R Kelly’s path from Baptist choir boy to RnB legend to alleged child sex abuser

(ANALYSIS) An explosive documentary is exposing the sins and alleged crimes of RnB superstar R Kelly. What’s less obvious is R Kelly’s exposure to the Baptist church growing up and his rejection of the sexual morals of that faith.

The Lifetime six-episode documentary Surviving R Kelly aired Jan. 3-5 revealed some dark allegations of sexual abuse of young girls and women.

“I’m handcuffed by my destiny, it’s too late. They should have done the sh** 30 years ago, it’s too late,” said R Kelly in a clip from the first episode. 

After the documentary, society had a mixed response to the information. National outcry over R Kelly’s supposed behavior caused his career to go downhill. Artists such as Chance the Rapper, Celine Dion, and Lady Gaga pulled their collaborations with R Kelly from streaming services, followed by R Kelly’s record company RCA dropping him.  While all of this was happening, R Kelly’s music doubled in popularity on streaming services, according to the Associated Press (AP).

This leaves people, especially young black women, the same demographic who were the target of his sexual misconduct, wondering: what’s going on?

R Kelly as a child. Photo on  creative commons .

R Kelly as a child. Photo on creative commons.

The six-part documentary starts off showing Robert Sylvester Kelly as the talented little boy he was, growing up on the south side of Chicago. Then it begins to portray the misfortunes in his life and, later, his progression toward being a sexual predator. 

R Kelly was molested at a young age. Even before his stardom, he featured sexual aggression in his music.

“No, he didn't talk about that [sex], but you knew about it because it came out in the music,”  Dr. Lena Mclin, R Kelly’s music teacher in high school, said in the documentary. “Children express what they fear, or they love, that's around them. He was very, very aggressive. Aggressive in some of his sexual language too, which we had to discuss and say that it wouldn't have been apparent for the school.”

Despite his repeated references to religion in his song lyrics, the documentary doesn’t reveal much about R Kelly’s religious faith (or lack thereof). R Kelly’s single mother Joanne brought him and his siblings to Baptist church every Sunday, where he would spend hours, according to an AP timeline of his life. He began singing in the church choir at age eight.

“My mother made sure we were there,” Kelly told USA Today in 1994. “She made sure we knew wrong from right.”

A YouTube video from 2001 even shows R Kelly wearing a cross and receiving prayer from NFL star Deon Sanders and others at a Gospel Extravaganza. They pray for a fresh anointing of Kelly and ask to break generational curses or word curses spoken on him. “God, touch him now in Jesus’ name. Breathe upon him I pray,” said one of the people. “Now, in the name of Jesus, touch him.” Kelly holds his hands aloft and mouths prayers along with the ministers.

Many of R Kelly’s songs feature religious titles or themes: “Heaven, I Need a Hug”, “Prayer Changes”, “Religious” and “U Saved Me.”

When you listen to the lyrics of those songs such as “Heaven, I need a hug”, R Kelly comes across as a spiritual seeker, though a bit downtrodden.

Look in the mirror sometimes and see a troubled face / And then my tears roll down and hit the sink / Then I hold my head up high, I hope the Man upstairs can hear my cry / All these questions deep inside my mind / Like if Jesus loved me, why he leave my side, mama? / I'm still tryin' to get the answer why

Another song such as “U Saved Me” actually explicitly tells a salvation story.

“Then I heard a small voice that said/ I’ll give you peace if you believe/ I accepted Christ that day/ Hallelujah now I’m free/ You saved me.”

Though that song in particular highlights Kelly’s theology that he views God as his savior from his sins, his other songs pretty clearly indicate he hasn’t broken free from those sins and doesn’t fully live a life of obedience and devotion to Christianity.

In the documentary series, a recurring and disturbing theme is the warning signs overlooked or ignored by the ones closest to him.

“I stop at a store and Rob was driving by and he was on his way to Kenwood High School,” Craig Williams, a music producer, said in the documentary.  “I heard a lot about Rob going to Kenwood High School to hang out. I always wondered, ‘What the heck is he doing hanging around the high school? He left high school many years ago.’”

Throughout R Kelly’s career, he’s always maintained a strong fan base, even with plenty of allegations against him. In the documentary, two concepts were the answers to why fans and people in the industry protected him. The first reason is that the world doesn't care as much about black females as they do whites. The second reason: the black culture didn’t want to let a talented black figure go.

“He goes straight to an event where he is admired by young children,” Mary Mitchell, a Chicago Sun Times journalist interviewed in the documentary, said. “Here he is being prosecuted for allegedly having sex with an underage girl and ministers, civil rights leaders, inner city Chicago wanted to play up the side of him that did the ‘I believe I can fly.’ Not the side of him with the raunchy lyrics that kind of went along with possibly having sex with an underage girl.”

In the article For African American rape victims, a culture of silence, the author Gayle Terry explains why the black culture protects black men even in their wrongdoing. The main reason, he concludes, is dealing with the life and death impacts of racism in America toward black men. Protecting each other is required because the community is already condemned, he writes.

Surviving R Kelly told many stories. It told the stories of a talented young man that lost his way and has not found his way back. It told a story of redemption for women who were abused. However, some stories are still in progress.

Many women abused by R Kelly are still wrestling with the harmful impacts of their abuse; others still live in abusive situations. Families are still waiting for their daughters to come home, while the world waits to see if R Kelly will ever admit to wrongdoing and try to reconcile with victims and fans.