Over the weekend, the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago's South Side played host to the 82nd annual Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest and biggest African-American parade in America.
Serving as the parade's honorary grand marshal was a very popular -- and not uncontroversial -- Chicago celebrity: R&B superstar R. Kelly.
Born Robert Sylvester Kelly, the multi-platinum superstar grew up on the South Side, bouncing from housing project to housing project before enrolling at Kenwood High School. There, a music teacher encouraged him to perform Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky" at a talent show, and while he never graduated, a life-long passion for singing was born. He took his talents to "L" stops and community events, until a record executive discovered him at a barbecue, according to a Chicago Sun-Times biography of Kelly.
Scandals hit early in his career, after he co-wrote and performed the song "Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number" with then-15-year-old Aaliyah. It was also revealed that he had married her the same year, falsely listing her age as 18 on the marriage license. That marriage would later be annulled.
Years later, a sex tape would surface allegedly featuring R. Kelly performing sex acts with minors; the singer denied it was him in the video, and a jury ultimately sided with him in a high-profile trial.
He has also said that, as a result of his unstable upbringing, he is not fully literate. "For the record, R Kelly is not the best at reading and writing. I don't have no shame in saying that," he told VIBE magazine in 2004. "I went through a lot of stuff coming up as a kid. We were in and out of school, moving all the time, and I never got the fair chance to get that full attention when it came to school."
Kim Janssen at the Sun-Times puts it succinctly in his piece on the Billiken Parade this weekend: "A man who admits he cannot read and famously beat child-porn charges might not seem the most obvious honorary grand marshal of a children’s back-to-school parade."
But that story also quotes a number of attendees, the majority of whom were thrilled to see him. “You’re still my baby, no matter what you did!” one reportedly said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was also in attendance, as were a number of other politicians, performers and thousands of community members out to celebrate the end of summer.
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