Robert Kelly was born to Joanne Kelly on January 8, 1967, at Chicago Lying-in Hospital in Hyde Park, Chicago. He is the third of four children with an older sister and brother and a younger brother. His mother was a professional singer, and raised her children in the Baptist church where she sang lead in the choir. Kelly has never met his father, who remains absent in his son’s life. His family lived in the Ida B.
Wells Homes public housing project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Kelly’s high school music teacher Lena McLin described Kelly’s childhood home: “It was bare. One table, two chairs. There was no father there, I knew that, and they had very little.”Kelly began singing in the church choir at age eight.
Robert Kelly grew up in a house full of women, who he said would act differently when his mother and grandparents were not home. From age eight to 14 Kelly was often sexually abused by a woman who was at least ten years older than himself.
“I was too afraid and too ashamed”, Kelly wrote in his 2012 autobiography Soulacoaster about why he never told anyone. During that time, at age 11, he was shot in the shoulder while riding his bike; the boys stole his bike while he lay bleeding on the sidewalk; the bullet is reportedly still lodged in his shoulder.
Kelly was eight when he had his first girlfriend, Lulu. They would hold hands and eat make-believe meals inside their playhouse built from cardboard, where they “vowed to be boyfriend and girlfriend forever.
“Robert Kelly wrote in his autobiography that their last play date turned tragic when, after fighting with some older children over a play area by a creek, Lulu was pushed into the water. A fast-moving current swept her away while she screamed “Rob”, his childhood nickname. Shortly thereafter, her lifeless body was found downstream. Kelly calls Lulu his very first musical inspiration.
Kelly was a street performer under the Chicago “El” tracks. Kelly entered Kenwood Academy in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in the fall of 1981, where he met music teacher, Dr. Lena McLin, who encouraged Kelly to perform the Stevie Wonder classic “Ribbon in the Sky” in the high school talent show. A shy Kelly put on sunglasses, was escorted onto the stage, sang the song and won first prize.
Dr. McLin had encouraged a young Kelly to leave the high school basketball team and concentrate on music. She said he was furious at first, but after his performance in the talent show, he changed his mind. McLin remains Kelly’s voice coach and spiritual adviser.
Kelly played basketball with the late Illinois state champion basketball player Ben Wilson and sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” at Wilson’s funeral.
An undiagnosed and untreated learning disability, believed to be dyslexia, left Kelly unable to read or write. He dropped out of high school and as a teenager, Kelly began street performing under the Chicago Transportation Authority “El” tracks and eventually formed a group with friends Marc McWilliams, Vincent Walker and Shawn Brooks.
In 1989, they formed the group MGM (Musically Gifted Men). In 1990, MGM recorded and released one single “Why You Wanna Play Me”; after its release the group disbanded. In 1991, Kelly signed with Jive Records and teamed with a new group from Chicago called Public Announcement.
Kelly was extremely close to his mother Joanne, who took him with her to church and a local club where she performed. She died from cancer in 1993. He would later name his eldest daughter after her.