Sparkle, Once R. Kelly’s Protégée, May Testify Against Him. Again.


CHICAGO — After practically a decade of silence, the musician Sparkle and her household had been lastly speaking once more. Everyone welcomed her at her dad and mom’ place after church on Sundays, at birthday events for nieces and nephews.

Then in October, that door snapped shut once more: A preview for the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” had dropped, and Sparkle was in it, telling the world what she thought Robert Kelly had performed to her niece.

One of her sisters texted her to say that she heard Sparkle was on “some TV show about rob” speaking concerning the household. She informed Sparkle to depart them alone.

Sparkle, a singer, was as soon as R. Kelly’s protégée. He produced her first album within the late 1990s, which went gold. But in 2002, he was arrested on youngster pornography costs stemming from a video that reveals a person having intercourse with and urinating on a youngster. Sparkle testified at trial in 2008 that the person within the video was Mr. Kelly, and that the lady was her 14-year-old niece.

Her testimony sliced her household into factions, relegating her to years of exile, and it could have stifled her profession. Today, Sparkle is arguably extra well-known for her public stand towards him than she is for her music. And as Mr. Kelly faces new costs of sexual abuse, prosecutors have informed her she could also be known as to testify once more.

“I hope they don’t need me,” she stated. “But I have to. I have to see this thing through.”

[Read extra concerning the newest charges against R. Kelly.]

Sparkle, whose actual identify is Stephanie Edwards, was born on the West Side of Chicago, the youngest of six kids. (She described her present age as “somewhere between birth and death.”) The household moved to the suburb of Oak Park when Sparkle was three, and she or he began singing in church a yr later. Encouraged by her father, she and her siblings shaped a gospel group rising up. “I don’t know if I ever dreamed of being a professional singer, because I wanted to be a model,” she stated with amusing. “But dear old dad, he was like, ‘No, you get up there and you sing, and you’d better be the loudest!’”

She met Mr. Kelly in 1989 and some years later, she stated, she was singing backup on an album he was producing: “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” by the singer Aaliyah. The album title would quickly tackle a sinister solid: The yr the report was launched, a 27-year-old Mr. Kelly reportedly married Aaliyah, who was 15. The marriage was annulled. (Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001.)

Mr. Kelly’s lawyer declined to remark for this text.

Sparkle stated that on the time, she thought speak of the wedding was a publicity stunt. How may something like that occur when Aaliyah’s dad and mom and her uncle, who was Mr. Kelly’s supervisor, had been at all times round? Still, she continued working with him.

Then, in 1996, Mr. Kelly modified Sparkle’s life. She was at an enormous retirement get together for her father when Mr. Kelly known as and requested her to return all the way down to his studio within the River West neighborhood of Chicago. Down she went in an extended black robe and heels, and when she arrived, she began recording what would turn into her personal debut album, “Sparkle.” She hung out recording at evening and went to work through the day at SportsChannel Chicago as an assistant engineer.

Sparkle’s album, launched in 1998, was a hit, promoting half 1,000,000 copies. But even earlier than its launch, her skilled relationship with Mr. Kelly was so strained that he had threatened to not launch it in any respect, she stated. By the time they began engaged on her second album, it was untenable.

“He was trying to now be really controlling, and I saw it now,” she stated. “You’re not going to do that with me.”

Sparkle stated that she requested to be launched from her contract, and he let her go. She put out her second album, “Told You So,” with Motown data in 2000, but it surely was far much less profitable.

Sparkle continues to be a singer, although she has by no means repeated the success she noticed 20 years in the past. She sang backup for Toni Braxton for a number of years. She launched a single in 2012 known as “So Bad.” She stated that non-public performances have helped her make a dwelling. And simply earlier than the documentary about Mr. Kelly got here out in January, she launched a brand new track known as “We Are Ready,” which explores the themes of the #MeToo motion. It is unattainable to know what impact her schism with Mr. Kelly had on her profession, however in a enterprise grounded in relationships, alienating such a strong determine definitely may have created roadblocks.

Today, she lives in downtown Chicago with Bruce Wayne, her supervisor and boyfriend of practically 20 years.

“I’m fighting to have a street named after her,” Mr. Wayne stated. “She held a mirror up to society. This is bigger than R. Kelly, and she’s been so far ahead of everybody.”

With lengthy blond hair and a chic bearing, Sparkle carries herself like a girl who is aware of methods to have her image taken, and methods to stand her floor. But there’s a heat behind the glamorous presentation.

Good associates name her Steph, however Mr. Wayne has lots of people calling her Miss Jenkins. That nickname comes from a skit on the TV present “In Living Color,” during which a gossipy character named Benita Butrell would dish into the digital camera after which proclaim, “but I ain’t one to gossip, so you ain’t hear that from me.” The character was identified for freaking out and saying “Don’t nobody better say nothing bad about Miss Jenkins!” earlier than trashing Miss Jenkins.

Sparkle, he stated, hates preserving secrets and techniques, even of probably the most uncomfortable truths. She believes that if somebody has performed improper, she is obligated to inform.

“Growing up, she was the one who always blew the whistle and told,” Mr. Wayne stated. “This is, I guess, her call of duty.”

Before she and Mr. Kelly went their separate methods, Sparkle decided that may essentially alter her household: She launched Mr. Kelly to her brother-in-law, a guitar participant, and to her niece. The lady was an aspiring rapper, charismatic and proficient, and Sparkle stated she hoped Mr. Kelly may do for her niece what he was doing for her. (Her niece is now in her mid-30s, however Sparkle nonetheless refuses to say her identify throughout interviews, which she describes as an effort to guard her.)

In 2001, a lawyer who stated he needed to characterize her sister contacted Sparkle to say he had a tape of her niece having intercourse with Mr. Kelly. Sparkle determined to testify towards Mr. Kelly, together with a couple of dozen different witnesses who recognized Mr. Kelly and her niece in courtroom. But her sister insisted that the lady within the video was not her youngster. The household cut up. Only one in every of Sparkle’s brothers — Bennie Edwards, who used to braid her hair and make her breakfast each morning as a toddler — stood by her.

“Sparkle, she loves her family, they need to know that,” Mr. Edwards stated. “I love them as well, but the truth — the truth is the truth at the end of the day, and that’s all it is.”

Mr. Kelly was acquitted on all costs in 2008. Sparkle’s niece by no means testified, and his attorneys argued efficiently that the identities of the individuals within the video couldn’t be identified for sure.

Now, prosecutors in Chicago say that one other tape has surfaced displaying Mr. Kelly having intercourse with the identical lady. Mr. Kelly was arrested in February on costs involving 4 alleged victims, and whereas any trial may nonetheless be years away, the tape is an important piece of proof in what often is the strongest case towards him. Sparkle stated she has seen stills of the video and that it’s clearly a distinct recording of the identical individuals. Michael Avenatti, the superstar lawyer who gave the tape to prosecutors, stated the individuals on the tape speak concerning the lady’s 14-year-old physique components.

But Mr. Avenatti is now going through legal troubles of his personal, with federal prosecutors accusing him of stealing cash from shoppers and mendacity about his revenue to the I.R.S. and in chapter courtroom. Mr. Avenatti has denied all of the allegations towards him and urged that the case was politically motivated. (He has represented Stormy Daniels in lawsuits towards President Trump.) “Any charges I am facing have nothing to do with the R. Kelly case and will have zero impact,” Mr. Avenatti stated. “Greenberg is desperate,” he added, referring to Mr. Kelly’s lawyer, Steven Greenberg.

Mr. Greenberg has requested the decide for all digital communications between Mr. Avenatti and the prosecutors. Mr. Greenberg urged in a submitting that the Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx could have been “manipulated” by Mr. Avenatti.

Friction between members of the Edwards household started to fade as soon as Mr. Kelly’s trial was over, and in 2011, whereas planning their dad and mom’ 50th wedding ceremony anniversary, the siblings began talking once more. But inside their new calm, nothing associated to Mr. Kelly was mentioned, at the same time as her brother-in-law continued to play guitar with him professionally. When Sparkle tried to talk along with her sister about what occurred, her sister would solely say, “God forgives.”

In current years, as Sparkle watched the #MeToo motion shake the nation, she didn’t count on it to return for Mr. Kelly.

“I didn’t think it was for us,” she stated, “for black people.”

Then the filmmaker Dream Hampton reached out to Sparkle to ask if she would participate in a documentary about Mr. Kelly that may chronicle his alleged historical past of abusing women and girls. Sparkle stated she agreed to take part when it was made clear to her that her story can be within the documentary, whether or not she was or not. She stated she didn’t need another person to get it improper.

So she recorded an interview for what grew to become “Surviving R. Kelly.” The documentary unleashed a torrent of criticism towards Mr. Kelly when it was launched in January, rising public strain on regulation enforcement to pursue him. He was rapidly dropped by his report label.

But Sparkle didn’t inform the household the documentary was coming. Her mom had dementia and her well being was failing.

“I didn’t want this to be my mom’s end,” she stated.

In the autumn, simply days after her mom died, the trailer for “Surviving R. Kelly” was launched, and Sparkle was in it. Her sister texted her and informed her to depart them alone. Bennie Edwards and their brother, Lee, are the one two of her 5 siblings who’re talking along with her now.

She has been criticized for attempting to capitalize on the movie along with her new single, “We Are Ready,” she stated, however she is a singer, and that is how she processes her life. She plans to launch an EP, “Obstacle Course,” her first in practically 20 years, this summer season.

“You know, I was thinking back to a time, before was a MeToo,” she says on her new single, “it was just me.”



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