I used to be flying in sin--now I'm flying in Jesus." With those 12 words, R. Kelly set off a barnstorm of activity, talk and rumors that reverberated from the Chicago projects to the penthouse suites in New York City.
How could R. Kelly--the Prince of Pillowtalk, the new King of R&B and the hottest artist in the '90s, the man whose music was so sexually explicit that it was banned in Korea and Singapore--be flying in Jesus?
The R&B music world reeled, while the fans of his bump-and-grind music wondered whether this was the beginning of the end of the R. Kelly they had come to know. Would the man who routinely partied and womanized, who went bare-chest and dropped his pants during his concerts to the delight of thousands of screaming women, trade in his multimillion-dollar raunch for religion, his lucrative sex talk for talk of salvation, his seductive fast life for a more spiritual existence, maybe as a gospel singer?
Had R. Kelly gone and gotten saved?
What R. (short for Robert) Kelly will eventually do, only God knows. But one thing is for sure: the 29-year old singer/songwriter has managed to cause one of the biggest stirs ever by a musician who's considering making the change from secular to nonsecular music, perhaps even bigger than Al Green's switch to gospel in the late '70s and Little Richard's move to the ministry some 20 years earlier.
He is definitely the biggest R&B star of the period," says Nelson George, music critic and author of the book Seduced, which tells the story of an R&B artist who dabbles in gospel music. "I don't know what triggered R. Kelly to say the things that he did, whether it was one particular event like it was for Al Green, who said God spoke to him one morning, or whether it was many things. But whatever it was, his decision will be watched closely."
R. Kelly's bombshell came in his hometown of Chicago recently when he made a surprise appearance at a Kirk Franklin concert. The 27-year-old Franklin, who is arguably the most popular young gospel singer today and who has been Kelly's longtime spiritual mentor, introduced Kelly to an enthusiastic ovation from the thousands of gospel music fans. "The brother's heart really motivated me," Franklin said. "He called me a few months ago and said, `Kirk, you know I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I really want to get some things in my life right with the Lord.'"
Dressed in a conservative suit and without his trademark black sunglasses, Kelly walked onstage, took the microphone and began to speak. "It's been a long time coming, but here I am," said a visibly shaken Kelly, who reportedly was seen at another Franklin concert Chicago in 1994 getting "happy," raising his hands and praising the Lord. "It amazes me when I look back eight months ago cars, women, money, the media. I had everyone's attention. Some may think it's a gimmick, but I tell you, here stands a broken man. Every day I seem to be falling in love with the Lord. I've come to find out that whatever it is you want, it's in the Lord." To that, Franklin, on tour just months after a near-fatal accidental fall threatened to end his skyrocketing career, said: "Robert doesn't have to do a gospel album to please God. But his subject will have to grow. His dialogue is gonna have to change. God can give him songs to do about real relationships. Why does everything have to be `Stick it, lick it, screw it?'" But it's that X-rated formula that has earned R. Kelly three consecutive multimillion-selling albums. His past songs--like his No. 1 cuts, "Sex Me," "Your Body's Calling," "Bump `N' Grind," and "You Remind Me of Something," which compares women to a Jeep--wreak with sexually explicit lyrics. Kelly's cutting-edge songwriting ability also has made him the most-sought-after songwriter and producer by top artists such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Toni Braxton.
Kelly has said: "Sex doesn't control me. Take away the sexy bump and grind, and you can easily put in gospel lyrics." But no matter what the 6-foot-3 sex symbol says, if he does decide to sing gospel, it would be a major career change. Some doubt Kelly could survive in the less lucrative world of gospel music. He lives a flamboyant lifestyle and recently purchased a multimillion-dollar Chicago home, complete with an indoor basketball court, dance studio and 1,500-gallon sharkfilled aquarium. While other artists have made the transition from R&B to gospel, few have been successful and perhaps none has attempted the change during the peak of his career. "It's not necessarily career suicide," Nelson George says. "He could do both gospel and R&B, or he could simply write love songs with less explicit language. It wouldn't be suicidal to his career unless he gets really negative and renounces everything he's done. It's a matter of degree. It will all depend on whether he plans to sing true gospel, true R&B or that funny thing in the middle."
A look at Kelly's latest album reveals even he may not know exactly what he wants to do. The self-titled album opens with a preachy call-and-response number called "The Sermon," in which he uses religious passages to tell his critics to stop trying to dissect his life. "Before you pass judgment on me, pass judgment on yourself," he says in the song.
There are other gospel tunes on his album. One is entitled "Heaven If You Hear Me," and another is titled "Religious Love," which Kelly said at the time was the best song he had written. Then there is the song "Trade In My Life," which features the Kirk Franklin Choir and is dedicated to his mother, Joann Kelly, who reared him alone in a rough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side and who died of cancer in 1993. Many believe his mother's death, which he has called "one of the most painful experiences of my life," began a spiritual awakening for Kelly. "When my mom passed, she went to heaven. I truly believe that," said Kelly, who used to go to church with his mother several times each week. "The only way I'm going to see her again is if I make it to heaven."
Throughout his R&B career; Kelly sporadically has made references to gospel music and religion, sometimes in seemingly awkward situations. For example, last year at a Chicago party after his sold-out concert, Kelly shocked people who had gathered to dance drink and flirt when he began to sing gospel. He has said that he believe] using his music in a positive way would help him to make it to heaven. "I have to step back and look at this thing like it sho' `nuff is," he said. "With the I gospel, I'm not just trying to entertain. I At my age, I'm going through things l within myself; thinking about what I I want to do in the future; what I'm doing now in my life and my career. I look at what I'm doing now onstage as taking a step more toward God, because if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here."
Kelly, who began singing as a child in a tiny storefront church choir, has said that in the past he was encouraged by his fans to make more suggestive songs, and that he has been constantly tempted by the trappings of fame and money. Some people close to the singer think he may have made the songs and lived the life of a typical R&B musician to satisfy fans and record company executives, and that in reality, he never really wanted to be R. Kelly, the hot `n' horny hip-hopper who would be seen regularly at parties overflowing with champagne and skimpily dressed female groupies. Many believe he simply wanted to be Robert Kelly, the quiet, somewhat withdrawn guy who likes to spend evenings at home, watch cartoons, play video games, go to church and sing. And to that extent, it should be no real surprise that he may decide to either bring that side out more in his future recordings or whole-heartedly seek redemption by pursuing a gospel recording career.
Executives at Kelly's record label, New York-based Jive Records, say his apparent spiritual awakening is nothing new to them. They say Kelly has always been a very religious person, and that his recent announcement is another example of his faith. While they would not rule out the possibility of Kelly recording a gospel album, they say the public should not expect Kelly, who has been the driving force behind the label, to abandon the R&B music that has made him famous.
Whatever Kelly eventually decides to do, his jaw-dropping announcement that he is now "flying in Jesus" serves as a reminder of how much music and religion--the body and the spirit, sin and salvation--are indelibly intertwined.