Why R. Kelly Calls Himself “the Pied Piper of R&B”

Why R. Kelly Calls Himself “the Pied Piper of R&B”

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In GQ’s recent interview with R. Kelly, he addressed many of the troubling mysteries that have surrounded him over the years—albeit often in ways that only seemed to suggest even stranger and deeper puzzles about who he really is. But even a 11,000-word article couldn’t contain everything that Kelly discussed over those three days in Chicago.

One particular conversation covered something that has left plenty of people baffled, vexed, and incensed over the years: the way that, at the height of his legal issues involving alleged sexual predation, Kelly began referring to himself as “the Pied Piper of R&B.” It was startling enough that he continued to release highly sexualized records, though this could at least be presented as the stubborn refusal of an innocent man to change his style. But calling himself “the Pied Piper of R&B,” of all things—to many people, it just seemed as if he was taunting everyone.

In truth, Kelly seems completely bemused when—sitting on the ninety-ninth floor of the Sears Tower toward the end of our first meeting—I bring this up, and he appears to have no idea why I have done so.

“I started calling myself the Pied Piper,” he explains, “when I started using the flute sound in my music.” He starts listing songs in which he used it. (He mentions “Fiesta” and “Snake”; I mention “Step in the Name of Love,” the first of his own songs where he actually refers to himself by this name.) “I was the Pied Piper. You know, blew a flute. I started calling myself the Pied Piper because of the flute.”

But, I say, did you understand why people thought that was strange?

“Absolutely not,” he replies. “I was just thinking about the flute, you know.”

But, I continue, you know the story of the Pied Piper?

He shakes his head. “I don’t really know the story of the Pied Piper. I don’t read stories, first of all. I just remember either a rabbit or a rat leading people out of the village with a flute.” And he laughs at the thought. “That’s all I can tell you.”

So now I have the surreal experience of explaining to someone who has been calling himself “the Pied Piper of R&B”—for over a decade, through a parade of underage-sex accusations—the fable of the Pied Piper, as it is most often told and as I know it: how the Piper was hired by the people of Hamelin to lure away all of the town’s rats with his music and then, when he did so and the adults of Hamelin refused to pay him, how the Pied Piper took revenge by luring away all of their children and killing them.

Kelly seems sufficiently mystified that I genuinely believe he doesn’t know any of this. First he asks for a recap.

“He led all the…?” he says.

Children out of town and killed them, I repeat.

“Because they didn’t pay him?”

Yes.

I offer another summary: the Pied Piper, I explain, is a kind of bad guy who does terrible things to young people.

“Because they didn’t pay him…” he repeats, as though he’s still digesting the narrative. “Oh, wow, I never knew that. I never ran into no story like that.”

I will learn over and over again that R. Kelly’s relationship with both mundane reality and the truth seems to be a very complicated one—but as he tells me this, I do believe that he truly didn’t know. With almost anyone else in his situation, it’d be impossible to avoid knowing of at least some of the criticism that has rained down upon him for giving himself this nickname. But for the obvious reason that his reading ability is still limited, Kelly may be the one celebrity who truly does not read his own press.

“You know, I can’t believe that people really think deeply like that,” he says. “It’s kind of jokey to me, it’s goofy, because I don’t think enough people think that deep into me, they would compare me to some man that leads children out of the community and kills them. There’s no way they would buy my albums, there would be no way they would come to my concerts—anybody that thinks that way is sick. So definitely can’t pay them no time.”

I try to explain: It’s not so much that people think Kelly is literally the Pied Piper, just that they thought it was a strange and insensitive choice of imagery, considering the circumstances. But for R. Kelly, the roads between not understanding something, and then feeling misunderstood, and then feeling indignant are all short, quickly travelled, and soon he’s had enough of this nonsense.
“People love the Pied Piper when I did that!” he objects. “That blew up!” Some piqued laughter. “Come on now—that blew up! Pied Piper! People loved that! My album went three-platinum, four-platinum. It did really well for me. I’ve called myself the Pied Piper, I’ve called myself the Weatherman, I’ve called myself Kellz, I’ve called myself a lot of things, changing the name, switching it up, just flipping, remixing. But never to harm anybody. Never to make a deep statement for people to dig into and figure it out.”

He says it as though he’s just another person out here trying to live his life in a good way, and that even when you do that, there is simply no telling what all these weird troublemakers will think up and throw at you next. As if this is just one example of many.

“Wow,” he says. “But okay.” –gq.com

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