WRITTEN BY MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA
R&B superstar R. Kelly enters the recording studio dressed all in black, wearing his trademark baseball cap and sunglasses, and descends onto a couch.
The artist who earned the “King of R&B” moniker after becoming the most successful R&B male artist of the 1990s wants to talk about his mentor, famed Chicago Public Schools teacher and vocal coach Lena McLin. He was in town to perform at an Oct. 14 benefit concert in her honor at the Chicago Theatre.
“On the first day I met her, Ms. McLin told me, ‘You’re going to be one of the greatest singers, songwriters and performers of all time.’ I thought the lady was crazy,” says Kelly, 48, a three-time Grammy Award winner who has been nominated 25 times.
Kelly has lived up to McLin’s expectations. The Recording Industry Association of America and Billboard include him among the best-selling musical artists of all time. He was named the most successful R&B artist in the 25-year period of 1985-2010 by Billboard.
“Ms. McLin reached down in me and pulled out something greater than me,” Kelly says. “She taught me opera, classical music, jazz, gospel. She said, ‘You are music. You’re not in any one category. Anything you attempt, you’ll be able to tap into the spirit of it, and that’s the gift you have.’ She made me.”
Currently on a nationwide tour, Kelly scheduled a Chicago stop specifically for the benefit concert to raise funds to help the 87-year-old retired teacher keep her home. McLin, who taught at CPS for 36 years, has been fighting to stay in her longtime apartment at 69th and Oglesby, which is being converted into condos she couldn’t afford on her teachers pension.
“I cleaned that apartment so many times, just paying my dues, no different than I would clean my mom’s house,” Kelly says. “I would carry her book bags from school to the car, get in the car and make sure she got home. I wanted to hang with Ms. McLin, because . . .”
His voice cracks. A tear falls. Silence.
“. . . because nobody. Nobody. Could do what she did for me. Nobody was even interested in doing what she did for me. Nobody. Even to this day. Nobody has my interest like she does,” he says, choking back tears.