By Mark Guarino
R. Kelly is busy this weekend. Today he will arrive in court to contest charges of child pornography that could bring him 15 years in prison. Two days later, at Sunday’s Grammy awards, he will be regaled as one of the most successful pop stars of 2003.
The divide between Kelly’s scandal and commercial success is vast. But what is more impressive is how the Chicago-based performer-songwriter-producer convinced the public at large his allegations are not an issue. After he was arrested over a year ago in Illinois and Florida and charged with possessing and producing child pornography (his trial is expected to start this month), Kelly chose not to retreat. Instead, in what can be seen as a dare to his accusers, he stepped further into the public eye and refused to flinch. While the sordid details surrounding his charges would have made any other celebrity curl up and die, Kelly skillfully side-stepped the scandal on his road to everywhere.
His productivity after the moment of his arrest can be described as barnstorming. Over the past year he was responsible for a tribute benefit single for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, hit songs he wrote and produced for Britney Spears, the Isley Brothers, Michael Jackson and the female duo JS, the re-release of his autobiographical children’s book “I Can Fly: The R. Kelly Story,” plans announcing he would write a Broadway version of the film “Rocky” and the year-capping release of a greatest hits album, the title of which proclaimed he was “The ‘R’ in R&B.”
The peak of his success is his album “Chocolate Factory” (Jive), a smash hit. According to Nielsen Soundscan, it was the seventh top-selling album of 2003, logging nearly 2.5 million sales and producing the hit song “Ignition,” which became the fifth most played song on radio stations nationwide.
In any other year, the news of his commercial achievements would not raise eyebrows. As a hitmaker, Kelly is undeniable. His trademarks are sugary beats matched to tuneful melodies. He is an innovator, crossing together the thuggish pretense of hip-hop, the warmth of old school soul, and the slick production skills and catchy accessiblity of modern pop. But while popular artists in the past have successfully convinced their fans to separate their private behavior from their work, Kelly has won over the official music establishment and black media institutions as well. Aside from Grammy voters, who nominated him for ??, Kelly has received accolades from BET, NAACP, Billboard Magazine and his album ended up on more critic’s year-ending top ten lists than usual. “The sudden respectability of R. Kelly the artist is a confounding development in official pop taste,” wrote Village Voice critic Robert Christgau last month. “Child pornography charges have done for this manifestly skillful, manifestly simplistic hitmaker what the preeminent inspiration anthem of the ‘90s” — his 1996 hit “I Can Believe I Can Fly” — “could not.”
The music industry has chosen to ignore the allegations and stand by Kelly because his commercial viability is a rare commodity in a growing marketplace that is fickle and demands immediate success. His singles regularly appear on the pop, hip-hop and adult contemporary charts simultaneously and his hand as a producer and songwriter for other artists is considered an assurance of success.
“The bulk of the music you hear on the radio is either him or he has influenced the sound,” said Elroy Smith, program director for WGCI 107.5-FM. When the scandal broke, protesters formed outside the station’s windows, forcing the station to make a “clear decision” whether their approach to Kelly would be, according to Smith, “about the music or … about the case.” The music was chosen. “We’re not a judge and we’re not a jury,” Smith said. “With that in mind, when we stood firm, that’s when things backed away.”
The decision proved beneficial for the station as well. When news broke that Kelly would headline their spring concert, 4,000 tickets sold out in 30 minutes. Kelly also agreed to participate in a summer promotion, writing and recording a new song for the winner of the station’s “Chicago Idol” contest.
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One explanation why his campaign for career redemption has been so smooth is that the sexual allegations of his charges are not far removed from the frank sexual metaphors found in his music. Kelly’s fans are conditioned to count on his two artistic halves — the first as the songwriter responsible for devotional testimonials like “Heaven I Need a Hug” and “I’m Your Angel” — and the second as the songwriter known for bump and grind songs like “Your Body’s Callin’,” “Like a Real Freak” and “Sex Me.” He also has a record of surviving bad press such as the news he married the R&B singer Aaliayah when she was 15 and later had it annulled.
Frank Ginsberg, CEO of Avrett, Free & Ginsberg, a New York-based advertising agency that has designed campaigns for Lugz and Bacardi for urban markets, said Kelly “built a brand … that transcends whatever life event there might be.”
“There is a high sexual tension to his (music),” he said. “There’s always a dark side to everybody, it just depends if you want the dark side coming out and want to market it. He’s done it and we’re buying it.”
Ginsberg said Kelly has not suffered commercially because nothing he is accused of is all that shocking considering the persona he has cultivated. “He’s obsessed with sex, he admits it,” he said. “The street forgave him and moved on.”
Allan Mayer, Kelly’s spokesperson, said the fans also understand artistic hyperbole is different from fact. “When the ‘Chocolate Factory’ album came out, it had some fairly sexy material on it and given the nature of the allegations, some people asked why he’s still doing that. But the fact is, Robert said that’s kind of music is part of what he is as a recording artist,” Mayer said, using Kelly’s real first name. “Obviously it’s difficult to draw a line between the individual and his art but I think people over time … begin to feel they have a sense of who this artist is. And the things that have been said about Robert have been so scurrilous and so over the top that (his fans) instinctively know that this is not true. He knows in the past he’s certainly not been an angel. By the same token, he’s not a criminal. A large amount of people accept that and believe that.”
It remains to be seen whether only a guilty verdict could tarnish Kelly’s celebrity. So far, images of supportive fans protesting his arrest outside the courtroom have created the impression that Kelly’ enduring popularity is, at its core, highly personal. Rising from Chicago’s South Side, his rags-to-riches story is galvanizing for many blacks in urban America.
But that is precisely why Kelly is a dangerous influence, said Reginald Jones, a member of Project 21, a conservative black think tank located in Wash. DC. The group is protesting the NAACP’s decision to nominate Kelly for an outstanding album award next month and believes they and other black-oriented institutions should work harder to honor role models that have less to do with materialism.
“It’s extremely harmful to us and sends the message that we only care about success and money,” Jones said. “These types of images portrayed as positive are actually negative.”
John White, spokesperson with the NAACP said they were not honoring Kelly but “just the record.” “We’re not making any judgement of him as a person,” he said.
Jones considers that splitting hairs. Kelly’s oversexed image as a thugged-out bad boy, he said, is “not a healthy portrayal of black life” for both black children growing up in homes without male role models and suburban whites who have little contact with other races. The real reason Kelly is being honored, he said, is because he is a certifiable moneymaker. “Most of these people are about … their own financial well being and it comes at the cost of the black community,” he said.