“I performed as R. Kelly for years, I have no regrets”

I’ve been singing as my main career for about 30 years. I live in England but my work has taken me all round the world. I’ve done gigs in nightclubs in Cannes, Barcelona and Portugal, I’ve had residencies in hotels in Dubai, and I’ve performed at golf clubs in Abu Dhabi.

I tend to sing soul and Motown music, although I’ll sometimes throw in some reggae or even rockier tracks, depending on where I’m performing. My job is to get people on the dance floor.

But eight years ago, an acquaintance suggested I get involved in the tribute market. They were a Michael Jackson tribute, and they said they were making a killing.

So, I decided to start performing as R. Kelly, alongside my other gigs. I thought he was an artist with a great catalog, and my look seemed to work reasonably well for the act. Plus, I didn’t know of any other R. Kelly tributes, so I saw a gap in the market.

Olu Shola
Olu Shola, 57, is a singer who lives in Hampshire, England.

Even when I started out, there was some controversy around R. Kelly. I realized this when I first performed my tribute act, in 2015, at a golf club in Abu Dhabi. I was performing with four other tributes—Madonna, Cher, Lionel Richie and Tina Turner—at what was being billed as The Concert That Never Happened. As part of its promotion, I was interviewed by a journalist for a local magazine. They asked me why I’d chosen R. Kelly, and whether I was concerned about the rumors.

At that point, there had been no trial or verdict that I was aware of, although Tiffany Hawkins had sued R. Kelly and won compensation in 1998. To me, it was just rumors. There had been aspersions about many different performers, as I told the journalist at the time, and I had chosen R. Kelly because he was an artist with a great number of hits.

Over the next couple of years, I performed between 10 and 15 times, usually at nightclubs and restaurants.

I found the set a refreshing break from my usual routine. When you perform covers of songs, there’s a set of classics that you tend to perform every night. They always go down well, but the repetitive nature means it doesn’t feel fresh to you as the performer. You can lose the love of a great song, like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” because of it.

When I performed as R. Kelly, on the other hand, I was performing songs I liked, and bringing back some of that retro ’80s, ’90s vibe.

Another big difference was that when you’re doing a whole range of song covers, you almost become a jukebox. When you have a tribute act, on the other hand, people come along to watch you perform because they actually want to hear the songs. As a performer, it’s the closest feeling to being R. Kelly, George Michael or any other famous singer. There’s something quite appealing about that.

The audience reaction was always positive. There would be situations, such as hen parties flirting with me; I’d just ham it up in jest and incorporate it into the act. At the time, R. Kelly’s image was of him being a “ladies’ man,” so as a performer there was an expectation that I would emanate that. It was just a bit of fun.

Olu Shola as R. Kelly
Olu Shola performing as R. Kelly. Shola performed his tribute act for two years, from 2015-2017.

Of course, I didn’t realize the ominous side to R. Kelly’s “ladies’ man” image. When I had been performing for over a year, the rumors were getting louder. Nobody ever challenged me, and there was no rage from anyone in the audience, but a few of my associates asked, “Are you sure you should be doing this act?”

I watched the first documentary, R. Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes, five years ago and made up my own mind. Even seeing the lowest level of misogyny—the “lad culture”—was abhorrent to me. It was obvious that something seriously wrong had happened, and it had affected many women. I have a daughter and three sisters and I respect women. I didn’t want to condone or promote anyone who I thought was guilty of violence, bullying or misogyny, so I decided to give up the act.

Even though I no longer do the tribute act, I still occasionally perform R. Kelly’s songs. As with Michael Jackson, there is still that question hanging over me about whether I should do so. But if I sing “Remix to Ignition,” as part of my set, it always goes down really well. Before I sing it, I usually say, “I know there’s a bit of controversy here,” and I address the elephant in the room.

I wouldn’t do a tribute act again, as it’s not the reason I got into music. Now, I’ve moved more towards corporate gigs, with a seven or eight-piece live band, and that’s what I enjoy more than anything.

Yet I have no regrets. It was an interesting act to perform, and I’ve taken away some valuable lessons in how the entertainment industry works. It was a learning curve.

Olu Shola is a singer based in Hampshire, England. Find out more about his work at olushola.co.uk.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As told to Katie Russell.

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