For this story, R. Kelly agreed to speak about his whole life without restrictions. We met three times over three days in his hometown of Chicago. The second and third meetings were at his favorite cigar bar. The first meeting was on the ninety-ninth floor of the Sears Tower.
When Robert Kelly was 3 years old, growing up poor with a single mother on Chicago's South Side, construction started on a building a few miles away in the center of town. It was to be called the Sears Tower, and for nearly 25 years it would be the tallest building in the world. The tower—which was actually renamed the Willis Tower in 2009, though many Chicagoans, including Kelly, still refer to it by its original name—would also come to play a complicated role in the psychic geography of the 48-year-old man sitting up here now, looking down upon the city and to Lake Michigan beyond.
When Kelly was about 9, he and two friends rode their bicycles in from their neighborhood, and when they arrived, they challenged one another to stand next to this tower. “A lot of kids were scared to do it because it actually felt like it was moving and falling over,” he remembers. Also, Kelly's elder brother had told them that if they got too close, it really would fall on them. The way he remembers it, his friends chickened out, but not him. “I actually did it,” he says. “I put my hands up to the Sears Tower and I stood up and looked dead at it. I stood there for a long time. That's why I wanted to do this interview here.”
And what did you think when you looked up at it?:
“I said, ‘I'm coming for you.’ ”
What did you mean?:
“The top of it. The height, the massiveness. You know, the strength that it carries. I remember wanting that, somehow.”
In what way?:
“In my life, I wanted to feel tall. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be tall as the Sears Tower. I wanted to be on top of the Sears Tower. I wanted to be as strong as the Sears Tower feels. When my mom would be on the highway, I would always look at the Sears Tower as: That's where I want to go, that's where I want to be.”
For many years now, most interviews with R. Kelly have been brief, and restrictions have often been imposed, fences rung around the subjects he wouldn't discuss. Not today. As yet, I'm not really sure why he's changed his mind. The simplest reason, of course, would be that he's innocent of anything he has ever been accused of—in that case the mystery would be why he has sidestepped real conversations for so long. (Though of course, not everyone who chooses to be silent is hiding something.) Maybe, whatever the reason for his reticence, he has come to realize that it is doing him more harm than good. Maybe his times of trouble seem so far behind him that he can't see any way they can hurt him now. Maybe he's just convinced that R. Kelly can ride through any challenge. Maybe he's confident that he has a good answer for any question he'll face, or maybe he doesn't yet realize the kinds of questions that he will be facing. Maybe he hasn't thought it through at all.
There's a common way that journalists often choose to approach encounters like this. Ask all the easy stuff first. Get on the subject's good side, get their confidence. Leave the tricky stuff until late in the last interview, when everything else is safely asked and answered, and then grab what you can.
That's not how I'm doing this. First, if he isn't prepared to engage in some kind of serious discussion on the more difficult parts of his life, then I can't see how there can be a significant article about R. Kelly in 2016 that is worth printing. Second, it would make me feel spineless and undignified. I've read, listened to, and watched every other R. Kelly interview I could find, and too often what happens is that if interviewers mention anything at all, what they do is make a perfunctory little raid on the subject, touching it just to say they did. Why play around? He knows, at least to some degree, what's coming. He's a grown man, 48 years old. He's stood on a thousand stages and sat through a criminal trial. I know it's not going to be a comfortable conversation, but surely the most respectful way to have it is to get on and have it.
So, walking in here, that is my plan.
The ninety-ninth floor appears to be completely bare. In the huge rectangular room where we meet, there are only two places to sit. One is on some sofas over in the far corner. Kelly chooses the other option. And so we sit facing each other, at a small round table set in the middle of the large empty space on the lakeward side of the tower, glass on three sides of us. It looks like a surreal over-the-top set for an interrogation scene in an action movie. Before we begin, Kelly tries to prop up his phone on the table between us, to record the conversation—I am as well—but it keeps sliding and falling over. First of all, before anything else, I want to talk with him about his childhood, and in particular some tough aspects of it that seem central to whom he has become. For one thing, his inability to read.
“Other kids could read, other kids could write, other kids could spell, they could do math,” he says. “I felt like an alien, I felt like an outcast. I felt like, ‘What is going to happen to me?’ My mother couldn't answer it. My stepfather wasn't really interested in it one way or another. And my brothers and sisters were so young at the time they wouldn't do nothing but tease me about it. I was the ‘dummy’: ‘How you gon’ do this? You can't even read!' ”
He says it's not like he didn't try, and he describes what would happen when he did: “I would always hear scrambled music, like an orchestra going off that didn't know what they was doing. It was so confusing. It was, like, violin's playing ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ the bass is playing ‘When a Woman's Fed Up,’ the guitar's playing ‘Bump N' Grind,’ the piano's playing a gospel song. And then I would end up getting really sleepy and tired.”
Reading remains a struggle. “Since my daughter showed me voice texts on my phone, I've gotten a lot better,” he says. “I'm not a A student, I'm not even a B student, but I've gotten a lot better with the reading because of texts. And I can voice-text and say whatever I want to people. And then they text me back and I take my time and I can read through it.”
Early on, Kelly faced other challenges. He grew up without a father, gone before Kelly was born, and his mother wouldn't talk about him. “That's the one thing,” he says to me. “If I could change anything, I would definitely have had a father around. My father. I would definitely say it affected me deeply as a young man, coming up. Who doesn't want a father? Those are the beginnings, and those are what can dictate the roads you choose in life, and choosing them well. And it affected me.”
Kelly had a deep, close relationship with his mother, but he says even she never knew everything that was going on in her young son's turbulent life. He says that until he mentioned it in his 2012 memoir, Soulacoaster, he had never told anyone at all about the sexual abuse that he experienced. (Not even his ex-wife Andrea? “Absolutely not.”) It was something he “put so far in the back of my mind that I even forgot about it.” This wasn't the history he wanted for the person he was becoming: “As I got older, the more I just didn't want it to be in my past. The more I became successful.” He was determined that the R. Kelly the world would know—the one who would sell more than 30 million albums, have 36 Billboard Hot 100 hits, invent his own strange musical language, write hits for countless others, and conceive one of the weirdest syntheses of video and music of all time, Trapped in the Closet—would be someone else. “I didn't want that to be something that was in my luggage once I got to my success home, so to speak.”
In the book, he describes a number of premature sexual experiences, including an approach by a trusted family friend, a man, who he says tried to persuade Kelly to masturbate him for money, which Kelly says he rebuffed. “It was a crazy weird experience,” he tells me. “But not a full-blown experience, because it didn't go down. Contact sexual—no. A visual—absolutely. A visual from him showing me his penis and all that stuff.” But he describes in his memoir how the full-on sexual abuse that lasted for several years (it was oral sex the first time, though he tells me it soon became intercourse) started one day when Kelly fell asleep in front of the TV and was awoken from “a crazy dream about Three's Company” to find a woman playing with him:
**I tried to push her away, but she wouldn't stop until she was finished. When she was, she said, “You better not say shit to no one or else you gonna get a terrible whupping.”**
The book says nothing about how this woman was connected to Kelly, other than implying that she was a regular presence in their home, but while we talk he refers to her as a relative. He doesn't say this as though he expects it to be any kind of revelation to me, more as though he assumes I already know it. I wonder if he even realizes she wasn't described like that in the book.
“At first, I couldn't judge it,” he says to me, when I ask him if he realized at the time that a really bad thing was happening. “I remember it feeling weird. I remember feeling ashamed. I remember closing my eyes or keeping my hands over my eyes. I remember those things, but couldn't judge it one way or the other fully.”
And did that change over time?:
“Over time, yeah. I remember actually, after a couple of years, looking forward to it sometimes. You know, acting like I didn't, but did.”
How often would the abuse happen?:
“Oh wow. It became a regular thing. Every other day, every other week.”
How many years did it go on for?:
“As far as I can remember, about [age] 7 or 8 to maybe 14, 15. Something like that.”
Did anything in particular make it stop?:
“When I started having a girlfriend, I felt really bad about it. Then I started getting older and knowing that's just not supposed to happen—family members. And I think it started getting scary for them because I just started acting really different about it, and I think it became a turnoff to them, and a scary thing.”
Was the person doing this still around in your life?
“Absolutely. But eventually they stopped being around me.”
Are they still around now?:
“No, I haven't seen them in so long.”
Did you ever have a discussion with them about it?:
“Tried to, but.”
How long ago was that?:
“Maybe eight, nine years ago. Didn't want to talk about it. Didn't own up to it. Told me, ‘Sometime when you're kids, you think you've been through something, or did something, that you didn't do, probably was a dream.’ Things like that. But it was definitely not a dream.”
They're an actual blood relative?:
What do you think now about what they did?:
“I, well, definitely forgive them. As I'm older, I look at it and I know that it had to be not just about me and them, but them and somebody older than them when they were younger, and whatever happened to them when they were younger. I looked at it as if there was a sort of like, I don't know, a generational curse, so to speak, going down through the family. Not just started with her doing that to me.”
Let's take a moment here to acknowledge, even amid the sad sobriety of what Kelly is discussing, just how staggeringly odd this moment is: R. Kelly, a man who has been accused of multiple sexual offenses against underage girls, has just explained that he believes the sexual abuse he suffered is something that is passed down from generation to generation, so that in each new generation, victim becomes perpetrator. Once he has said these words, and they are hanging in the air between us, it just seems impossible to imagine that he won't at least address the obvious question—the question, he must surely realize, that anyone reading this would immediately ask: By that logic, wouldn't that make you the next in the cycle of child molesters? If only to disavow it or sidestep it. But he says nothing. I know I'll need to return to this, but given the awfulness of what he is sharing, now is not the time.
Instead, this is how the conversation continues:
Obviously you know that in the cold light of day what they were doing was a crime. Do you wish they had been held to account for that?:
“Back then, too young to judge. As I'm older, I've only learned to forgive it. Was it wrong? Absolutely. But it's a family member that I love so I would definitely say no to that one. To be honest, even if my mom, I saw her kill somebody, I'm not gonna say, ‘Well, yeah, she definitely should go to jail.’ It's just something I wouldn't do.”
I believe a common reaction in such situations is to be angry about losing an innocence that shouldn't have been lost. Do you relate to that?:
“Absolutely, yes. It teaches you to definitely be sexual earlier than you should have, than you're supposed to. You know, no different than putting a loaded gun in a kid's hand—he gonna grow up being a shooter, probably. I think it affects you tremendously when that happens at an early age. To be more hornier. Your hormones are up more than they would normally be. Mine was.”
And do you think that set you on a path that you kept on?:
“Yeah. In a lot of ways, absolutely. I think so.”
And now here we are. There are no particularly easy ways to ask a man about his alleged relationships with underage girls, but at least the story of R. Kelly and Aaliyah offers a reasonably direct way in. Kelly's career took off quickly in the early '90s, and though he suggests that his first impulse was to write chaste and inspirational pop songs, this was the tail end of the New Jack Swing boom and he says his record label pushed him toward R&B. In particular, the lascivious and risqué R&B for which he showed a special gift. Soon after his initial success, he began writing and producing songs for other artists. As he explains it to me, it wasn't some big plan:
“Producing other people was something I definitely stumbled into because I didn't even really know I was a producer. I was making my own records and doing all the music—I didn't even know that that meant producing. So then when my manager took me to someone to produce them, said, ‘Can you do the same thing you did for you, do it for them?,’ I gave it a shot. Then when I found out I could do that, I didn't just want to make myself great, I wanted to make others great.”
One of the first artists he would produce, and one of his big early successes, was his manager's teenage niece, Aaliyah. Her first album would be named after one of the songs Kelly wrote for her: “Age Ain't Nothing But a Number.” In her particular case, that number was 15. (In Kelly's case it was 27.) They appeared together in interviews and videos. When Kelly accepted the best-R&B-artist trophy at the 1994 Billboard Music Awards, he thanked two people from the stage: his recently deceased mother and “my best friend in the whole wide world, Aaliyah.”
Rumors spread at the time that Kelly's relationship with his protégée was more than professional. Then Vibe magazine printed what appeared to be a marriage certificate they had discovered that showed Kelly and Aaliyah had been married in Rosemont, Illinois, on August 31, 1994. Though she was 15, the certificate stated that she was 18. The marriage reportedly was formally annulled some months later, Aaliyah and Kelly never worked together again, and they were never seen together after this period. (Aaliyah died in a plane crash after a video shoot in the Bahamas when she was 22.) Neither Kelly nor Aaliyah, before her death, has ever publicly confirmed these details, but their truth has never been credibly challenged; even in the Lifetime channel's carefully sanitized 2014 Aaliyah biopic, her father threatens to have Kelly charged with statutory rape.
The fullest version of what may have happened—and the most convincing one, for all its incidental detail and accidental nuance—is in a rambling memoir by a man named Demetrius Smith, who worked in various capacities for Kelly before and after he became famous, until they had a falling out. The week of the marriage, Smith recounts being in Miami on tour with Kelly, and how Kelly explained that he had received a distraught phone call from Aaliyah, saying she had run away from home, believing she was pregnant. Smith says that Kelly was then given some specious advice—that he could protect himself from the legal ramifications of the situation by marrying her. Smith's account of what happened next: During a break in the tour, Smith and Kelly flew together to Illinois; Smith procured a fake state ID for Aaliyah from a friend in the Public Aid office, and they got a backup ID through someone they knew at Federal Express. That night, after the ceremony in a suite at a Sheraton hotel, Kelly and Smith flew back to Miami to resume the tour.
As complicated as the full story may be, the situation, as it reflects on Kelly now, is fairly simple. He either was or was not married to, and in a sexual relationship with, a 15-year-old girl. If he wasn't, why not just say so? What possible reason could there be for refusing to?
First I ask Kelly what he saw in Aaliyah musically when he started working with her.
“Aaliyah? I heard first of all this soft voice, but very…a lot of charisma. And I saw her as a star the minute I heard her sing and dance. Saw her dance. She wasn't the greatest dancer, but the dance moves she was doing were different than the other dancers that I've seen on television. And I said, ‘This girl's gonna be a star, whether I work with her or not.’ ”
Obviously the two of you became very closeL
How would you describe that?:
“Uh, I would describe it as best friends. Deep friends. As far as we both loved music and wanted to be successful. She's a Capricorn, I'm a Capricorn, my momma a Capricorn, her daddy's a Capricorn, you know. It was just so much in common with each other.”
And these are difficult questions but would you say you were in love with her?:
“Yes. I would say I loved 'liyah.”
But “in love”?:
“Well, there's a lot of ways to be in love with a person. I was in love with my grandfather, you know. But yeah, I would say I was in love with Aaliyah just like I was in love with anybody else. But in a different, friend type of way.”
And she was in love with you?:
“I would think so. Absolutely. I would say that.”
As you know, people know that there was a wedding ceremony and you got married:
“Well, because of Aaliyah's passing, as I've always said, out of respect for her mother who's sick and her father who's passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone. Out of respect for Aaliyah, and her mother and father who has asked me not to personally. But I can tell you I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close. We were, you know, best best best best friends.”
But here's what seems difficult from the outside. Sadly, Aaliyah can't speak for herself, and people have what they think is a very clear idea of the situation—that the two of you got married, that you were having a sexual relationship. Right now, that's the record as far as people are concerned. Those are the facts:
So you not talking about it doesn't feel like it's protecting her or respecting her, it just feels like it's protecting you:
“Yeah, yeah. You know, I tell you this: I know Aaliyah's not here and can't speak for herself, but there was a time that she was plenty here, after that rumor and all of that stuff started. Plenty grown. She was 22 and could speak for herself. Her mother, her father, anybody else, could speak and say whatever they wanted.”
But with the documentary evidence, it doesn't seem an unclear situation. I'm trying to understand your life, and if you explained the real situation, it would maybe make people understand better than the version they have at the moment:
“Well, unfortunately when there's two parties involved in any situation, both parties have to be respected. Sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself in a way to respect someone else's wishes, and to respect someone else's passing…. People can say, ‘Hey, well, he's just trying to protect hisself.’ Well, I have nothing to protect myself from. I'm still successful, and I've got an album out now, I'm gonna move on after this interview and go to the next interview and do another interview, and these questions are going to be asked. I did the best I could by writing my book and putting it out there for whoever wants to read about Robert. [Aaliyah is not mentioned in Kelly's book.] Can't satisfy everybody, unfortunately. I wish that I could.”
Did you do anything in that situation that you feel bad about or you feel was wrong?:
“Absolutely not. Absolutely not. That's my answer forever: Absolutely not.”
Kelly's career thrived through the rest of the '90s and into the new century. Few conversations with him leave any doubt about how significant he feels his achievements are. What is surprising, then, is that when I later try to talk with him in more detail about his musical career, he often seems to have only the most spotty and rudimentary familiarity with what he has done. At one point I ask him—purely to ease into the subject—which of his albums he thinks most perfectly realizes who R. Kelly is. This is his answer:
“I think that's… I forgot.… I don't know the name of the album. I think it's my second album. I don't know if that's the R. album or TP-2.” Pause. “Born into the 90's is my first album.”
I remind him that Born into the 90's was followed by 12 Play.
“12 Play!” he exclaims, and we have our answer. “The 12 Play album.” Probably. But he's still not quite sure. “Isn't ‘Body's Callin’ ’ on 12 Play?” he asks. (“Your Body's Callin' ” is the opening track.)
12 Play's title track is the song in which Kelly's full-on full-press sexual persona flowered—a 12-step manual describing what he will be doing to his lucky lover. It began as an onstage improvisation while he was on tour; the audience reaction told him he had hit on a winning formula. (The phrase “12 Play” is intended to convey that what Kelly is offering is an upgraded version of foreplay. You know, three times as good.) It established a narrative where there would be two distinct types of R. Kelly albums. There would be the sex albums, or, as Kelly has sometimes called them, the “baby-makin' ” albums: 12 Play was followed by the sequels TP-2.com, TP.3 Reloaded, and 2013's Black Panties. And then there would be his other albums. In practice, Kelly has been pretty undisciplined about maintaining any kind of clear dividing line between the two. Often the sex albums have songs that are completely off-topic (the first single from TP-2.com was “I Wish,” a sensitive and rousing gospel-fueled hymn to his late mother) and pretty much all his other albums have sustained periods of lewdness. Either seemed to work, and the breadth of what he could achieve was anchored by two huge uplifting mainstream triumphs: the 1995 song he wrote for and produced with Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone,” and the song he wrote and performed for the movie Space Jam the following year, “I Believe I Can Fly.”
The first ripple of what was to come was a story in the Chicago Sun-Times at the end of 2000, revealing that Kelly had settled a 1996 lawsuit with a woman who claimed to have had sex with him when she was 15, and reporting that this was only one example of a pattern of behavior. Other lawsuits followed, and videos purporting to show Kelly having sex with various women were widely available for sale on the streets. Then, in February 2002, the Chicago police received a 26½-minute videotape that showed a man having sex with a young woman. The man looked extraordinarily like R. Kelly, and the location bore an extraordinary resemblance to the wood-paneled basement of the house where Kelly lived at the time. In the video, the man coaxed the woman through various sexual acts, exhorted her to call him “Daddy,” and urinated in her mouth. The police identified the other person on the tape as someone associated with Kelly—she was thanked as his “goddaughter” on his TP-2.com album, and her father was credited as the guitarist on many of Kelly's records—and they believed she was 14 at the time that the videotape was made. In June 2002, Kelly was indicted for making child pornography.
The first solo song Kelly released after this news broke was a bizarre, mawkish plea called “Heaven I Need a Hug”: Dear momma, you wouldn't believe what I'm goin' through… / Heaven, I need a hug / Is there anybody out there willin' to embrace a thug? Surreally, the guitarist credited on the record was the father of the girl. The second solo song he released, the first single off a new album, Chocolate Factory, was an anthem based around a phallic sexual metaphor, “Ignition (Remix).” It was a huge worldwide hit. From then on, Kelly's career seemed to continue, virtually unaffected by his continuing real-life problems. And despite advice from his lawyers, plenty of the songs he released in this era were as provocatively sexual as anything he'd ever done. He refused to back down. “I maintained my innocence,” he'll tell me. “Why would I run under a rock? Why wouldn't I just do what I do? It's what I've always done.”
The case took six years to go to trial. When it finally did, the girl whom the prosecutors had identified declined to cooperate, as did her parents. All three had apparently denied to a grand jury that it was her in the video, though a number of close relatives and school friends testified otherwise. Kelly likewise exercised his right not to testify. In Soulacoaster, Kelly says that at the start of the trial, the prosecutors offered him a deal: Plead guilty and serve only eight months behind bars. Kelly's attorneys and his business manager advised him to take it. Otherwise he was looking at 15 years. He refused. “Don't say we didn't warn you,” he reports that they told him.
His confidence, or faith, or stubbornness, turned out to be well placed. In June 2008, a jury found him not guilty.
I don't think there's many people who believe that wasn't you in the videotape:
“You say you don't what?”
I don't think there's many people who believe you weren't in that videotape:
“You don't think it's many people?”
I think everyone thinks that it was you:
“Even the ones that buy my albums?”
“And sell out my shows and buy the tickets?”
“So what do you think they think about that?”
I think people really like your records, and they think they don't have to hate you:
?So you think my records overwhelm what they think about me?”
In truth? Absolutely. For instance, when the accusations first emerged and you were first charged, you came out with “Ignition”… And, to be blunt, the record was too good:
“That's an opinion. That's your opinion.”
You asked my opinion:
“The record was so good that it overwhelmed…?”
Yes. That's what I think:
“I don't think so. I don't think so. I just think those people didn't believe that nonsense. That's what I think. And they said, ‘The hell with what other people are saying—we love R. Kelly, we believe R. Kelly, he was found innocent, he's moving on with his life, he's not letting that tear him down.’ I believe that's what it was.”
Well, the trial didn't happen until years after that. And no one is found innocent. You were found not guilty. But when they interviewed the jurors who would talk afterwards, they pretty much all said that it was you in the video:
“Well, then, why didn't they find me guilty? They loved ‘Ignition’?”
No. They didn't find you guilty because they couldn't be sure that the other person in the video was who the prosecution said it was, and hence they couldn't be sure that person was underage. That's why you were found not guilty:
“Well, to be honest with you, man…however, whatever, whenever. When a person is found not guilty, they're found not guilty. And it doesn't matter if it's a murder case, it doesn't matter what case it is, when they're found not guilty, they're not guilty. And I think that a lot of haters out there wanted to see me go down.”
Sure. But let me ask a simple question: Is that you in that video?:
“[pause] Because of my lawyers, to this day I cannot have those kind of conversations. Being advised by my lawyers in this.”
I understand why you wouldn't during the trial period, but…:
“Because they could come back to haunt me. Things could come back and they can just restart all over again. And I have to protect myself.”
But people are going to think that if it wasn't you in the video, there would be no legal ramifications in saying, “It's not me.” It would be the easiest, simplest, most obvious thing on earth to say:
“Not necessarily. Because I've said certain things when it all first started, but that didn't do no good. So I had to go get lawyers and they had to protect me. So now I'm under my lawyers' advice.”
Though of course you describe in your book a very important moment when they told you to take a plea and you didn't take their advice:
“No, you know…I tell you this: I believe in my lawyers. You're not gonna take all advice all the time. But for the most part I'm taking my lawyers' advice as far as not discussing the court case.”
There's one other aspect of the video for which Kelly stood trial that I want to try to discuss with him today. If anything, it's even more awkward. The accusation that he had sex with a minor was behind all of his legal troubles, but another aspect of the video seems to have done at least as much damage.
Given that a lot of people believe that the video shows you, some of the behaviors on the video have become associated with you, particularly urination as part of sex. Pissing on people. You must have seen that Dave Chappelle skit:
“No, I haven't.”
He did several clips on his show:
“David Chappelle? [as though trying to place the name] David Chappelle? I don't…”
Chappelle's Show. Very famous:
Really famous comedian:
“Okay, a comedian. Okay…go on.”
And acting as you, he did a parody of “Ignition (Remix)” called “Piss on You.”:
Likewise Macklemore mentioned it in his first big hit. [“Thrift Shop” includes the lyric Probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly's sheets…pissssss.] This has become part of popular culture:
“Whole lot of things become popular culture.”
But this is your name:
“Especially when it comes to a comedian, man. First of all, I have no respect for a comedian when it comes to being serious. If you get that. That's a joke.”
But this is your name and your reputation—pull up any YouTube video of yours and read the comments underneath, and pretty quickly there'll be a comment relating to this:
“Mmmm. Okay. Of course it is.”
Well, to ask the embarrassing question—to give you a chance to clarify something—and this wouldn't be illegal, but is that something you like as part of sex?:
In no circumstances?:
So, given that, and given that there's a perception out there that associates you with that behavior, how do you feel about that?:
“Well, I used to be, ‘Wow—seriously?’ It made me feel terrible. But now I, honestly, don't think about it or could care one way or the other what people think about me. I have fans and I have family that love me, and I have my music, and I have my breath going in and out. I'm more than okay with who I am and who I have become today as a man, and I'm just moving on with my life, man, doing this music. I'm good.”
After we pause for the day—“It's all good,” he says—Kelly accepts the building management's invitation to go up to the 103rd floor, where the tourists congregate.
I follow him as Kelly is skipped to the front of the line to stand on the Skydeck, a glass-floored extension over the building's edge with the city below him. He can see his current home, in Chicago's Trump Tower, from here. “Makes the Trump look like a needle,” he says.
The person chaperoning our party says that there's a roof deck on the ninetieth floor, where she can take him if he'd like. He'd like. To get outside, we have to clamber through the building's gigantic window-cleaning machinery, and then we're in the open air. Suddenly Kelly spreads his arms and begins to sing, really going for it.
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
He does two full choruses, then we take the elevator down and he gets a coffee from Starbucks.
I spend all the following day waiting for news of when we will meet again. There seems to be some suggestion that he isn't happy with our conversation so far and that he may be reluctant to continue—but if so, he's careful not to give that impression when we do finally convene, at a little past 10 p.m. His favorite cigar club, Biggs, is in an old Chicago mansion, all curved staircases and wood-paneled rooms. Kelly sweeps in talking on his phone, evidently making arrangements for later on. It may be the most innocent of conversations, but it is still sprinkled with the kind of cryptic yet allusive phrases—“one of the twins…the one that just got here”—that a screenwriter would put in R. Kelly's mouth if this were a movie.
I've spent the day listening to his new album, The Buffet. One might assume, as I did, given his previous deployment of “buffet” imagery, that the album title was meant as a sexual metaphor. (And also because his website currently features a series of buffet-related portraits showing Kelly and six identical women around a table laden with food; it is unclear who will be dining and who will be dined upon.) But Kelly has consistently rebuffed this, telling people for months that the title is an allusion to the diversity of the music within. “All you can hear” has been his go-to quip.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges to me a past usage, from a Ja Rule song he guested on called “Wonderful”: I came from the dirt, what you want me to say / I'm at the top of the world and life's a pussy buffet. “All the women you can have,” he says. “That's what it's like when you become famous. It's a metaphor that I used. I said, ‘Wow, life is like a pussy buffet.’ Before I was famous, girls wasn't even checking for me. But when I became famous and came into money, I'd walk into a club and sometimes it'd be 20 girls stuck to me, coming out the club.”
And naturally, on The Buffet's very first song, he immediately abandons the all-you-can-hear conceit: Come and feed me, baby / Put your body on a dinner plate / I just can't get enough of your buffet. That's from a half-recited song called “Poetic Sex” that he refers to as his first poem. At one point, the poem's preamble breaks mid-sentence so that Kelly can make a kind of licking-slurping sound that may well be one of the most sonically disturbing moments in music history. “That's just to turn the girls on, you know,” he says. “I did that strictly to turn the women on. And you know, break up the form a little bit before I get to the punch line.” He kindly spells it out. “Ladies can relate to that because that represent, you know, oral sex. So that's what that was about.” (If you buy the “clean” version, all the curse words have been scrubbed, but you still get the slurp.)
It's an extraordinary way to start any album, and in particular one whose declared raison d'être seems to have been to find the widest audience possible. Among its other lyrics: “Pussy my address, just being honest / and they say home is where the heart is,” “Like a ceiling with a hole / I'ma have you leaking,” “Put your pussy right up on my head, that's a fitted cap,” and the triumphant coup de grâce, “My lyrics got a big dick, and I just fucked the shit out of y'all—poetic.”
“I call that a finish line,” he says, in the tone of a proud tradesman.
The most famous of R. Kelly's sex songs is “Ignition (Remix),” though the heart and the power of the song is so far removed from the central penetrative image—I'm about to take my key and stick it in the ignition—that I wonder whether its ribald core passes many listeners by and they just relate to its infectious sense of late-night revelry. “It's an anthem,” says Kelly. “Some even want to call it the national anthem. I don't agree with that, but I've heard it so much.”
“Ignition (Remix)” is also the most successful example of one of R. Kelly's distinctive contributions to music. By the time Kelly's career was starting up, remixes had been around, in increasingly inventive forms, for over 15 years, but R. Kelly was the first to release remixes that were basically new songs altogether. Listen to the R. Kelly song just called “Ignition” and unless you pay very close attention and notice a few common musical parts, it's hard to detect how it's related to the hit version.
Kelly then tells me a story about “Ignition (Remix)” that is so bizarre and counter-logical that I'll get him to repeat the whole thing tomorrow. It makes so little sense that I assume I have misunderstood. What he tells me is this: that he wrote the basis of “Ignition (Remix)”—including the lyric It's the remix to “Ignition” / hot and fresh out the kitchen…—five or so years before he wrote the song called “Ignition.” (It stayed on the shelf because, initially, he didn't think much of it.) That's really what he's saying: He wrote the remix of a song, with lyrics identifying it as a remixed version, five years before he wrote the “original.” In other words, the song called “Ignition”—which was presented to the world as the song that “Ignition (Remix)” was the remix of—was actually an R. Kelly-style remix of the song we know as “Ignition (Remix).” I talk this through with him, again and again, increasingly mystified, but he really does seem to mean this. “It's ass-backwards,” he admits contentedly.
But how could you have the melody and words for something that was a version of a song you hadn't written yet?:
“You tell me.”
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and we have a plan to meet at a homeless shelter where, in the late morning, Kelly is scheduled to hand out turkeys. “I'm giving my Thanksgiving for these people tomorrow,” he tells me. “All good.” While I have some reservations about how nakedly this seems like an attempt to shine up his public image, it still sounds like something worth witnessing. And if this is how he is choosing to spend his Thanksgiving, whatever his motives might be, then that seems worthy of respect.
I would see him there.
The next morning, about an hour before I am to rendezvous with Kelly at A Safe Haven, I receive a text from one of his representatives informing me that Kelly isn't feeling well and will no longer be feeding the homeless today.
I hang around all day, all Thanksgiving, waiting to be told when we're meeting for our final interview. I hear nothing until 8:45 p.m., when I'm told I need to be at the cigar bar by 9:15 p.m. Kelly arrives just before ten. “Had to cancel that thing,” he says of the homeless-shelter trip. He doesn't mention illness. He says he was working on a few songs in the studio late last night—in particular a mid-tempo country one called “Helicopter.” (He writes compulsively and claims to have written 470 songs for The Buffet.) “I got so inspired,” he explains. “Man's calling himself a helicopter, he's going to swoop down, sweep her off her feet and fly her away.” And anyway, that homeless thing—he was on it: “I had no energy when I got out, but I sent my lawyer up there to represent the whole thing, and everybody ate and everybody was good. So that was good.”
So that was good.
“I just woke up,” Kelly explains. He hasn't eaten yet, but after we finish here, there's a Thanksgiving dinner at his studio for his people. He is accompanied here this evening by two smartly dressed middle-aged women, one of whom introduces herself to me as his assistant. The other says nothing. Both are presumably waiting for this midnight Thanksgiving. As we talk, the women sit on a sofa nearby, close enough to hear, both looking straight ahead, sitting upright, rarely showing any reaction—even as the conversation that follows takes its turns. They look like they're in church.
If you devoted your life on this planet to the sole mission of understanding and making sense of what was going on in R. Kelly's head, the point at which I believe you'd finally give up and declare your quest utterly hopeless is after you watch the first few episodes of Trapped in the Closet. It's hard to even describe Trapped in the Closet in a way that is sufficient to capture its banal yet beguiling and magnificently inventive strangeness. Technically, I suppose, it is a video musical soap opera exploring the personal, romantic, and sexual entanglements of a growing cast of characters, told in three-minute episodes—33 of them so far—each sung by Kelly to the same relentless tune. (He has already written 50 more, 30 to be filmed soon.)
“It's absolutely not like anything else,” he says, and his pride here seems quite reasonable. “I call it an alien, because I've never seen it before. Everything about Trapped in the Closet is secrecy. Everybody has a closet.”
There is one tangentially related detail about R. Kelly that I had read about him—a detail too preposterously apt to be true. But I have to ask: Is it true you often used to sleep in your closet?
“Mmmm.” He nods. And laughs. “I still do.”
Up in your apartment in the Trump Tower, you'll go into the closet?:
“Absolutely, sometimes. Most of the times, it's just peace of mind. First of all, it's a pretty big closet. There's a few reasons. The way the sunlight comes through the window, when I wake I don't like it. I like pitch-black, because I sleep well when it's just pitch-black. I leave my phones outside of the closet, and once I get in that closet I feel like no one in the world has any idea that I am in this closet right now. And that gives me a peace of mind, to know that no one knows where I'm at right now. ‘I bet you they can't find me here.’ So it's that kind of thought.”
Like you're hiding from everyone?:
“Uh, in a way, yeah. And I feel so secure. I've got the front door locked, I got the back door locked, I got the room door locked, and I got the closet door locked. I'm in a door in a door in a door in a door, so I feel protected. Just like the way they put money in a thick vault. So, call me money at that point.”
Have you done that all your life?:
“No, not all my life. I started doing that after I got rich and famous.”
You have…like a futon in there?:
“No, just a pallet—like, four quilts, folded up.”
And do you only do that when you're sleeping on your own, or will you bring people in there?:
“Oh no, ain't no room for nobody else. Wasn't even no room for my wife in there. No, it's just me. Nobody's allowed in the closet.” He laughs. “Not in that closet.”
What kind of dreams do you have?:
“Oh, I have some of the weirdest, craziest dreams, and I believe that has to do with my imagination being so crazy, so widespread, because of my gift and all that.”
What kind of things?:
“I've had dreams of heights—you know, very afraid of high heights, especially when it comes to flying and things like that. I've had dreams of being raped by women. I've had dreams about being cornered by things—I don't know what it is in front of me but I felt cornered. And I've had dreams where I'd wake up and think I'm cool but I'm still in the dream. I've had dreams about swallowing telephone cords—pulling 'em out and the cord never really ended type dreams. Wake up coughing. I dream about my mother an awful lot—I see her body but can't see her face, and then I wake up very frustrated about that. I have dreams about being chased and shot at all the time.”
There is a line in your book that I wanted to ask you about. You wrote: “I still feel alone, because no one—including me—understands my mind.…”:
“Yeah, I definitely feel that way. If you look around, you see cars rolling down the street all the time, but if you ever see a floating car, you gonna be like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute, what is that? I've never seen that before.’ You can't figure it out because you don't know who built it, you don't know who created it, you don't know who came up with the concept, you don't know the blueprint of it, you don't even know how it works, but you love it because it looks so sweet, floating down the street. And that one car, if it has any type of feeling in it, is gonna feel alone, because it's not understood.”
So you're the one floating car?:
“Oh man, absolutely. That's what I feel. I feel I'm a floating car around a lot of cars. Sometimes I feel like I'm a shooting star around a lot of stars. And it's not a bragging thing—I don't want nobody to get it twisted—but that's just how I feel, because I can't figure it out myself. You know, I can't figure out why do I have the ability? I can't really read or write, don't spell, no math, but at the same time I can write songs and do what I do. That boggles me.”
I need to ask Kelly about that thing he said on the first day we met—that moment when he was talking about the sexual abuse he endured, and his belief that abuse travels down generations like a curse. The implication was extraordinary to me, but at the time we hadn't yet begun to discuss the sexual accusations against him, so it seemed wiser to wait. Now I need to ask:
People are going to think: Well, if that passes down, why didn't it pass down to you?:
“Well, you know, just like poverty—poverty was a generational curse in my family, too, but I decided that I'm gonna stop that curse. I'm not gonna be broke, like my mom was broke, my uncles were broke, my sisters didn't have money, my cousins on down. Generational curse doesn't mean that the curse can't be broken. Just like having no father, that's a generational curse. Which is why, when my kids were born, I was Bill Cosby in the house. You know, the good one. You know, let's be clear there: how we saw Bill Cosby when we were coming up.”
So what did you have to do to break a generational curse? To make that not be you?:
“Well, it's really not about breaking it. There's things that you don't want to do that you're not gonna do. It was just as simple as that. I want to be able to be a father to my kids, where I've never seen my father, but my kids can see me whenever they want, so that was broken. [He and his wife Andrea divorced in 2009, and in practice, for reasons he suggests are beyond his control, he rarely sees his three children.] The poverty part was broken. And I feel the child-molestation part, that definitely was broken. But of course you gonna be misunderstood because you R. Kelly, and the success and things get mixed up in the music, and people take the words you sing in your songs and try to pound that on your head and say, ‘Ahh! You did do it—look what you just wrote over here.’ ”
And so an attempt to tie up one mystifying loose end only introduces another, even more baiting one: Bill Cosby? R. Kelly, with all of the baggage that comes with being R. Kelly, chooses to introduce into the conversation—as a symbol of a great father figure—Bill Cosby?
Naturally, I ask his perspective on what has been happening with Cosby. Though Kelly begins carefully, his deeper and truer feelings quickly seem to take over, and what he is saying is clearly just as much about himself.
“Well, my opinion on that is, I don't know what happened. I'm a fan of Bill Cosby's from the Bill Cosby show, of course—who's not?—and for me to give my opinion on something that I have no idea if it's true or not, all I can say is that it was a long time ago. And when I look on TV and I see the 70-, 80-, 90-year-old ladies talking about what happened when they were 17, 18, or 19, there's something strange about it. That's my opinion. It's just strange.”
“[interrupts] It's strange. Strange is strange. I can't explain strange. That's why strange is strange. Because it's something we can't explain.”
But don't you think that if they're telling the truth, it doesn't matter how long ago it was?:
“If God showed me that they were telling the truth, I would say that's wrong. I don't care if it was a zillion years ago. But God would have to do that, because God is the only one can show me that. No man can tell me that. No woman can tell me that. And when you wait 70 years, 50 years, 40 years, to say something that simple, it's strange. You know why I say that is because it happened to me, and it wasn't true.”
R. Kelly has acknowledged that he has settled with others who have accused him of underage sex. The popular assumption is that he bought these accusers' silence; Kelly has said that he shouldn't have settled—he was wrong, in these cases, to follow his lawyers' advice—and that he only did it to avoid bad publicity.
Just to get it directly from you, your position is that those people were extorting you?:
“That's not my position, that's the absolute truth.”
So the people who said these things, they were all liars?:
“All of them. And it wasn't many. It wasn't like it was a whole ton of people. But the people that did were absolutely lying. Absolutely.”
Why would they do that?:
“Look, if I break up with a girl, and she don't wanna break up, and I'm R. Kelly, she's gonna be pissed. So pissed that she's gonna go out there, she's gonna say this, she's gonna say that, she's gonna say the other. And if she's really pissed, whoever she said it to is gonna spread the rumor, and if the wrong people get ahold of that rumor, that's gonna come out. If that come out, I gotta get a lawyer, and once I get that lawyer, that lawyer gonna tell me to shut up. Because no matter what you say, you're gonna look bad. Okay, so now it goes from that to ‘Oh, they're really serious, they want to sue you.’ What the lawyers tell me? ‘You should settle. Your album's coming out. You have a GQ front cover coming out, you have BET next week, you have the Grammys coming up. Wrong or right, you can win the battle and lose the war. It's on you, but that's what we advise you to do.’ I go home, I think about all my hard work, I look at my studio, I look at my kids, I look at my wife at the time, or any other time, and I say, ‘I don't want to settle.’ I want to fight because I know I'm right, I know I'm innocent, have nothing to hide—she wanted me, I wanted her, she was of age, I'm of age. But she'll say, ‘Well, I didn't meet him here, I met him then.’ That's what they're saying.”
Oh, so you're saying the people that were underage knew you, but they knew you later?:
“Not all of them—some of them I didn't even know! I got people suing me right now, man, saying they wrote ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ with me.”
But was it a mistake to settle? Because people think, well, he wouldn't have settled if he wasn't guilty:
“I think that's how normal people think who don't know and understand the life of a celebrity.”
Would you agree that one of these two things has to be true: Either you did things that were wrong and illegal, or you've suffered a horrible injustice?:
“That second one you said, I don't understand it quite well, so I'm not gonna be able to answer it unless you make me understand it.”
Okay. Either the first thing's true, or something really unfair has happened to you:
“Oh well, that's great. I'm glad you put it like that!”
No, I'm saying it's either that or that:
I'm saying it's one or the other:
“I think, man, abso-effing-lutely I've been treated unfair. Yes. I'm not, you know, this innocent guy with a halo over his head. No, I love women. Do I like to sleep with underage girls? Absolutely not. I've said it a million times. But do I have people trying to destroy my career? Absolutely.”
The conversations we have this final evening at the cigar club, in which he works up a head of steam about the ways in which he has been betrayed and misunderstood, appear to leave Kelly in good cheer. He seems to feel as though I am now convinced by what he has said—or perhaps it makes him feel so convinced by the righteousness of his position that it amounts to much the same thing. If you feel persecuted enough, it's easier to bury what you might have done wrong in the first place.
From our vantage point, Kelly seems to live in some kind of strange celebrity half-shadow where his dazzling musical legacy is tainted and his company is not always welcome. But he is also correct in observing that, within his bubble, a different reality exists: one in which he still gets plenty of invitations and approval, his records still sell, and the crowds still turn up. I can think of no plausible reason for some of the answers he has given me over the past three days, other than that he's shielding himself from some unpalatable guilty truths. But he seems oblivious to this, perhaps because his life gives him no particular reason to confront them. I wonder whether he's been around so many people for so long who either pretend to believe him, or who simply don't care, that he's learned to take that as evidence of his own innocence. (As he would observe, it's ass-backward.)
Either way, when he gets up to leave, off for a Thanksgiving celebration that won't even start on Thanksgiving, he insists on giving me a warm hug.
A good deal of how we come away thinking of R. Kelly must hang on what we think of R. Kelly's relationship with the truth. Kelly's mother, Joann, died of cancer in 1993, just as Kelly's career was taking off. The week before we meet, Kelly was in New York for his GQ photo shoot. At the end, he was asked to sit in front of a video camera and to maybe sing a few lines about his life. A minute or two would have been great. But Kelly does something remarkable—he begins to tell huge swathes of his life story, sometimes talking conversationally, sometimes turning it into song, all made up on the spot. When he steps out of the frame, over 45 minutes has passed. It's an incredible performance. Here is a transcript of one of the most memorable sequences, when Kelly, seemingly on the verge of tears, describes his mother's final moments:
“I got back from overseas and my mom passed the day I got back three weeks later.… I had no idea she had cancer.… I went straight to Roseland hospital.… And the first thing my mom said is, she screamed, ‘Get out, Robert, I don't want you to see me like this.’… All I can say is, ‘I'm sorry, Mom. I'm so sorry.’… I walked up to her bedside, I asked the doctor and pastor to excuse us, even my brothers and them, they excused us, it was me and my mom. She said, ‘Please leave, please.’ I said, ‘Momma, please don't make me leave—there's something I've got to tell you.’ I said, ‘First of all, I love you, and I thank you for everything you have done, everything…and I'm sorry for every time I've been bad or did something I wasn't supposed to do. And I promise you…’—and she died right there on the ‘I promise you.’ I called the doctor, they came in and they pronounced her dead, I was still holding her hand. But I finished my sentence. I said, ‘I promise you, Momma, no matter what, by any means necessary, I will be one of the best singers, songwriters, this world has ever seen.’ I made my mom that promise, and I am still on a journey today to fulfill that promise.”
It is deeply moving. But when I watched him say this, something troubled me, and it was this: In R. Kelly's 2012 autobiography, Soulacoaster, there is another account of his mother's death, and while parts of it are similar to this more recent account for GQ, it also includes some fundamental details that are very, very different. In this version, after a conversation with his still-conscious mother, Kelly left the hospital room with tears in his eyes.
**I didn't know what to do or where to go—so I went to the studio. I had to be around music. I had to sing. To me, singing is like praying. It's the most powerful prayer I can send up. I was playing “A Song for You” when the call came in. Joann Kelly was gone.
I stopped playing, put my head down, and just sat there. There were people around trying to comfort me, but I didn't hear the words. At that moment I heard a new melody. I didn't have the words for it, but the melody was strong. It had my mother's spirit on it**
It feels awkward to bring this up, but Kelly seems quite unruffled when I describe this discrepancy. He can explain this one easily. He tells me his mother's death happened the way he explained in the GQ video, and that his co-writer David Ritz simply got it wrong. “He didn't get everything on point, just like no one ever does. When you say things, you know they'll get them misconstrued. I've read a couple of things in the book that wasn't exactly how I said it, but whatever.”
This still bothers me a little, though—the version in the book is so detailed and specific that it seems hard to imagine how Ritz could have misunderstood it. But it seems even harder to imagine that Kelly does not remember whether or not he was present when his mother died. Even with the best of intentions, things can get twisted, and perhaps something went awry and Kelly's problems with reading prevented him from scrutinizing the manuscript as most subjects would.
I'm pretty sure I believe him. To not believe him would mean that he is now lying about what happened at his mother's deathbed. And that he is doubling down on the lie to my face. Or that his memory of his mother's death—which, again, happened in 1993—could somehow have shifted in his mind since his 2012 memoir. Either of which would be very weird and disturbing. His explanation—that his collaborator made a mistake—seems the most plausible. And it's a big thing to cast doubt on someone's account of such a deeply sensitive and personal event. So I decide not to write about it.
But it's still nagging at me, so I do one further piece of checking. I just want to make absolutely sure that Kelly hadn't ever given another detailed account of his mother's passing.
It turns out that he had. In June 2004, eight years before his book was published, 11 years before he sat in front of GQ's video camera, he was on the cover of Vibe magazine. Here is the relevant excerpt from that story:
**…I kept telling her I was sorry, I didn't know. She begged me to get out and I did.
Reeling, he went to the one place where he always felt comfortable: the studio—his womb, protecting him, keeping him safely away from the world. He sat at a piano by himself singing and playing “A Song for You.” While he was playing, he got the call. His mother had passed away.**
Date Posted: Sunday, January 24th, 2016 , Total Page Views: 4902
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