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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Chicago's Blues for R. Kelly

The R&B singer, charged with child pornography, lives in and loves his hometown, but many supporters have had enough.

June 15, 2002|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The voice on the other end of the phone was tiny and wounded, nothing like the supple tenor that made R. Kelly the most popular R&B singer of his generation. He said he was sitting in front of a television watching Mike Tyson's boxing career descend to a bloody, pitiful low, but it was a feeble distraction from his own battles against prosecutors and public opinion.

"Terrible, that's how I'm doing, just terrible," rasped the singer, who faces 21 felony counts of child pornography, charges that carry a potential penalty of 15 years in prison. The charges stem from a home video that allegedly shows him in sexual liaisons with several partners, including a lurid encounter three years ago with a 14-year-old girl. He denied the charges in an arraignment June 6 and is free after posting $750,000 bond.

Kelly hung up the phone and returned to the refuge of a friend's home here. If Kelly is found guilty, his name will be lumped with Jerry Lee Lewis, Gary Glitter, Roman Polanski and other celebrities who have seduced minors. But, no matter the verdict, Chicago is already struggling with the fall from grace of one of its favored sons.

Robert Sylvester Kelly, 35, grew up poor on the Southside but never strayed far. Even when he scored more Top 40 hits than any other male solo artist in the 1990s, you could find him most nights playing basketball with old buddies not far from his childhood home. With his recording studio in the shadow of the Cabrini Green housing projects, he was on a short list of stars in a big city. He will be tried here now too, for allegedly filming a sexual escapade police say took place in the sauna room of his Olympia Field home.

"There's Michael Jordan, there's Oprah Winfrey and there's R. Kelly," says Derrel McDavid, who grew up on the Southside and is Kelly's longtime friend and business manager. "After that, who's next? This is a guy who rides around the streets of Chicago, plays basketball here, records his music here. He never wanted to leave, but now it looks like he has to. Maybe Chicago is not his home anymore."

A young Kelly often lugged an electronic keyboard into subway tunnels, playing for the loose change of commuters. Years later he would be a superstar, with more than 14 million albums sold and such hits as "I Believe I Can Fly," which won a Grammy in 1996. Kelly's talents as a producer and songwriter too also made him coveted, and he has worked with Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Jay-Z.

All along, Kelly's music was jolting in its dichotomy: His soaring songs were heroic enough to accompany the exploits of Batman and Muhammad Ali on film, but in concert he would follow them with a song in which he sings to a woman, "I like the crotch in you."

To Gerald M. Margolis, who has been Kelly's entertainment attorney for years, the split was the "conflict of the profane and the religious that goes back to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley." But McDavid sensed there was a personal struggle in the lyrics.

"A man who is torn," McDavid said, his eyes moist from analyzing his friend's tumble. "Torn and trying to figure himself out."

The citizenry of Chicago has also been trying to figure Kelly out. Many have decided he is a crass predator disguised by false piety and celebrity. Popular Chicago station WBBM-FM has yanked him from the airwaves. A boycott of Kelly's music has been organized by the Rev. Bamani Obadele, a community activist, and some local leaders describe Kelly's crisis in terms of civic betrayal.

"It's unfortunate to see Mr. Kelly's talents go to waste," Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hilliard said at a news conference to announce the grand jury indictment against Kelly. "But it becomes a tragedy when

Those closest to Kelly say it is the community that has betrayed the singer. They say the star stayed too close to his roots, making himself vulnerable to a plot to destroy him. Some claim a shadowy figure in the singer's recent past set out to ruin Kelly by distributing the tape on the eve of the R&B star's performance at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

"Robert has done some foolish things," Margolis said. "But he has also been dramatically victimized. People have stolen from him, attempted to extort him, vilify him.... He allowed them extraordinary access."

But even if someone intended to harm Kelly, to many that will be inconsequential if the singer is indeed the man on the videotape. FBI experts will testify that the tape has not been doctored, and prosecutors say that Kelly is clearly recognizable on it.

Those prosecutors will have to prove their child pornography case without the help of the girl in question--she and her parents have denied that she is the one in the footage. Last week state authorities said they will investigate whether the girl's parents allowed her to be in a relationship with Kelly.

Kelly says he will not watch the tape.

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