“American Idol” contestant R.J. Helton has apparently been asked this question before. “Simon’s not as bad as he seems on TV,” he offers before the query is ever made. He also reveals that Simon often complimented him after the end of an “American Idol” taping, much to the singer’s chagrin. During a recent promotional tour, Helton stopped by the CCM offices for a friendly visit and to showcase songs from his debut release, "Real Life" (B-Rite), including final mixes he hadn’t even heard yet. While our tendency may have been to feel sympathetic for this fourth-runner-up, who has now decided to make his foray into Christian music (of all things); he, on the other hand, carries no regret.
“When we [the other contestants] got to the top 10, we all realized we did not want to win because of what it would entail,” he explains of the contractual obligations to which the singers would be held.
“I am actually glad I was No. 5; if I had been No. 4, I would have had to stay attached longer.” (For the record, Helton is still friendly with “Idol” contestants Kelly Clarkson and Christina Christian and enjoys weekly Bible studies with Tamyra Grey when he’s in Los Angeles.)
But, with his “American Idol Tour” long since completed, Helton is free of any obligation to the franchise’s machine and is happily signed to Gospo-Centric’s B-Rite label, home to artists such as Kirk Franklin, Byron Cage, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Kurt Carr. “Since Kirk [Franklin] broke down so many walls [between the mainstream and Christian markets], I knew that would be the label to go with,” says Helton.
The fact that he signed with a Christian label comes as somewhat of a surprise, considering the offers he got from other mainstream labels. But when asked why he made the decision to enter the Christian market simultaneously with the mainstream, Helton recalls an experience from his “American Idol” days. “People magazine said the only thing limiting me was my devout Christianity. I am proud to be known in that way and know that God blesses those who are bold and speak who He is.”
And while Helton has certainly proclaimed his faith in his songs, he hasn’t created music that sounds like your typical Christian adult contemporary or even R&B fare. Drawing inspiration from four producers, including Tommy Sims (Kelly Clarkson, CeCe Winans), Reed Vertelney (Luther Vandross), Bernie Herms (Natalie Grant, Plus One) and New Tone Productions (Dana Glover, Black Eyed Peas, Eric Benet), to create "Real Life," Helton showcases his vocal chops and a writing ability that fall more in line with what’s heard in the general market today – just with a more redemptive spin.
“My goal is to bring happy, good music to the mainstream,” he says. “We’re missing good influences. My message is that there is hope and to look above.”
Helton is quick to give credit to the various producers on "Real Life" for the help to make that vision come into focus. “I made friends with them,” he states. “[A few] really allowed me to break free. They helped me to be a man of God by showing me honesty and integrity as well as being there to pray, encourage and provide accountability.”
Having that support was important, given the nature of some of the songs Helton co-wrote. One song in particular, “Delicate Child,” reflects the freedom he feels after having dealt with the pain of child sexual abuse at the hand of a close family friend. “I did not really come to terms with it until my junior year of high school,” he says. “Writing became part of the healing process for me.”
The process also included coming to terms with the concept of forgiveness, initially a stumbling block for Helton. “A Way to Forgive” speaks of that acceptance. “Learning how to forgive was a tough issue. I had a lot of anger to deal with, and I couldn’t trust anyone,” he states. “But a good friend told me that forgiving someone is like setting a prisoner free, and that prisoner is you.”
Helton has also developed a passion to help other “prisoners” break free. At home in Atlanta he has become involved with agencies that help victims of childhood abuse, and he looks forward to delivering a hopeful message to child and adult victims. Based on statistical data indicating one out of every three women and one out of every six men have been sexually abused at some point in life, Helton firmly believes that many of his potential fans are struggling with this issue. Since, as a rule, sexual abuse isn’t talked about much – especially concerning young boys – Helton wants to be one to speak out.
His lifelong ambition will give him the platform to do just that. “I have been singing since I was 3, and music has been a part of my entire life,” Helton says. “All of my life I wanted to be in the entertainment industry.” When he was 5 he earned standing ovations in talent competitions and began performing solos at his first home church in Pasadena, Texas. Three years later, he attended a performing arts school and gained exposure to theater and dance. Throughout high school Helton joined local community theater programs and landed lead roles in several musical productions. Following graduation he took part in a promotional tour sponsored by Reader’s Digest, visiting more than 150 schools nationwide and developing an initial fan base of nearly 10,000. (Coincidentally, “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul performed on this tour as well early in her career.)
Musical aspirations brought Helton to Nashville, where he first waited tables and eventually performed and sought a record deal as part of a Christian “boy band” in the making. But after a few months with no response, he went on the road for another artist, selling merchandise and sleeping on the floor of a tour bus. Six months later Helton headed back to Atlanta and became a personal trainer and a gymnastics instructor for children. It was in Atlanta that he happened to surf past a channel and see the fateful TV spot for the “American Idol” auditions.
As he lives out his dream to be a recording artist, the journey to this point in life seems to be every bit as significant as his actual achievements. “I’ve grown so much just through the making of this album,” Helton notes. “I was really forced to look inside and deal with some things I had not dealt with before. It was a huge learning experience for me. I think I’m finally getting the chance to grow into the man I want to be, and it feels great.”
© 2004 CCM Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Click here to subscribe.
Photo by Isabel Snyder