Robert Sylvester Kelly was raised in the Ida B. Wells Homes public housing project in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood by his singer mother, Joanne. Kelly's father was absent throughout his upbringing.
Kelly attended Kenwood Academy High School, where he was taught music by Lena McLin, whose uncle was black gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. She encouraged him to become a singer and has continued to remain an influence throughout his career. McLin also taught Chaka Khan, Da Brat and Jennifer Hudson.
Kelly formed the group MGM (Musically Gifted Men) with his friends Marc McWilliams, Vincent Walker, and Shawn Brooks. In 1989 they participated on the talent TV show Big Break, hosted by Natalie Cole, winning the $100,000 grand prize.
In 1991 Kelly formed the New Jack Swing group, Public Announcement. A young Halle Berry played his love interest in their video for the 1992 song "Honey Love."
After completing a successful tour, Kelly parted ways with Public Announcement in 1993 to begin a solo career. He released his debut album, 12 Play
later in the year. The record yielded Kelly's first #1 hit, "Bump N' Grind
Kelly became the first music star to play professional basketball, when he was signed by the Atlantic City Seagulls in 1997. He wore the number 12 in honor of his 12 Play album.
Kelly won acclaim with his production of Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothin But A Number. Several media sources reported that the 27-year-old Kelly illegally married the 15-year-old Aaliyah in a secret wedding ceremony on August 31, 1994 (a falsified document stated she was 18). The marriage was annulled shortly afterwards and Kelly hasn't said much about it since, out of, he says, respect for the late singer's family.
Kelly married former backing dancer Andrea Kelly in 1996. The couple had three children: a son, Robert; a daughter, Joann, and a third child, Jaya, who announced in 2014 that he is female-to-male transgender and living as a boy named Jay.
Andrea and Jelly divorced in 2009, after 13 years of marriage. The singer decided to file for divorce after watching Ryan Gosling's romantic drama The Notebook. Kelly detailed in his memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, how the movie made him realize their relationship paled in comparison to the everlasting love he saw on screen. He wrote, "As the film credits started to roll, I couldn't move. I burst into tears. People walking past me patted me on the back, trying to console me. The Notebook was beautiful, and I was crying because its hero and heroine had died together."
One of Kelly's best known songs is "I Believe I Can Fly
." Ironically he suffers from a chronic fear of air travel and is so scared of planes that he even takes boats when he tours Europe.
Kelly has been the subject of numerous allegations of sexual abuse, kidnapping and misconduct, often with underage women. Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part Lifetime documentary in which a host of women allege widespread abuse was aired over three nights, from January 3 to January 5, 2019. Its premiere episode was Lifetime's highest-rated program since 2016, with 1.9 million total viewers.
R. Kelly handed himself into the Chicago police after being charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse on February 22, 2019.