Bump n’ Grind” (McLin would be proud); the same audience patter. So tell me honey: Who’s your bump n’ grind nigga?
But that’s a stupid question. Kelly knows he’s the bump ‘n’ grind nigga. Why him? Well, he’s obviously more than an Aaron Hall spin-off (even though he shaved his head like Aaron, sometimes carries a staff like Aaron, and uses some of Aaron’s vocal riffs). But somehow, R. Kelly seems deep, conflicted: classically trained vocalist vs. sex daddy; mom worshiper vs. adolescent-girl lover. People are attracted to that. They like to watch other people working through their pain.
Robert has said that if it had been legal to marry his mother, he would have. Jamie Foster Brown, editor of Sister2Sister magazine, was born in Chicago and has been writing about R. Kelly since he and some friends were singing under the name MGM. She remembers sitting behind R. Kelly at a show one night. Her companion tapped him on the shoulder and asked lightheartedly, “What must your mom think about all this sexy music you make?” According to Brown, Robert stood up and quietly left the theater with tears streaming down his face. His mother had died four days before. He didn’t come out of the bathroom for 30 minutes. “Robert’s emotions are raw,” says Brown. “He’s an extremely sensitive man.”
Robert calls himself a “mama’s boy,” and that’s a fine and normal thing. But in concert, he takes it to the next level. Toward the end of his hour-long set at the Spectrum, he begins to sing the Spinners’ Mother’s Day anthem, “Sadie”— dedicated, as always, to his own mom.
Pacing the stage like a lost kid, Kelly stretches the song out over 15 minutes. He starts off all churchy and reverential, but then his voice gets thick with erotic urgency. He prays for her, talks to her, and asks the audience to talk to her. Then he loses it, hopping and bouncing like the Holy Spirit is tugging his soul. “I know some of y’all out there don’t understand me right now,” moans Kelly.
On cue, a big poster of his mom in a limo is lowered so the audience can see the object of his love. “I know I’m going on a long time with this,” he says, sounding like a combo of Al Green and O’Kelly Isley. Anyone can see Robert’s haunted. He asks the audience to pray for her and to her. Either he’s truly losing it, or he deserves an Emmy. He sets this time aside — night in and night out — so he can worship his mother publicly.
“Take your time baby, we understand,” says a woman behind me quietly. “That’s your mama.”
Song over, Kelly leaves the stage and comes back out in a different vest. It’s black patent leather and has the word HORNY embossed on the back in red. He sings the title song from 12 Play: R. Kelly’s personal instructions — how to touch and what to do — for getting a girl off.
If anyone misses a beat, I don’t feel it. All this mother-love and Jesus stuff goes orgasmic. Bizarre? Maybe, but the spectacle does break him out of the safe little sex factory he’s so good at running. He’s been accused by some critics of trafficking in “simulated soul,” but R. Kelly feels. And because of the anguished trip he’s taking onstage, somehow you know he knows there can be a heady, frightening sacredness when bodies come together. He knows that love is a strange thing and that it doesn’t always come in the form we most desire, or the one most acceptable to society. And most important, Robert knows — and knows how to render through song — the often overpowering dynamic of desire. And that, for better and for worse, is a soul singer.
After he sings “12 Play,” R. Kelly stands in the center of the stage and drops his pants. He doesn’t have on any special, cute, or especially revealing drawers — just garden-variety white jockeys. And he stands there, hands in the air like Pavarotti, for a full 90 seconds until the curtain drops. There’s nothing sexy about it. It’s like, I stand before you — accept me. Strange, but gritty. Nothing he’s ever recorded comes close. Maybe this is why he eclipses his contemporaries. He risks the consequences of abandoning his cool pose. He shows personal weakness — rare in black music today.
KELLY used to sing on the streets for money. He used to carry his keyboards out there and make music under the el train, sometimes making $400 a day. With MGM, he won the $100,000 grand prize on the syndicated, Natalie Cole-hosted TV show Big Break. Soon after, when internal disputes had him struggling to get out of a contract with MGM, Kelly met Barry Hankerson, Gladys Knight’s ex-husband and producer of gospel musicals like Don’t Get God Started and One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.
Kelly showed up, depressed, at Chicago’s New Regal Theater, where Hankerson had just closed auditions for one of his plays. But when he sang for some female assistants, they told Hankerson he had to come down and hear this guy. Hankerson eventually helped Kelly out of his legal difficulties and got him signed to Jive records in 1990. By 1991, right before beginning his first album, Robert was introduced to Hankerson’s niece, a young singer named Aaliyah.
“I sang for him,” says Aaliyah, “and he liked my sound.” From there, she says, they went to work on what would become Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number. Aaliyah was no amateur. She’d auditioned for TV shows, appeared on Star Search, and had even sung at Bally’s Las Vegas with Knight. Still, Aaliyah says being in the studio was “new to me. I’d get there at 4 p.m. and not leave till 6 a.m. Robert and I are both perfectionists. We’ll go over something a million times to get it right.”
The process was difficult, but she has said she enjoyed it. “Me and him are really… we’re rather close,” she said before wedding rumors started flying. “If I got tired, we’d go watch a movie, go or whatever, and then come back and work. It was a great experience.” Robert appears in all three of her videos, as well as on her album cover, which says, “Written and produced by R. Kelly especially for Aaliyah.” Around her neck, Aaliyah wears a large gold medallion: a silhouette of Robert in his 12 Play album cover pose. Kelly wears a medallion too: a Warner Bros. Tasmanian Devil. He says it’s lucky.
“She’s very self-possessed,” says writer and graffiti artist Upski Wimsatt, who spent a day with Aaliyah and Robert in Chicago for a story last spring. “Almost the first thing he did was insult me.” But things got better: “He and Aaliyah were charming together. It didn’t seem wrong at all.” They hung so tight that Robert ended up inviting Upski to sleep over when it got late. “Aaliyah spent the night, but she didn’t sleep in the room with Robert. She was in another room. Her mom was there in another room too. And Barry Hankerson.”
R. Kelly was leery about Wimsatt seeing him and Aaliyah together, but that didn’t stop them from singing a duet spontaneously. He says that during the course of the day, Robert and Aaliyah held hands and stared into each other’s eyes. “But they weren’t kissing, or feeling on each other’s butts or anything like that — she would lean on his shoulder, maybe. And Robert would say, ‘Aaliyah’s my best friend, Aaliyah’s my special friend.’
“Robert also told me,” says Upski, “that he was in love with ‘someone.’ ”
In the July 1994 issue of Sister2Sister, Jamie Foster Brown writes that “R. Kelly told me that he and Aaliyah got together and it was just magic.” Robert is quoted as saying, “Aaliyah is a very, very, very, very special person. I could say ‘very’ for three years about her, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
Brown also confirms that the relationship has been going on for some time now: “I’ve been hearing about Robert and Aaliyah for a while — that she was pregnant. Or that she was coming and going in and out of his house. People would see her walking his dog, 12 Play, with her baseball cap and sunglasses on. Every time I asked the label, they said it was platonic. But I kept hearing complaints from people about her being in the studio with all those men. At 15,” says Brown, “you have all those hormones and no brain attached to them.”
One of those people was fired up enough to call the VIBE editorial offices last September, out of what she called “moral indignation.” The caller, who claimed to be in the know, said she thought what was going on with R. Kelly and Aaliyah was “sick.” When pressed for a name, she would only say, “Ms. Snoop with the scoop.”
But Brown, on a lighter note, feels like R. Kelly and Aaliyah might just be a good match, “because Aaliyah has a mature mind, and Robert is such a big kid.” But she also calls him wonderful, intense, engaging, brilliant. “He’s young — not agewise but in terms of personal development. But developing integrity, character — the stuff that the Magic Johnsons and Mike Tysons needed to know — he’s stunted there. There’s a lot for him to learn.”
KELLY’S dressing room isn’t really all that Coolio’s boy Scoop made it out to be. The carpet is kind of dirty, the food standard, low-budget deli fare. The room smells like sweat and feet and old coffee. Only guys are here — maybe because two weeks before, Robert’s bodyguards Tyree Jameson and John Askew were arrested in New York and charged with raping a 22-year-old woman after a show.
Kelly is sitting for a VIBE photographer, wiping perspiration from his face and head, leaning back in an armchair, not smiling or mean-mugging, sipping from a tall plastic cup of ice water. He looks good, but the whole thing is strange: being photographed for a story he refuses — on the advice of attorneys and highly paid advisers — to be interviewed for.
The show was good, I tell him. He nods without looking at me. I ask how he is. He still doesn’t look my way. Then Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s personal assistant, gives me his nicest don’t-even-try-it glare. I’ve been instructed not to break out my tape recorder, pen, or paper, and not to ask any questions. Finally, when Robert looks at me, I try my best to stare him down through the shades. Doesn’t work.
At one point, two fans walk in — women in their twenties. After getting Kelly’s autograph, they ask him about the rumors of his marriage. He just shrugs. They ask if it’s true that Aaliyah is pregnant. He tells them in a low, raspy voice, “Don’t believe everything you read.”
I want to ask what a grown-ass man is doing with a teenage girlfriend. What’s going on with him that he doesn’t want or can’t get with a girl his own age? I want to know if Aaliyah is being ravished and manipulated. I want to know if he’s charming and eccentric — or if he’s all lame and unable to deal with the mind of a grown-up girl. Or both.
R. Kelly speaks softly to me as the shoot is ending. He walks over, shakes my hand, and says, “Thank you. It was really nice meeting you.” He thanks the photographer and then walks without a word into the bathroom. He has taken off his glasses, and I can see his eyes — small, brown, earnest, and plain. Like some of his weaker songs, they give me little. He’s way offstage now — just him and his secrets: his teenage love, his mom, and the strange music in his head. I guess.