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

Category: Entertainment,Music

CHICAGO — After nearly a decade of silence, the musician Sparkle and her family were finally talking again. Everyone welcomed her at her parents’ place after church on Sundays, at birthday parties for nieces and nephews.

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

One of her sisters texted her to say that she heard Sparkle was on “some TV show about rob” talking about the family. She told Sparkle to leave them alone.

Sparkle, a singer, was once R. Kelly’s protégée. He produced her first album in the late 1990s, which went gold. But in 2002, he was arrested on child pornography charges stemming from a video that shows a man having sex with and urinating on a teenager. Sparkle testified at trial in 2008 that the man in the video was Mr. Kelly, and that the girl was her 14-year-old niece.

Her testimony sliced her family into factions, relegating her to years of exile, and it may have stifled her career. Today, Sparkle is arguably more well known for her public stand against him than she is for her music. And as Mr. Kelly faces new charges of sexual abuse, prosecutors have told her she may be called to testify again.

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

[Read more about the latest charges against R. Kelly.]

Sparkle, whose real name is Stephanie Edwards, was born on the West Side of Chicago, the youngest of six children. (She described her current age as “somewhere between birth and death.”) The family moved to the suburb of Oak Park when Sparkle was 3, and she started singing in church a year later. Encouraged by her father, she and her siblings formed a gospel group growing up. “I don’t know if I ever dreamed of being a professional singer, because I wanted to be a model,” she said with a laugh. “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 a few years later, she said, 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 soon take on a sinister cast: The year the record was released, 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 comment for this article.

Sparkle said that at the time, she thought talk of the marriage was a publicity stunt. How could anything like that happen when Aaliyah’s parents and her uncle, who was Mr. Kelly’s manager, were always around? Still, she continued working with him.

Then, in 1996, Mr. Kelly changed Sparkle’s life. She was at a big retirement party for her father when Mr. Kelly called and asked her to come down to his studio in the River West neighborhood of Chicago. Down she went in a long black gown and heels, and when she arrived, she started recording what would become her own debut album, “Sparkle.” She spent time recording at night and went to work during the day at SportsChannel Chicago as an assistant engineer.

Sparkle’s album, released in 1998, was a success, selling half a million copies. But even before its release, her professional relationship with Mr. Kelly was so strained that he had threatened not to release it at all, she said. By the time they started working on her second album, it was untenable.

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

Sparkle said that she asked to be released from her contract, and he let her go. She put out her second album, “Told You So,” with Motown records in 2000, but it was far less successful.

Sparkle is still a singer, though she has never repeated the success she saw 20 years ago. She sang backup for Toni Braxton for a few years. She released a single in 2012 called “So Bad.” She said that private performances have helped her make a living. And just before the documentary about Mr. Kelly came out in January, she released a new song called “We Are Ready,” which explores the themes of the #MeToo movement. It is impossible to know what effect her schism with Mr. Kelly had on her career, but in a business grounded in relationships, alienating such a powerful figure certainly could have created roadblocks.

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

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

With long blond hair and an elegant bearing, Sparkle carries herself like a woman who knows how to have her picture taken, and how to stand her ground. But there is a warmth behind the glamorous presentation.

Good friends call her Steph, but Mr. Wayne has a lot of people calling her Miss Jenkins. That nickname comes from a skit on the TV show “In Living Color,” in which a gossipy character named Benita Butrell would dish into the camera and then proclaim, “but I ain’t one to gossip, so you ain’t hear that from me.” The character was known for freaking out and saying “Don’t nobody better say nothing bad about Miss Jenkins!” before trashing Miss Jenkins.

Sparkle, he said, hates keeping secrets, even of the most uncomfortable truths. She believes that if someone has done wrong, she is obligated to tell.

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

Before she and Mr. Kelly went their separate ways, Sparkle made a decision that would fundamentally alter her family: She introduced Mr. Kelly to her brother-in-law, a guitar player, and to her niece. The girl was an aspiring rapper, charismatic and talented, and Sparkle said she hoped Mr. Kelly could do for her niece what he was doing for her. (Her niece is now in her mid-30s, but Sparkle still refuses to say her name during interviews, which she describes as an effort to protect her.)

In 2001, a lawyer who said he wanted to represent her sister contacted Sparkle to say he had a tape of her niece having sex with Mr. Kelly. Sparkle decided to testify against Mr. Kelly, along with about a dozen other witnesses who identified Mr. Kelly and her niece in court. But her sister insisted that the girl in the video was not her child. The family split. Only one of Sparkle’s brothers — Bennie Edwards, who used to braid her hair and make her breakfast every morning as a child — stood by her.

“Sparkle, she loves her family, they need to know that,” Mr. Edwards said. “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 charges in 2008. Sparkle’s niece never testified, and his lawyers argued successfully that the identities of the people in the video could not be known for certain.

Now, prosecutors in Chicago say that another tape has surfaced showing Mr. Kelly having sex with the same girl. Mr. Kelly was arrested in February on charges involving four alleged victims, and while any trial could still be years away, the tape is a crucial piece of evidence in what may be the strongest case against him. Sparkle said she has seen stills of the video and that it’s clearly a different recording of the same people. Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer who gave the tape to prosecutors, said the people on the tape talk about the girl’s 14-year-old body parts.

But Mr. Avenatti is now facing legal troubles of his own, with federal prosecutors accusing him of stealing money from clients and lying about his income to the I.R.S. and in bankruptcy court. Mr. Avenatti has denied all the allegations against him and suggested that the case was politically motivated. (He has represented Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against President Trump.) “Any charges I am facing have nothing to do with the R. Kelly case and will have zero impact,” Mr. Avenatti said. “Greenberg is desperate,” he added, referring to Mr. Kelly’s lawyer, Steven Greenberg.

Mr. Greenberg has asked the judge for all electronic communications between Mr. Avenatti and the prosecutors. Mr. Greenberg suggested in a filing that the Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx may have been “manipulated” by Mr. Avenatti.

Friction between members of the Edwards family began to fade once Mr. Kelly’s trial was over, and in 2011, while planning their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, the siblings started speaking again. But inside their new calm, nothing related to Mr. Kelly was discussed, even as her brother-in-law continued to play guitar with him professionally. When Sparkle tried to speak with her sister about what happened, her sister would only say, “God forgives.”

In recent years, as Sparkle watched the #MeToo movement shake the country, she did not expect it to come for Mr. Kelly.

“I didn’t think it was for us,” she said, “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 would chronicle his alleged history of abusing girls and women. Sparkle said she agreed to participate when it was made clear to her that her story would be in the documentary, whether she was or not. She said she didn’t want someone else to get it wrong.

So she recorded an interview for what became “Surviving R. Kelly.” The documentary unleashed a torrent of criticism against Mr. Kelly when it was released in January, increasing public pressure on law enforcement to pursue him. He was quickly dropped by his record label.

But Sparkle did not tell the family the documentary was coming. Her mother had dementia and her health was failing.

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

In the fall, just days after her mother died, the trailer for “Surviving R. Kelly” was released, and Sparkle was in it. Her sister texted her and told her to leave them alone. Bennie Edwards and their brother, Lee, are the only two of her five siblings who are speaking with her now.

She has been criticized for trying to capitalize on the film with her new single, “We Are Ready,” she said, but she is a singer, and this is how she processes her life. She plans to release an EP, “Obstacle Course,” her first in nearly 20 years, this summer.

“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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