I saw crack being sold, people shot and killed,” Willie Ray Norwood Jr. recalls of the teenage years he spent running with a gang in L.A. “To actually get shot at and hear the bullets fly. That was the scariest thing. Even more scary is seeing your friends die.”
It was a bizarre turn for the homeschooled younger brother of R&B superstar Brandy, who grew up in a stable two-parent home in middle-class Carson, Calif. The son of Willie Ray Sr., 56, a church music director, and Sonja, 54, who manages Brandy, Ray J (the nickname he goes by) was already a mini-celebrity due to roles on FOX’s The Sinbad Show and his sister’s UPN sitcom Moesha. “I had a little bit of fame, but I didn’t know how to take it,” says Ray J, now 24. At 13, he started hanging out with members of the Bloods gang but never officially joined. “Brandy and my mom were off on tour, and my dad was busy at church. I wanted to be part of something that was just mine, and they accepted me.”
Ray J relives those troubled years on his recently released third album, Raydiation. “It explains a lot of things that were never spoken to me one-on-one,” says mom Sonja. “He didn’t want to hurt me.” In hindsight, the family realizes that they may have missed some warning signs. “I saw the change in his attitude and his appearance,” says Sonja. “I would always feel guilty that I would have to leave him to travel with Brandy.” Adds Brandy, 26: “I knew he was hanging out with those kind of people. But I didn’t know how deep it was.”
One day in 1995, while Ray J was walking near his house, a driver pulled up and pointed a shotgun at him. “He could’ve killed me just like that,” he says. “That was the point I thought, ‘I need to find a way to live right.’ ” Ray J called his mother, who bought him a plane ticket to join Brandy and her on tour. When they got home, he was sent to live with a godsister for a year until the Norwoods relocated to the San Fernando Valley.
Now, in addition to his music career, he has a role on the UPN sitcom One on One and hosts a video show on BET. He’s also closer than ever with his sister; he even sports a tattoo that says R&B with their birth dates underneath. “I ask him for advice. I’m where I always wanted to be with my brother,” says Brandy. Ray J agrees: “Being focused and family-oriented, that’s what’s important now.”
Chris Strauss. Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna in Los Angeles