(photo credit: Kenneth Cappello)by Barry Michael Cooper
(My R. Kelly Feature from the Summer 2004 issue of America Magazine)
By Barry Michael Cooper
“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“My music teacher, Lena McLean, who is like my second mom and the woman who taught me how to love my gift, took me to see Amadeus. She said I was like Mozart in my field. The way he heard notes is similar to the way I hear them. Sometimes I break out in sweats and get this real warm feeling inside of me, like something is being born. And I hear the whole song. I don’t just hear a bass line or a beat. I hear the whole song and all I have to do is copy it. It’s like I’m stealing from myself.”
APRIL 14TH, 2004
4:30AM, BALTIMORE, MD. MY CRIB.
I woke up with my right hand still asleep. As I tried to shake it back to life, I thought about some fly quote I could use to describe Robert Steven Kelly. The R, Edgar Allen Bling, The Pied Piper of R&B, Citizen Kellz. A quote to capture his frenzy of renown, his genius, his madness, his persona non drama. Brush my teeth. Think. Take a whiz. Think. Wash my face. Man-up for my six mile run to the Baltimore Museum Of Art and back. Come on ol’ head; think, think, think! What can I say to describe R. Kelly? Better yet, who is R. Kelly? The body-caller, the love-stepper, the dream-toucher, the high flying believer? The kid who wrapped himself in patriotism and the American flag rocking the stars and stripes like a floor draggin’ Russian black mink at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics? Who is the kid in the fedora, the bandana, and the mask? And what’s up with that mask, anyway?
Smokey Fontaine gave me room to explore the man, with the caveat of asking about that. That being defined as that-video-peep-show-that-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-peeped, which was DVD’d and VHS’s like crack jums from street corners from Roxbury to Redwood City. That was jpeg’d, mpeg’d, and wav.filed all over the world faster than a round of digital coated shells from the media’s M-16 of character assassination.
But for-real for-real, I am not trying to know about that anyway. That’s not my get-down. That’s between Mr. Kelly and his GOD of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Okay, okay, maybe something Biblical. Maybe something the late Uncle Marvin whispers in R.Kelly’s dreams-to help him understand the seemingly endless wrest between corpus and spirit, something from Galatians Five: For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh and these are contrary the one to the other, so that you cannot do the things that you would.
5:58AM. DRUID PARK DRIVE
I believe I can soar. Not really, because my left knee is on fire, and it’s swelling up on mile five going up this steep hill to Remington Avenue. But that R.Kelly joint is playing in my head. I read somewhere that “I Believe I Can Fly” drove the kids who were locked up (because they were bodied-up) in Rikers, Rahway, and Pelican Bay in tears every time they heard R.Kelly’s plaintive vibrato. Probably true because the man can pull arias, operas, and opuses out of the air, and place them smack dab in the middle of a ghetto nearest you, making ice grilled beasts melt into babbling puddles of emotional wreckage.
9:05AM. GATE B7. ATA AIRLINES,
LA GUARDIA AIRPORT, QUEENS, NY.
I’m still on buzz from my body’s hehron of adrenalin from the six miles, and the sugar rush of the single shot macchiato and jelly beans I just got from Au Bon Pain. I have heard over and over I am going to need the stimulant, because R.Kelly is a true night owl, b-balling and recording until the wee hours of the morning. I also heard that he felt the media has treated him like the American Bin Laden. Initially, I thought Kelly’s statement smacked of a severe paranoia. But then I thought how the media’s solar pulse is intoxicating to those Icarus boys like R.Kelly, those with waxy wings, pulled to fly higher and closer to the center of the burn - the admiration, the fake love, the notoriety - just so they can melt down. Maybe Kelly invoking the name Bin Laden is the same as him yelling Fire! But with the success of The Chocolate Factory album and the seemingly unswerving loyalty of his fans, Kelly is only falling upward. Will he group me with the rest of the electronic carrion eaters, and not want to talk?
2:30PM, DAYS INN GOLD COAST,
DOWNTOWN, CHICAGO, IL.
For a jaded New Yorker, the vast expanse of Chicago’s turquoise blue heaven that blankets the skyline seems freakish compared to Manhattan’s strangle of concrete canyons along Park Avenue that suffocate any patch of clouds and firmament. This place feels like a real life movie set, or, better yet, a video set, like the one for I Wish where Kelly pleads with female celestial voice portraying his dearly departed mother Joanne. Quoting from Mark Eight about the zero profit margin of gaining the world but losing you soul, the voice tries to comfort her tearful son, who sways in the breeze of his own psychic torment on a project rooftop. Chicago is a Gotham City fitting for this Citizen Kellz, this ghetto superhero of many disguises, from the secretive baldheaded composer with the opaque, oversized Persols (those humongous, fly-eyed darkman lenses, were his first incarnation of the Mask), to the cornrowed strongman who broke down crying on a table top inside a White Castle when the New York Times interviewed him almost two years ago, just as that scandal pushed his Loveland album to collapse.
4:54PM, 1100 NORTH LAKESHORE DRIVE,
THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Literary enmeshed between the past and the future, The Chocolate Factory is an unassuming, fenced-in recording complex stuck between the ultra-luxe beehive of spanking new steel-and-glass condos on one side, and the weathered, flatly painted-over remnants of the legendary Cabrini-Green houses on the other (Only these are not the towering monoliths seen dissecting the El in the opening of the ‘70s sitcom Good Times. Most of that has been torn down or abandoned. These are the low-rise dwellings, a.k.a. the “Shorties.”)
“Hey, is R.Kelly over there?”
“Rrrr-Kell-aaaaay?! Is R.Kelly over there?!! Ay, dude?! I know you hear me!”
Three different shorties - ages 8, 10, and 11 - climb the small but steep gradient on their side of the world and peer through the weather-beaten steel fence links to see if their personal Superman has arrived. Chuckling, I go over and talk to the Gang Of Three.
“Y’all like R.Kelly?” I ask.
“Yeah,” says Juwan, who is 10. “I like the song he did with Twista.”
“I like his songs. He has some good songs,” Hasheem, 8, chimes in.
“I like his earrings,” admits Tayshuan, 11.
“I’ve know Rob for a little over ten years,” says Regina Daniels, as we stand inside the hallway of the Chocolate Factory. Regina is the wife of Chicago record biz legend George Daniels, proprietor of George’s Music Room, a record store institution, “but my husband has known him since he was a teenager.” Regina, the-cute-and-perky-on-the-outside-stern-Mother-Superior-on-the-inside type has been in the business for 20 years, including a stint as the publicist for Whitney Houston. She and her husband serve as Kelly’s business partners, public shields, and unofficial surrogate parents.
“He is one of the kindest, most loyal people I know. I would not have lasted this long with Rob had he not treated me with the utmost respect, which is hard to come by in this business. I know, because in over 20 years, I have seen and heard every category of bullshit there is. But Rob is loyal to the bone, and people know I am fiercely protective of him. That’s why they don’t even approach me with dumb shit.”
As if on cue - accompanied by a small entourage of polite, but big and tough Black Men - the presence, pomp, and circumstance of Robert Steven Kelly fills the hallway. The anatomy of a superstar: six-foot-three, wide and powerful deltoids of a wide receiver, the svelte sinew of lanky heavyweight boxer. Think Cassius before Ali, before he put Liston in the sleep shop in that February 25, 1964 prizefight.
“What’s up man?” he says. We both smile at the same time, pulling each other into an opposite shoulder tapping hug that street b-ball players had to have invented.
“It’s really good to meet you.”
Okay, maybe he is going to talk to me…
7:30PM, HALLWAY OUTSIDE OF REHEARSAL SPACE,
THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Dressed in a silky button down shirt, opened to expose a white wife-beater embossed with the glitter-fabulous iron-on from Super Fly, Kelly sits as the whirr, click, and shutter of the photographer’s tools of light chisel out the iconography. R.Kelly leans back against the wall and stretches his arms like the crucifix he has fashioned in his heart, in his gut, in his soul.
(photo credit: Barry Michael Cooper)The Nikon’s flash freezes Citizen Kellz’ minute of martyrdom with a cold, alabaster, blaze.
I’m caught off guard by the oddness of this sound, R.Kelly mimicking the voice of a magic flute. Behind the diamond-bright reflection of his smoked mirror Gucci specs, there is a mysterious smile on his face, maybe a signal that he really does step to the tune of a different flautist. Or maybe the Pied Piper is pleased with the street corner cantata he has just arranged in his head. Or maybe he’s just buggin’ out.
“Regina put on some music. You know I can’t last too long without some music.”
Immediately, the title track from the new album Happy People begins to engulf everyone in the immediate area and right away, a tall, 50-something light skinned man, in a golf cap, white t-shirt, sweat pants and Nikes, takes to the narrow space in between our folding chairs, and steps in the name of love. He spins, slides, shuffles. This is R.Kelly’s uncle, Uncle Life. Joining Uncle Life in this ghetto waltz is Victoria King, R.Kelly’s hairstylist for almost ten years, a sexy BBBW (Big Beautiful Black Woman) with a close-cut blonde coif.
“Uh-oh, Unc,” R.Kelly chuckles, bouncing his head to the track, “I think you done met your match.”
Watching the couple move like two teenagers, the scene transported me back to my childhood, when my brother Brent and I were both humored and awed watching my mother and father trying to rock the “Madison” as the joyful jump of Lloyd Price’s Staggalee bounced all over the walls of our Esplanade Gardens apartment. I wondered if Kelly makes this stepping music to surround himself with all of these grown folks - many are north of age 36 - to keep him close to his beloved mother Joanne, to a portion of his childhood that he longs for, but can never have again.
Happy People is R.Kelly’s most mature album, if not his best. A step music battle against the cult of salt shakers and player haters driven by seamless music arrangements, spectacular melodies, and the singer’s underrated tenor.
“It’s just a moment in time, man,” Kelly says. “You know, I have been telling people in interviews over the years, that I am not a guy who just does R&B, not just a guy who does pop. You can look at me like a movie director. I might make an action movie one day. I might make an inspirational movie about a person going to church to get their life together the next. I just like to come up with concepts.
“I went to see The Passion Of The Christ and it made me think that if Step In The Name Of Love made people feel so good and happy, why not do a whole album like that? See what that does. I’m 37 years old, man, and I’ve been through a whole lot where I’ve been sad, I’ve been hurt. I’ve been scorned, betrayed, seen friends come and go. And now I’ve decided in my life that I’m going to be happy. Love is a good thing, man. The loving people will overcome the hating people. And I don’t want people thinking that everything R.Kelly does is about sex.”
1:15AM HAROLD MURPHY
RECREATIONAL CENTER, MARKHAM, IL
The squeak of Nikes, Reeboks, and Adidas sound like rubber mice on Ecstasy. The score is 0-0.
“Pick him up, Buckets!”
Robert Kelly sets himself behind the three-point line, ready to fire his odd, patented set shot from off his left shoulder.
Kelly’s bomb charges through the silent air, headed straight for the backboard, until, at the last second, it changes navigation and slices downward through the white net, dismantling Bucket’s taunting from the opposing team.
“Shit outta here, nigga,” Kelly yells at the semi-pro cat, backpedaling down court to play “D”. “Keep giving me that shot. I love it.”
The small crowd in the recreation center lets out a group “Whoooooo,” but most of them have seen it all before. As a matter of fact, they don’t pay much attention to Kelly here. This isn’t the Grammy Awards, not a spectacular Vincent Minnelli-like Billboard Music Awards production, with a red horse-drawn buggy carrying the Edgar Allen Bling of R&B in front of a crowd of Celine, Michael and Janet, spinning the music industry on an axis of eccentric brilliance. There are no media pit bulls trying to tear him limb from limb here, either. And not even the small coterie of 15 and 16-year-old sex kittens in the bleachers could dilute Kelly’s concentration from the game. These womenchildren built like brick houses in pasted-on tank tops and sprayed-on jeans, seemed to appear out of nowhere at 1:30 in the morning. But Kelly was oblivious to them, to everything. This is a man possessed by winning and the basketball court is his lithium, surrounded by guys who get to stare through the Mask. Guys who refuse to be yes-yes men. Guys Michael Jackson would sha-mone for right about now. Like the tattooed sparkplug who told Kelly:
“Motherfucker, you traveled, and you were on the line when you hit that shot. If you don’t like it, get the fuck off the court!”
“No, fuck you,” R fires back. “That’s that bullshit! I was in bounds, and the ball is in play! Stop cryin’ nigga!”
He wins one game, loses two, wins two more, until it is a weary and red-eyed 4am. Both squads have almost come to blows, but the operative word is almost, because before young Black men roamed the boulevards in Chicago, Harlem, Philly, Watts, and Detroit as paraplegic victims of homeland drug wars, before Reaganomics, before greed was good, the after-school, all-night community centers were the inner city’s demilitarized zone. It’s where we as young angry Black men worked out the kinks. This basketball court - as it was for my generation back in 1978 - is an emotional steam valve for R.Kelly. And after the last swish of the last point, and the winners say, “Game,” it’s all love. Hugs, knuckle-daps, plans for running the next full. “I’ll scream at you later, my nigga.” The best men prevail.
4:05AM, EQUIPMENT ROOM
“We shoot hoops here everyday,” Kelly says, unlacing his Nikes. “Ain’t nothing but a bunch of guys getting together that’s full of love. My man Jabbo established this gym for me to come and get my workout out on before I go in the studio. Basketball has a lot to do with my writing. I come here and I shoot ball - ninety percent of the time we win, and it reflects on what we do after this. When we go in the studio to do our other work, we want to win there, too.”
In his mid-thirties, Jabbo looks like a slimmer Malik Yoba from New York Undercover, but his voice evokes Tupac Shakur.
“Rob gets a good run with the NBA and college players that come through. He’ll sweat and run and kick, fall on the floor, just like us. That’s the good thing about it. Rob is just like us.”
7:10AM, RECORDING STUDIO,
THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Maybe it’s a flashback from all of the trey bags of the Rev. Ike angel dust that had me zooted back in 1977. Maybe it’s because I’m sleep deprived. But as I walk down the hallway toward the Chocolate Factory, I’m moving branches out of my face. I’m in an indoor jungle filled with trees, grass, shrubbery, and brush. Christmas lights strung along the walls mixing with the sepia glaze from the small farm of votive candles burning on one table. The effect gives an ethereal glow to the huge American flag that adorns one wall. A world map hangs on the other. As I take a seat near the recording console, a Black man walks in wearing an army helmet, fatigue t-shirt, and pants. He stops and surveys the surroundings as if it were Baghdad, then silently nods at me and walks out. Yeah, I smoked a lot of zoobang back in the day, but this is real. This is the world of R.Kelly.
As I mentally log the set dressing in this theater of the bizarre, R.Kelly breezes in with Jabbo and Uncle Life. “I’m ready, I’m ready,” he says, as he sits down at the Roland keyboard and begins to play a song titled “Soldier’s Heart,” a moving ballad that is a tribute to both war heroes and Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. With his poignant vocals and remarkable skill as a classical pianist, Kelly has everyone in the studio enraptured. The applause is loud.
“Thank you, thank you,” he smiles. “We won three godd-mn games today!” he says to Jabbo. Now Kelly transforms in to a cornball Reno lounge lizard and breaks into a comically cheesy piano version of “Them There Eyes.”
Ooh, they sparkle/Yes they bubble/They’re gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble/Heyyy baby/It’s them there eyes…
We roll with laughter.
“Anybody here from Cleveland?” he asks. “Cleveland? Oh stop it. You guys are way too much. I’ll be back at eleven. Stick around.” All that is missing is the bad toupee and the oversized tip goblet on top of the piano. When the levity settles down, I ask him about the meaning of The Chocolate Factory.
“The Chocolate Factory means Black owned, and when you write like I do, it’s almost like an assembly line,” he says, pounding the recording console like a stamp press to emphasize his point.
“That’s how the hits come. The other part is knowing I used to do janitor duties right here in this very studio. It was called Chicago Trax at the time, and when I was a teenager, I worked here to make a little pocket change to buy studio time. When I became R.Kelly, I started booking time for real. And then, five years ago, I bought the whole place. There are a lot of memories connected here…”
A pair of binoculars sit near his keyboard. After the thought, R.Kelly picks them up and looks at the world map on the wall.
“I have started on a new project,’ he says, adjusting the focus as he speaks.
“The Musical Virus Project. I want to release seven different albums on seven different continents in one day. Music from Africa, Asia, Brazil. I have never been to Africa, but I books and studied-up on the music, the culture, and most importantly, the people.” Kelly picks up three thick encyclopedia-like texts filled with African pictures and history.
“That’s why you see all of the shrubs and plants and trees in here. I just wanted to feel it. I put tents in the studio, and slept in the tents for like what, Unc?” Kelly asks.
“I think it was a few months, yeah, a few months,” Uncle Life responds.
“A few months, sleeping in the tents, eating off the floors, dressed in army fatigues. That’s why the guy you saw earlier was dressed like that. Nobody could come in the studio without one on…I know people out there might laugh, but we are in the jungle. We’re on a serious mission, and just know that Charlie is out there to stop us, and you have to load up your guns. I know this all sounds crazy.”
Kelly shoots a searching look at me. This was the second time he made reference to sounding crazy, and I have a feeling he does that a lot - that is, when he opens up to people.
“No, it’s not crazy at all, man,” I tell him, wondering if his fear of flying motivated the way he brought the Motherland to him. “It’s fascinating.”
Relieved, Kelly continues.
“People don’t realize music has a distance, and that distance is however wide your mind and imagination can go.
Kelly grabs the binoculars again.
“Shine the light on Africa,” he whispers. “The day before I even touched a song for the ‘Africa’ CD, I sat in here and cried for twenty minutes. I looked at the pictures of the land, the lions, the giraffes, the beauty, the poverty. I cried for Africa. Everyday I would come in here and look in the book and say ‘Hi’ to the people. I got to know these people, and they know me, too.
“I know this is a gift from God, so I can’t explain it. But all of this stuff really means something to me. I’m unconscious with this. It’s like when you get the ball, you just shoot it.”
R.Kelly instructs the engineer to cue up an instrumental track called “Yesu,” the Tanzanian name for Jesus. Conga drums, chants, beautiful overlapped melodies, R.Kelly, closing his eyes, sings along into the mic. Then he starts clapping his hand and stomping his feet, working himself into a real frenzy. Words come out of his mouth that I do not understand. The music and the moment build and build into a stunning climax and when the track ends, the studio literally seems to spin around me. I’m speechless and dizzy, and it’s not from lack of sleep. All I can do is stand up and give this man, the Amadeus of Soul, a hug. He smiles.
“Not to brag, but I think we should continue to listen to R.Kelly, and a few other people, because there’s no soul in music. It’s just hollow. It’s just for now. We’re talking about something that should last forever, that should be embedded in our hearts forever. Michael did it with soul. Ali did it with soul. Martin Luther King did it with soul. They were great men who walked the Earth. They were wonders of the world.”
I asked him if he felt a kinship to the three men. Kelly thought for a minute and then with an almost child-like confidence, like a kid who knows he can finally ride without training wheels, answered, “Yeah.”
5:05PM, AMTRAK REGIONAL,
Who is R.Kelly?
I wrote this note to myself as the train crosses Middle River. Twenty more minutes before reaching home, and I still have no answer for the question that I’ve been asking myself for the last 24 hours.
Listening to his voice in my headphones, a voice intertwined with an adult confidence and a juvenile insecurity, I’m not able to fix his position, his persona play under the cultural radar. What I know is that both Happy People and The MV Project could make recording history. Also, guilty or innocent, we all need to put down the stones that we hurl at dude, the ones monogrammed with scarlet letter of judgement and condemnation, the ones aimed at the glass house of Robert Steven Kelly. Because the only glass that will shatter is the mirror we use to wash the dirty looks from our faces each morning - dirty looks hiding our own dirty little secrets. Maybe that’s why R.Kelly wears that mask. Maybe our pointing fingers have forced him into seclusion. Maybe it’s his visual Morse code informing us we don’t know him, and never will.
Or maybe he’s just a mad man.
“You know what? I want the world to know the secret, because they don’t really know R.Kelly. People see R.Kelly in the videos with the bling-bling, but don’t let that fool you. I’m Robert. I’m a regular guy. My world is just a world of melody. It’s bigger than me, bigger than all of us. And no matter what I’m going through, I need everyone to know that. My music is just beyond me.”
Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.