Determined to turn his life and career around after two decades of stops and starts, Emmanuel Kelly came up with a wish-list of chart-toppers with whom to perform by the end of his 22nd birthday year. Dreaming big was natural for the musician, who escaped growing up amid bombs and bullets in Iraq to build a new life in Australia, where a 2011 “X Factor” Australia appearance spawned a global following and concerts from Sydney to Las Vegas.
But behind the scenes, the singer’s heritage and physical differences sparked endless rejections from record labels, agents and managers, pushing Kelly down a dark hole of drugs and drink, until he manifested his musical dreams back to life.
“I wanted to perform with one of five artists — Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Adele and Coldplay,” the 26-year-old Kelly tells Variety. “Coldplay was at the end because with the others, I had two degrees of separation, but Coldplay was like an impossible dream.”
Five years later, Kelly’s thrilled to debut his new single “Red Love,” from his forthcoming album “Your Story,” executive produced by idol-turned-mentor Chris Martin. The two have now performed together multiple times.
As the Coldplay frontman recalls, he was gearing up for the band’s 2016 Australian tour when mutual pal Dr. Habib Sadeghi sent him a video. “He said, ‘Check this guy out. Why don’t you call him up?’” Martin says.
Soon, Kelly found himself invited to join Martin onstage in Melbourne. “We met and immediately connected,” Kelly says. “Both of us being great-looking men helped!”
“He is a handsome mother fucker,” Martin cracks. “But he’s also a beautiful soul. Before you get to what he’s been through or how he’s differently-abled, he’s just a sweet a person who’s always looking to see the light in situations. And he’s a very good singer. His voice is beautiful. … Then once you learn about his story, he’s living alchemy in terms of someone most people would’ve written off, who instead turned into this bright star. He’s very inspiring. It’s impossible to be around Emmanuel and complain about stupid shit!”
Performing “Imagine” with Coldplay was a defining moment for Kelly. It was a world away from the volatile environment in which he grew up — singing made-up tunes after being abandoned in a box as an infant, then raised in an orphanage. In between hearing bombs explode, seeing bullets pierce walls and witnessing executions, Kelly and his future adoptive brother, Ahmed, found joy in riding around abandoned wheelchairs, playing with LEGO and Kelly’s ultimate “salvation,” music.
At five, he met Australian humanitarian Moira Kelly, who assured him she’d return to help them. But during the two-year wait, that beacon of hope transformed into unshakeable fear. “The fear of her not coming back built up and created trauma, which never escaped me,” Kelly says.
Eventually brought to Australia, Kelly underwent six surgeries to improve his physical abilities. But he constantly feared Moira, who adopted the two, would send them back to Iraq. When Kelly obtained citizenship, he dreaded it would be revoked. And after Coldplay, Ben Lee and Kelly Clarkson inspired him to become the first differently-abled popstar, Kelly made it onto “X Factor” Australia only to worry he would screw up.
“Fear surrounded me. It was only after I stepped onto Coldplay’s stage, I finally escaped fear for hope and self-love.”
Getting to that point was a feat following the lows Kelly faced post-“X Factor.” One music executive declared his physical differences (which include a prosthetic leg, one arm and spinal issues caused by scoliosis) wouldn’t look good for their brand. Another worried people might associate his Iraqi background with terrorism.
Says Kelly: “It drove me down a dark path where I got on drugs, drank too much, became homeless. I was full of self-loathing and trying to find validation.”
It was during that period Kelly penned “Red Love,” premiering on Variety and releasing on Feb. 12. The song was inspired by his longing to regain his post-“X” Factor success.
Martin was struck by the song. “Emmanuel’s melodies just have that magic,” says Martin, who also appeared in the video for Kelly’s previous single, “Never Alone,” alongside Demi Lovato. “Some songs feel like they always existed somewhere. Once you hear ‘Red Love,’ you’re, like, ‘This must’ve existed in some dimension.’ It just needs to be heard.”
After writing “Red Love,” which features British singer Charli Taft, Kelly’s turning point came at 21, when he punched a mirror, frustrated he no longer recognized himself. Quitting drugs, he began reciting affirmations like, “It’s none of your business what anyone thinks of you. It’s only your business what you think of yourself.”
Gradually, the “courage and survival instincts” he relied on in Iraq kicked in and soon he was performing for Oprah, alongside David Foster, and, after penning his wishlist, Coldplay.
Martin was in his twenties himself when his career took off with Coldplay’s 2000 debut, “Parachutes.” He offered to mentor Kelly and hopes to pass on lessons from that pivotal time.
“The best thing I can say to Emmanuel is never give up,” Martin offers. “If you believe in something, there’s so many examples in history of people who were told to give up, but didn’t. It’s so important if you’re into music just not to stop. That sounds simple, but it’s about enjoying music — not end goals, outside validation or chart placing. If your being called to sing or write songs, do it and whatever follows, follows. That’s the best advice I got.”
Martin’s support helped Kelly when it came to naysayers. Says Kelly: “I remember sitting in Sweet Greens in Los Angeles and Chris asked, ‘What’s the issue?’ I said, ‘Labels says they don’t know how to make it happen.’ He goes, ‘They said the same thing to Ed Sheeran, but Ed proved them wrong by creating good music.’ I said, ‘You’re right,’ and he goes, ‘I know I’m right because that’s what we did! I was a curly-haired, scrawny guy who lived on ramen noodles when I started. Our first album cover wasn’t three GQ models. We were geeky-looking dudes, who had an album we were proud of, which the world thought was great. We marketed that album and the rest took care of itself. That’s what we’ll do.’”
Martin signed on as executive producer, but labels still wouldn’t embrace Kelly, until he met Pacific Records CEO Brian Witkin. The company’s roster includes O-Town, Sprung Monkey — and now Kelly.
“I was so impressed by his musical ability, positive attitude and incredibly inspiring story,” says Witkin, who’s mastered “Red Love” at Pacific Records’ San Diego studio. “We’re so excited to share his music and positive message with the world.”
For his part, Martin downplays, “My role was just to say ‘That’s a good song.’ ‘I like that.’ ‘Want some cake?’ Simple as that!”
Adds Kelly: “He put so much more time and effort than just saying, ‘This is good.’ Chris is extremely humble and wants people to know I did this, not him. But I wouldn’t have done it as well without his motivation. I’d send him songs and he’d say, ‘Your melody’s amazing. The lyrics? Think deeper. Write your life into lyrics.’”
“Your Story” releases in June, accompanied by a one-man show featuring Kelly telling his story through his songs. He also has reality show, “Completely Abled,” and podcast, “Put Out of the Box,” coming up and is launching record label/management company, Outliers. “We want to work with the outliers of the world — the Emmanual Kellys. People with incredible stories, who’d never get a second look in the society we live in.”