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20 Years Ago, She Warned Us About R. Kelly

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Lifetime

On this week’s episode of The Cut, senior writer Angelina Chapin and co-host Jazmín Aguilera talk about and talk with Sparkle (born Stephanie Edwards), who first reported R. Kelly to the police for allegedly sexually abusing her 14-year-old niece. Back then, no one believed her, but following the explosive documentary Surviving R. Kelly and the R&B artist’s trial, at the end of which he was found guilty of nine federal sex crimes, she’s been vindicated. Angelina spoke with Sparkle a few times during and after R. Kelly’s most recent trial to hear about the monumental costs she has paid for coming forward.

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To hear more about Sparkle’s story and R. Kelly’s abuse, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

ANGELINA: So Sparkle is a singer and she was R. Kelly’s protégé, back in the late nineties. She did a very popular duet with R. Kelly called “Be Careful” that had millions of listens and was on the top of the charts. She’s probably most well-known for that song.

SPARKLE: Little Diana is what they called me. Diana Ross, little Diane. It was like, everybody loves Sparkle, Sparkle’s great. She’s dope. She can sing. I love the way she dresses — her hair, her style, her everything …

ANGELINA: So it’s the late nineties and Sparkle’s career is taking off. She also has a niece who’s looking to get into music. She’s 12 and she’s an aspiring rapper. So she thought, well, who better to help her achieve success than the king of R&B. It was supposed to be a positive relationship that she had set up. So In 2000, Sparkle decided to stop working with R. Kelly musically. She wanted to make her second album on her own. And around the same time, this is 2001, she starts hearing from people inside of R. Kelly’s camp, former friends of hers, people who work with him that like, “Hey, your niece is in R. Kelly’s studio a lot. She’s by herself, she’s unsupervised.” Nobody told her anything specific, but she just started to get the feeling that something is not right.

SPARKLE: So I would give calls to my sister and say, “Hey, I’m hearing rumblings. You may want to check this out. Your niece is down here at the studio by herself, with no parental guidance. She’s just here wandering the halls.” And not to say that I thought something was going on at that time. The studio has a bunch of seedy things happening in different rooms. It could be drinking, smoking, just the whole gamut.

ANGELINA: And what would her response be during those years?

SPARKLE: “Oh no, she’s fine. That’s her godfather … everything is fine.” And I was like, look, we didn’t grow up that way.

ANGELINA: Sparkle couldn’t shake the worry. So she ended up calling child services and saying, “Can you look into this?”

SPARKLE:  I did that anonymously because I didn’t want people saying, “Oh, she’s a disgruntled ex-protégé of R. Kelly’s.” And I’m just an auntie. I can go no further than what I did. And because the laws state, you know, if I’m not a parent or guardian then …

ANGELINA: She didn’t have a lot of rights. So she kind of just had to wait and see what happened until later that same year, we’re still in 2001 when she gets a call from a lawyer.

SPARKLE: He called my home phone, don’t ask me how people were getting my home phone number, I do not know.

ANGELINA: Who says that he has a tape that he wants her to see.

JAZMIN: Oh, Jesus.

SPARKLE: I was horrified and I was disgusted. It’s one thing to hear things but to actually see. It’s a different thing.

ANGELINA: Who’s this lawyer and what’s his connection to the case? Do you remember how he found out about it, or …

SPARKLE: I don’t remember. Chicago it’s a big city, but it’s small. So if somebody saw the tape before me, maybe they told him who that could be. So he reached out to me in hopes that I would get my sister and brother-in-law to take him on to represent them. He showed me that tape and I called the family and they wanted to see it. Then minutes later, “No, we don’t want to see it, halt everything.” I’m assuming Robert got to them.

ANGELINA: And her theory is that R. Kelly somehow threatened them or whatever. I mean, she doesn’t know, and she doesn’t like to speculate, but from her experience, the door was shut. And her family cut off contact.

SPARKLE:  It floored me, absolutely floored me. Because we were very close, like very, very close. But you’re mad at me for what? How could you not want to put this man where he belongs?

ANGELINA: And you still don’t have an answer to that question?

SPARKLE: I don’t have an answer. I want an answer to that.

ANGELINA: What a difficult situation. You’re speaking out for someone who maybe doesn’t want you to speak for them. So what’s the right thing to do? I think it’s a valid, moral quandary and I can only imagine the inner tension of the person I love who I’m trying to shield from this won’t even talk to me and doesn’t even seem to want this. What am I doing?

SPARKLE: I’m sorry but he was the one who did wrong! Who would still be around a person who has violated their kid? I don’t know anybody who would be okay with that. And I’m trying to grasp how are you guys not getting this?


SPARKLE: This person has violated your daughter, my niece, who is 14 years old. For my family to not see what is there … and then the kicker for me is that even in knowing what he did, you still are going to his concerts, going to his parties, going to his home. You’re still engaged with him.

ANGELINA: She was horrified, but Sparkle being Sparkle, was also spurred to action. She’s just the kind of person who can’t sit by if something like that happens to anybody.

SPARKLE: I think first I called my sister-in-law because she was a cop. She was a Chicago cop at the time. She informed me what to do. I called the authorities. Some detectives came out, took my statement And they told me that their hands were tied.

ANGELINA: I don’t think there are words to describe what that must have been like.  This is the “infamous” pee tape. If you know anything about what R. Kelly’s done, you know about the pee tape. It was mocked widely and it became unfortunately sort of a cultural phenomenon. So in 2003, Dave Chappelle mocked R. Kelly’s singing style and overt sexuality, but it just made light of something serious and the culture was not grasping the severity of what R. Kelly was doing to these girls.

JAZMIN:  I don’t even really remember knowing that the girls were underage, especially when that Dave Chappelle skit came out. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that these were children.

ANGELINA: I don’t think that’s what he was trying to make a commentary on. I think it was just sort of like, “it’s crazy. R. Kelly has a pee kink.” That was sort of the extent. I don’t even think Dave Chappelle was going so far as to say that he likes them young as well. That wasn’t the takeaway.
Another thing is that the tapes were being bootlegged. They were being sold on street corners. This was something that people thought was funny and kinky and something that they could just watch in their dark, basements, not something he should go to trial for. It was just a twisted reaction from the culture and it was made into a pop-culture moment rather than a crime.

Jazmin: While that is happening, he does eventually go to trial. So was that trial the same trial about this tape? About this girl?

ANGELINA: So in the 2008 trial, all the charges stemmed from this particular video of this girl — charges stemming from 2002. So it took six years for him to go to trial, which is a long time, and acted in his favor because people have short memories, other shit happens. By the time he took the stand the “pee tape” was a bit of a distant memory. It’s an interesting trial because the niece and her parents refuse to testify, and the fact that he was acquitted is largely attributed to their absence.

JAZMIN: So then, so where is Sparkle in all of this? She’s watching this unfold, she’s watching the court case. Was she called to the stand or was she asked to testify or anything like that?

ANGELINA: Yeah, she did testify. You can imagine, throughout this trial how much would she wants to just be able to know what her niece and her family are going through, but she had no access to the most affected people and no way of finding solace in one another. She’s just completely iced out.

SPARKLE: When it did come back that he got off, I was disappointed. Wow. That’s all I could say was, wow. I had no other words to say.

ANGELINA: She went into a depression. She had some health issues. She was diagnosed with early-onset diabetes from all the stress and ended up in the hospital for five days and was in a dark place. I mean, she felt hopeless and felt like what’s the point in speaking out, nobody’s ready to hear this. It cost Sparkle her career and her family.

SPARKLE: They were lonely years. Even in those ten years, estranged from my family, homeless at a point, I spoke and took all of the backlash and would do it again because I don’t give a fuck. I’m sorry. Excuse my language. I don’t give a fuck who has anything to say about it? I did what was right at the right time. I didn’t wait a day, a month, a year, or five or ten to speak it. I wanted it to be known.

ANGELINA: I think of Sparkle as one of the OG whistleblowers with R.Kelly. I mean, there’s the journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times who has broken open this story and made it widely accessible to the public. But Sparkle sort of alongside him was always saying “R. Kelly abuses children. My niece was one of his victims and this video is not funny.” This is criminal evidence and she’s been ringing the alarm bell for the past two decades and faced some very serious consequences for doing so.

SPARKLE: Industry people took their boots and their skirts and they hiked them up and they ran for the hills. You can feel it.

ANGELINA: In the 2008 trial, R. Kelly was acquitted so all those people who just wanted to bump and grind to his music had a legal excuse to do so. You could say whatever you wanted about the guy, but the law came down and absolved him. For a while, like the next 10 years, it was up to the individual person what they wanted to do about his music. So Sparkle became prominent again in 2019 when she was part of the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly, which was explosive. It garnered a lot of attention to the case and it sort of shook viewers into having to look starkly at what these women were saying because they had all these first-hand interviews with accusers telling awful stories of being abused by R. Kelly. It revived the narrative of “did he illegally marry Aaliyah who was underage at the time?”

JAZMIN: And nobody talked about it!

ANGELINA: That was pretty fucked up. He got her a fake ID. All these details are put together.

SPARKLE: Now the people saw that I was telling the truth. As a human, you want vindication. They can’t give me enough vindication of the shit I’ve gone through. That can only come from God, trust and believe me, because, at the drop of a dime, they will flip flop on you in a minute.

ANGELINA: Every time she’d spoken out until this point, it had been “Sparkle is a liar, Sparkle’s a disgruntled protege, Sparkle’s a clout chaser.” And finally, after the documentary, yes, she was still getting that hate, but it was complemented by young girls and young women sliding into her DMs saying things like, “I wish you were my auntie. I wish you were my protector. Thank you so much for speaking out, I had such a horrible thing happen to me and I wish I had someone like you in my life to be my defender.”


ANGELINA: So I think that that was a turning point for her.

SPARKLE: There are more tapes, there are more people who’ve come forward, thankfully, and they don’t just have to rely on my testimony or my words anymore.

ANGELINA: Did you feel like you were carrying the torch of this?

SPARKLE: Yeah, I honestly did. I felt like it was just me and I had to cover my niece because nobody else was. And that’s how I felt the loneliness of that. I don’t think folks wanted to hear it. They weren’t ready. They didn’t want to hear it. And my brother, another brother of mine, he would always say to me, “look, Steph, if they don’t give a fuck about their daughter, then why should you? Why do you keep fighting this fight?” Because I have to. I know this is the right thing. This is about my family and it’s always been about my family. It’s never been about him because like I said, I will lay down again in front of that Mack truck and take it all over again. I laid down on the ground for my niece and these young girls.

ANGELINA: So this trial was much wider-reaching than the first one. So the first was very focused on child pornography and this one tape and this trial that just happened involved charges called racketeering and sex trafficking. Essentially the prosecutors were trying to prove that R. Kelly was the head of this elaborate trafficking ring that used his fame and his employees to entice young girls and boys into his orbit, who he then sexually abused and transported across state lines. It was going after the whole system of it rather than specifically child abuse or child pornography. Racketeering comes with a very serious sentence up to life in prison. You can see how the federal prosecutors were trying to nail him down as best they could.

JAZMIN: You sat down with Sparkle again once this second trial reached a verdict?

ANGELINA: Yes, I reached out …

SPARKLE: Hi Angelina.

ANGELINA: Hi. Tell me how you are feeling. I mean we just got this verdict in and R. Kelly was found guilty on all counts, which is remarkable given that he was acquitted a mere 10 years ago. It shows the power of having those first-hand testimonies. We heard at least 11 witnesses share their stories of being abused, horrible things about being trapped in rooms about being raped, about being bullied and harassed, and just made to do incredibly degrading things and basically being treated like child sex slaves. I think for a jury, that level of detail and volume of witnesses coming forward, is just so undeniable and has such a power that the first trial lacked.

SPARKLE: People think it’s a happy day, but it’s not a happy day. Do you know what I mean?

ANGELINA: He does face between ten years in prison to a life sentence.

SPARKLE: I’m happy with the verdict. Because I didn’t get to get that verdict when I was the first to speak regarding him and nobody believed me. And people probably still don’t believe me. I’m not happy to see the world read about another Black man going down. I never want that, but if you do what you’ve done, then you deserve what you get. And then that’s that.

JAZMIN: Has Sparkle had any conversations with her family since the trial ended?

ANGELINA: She hasn’t, but she would like to. The last time she did was over the summer when there was a death in the family and she reached out to her sister.

SPARKLE: When we did come back together, I asked my sister different questions and she would evade the questions and her thing was that God forgives.

ANGELINA: She’s gotten the message that they don’t want that contact. At this point in her life, she’s at a place where if they want to come to her, she’ll receive them. I think she wants to mend that relationship, but it’s not the kind of thing that she’s going to initiate. But thinking of her niece, it is incredibly painful not to know what her niece thinks or feels. She does hold hope that one day her niece might say something to the effect of “Hey, it took me a while, but I am glad that you spoke out.” We know that she is now cooperating with federal investigators so there’s some indication that she might want justice too. She might one day want to speak out, at least in a legal context. That’s the only clue Sparkle has that maybe her niece supports her speaking out as well.

JAZMIN: What’s striking to me is that we often think about these kinds of crimes as things that only happen between the criminal and the victim, but what this shows is that these crimes have huge ripple effects. It broke up a family and it destroyed Sparkle’s life. She didn’t actually get personally victimized, but indirectly, she absolutely did, just by trying to do the right thing and it completely changed the course of her life for 20 years. It’s not just the victims. These crimes have huge networks of harm that they cause and I’m really glad that we’re having these conversations now and revisiting them, but it’s also daunting.

ANGELINA: Yeah. It’s uncomfortable because none of us are above it. Most of us aren’t Sparkle and most of us can’t say, yeah, I stopped listening to his music as soon as I heard about the charges. I remember just listening to “Ignition” thinking that it was a great song, dancing with my friends, being 16 or whatever, and completely oblivious to the wider crimes, not thinking of the victims.

It’s both a cultural reckoning and a personal one to think about, “how did you engage with these artists at the time? Were you laughing at Brittany Spears? Were you listening to R. Kelly?” We all have to revisit our place during those moments and be honest with ourselves about where we were at and the answers can be ugly.

JAZMIN: Yeah. It’s kind of sad because the documentary revisiting a traumatic past has almost become a genre of entertainment now. And I mean, maybe that’s what it is going to take. Maybe that’s the self-policing system that will evolve from this. At least for now, there’s some justice being done.

ANGELINA: It seems only right that in this time, when we all have Netflix-addled brains, the only thing that snaps us to attention is the fifth Brittany Spears documentary or the Lifetime series on R. Kelly, but it is true. You could argue this trial would not have happened without that documentary, without Sparkle’s voice. She does have that on her side, knowing that she has prevented more girls and more boys from being abused.

SPARKLE: I have to see this assignment through. The takeaway for me is the strength to carry this on my back alone without a Me Too or a Time’s Up. I wish there was something like that back then, and even with Me Too now, I didn’t even know that it was for black women. We are so marginalized as women for our skin color.

R. Kelly will be sentenced for his crimes in May. There are still several other federal and state cases against Kelly pending.

20 Years Ago, She Warned Us About R. Kelly