She Warned Us About R. Kelly. No One Believed Her.

The singer Sparkle has been waiting 20 years for this verdict.

Photo: Whitten Sabbatini/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Whitten Sabbatini/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Whitten Sabbatini/The New York Times/Redux

On Monday afternoon, when Sparkle learned R. Kelly had been found guilty of all charges in his federal sex-crimes trial, she covered her eyes and bawled. Perhaps no one has waited longer for this news. For the past 20 years, Sparkle, whose real name is Stephanie Edwards, has been trying to convince the world that Kelly sexually abused her teenage niece. The decades-long crusade cost the 46-year-old her closest relationships and stifled her own music career.

Sparkle first introduced her then-12-year-old niece to Kelly in 1997 — a decision that still haunts her to this day. Back then she’d thought, who better to help launch the aspiring tween rapper’s career than the musical genius producing Sparkle’s first album? Four years later, in 2001, she watched a horrifying video that changed her life: It showed Kelly having sex with, and urinating on, her then-14-year-old niece, Sparkle says. “I was horrified and disgusted,” she told me. “I needed to act quickly, and that’s what I did.”

She called the police and went public with the allegation in a radio interview the following year. She later testified in Kelly’s 2008 trial, in which he was found not guilty of child-pornography charges, and told her story once again in the explosive Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly in 2019. But until today’s verdict, it often felt like she was shouting into a void.

Her niece’s parents stood by Kelly — who was accused of buying their silence in a recently unsealed federal indictment — and didn’t speak to Sparkle for a decade. She watched comedians and TV shows mock the “pee tape” while bootleg copies were hawked on street corners across America for $10. The music industry wanted nothing to do with her. Finally, the justice system, and the wider culture, has caught up with Sparkle’s clarion call that Kelly be held accountable. She spoke with the Cut about what it’s like to hear a guilty verdict, and how speaking out against someone so powerful has come with great personal loss.

After all these years of insisting that Kelly abused your niece, what’s it like to hear he’s been convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking, charges that involve sexually exploiting minors, and could face a life sentence in prison?

I didn’t think I would be emotional. But I am. [Her voice breaks.] It’s just been a long time for me, dealing with this. On the one hand, I think I’m a little sad because Robert was my ex-mentor and what he did was just a punch to my chest. And I’m also relieved. Thank God they got it right this time. At the first trial, nobody believed me. I hope all the girls, boys, and women affected by him are also breathing a sigh of relief. There’s finally some justice, though we have to wait and see what the sentence is. I was the Lone Ranger at first, and now I have my riders behind me.

Are you thinking about your niece?

We’re not in contact, but I’m definitely thinking of her and hoping that she’s okay. Even if she doesn’t feel the same about me. I’m thinking of her first and then of all the others who were affected.

This trial spanned five weeks of harrowing testimony, with 11 accusers taking the stand to describe being beaten, raped, and imprisoned by Kelly when they were teenagers. How closely did you follow along? 

I read some articles to keep up, but I’ve also tried to keep my peace. Hearing the details has been really hard. Robert’s behavior is so much worse than even I thought. I’m praying for everyone who had to relive their trauma during testimony. Thankfully, the atmosphere this time felt very different from the trial in 2008. The last 20 years have been absolutely exhausting for me. It’s been a lonely road.

You stopped working with Kelly in 1999, after he produced your first album, largely because of creative differences. When did you start becoming worried about your niece?

In 2001, I heard from people in R. Kelly’s camp that she was hanging out at the studio by herself, just wandering the halls, with no parental guidance. They were just saying, “Something doesn’t look right with this picture.” I told my sister and she said “That’s her godfather. Everything is fine.” But I was worried, and called Children and Family Services anonymously — I didn’t want people saying I was some disgruntled ex-protégée. I couldn’t go much further than that since I’m just an auntie. I didn’t have the rights of a parent or guardian to get involved.

Tell me about seeing the video. 

Later that same year, a lawyer contacted me and showed me the tape. I was disgusted and shattered. I called my family, and initially my niece’s parents wanted to see it. Then they changed their minds and stopped responding to me. Our relationship was done. Finito. I’m assuming Robert had gotten to them, but I’ll never really know what happened. So I called the police. They took my statement, and then basically told me their hands were tied if my sister and brother-in-law didn’t want to speak. I was trying to grasp, “How are you guys not getting this? This person has violated your 14-year-old daughter. Where are you guys?” I have five siblings and except for one brother, there was basically no more communication with most of my family for the next ten years.

That must have been so painful. 

In the beginning, I was devastated and hurt. The kicker for me was that my sister, brother-in-law, and niece were still going to Robert’s concerts, his parties, and his home. I thought, You’re still engaged with him? [She wipes tears from her eyes.] You’re mad at me for what? He did — [she chokes up]. I’m sorry. He was the one who did wrong! When I would visit my parents in our childhood home, my sister and her husband would exit stage left. My niece would not speak to me.

To keep from crying, I would just laugh it off. The fact that I introduced them still haunts me a little bit. Had I not tried to bring my family into his fold, maybe we wouldn’t be here right now. But I also know it’s not my fault.

Have you ever had doubts about speaking up, given your family’s opposition?

After seeing the video, there was not an iota of doubt that I needed to act. I had to cover my niece because nobody else was doing it. I don’t mention her name in interviews — when she’s ready, she can do that. I’m still very protective. But I’ve always been vocal, even as a young girl. If I see someone being harassed on the street, I’m gonna step in. I don’t know any other way.

In speaking out for my niece, I spoke out for a bunch of girls that I didn’t know. I laid down on the ground for them and took a Mack truck rolling over me. I took all of the backlash. I didn’t wait a day, a month, or ten years. I just wanted it to be known what this monster was doing. And I would do it all over again.

You took a stand against Kelly in the early to mid-aughts, when he was still putting out chart-topping albums, despite facing several lawsuits accusing him of having sex with teenage girls and being indicted on child pornography charges in 2002. Did you feel like you were living in a different reality from the culture? 

I was one of the first to call out what I saw on a 27-minute tape as a violation. I mean, nobody was believing me. I used to feel like, Am I crazy? Am I the only person seeing this? I wanted to shake the shit out of everybody. When the Dave Chappelle–“Piss on You” skit came out in 2003, it was a gut punch. I felt like that emoji with the top blown off my head. I thought, Are we looking at two different things? Had people listened to me and believed what I was saying, maybe we wouldn’t be here.

You were ringing the alarm bell a full 15 years before the Me Too movement, when allegations against powerful men were even more readily dismissed. 

It felt like I was carrying this on my back alone. And even when Me Too came around, I didn’t think it was for Black women. We are so marginalized. We don’t get that same support white women do — we’re treated as the bottom of the bottom. Had Robert targeted white girls, trust and believe, there would have been an army behind them.

We’ve talked about the estrangement from your family, but what about the professional hits you faced? Your first record went gold, but after putting out your second in 2000, you didn’t release any music for a while. 

My career was shattered. It used to be, “Everybody loves Sparkle. She’s dope.” They called me “Little Diana,” after Diana Ross. But when people heard I wasn’t on Robert’s side, they disappeared. It felt like that Homer Simpson GIF where he just backs into the bushes. Robert was so powerful in the industry, they didn’t care what he was doing. For the next 18 years I only put out a couple of songs. I felt disgusted with the music business. I did a lot of private events and made a few dollars. But at one point I was homeless, crashing at my friend’s place.

In Kelly’s 2008 trial, your niece and her parents refused to take the stand — likely a huge factor in his acquittal. Yet you, along with 13 other witnesses, identified her as the minor in the tape, and jurors watched the video with their own eyes. What was it like to hear that not guilty verdict come down? 

All I could say was, “Wow, they got it wrong.” I had no other words. I started getting pushback online. People would say, “She’s just mad about her career” or “She was lying.” After the trial, I think I did go through a depression. My body broke down. I was diagnosed with early-onset diabetes because of stress. At one point I was feeling really lethargic and ended up in the hospital for five days, for reasons related to the disease. I stopped speaking about the video for a while because I didn’t think folks wanted to hear it. They weren’t ready.

In 2019, you were a crucial part of the Surviving R. Kelly documentary. Why did you choose to tell your story again?

At first, I did not want to do it. My siblings and I had started speaking again in 2011, so we could throw my parents a 50th wedding anniversary. (My sister always evaded my questions about Robert by saying, “God forgives.” I think it was too painful for them to face what really happened.) I wasn’t looking to stir things up again, but the producers of Surviving R. Kelly said they were going to include me whether I was part of it or not. I didn’t want anybody lying on me or telling my story, so I said yes.

The day after we buried my mom in 2019, the trailer for the documentary hit, and all hell broke loose again. Conversations shut down. When my brother-in-law passed away this summer, I reached out to my sister but she didn’t respond. I went to the service and my niece and I didn’t speak. She’s now in her 30s and has a son — it’s sad not to be part of her family. I have no idea [what she thinks of the trial], but I do know she’s being cooperative with federal prosecutors [R. Kelly also faces other state and federal charges that include child pornography, sexual abuse, and conspiracy to rig his 2008 trial.] So maybe something’s changed. I’m hoping the day will come when she hugs me again. I still love my family very much, but I’ve created my own at this point.

Do you have any regrets about doing the documentary, which came at such a high personal cost at a time when you and your family were in a good place? 

I don’t. I’m happy I did it, because otherwise maybe we wouldn’t be here with this verdict. After the doc aired, more girls got the guts to come forward. Of course, people were posting stuff on my social media saying, “You’re a liar. You’re a clout chaser.” But for the first time, I got nonstop DMs and emails from women saying things like, “Oh, I wish you were my auntie. I wish you were there to speak out for me when this or that happened.”

Now that Kelly’s been convicted, do you feel vindicated? 

It feels good to have more support, but I don’t care about the vindication. I don’t trust it — people will turn on you in a minute. Even after Me Too, I haven’t heard from industry people saying, “Girl, we got your back,” or “Speak your truth.” It’s been radio silence. Where are they? No one’s apologized for shutting me out.

I’ve recently put out a few more tracks and have an EP, Obstacle Course, dropping in November. One of my songs, “Open Letter,” is to my family about what happened. To shoot the video I went back to my childhood home. I’ve stifled myself for a long time when it comes to releasing music, and writing it was a huge release.

R. Kelly will soon face another federal trial in Chicago. Would you take the stand against him again or are you ready to move on?

I’m praying I’m not called to testify at another trial, because I’ve already said my truth. But if I am, I will surely be there to share it all over again. I do have more to say, and more insights into what happened. I lost it all, but I’ve made gains as well.

Integrity is very important to me, and I still have mine intact. I can look in the mirror and say, “You’re okay, girl.” I didn’t take any money from Robert. I didn’t let anyone deter me from speaking up. I know that I’m going down in history being on the right side of truth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Listen to Sparkle discuss her role in bringing R. Kelly to justice and her reaction to the verdict on this week’s episode of The Cut podcast:

She Warned Us About R. Kelly. No One Believed Her.