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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

"Someone said we should send a tape of it to Robert," she said. "R. Kelly's music, though, has touched so many people. And he grew up here. So we got his back, no matter what." *

A Question of Image and the Voice Inside

There are three typical R. Kelly images in his promotional photos and videos: scowling street tough, thoughtful man of prayer, sinewy bedroom vamp. The first, said business manager McDavid, is a fiction of sorts, an attempt by Kelly to reflect his old neighborhood, not his own personality. As for the second, Kelly only recently began attending church regularly. His longtime publicist, Regina Daniels, is hopeful that that will bring him some calm. "He is not an angel, I'll tell you that. But he also isn't the monster they are making him out to be."

Kelly told MTV last month that "I got a lot that's in me that I'm dealing with personally, and I'm seeking help."

Lena McLin, one of Kelly's music teachers at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, is happy to hear that her former student may be gravitating more to churches than to nightclubs. After decades of recording her pupils, the back room of her apartment is a library of teenagers warbling show tunes and straining through arias. She played one for a visitor. The first two songs are crisp performances by 13- and 14-year-olds. The third is a solo by young Robert Kelly. The phrasing, the range and the confidence of the boy cut through the static of the aging recording and the scandal of today. "Just a child," McLin says. "So rich in voice. Can you believe that is just a child?"

She saw and heard something special in the lanky youngster ("You always know. You just do.") special enough that she sabotaged the choir student's membership on the basketball team. She said Kelly was furious at first, but after a bravura performance of a Stevie Wonder song at a school talent show, he changed his mind.

Later, when he had become a star student, she visited his home to lobby for the youngster to travel to Atlanta to sing at a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The teacher remembers being struck by the family's poverty. "It was bare. One table, two chairs. There was no father there, I knew that, and they had very little." Was Kelly a tough kid? "He was respectful, shy sometimes. He was not the troublemaker."

In the corner of McLin's apartment is a leaning stack of framed platinum records, sent by Kelly as souvenirs of his stardom. Another gift is the white grand piano that dominates her living room and sends music down to the leafy children's park below her windows. She agreed to play a jaunty composition she wrote years ago.

"That friend who serves

And seeks for gain

Will follow just for form,

Will pack when it begins to rain,

And leave you in the storm."

"That song," she said, "is for Robert now."

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