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It has been nearly 15 years since music journalist Jim DeRogatis caught the story that has since defined his career, one that he wishes didn’t exist: R. Kelly’s sexual predation on teenage girls. DeRogatis, at that time the pop-music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, was anonymously delivered the first of two videos he would receive depicting the pop star engaging in sexual acts with underage girls. Now the host of the syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions and a professor at Columbia College, DeRogatis, along with his former Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch, didn’t just break the story, they did the only significant reporting on the accusations against Kelly, interviewing hundreds of people over the years, including dozens of young women whose lives DeRogatis says were ruined by the singer.
This past summer, leading up to Kelly’s headlining performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival, DeRogatis posted a series of discussions about Kelly’s career, the charges made against him, and sexual assault. He published a live review of the singer’s festival set that was an indictment of Pitchfork and its audience for essentially endorsing a man he calls “a monster.” In the two weeks since Kelly released his latest studio album, Black Panties, the conversation about him and why he has gotten a pass from music publications (not to mention feminist sites such as Jezebel) has been rekindled, in part because of the explicit nature of the album and also because of online arguments around the Pitchfork performance.
I was one of those people who challenged DeRogatis and was even flip about his judgment — something I quickly came to regret. DeRogatis and I have tangled — even feuded on air — over the years; yet, amid the Twitter barbs, he approached me offline and told me about how one of Kelly’s victims called him in the middle of the night after his Pitchfork review came out, to thank him for caring when no one else did. He told me of mothers crying on his shoulder, seeing the scars of a suicide attempt on a girl’s wrists, the fear in their eyes. He detailed an aftermath that the public has never had to bear witness to.
DeRogatis offered to give me access to every file and transcript he has collected in reporting this story — as he has to other reporters and journalists, none of whom has ever looked into the matter, thus relegating it to one man’s personal crusade.
I thought that last fact merited a public conversation about why.
In this interview (which has been condensed significantly), DeRogatis speaks frankly and explicitly about the many disturbing charges against Kelly and says, ultimately, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
Refresh our memories. How did this start for you?
Being a beat reporter, music critic at a Chicago daily, the Sun-Times, R. Kelly was a huge story for me, this guy who rose from not graduating from Kenwood Academy, singing at backyard barbecues and on the El, to suddenly selling millions of records. I interviewed him a number of times. Then TP2.com came out. I’d written a review that said the jarring thing about Kelly is that one moment he wants to be riding you and then next minute he’s on his knees, crying and praying to his dead mother in Heaven for forgiveness for his unnamed sins. It’s a little weird at times. It’s just an observation.
The next day at the Sun-Times, we got this anonymous fax — we didn’t know where it came from. It said: R. Kelly’s been under investigation for two years by the sex-crimes unit of the Chicago police. And I threw it on the corner of my desk. I thought, “player-hater.” Now, from the beginning, there were rumors that Kelly likes them young. And there’d been this Aaliyah thing — Vibe printed, without much commentary and no reporting, the marriage certificate. Kelly or someone had falsified her age as 18. There was that. So all this is floating in the air. This fax arrives and I think, “Oh, this is somebody playing with this.” But there was something that nagged at me as a reporter. There were specific names, specific dates, and those great, long Polish cop names. And you’re not going to make that crap up. So I went to the city desk and I asked, “What do we do with this?” They said, Abdon Pallasch is the courts reporter, why don’t you two look into it and see if there’s anything there? And it turns out there had been lawsuits that had been filed that had never been reported.
When you cover the courts in Chicago or any city, you go twice a day and you go through the bin of cases that have been filed and every once in a while Michael Jordan’s been sued or someone went bankrupt and it’s this sexy story and you pull it out. These suits had been filed at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Ain’t no reporter working at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and they flew under the radar. So we had these lawsuits that were explosive and we didn’t understand why nobody had reported them.
Explosive in what regard?
They were stomach-churning. The one young woman, who had been 14 or 15 when R. Kelly began a relationship with her, detailed in great length, in her affidavits, a sexual relationship that began at Kenwood Academy: He would go back in the early years of his success and go to Lina McLin’s gospel choir class. She’s a legend in Chicago, gospel royalty. He would go to her sophomore class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio. She detailed the sexual relationship that she was scarred by. It lasted about one and a half to two years, and then he dumped her and she slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. Other girls were involved. She recruited other girls. He picked up other girls and made them all have sex together. A level of specificity that was pretty disgusting.
Her lawsuit was hundreds of pages long, and Kelly countersued. The countersuit was, like, 10 pages long: “None of this is true!” We began our reporting. We knocked on a lot of doors. The lawsuits, the two that we had found initially, had been settled. Kelly had paid the women and their families money and the settlements were sealed by the court. But of course, the initial lawsuits remain part of the public record.
So her affidavit, this testimony — it’s all public record?
To this day, any reporter who so cares can go to Cook County and pull these records, so it drives me crazy, even with some of the eloquent reconsiderations we’ve seen of Kelly in recent days, that they keep saying “rumors” and “allegations”. Well, “allegations” is fair, OK. You’re protected as a reporter, any lawsuit that has been filed as fact. The contents of the lawsuit are protected. So these were not rumors. These were allegations made in court.
Do you think part of how it’s been handled and why it’s been under-reported is that music writers may not know how to deal with it in a journalistic sense?
Let’s start with the most mundane part. A lot of people who are critics are fans and don’t come with any academic background, with any journalistic background, research background. Now, nobody knows everything, and far be it from me to say you’ve got to be a journalist or you have to have studied critical theory in the academy. Part of what we do is journalistic. Get the names right, get the dates right, get the facts right. Sometimes, on a very rare number of stories, there’s a deeper level of reporting required.
There’s another reason: People are squeamish. I think a lot of people don’t know how to do it, don’t care to do it, and it’s way too much work. It’s just kind of disgusting to have to write about this and bum everyone out when you just want to review a record.
You and I got into it over Twitter around Pitchfork, in part over the fact that you were saying, “If you are enjoying R. Kelly, you are effectively cosigning what this man has done.” At the time, I was being defensive, saying people can like what they like.
To be clear, I think Pitchfork was cosigning it. I think each and every one of us, as individual listeners and consumers of culture, has to come up with our own answer. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. The thing that’s interesting to me is that Pitchfork is a journalistic and critical organ. They do journalism and they do criticism. And then when they are making money to present an act — that’s a cosign, that’s an endorsement. That’s not just writing about and covering it. They very much wanted R. Kelly as their cornerstone artist for the festival. I think it’s fair game to say: “Why, Pitchfork?”
I had purposely not listened to his music since the initial charges came out, and I saw these ninth- and 10th-grade girls interviewed on TV, talking about how he was in the parking lot of their school every day and everyone knew how come. That is what it took for me.
Part of our reporting was sitting with those girls, sitting with their families, seeing their scars on their wrists, hearing the emotion.
Some of our young critical peers, they’re 24 and all they know of Kelly’s past is some vague sense of scandal, because they were introduced to him as kids via Space Jam. A lot of your reporting on this is not online, it is not Google-able. Collective memory is that he “just” peed in a girl’s mouth.
To be fair, I teach 20-year-olds at Columbia. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody knows everything. A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people. James Brown beat his wife. People are always, “Why aren’t you upset about Led Zeppelin?” I got the Bonham three rings [tattooed] on my foot. Led Zeppelin did disgusting things. I read Hammer of the Gods, I’m disgusted by the group sex with the shark. [Note: it was actually a red snapper! Still gross.] I have a couple of responses to that: I didn’t cover Led Zeppelin. If I was on the plane, like Cameron Crowe was, I would have written about those things if I saw them.
The art very rarely talks about these things. There are not pro-rape Led Zeppelin songs. There are not pro-wife-beating James Brown songs. I think in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits. The videotapes — and not just one videotape, numerous videotapes. And not Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson, Kardashian fun video. You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his “gift.” It’s a rape that you’re watching. So we’re not talking about rock star misbehavior, which men or women can do. We’re talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined. Read the lawsuits!
And there was a young woman who was pressured into an abortion?
That he paid for. There was a young woman that he picked up on the evening of her prom. The relationship lasted a year and a half or two years. Impregnated her, paid for her abortion, had his goons drive her. None of which she wanted. She sued him. The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different.
No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.
And they learned that after putting these suits forth and having them get nowhere? Do you think they didn’t get traction because of the representation they had, or Kelly’s power? Were certain elements in concert with that?
I think it was a lot of things, including the fact that Kelly was fully capable of intimidating people. These girls feared for their lives. They feared for the safety of their families. And these people talked to me not because I’m super reporter — we rang a lot of doorbells on the South and West sides, and people were eager to talk about this guy, because they wanted him to stop!
Going back a little bit to our original question: You get this tape dropped in the mail …
Well, the tape came a year after we ran the first story. We ran this story and the world shrugged. Associated Press picks it up: “Chicago Sun-Times has reported a pattern of sexual predation of young women by Robert Kelly,” and everybody says, “Ah, well, OK.” Then one day I get this call that says: “Go to your mailbox. There’s this manila envelope with a videotape in it.”
We had gotten one videotape already after the first story, and we gave it to the police. When I say “we,” I mean a roomful of editors sitting around asking, “What is the right thing to do here? This would seem to be evidence of a felony, we should give it to police.” There was one tape, but the police could not determine the girl’s age. The forensic experts they had looking at it said judging by the soles of her feet, they could tell she was 13 or 14 at the time this tape was made, but we can’t identify who the woman is. Videotape No. 1.
There were tapes on the street. And I had heard of another video tape with a girl who was part of an ongoing relationship. This is the girl who was in the tape that was in the lawsuit.
And some 40 people testified that it was her?
Yeah. Coaches, best friend’s parents, pastor, half the family, grandmother, aunt — but the mother and father never testified, the girl never testified. When we wrote our story about the tape, the girl and mother and father took a six-month vacation to the south of France. We’d been to the house several times. We’d rung the doorbell. This was an aluminum-siding, lower-middle-class house on the South Side, with a station wagon which is 13 years old — you know what I mean? And now they’re in the south of France. And one time the dad got a credit as a bass player on an R. Kelly album. He didn’t play bass.
The situations are incredibly complicated, and sometimes there is an element of, “We’re gonna exploit this situation for our favor.” That doesn’t mean that it’s legal or it’s right or that girl wasn’t harmed. It tore that family apart.
How many people do you think you’ve interviewed? How many people came forward?
I think in the end there were two dozen women with various level of details. Obviously the women who were part of the hundreds of pages of lawsuits — hell of a lot of details. There were girls who just told one simple story, and there were a lot of girls who told stories that lasted hours which still make me sick to my stomach. It never was one girl on one tape. Or one girl and Aaliyah.
The other thing, the thing that people seem to not know: She was fresh out of eighth grade in this tape.
Fourteen or 15. That puts a perspective on it. She’s not sophisticated enough to know what her kinks are.
Let’s talk about what it is, aside from not just having reportorial chops, that might hold somebody back. I feel that a lot of younger journalists came up through blogs, not journalism school. They are fearful to write about it because they don’t know what they can say, what language they can use, if they can be sued for even acknowledging charges.
You may not know how to report, but you should know how to read. The Sun-Times was never sued for the hundreds of thousands of words that it wrote about R. Kelly. You cannot be sued for repeating anything that is in a lawsuit. You cannot be sued for repeating anything that was said during the six- or seven-week trial. It’s in his record, and then there’s Kelly’s own words. Then read [Kelly’s biography] Soulacoaster. It was not a pleasant experience for me to read Soulacoaster! But read it, and read what he says in his own book! Do your goddamn homework!
What are the other factors?
Here’s the most sinister. This deeply troubles me: There’s a very — I don’t know what the percentage is — some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know. And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.
Songs like “Sexasaurus” kind of makes it novel. The ironic, jokey Trapped in the Closet series airs on the Independent Film Channel and features Will Oldham — that has these other hallmarks of “art” that read to a white, hipster, indie-rock audience, then, because we are not taking certain things seriously, we can choose not to take the lives of these young black women seriously.
It puts it in the realm of camp or kitsch. If you have an emotional reaction to a work of art and you use all your skills as a critic to back it up with evidence and context. That’s all we can ask of anybody. We’re all viewing art differently. The joy is in the conversation. Pitchfork is the premier critical organ in the United States for smart discussion of music, books, and artists, but it doesn’t have this discussion. The site reviews his records but doesn’t have the conversation about, “What does it say for us to like his music?”
I think, again, everybody has to individually answer. I can still listen to Led Zeppelin and take joy in Led Zeppelin or James Brown. I condemn the things they did. I’m not reminded constantly in the art, because the art is not about it. But if you’re listening to “I want to marry you, pussy,” and not realizing that he said that to Aaliyah, who was 14, and making an album he named Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that. That’s not an experience you’ve had. I’m not expecting you to feel the same way I do. But you can look at this body of evidence. “You” meaning everybody who cares.
You told me about the night after your critical review of R. Kelly’s performance at Pitchfork ran, one of these women called you at 2 a.m.
This happens a lot. If you are a good reporter, you are accessible to people and you cannot turn a story off. And that sucks! The number of times since I began this R. Kelly story that I was called in the middle of the night, was talking to someone on Christmas Eve or on New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving. … Yeah, I got a call from one of the women after the Pitchfork festival review. “I know we haven’t spoken in a long time,” and said thank you for still caring and thank you for writing this story, because nobody gives a shit.
It was a horrible day and a horrible couple of weeks when he was acquitted. The women I heard from who I’d interviewed, women I’d never interviewed who said, “I didn’t come forward, I never spoke to you before, I wish I had now that son of a bitch got off.” Jesus Christ. Rape-victim advocates — I don’t believe in God — they do God’s work. These young women who volunteer to be in the emergency room and sit with a woman throughout the horrible process, I don’t do that. I’m not saying I’m even in the same universe. But somebody calls you up and says I want to talk about this, or thank you about writing this, or, “I can’t sleep because I’m haunted, can you hear what I want to tell you?” We do that as a human being. I would like to forget about this story. I’m not saying I’m super reporter. I’m saying this was a huge story. Where was everybody else?
There is a disregard for your ongoing concern about this. “Let this go, Jim. Get over it, Jim. He was acquitted.” You have never dropped this, and your peers are pissed because it puts the rest of us over a barrel. I can speak to this, too. It’s often uncool to be the person who gives a shit.
“You’re jealous of R. Kelly, you’re trying to make your name off his career.”
Because you would love nothing more than to have to report and carry these stories of rape.
Rapes, plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen. So stop hedging your words, and when you tell me what a brilliant ode to pussy Black Panties is, then realize that the next sentence should say: “This, from a man who has committed numerous rapes.” The guy was a monster! Just say it! We do have a justice system and he was acquitted. OK, fine. And these other women took the civil lawsuit route. He was tried on very narrow grounds. He was tried on a 29-minute, 36-second videotape. He was tried on trading child pornography. He was not tried for rape. He was acquitted of making child pornography. He’s never been tried in court for rape, but look at the statistics. The numbers of rapes that happened, the numbers of rapes that were reported, the numbers of rapes that make it to court and then the conviction rate. I mean, it comes down to something minuscule. He’s never had his day in court as a rapist. It’s 15 years in the past now, but this record exists. You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. And you and I have spent our entire lives with that conviction. This is not just entertainment, this is our lifeblood. This matters.
Jessica Hopper is a freelance music and culture critic and the author of The Girls Guide to Rocking.
Read the court files and all of Jim DeRogatis’ Sun-Times reporting on the case against R. Kelly on the next page.