But that trouble has been a long time coming. Kelly has been accused of sexually abusing young women and teenagers for decades, and although he stood trial for child pornography charges in 2008, at the time, his career continued without faltering. When he was found not guilty, he continued to work without a hitch. It’s only been over the past few years that the tide has started to turn against him: first when a report emerged in 2017 that Kelly was holding women against their will in a “cult,” and then again this year after Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly prompted an outpouring of public approbation. (Kelly has consistently denied all accusations of any kind of improper sexual conduct.)
One reporter has been covering the R. Kelly story for as long as it’s been public. Jim DeRogatis was a music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000 when he received an anonymous fax tipping him off: Kelly, the tipster wrote, “had a problem with young girls.”
DeRogatis investigated that tip and found that multiple lawsuits had been filed against Kelly accusing him of sexually abusing girls as young as 14. He published a story that reported his findings in late 2000 — and then he continued to publish follow-ups in the face of widespread public indifference, as Kelly’s career continued to flourish.
DeRogatis soon became the person that people who knew things about Kelly sent tips to. Two videotapes that appeared to show Kelly having sex with young girls were sent to DeRogatis’s home in 2001 and 2002, and the second one became the centerpiece of Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial. DeRogatis broke the cult allegations in 2017.
Now he has compiled the results of all his work — nearly 20 years of investigative journalism — into a book. It’s called Soulless: The Case against R. Kelly, and it’s a damning indictment of not just Kelly but also the system that allowed him to survive and flourish for so long.
I recently sat down with DeRogatis to discuss his years of covering R. Kelly and why allegations against the singer were ignored or dismissed for so long. It’s a complicated story, but DeRogatis is entirely clear on why he’s stayed with it for all these years: “The girls have never stopped calling.”
Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
You published your first investigatory article about R. Kelly in the year 2000, right?
December 21, 2000.
And you write in your new book, “We expected the piece to have a real impact the next day. It didn’t.” What was that experience like for you?
It was heartbreaking. My [reporting] partner and I, Abdon Pallasch, had met some of these women, some of the parents. We’d read these lawsuits with multiple young women, 15 years old, 14 years old. We didn’t report, in story one, [on] Rashona Landfair [the girl who is said to appear on the infamous tape at the center of Kelly’s 2008 trial]. That graphic videotape, 26 minutes and 39 seconds, would show up 14 months later. But we knew this was ongoing, and we had heard horrifying things about it. We had all this information about Aaliyah [whom Kelly had married in 1994, when she was 15 and Kelly was 27] that had never been published. It was this rumor nobody knew.
We thought we’d nailed it! We thought we’d nailed the story. And we thought he would stop hurting young women. And it continues for 19 years after that.
And mind you, we felt guilty the whole time that we were late to the story. This had been going on since 1991, according to the court documents we uncovered. [The marriage to] Aaliyah is 1994. Here we are in 2000. “Jesus, how come this was never reported? We’re late on this story!” This monster is in our midst, in full view of the world, opening the winter Olympics and selling 100 million records.
One of the things that your book is so damning about is the complicity of both the media and the legal system in protecting Kelly for so long. The part that I found incredibly frustrating to read was about how much evidence the prosecution had amassed when Kelly eventually went to trial that showed this pattern of behavior, but this evidence was never allowed into the court to be presented to the jury. And in large part, that’s because of the judge, who a lot of your sources describe as being “starstruck.” Do you think something like that is likely to happen again, now that Kelly is facing criminal charges a second time?
I think that if we zoom out and take the view from a hundred feet up, the justice system is often perverted by people who have money and fame. And the combination of both is lethal to justice. Is there anybody who thinks O.J. Simpson didn’t do it? Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort and Gen. [Michael] Flynn are going to jail, but not the star at the top of the heap, right?
This is a chronic problem in American jurisprudence, and it’s a horrifying one. If you have enough money, and the combination of fame and money, you can game the system.
Does it change anything that R. Kelly is now no longer at the top of his stardom?
“I’m a broke-ass legend,” as he sings in “I Admit”? Yeah, I make that conclusion at the end of the book. If his moment of reckoning actually comes — and not just in public opinion, but in the courts — it’s going to be only because he’s broke and he can’t have the team [he had in his 2008 trial].
I mean, think about that: $850 an hour for the top defense attorney. He had four of them. It took six and a half years to go to trial. Why is he a broke-ass legend? Because he’s been paying off underage girls since 1991, and because he spent it all staying out of jail.
You published your BuzzFeed article on the alleged cult in 2017, and a few months later, the first Weinstein stories broke and #MeToo exploded.
Yeah, July is my first story about the cult. August is Jerhonda [Pace], who is one of the four girls in the current indictment, she breaks her nondisclosure agreement. October is Ronan Farrow and Megan Twohey/Jodi Kantor.
Did you see a before-and-after effect with the stories that you were publishing as #MeToo was taking off? How did your work fit into that movement?
We’re sitting in person. I am a fat 54-year-old, multiple-tattooed rock critic white man. I am only echoing what dozens of young black women have said to me since 2000, and I want to make that clear: Nobody matters less in our society than young black girls.
I don’t know about you, but I’m watching Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. It’s horrifying. We know there are different standards of justice for black and brown versus white in America for men. There are black and brown men in prison, wrongly.
But what about the black victims? I know the names of about 48, as I say in the book. The book is about 30 years of [Kelly allegedly preying on girls].
I am still not confident [that there’s been a real change in the way people are willing to protect the young black girls who are victims in this case]. I’m talking to [#MeToo founder] Tarana Burke tomorrow night, and Jamilah Lemieux, a wonderful African American writer/activist who was seeing Kelly cruise her high school in Chicago, because she’s a Chicagoan. I’m sitting with Mary Mitchell, the black columnist at the Sun-Times, on Saturday in Chicago. They’re saying they’re skeptical. So I am just reporting.
But also: that videotape [from the 2008 trial] coming to my house. Having seen that videotape. It’s the most horrifying thing I’ve seen in my life.
And how the jury sees it multiple times during the trial [and does not find Kelly guilty] — they didn’t hear from the victim, fine. They didn’t hear from her mother and father. [Landfair and her parents stated that she was not the girl on the tape and refused to testify at the trial.] They did hear from 15 witnesses who testified about that illegal sexual contact and identified Rashona Landfair. But it was Father’s Day weekend [when the trial concluded], and they didn’t want to be sequestered. And they never heard all that other evidence. So ultimately, Judge Vincent Gaughan [who presided over Kelly’s trial] has got a place reserved for him in hell, as far as I’m concerned.
I actually wanted to ask you about that tape and the way you write about it. I know when I write about sexual violence, I’m always trying to figure out the right balance and how much detail to include. Because you don’t want to be, like, titillating —
I felt I had to give readers a visceral understanding of how awful that was. Now, this was a million years ago, but the current thing in popular culture [in the early 2000s] was Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson [and their 2002 sex tape]. That tape is stolen from them and becomes bootlegged, but then they cash in. They sell their own copyright and make millions of dollars, right?
This was not that. This was horrifying. And I had to tell readers.
We argued in the beginning, Abdon Pallasch and I, with our editors: Do we put in that he urinates in her mouth? The editors originally thought, “That’s too much,” but I thought, “No, that’s everything.” Because you’ve got to understand, this is not Tommy Lee–Pam Anderson or a Kardashian sex tape, good times, wink-wink. This is different! This is bizarre. This is degrading. It is criminally a sexual assault, a statutory rape. And it plays like that.
Throughout the book, you’re pretty unsparing to music critics who have given R. Kelly good reviews since that news broke.
Yeah, I am.
What do you think is the responsible way for a critic to cover an artist who has been credibly accused of doing something so terrible?
[Holds out arms tattooed with album art.] I believe in this. These are the albums that have changed my life. Velvet Underground. Lou Reed. “Rock & Roll.” “Jennie said when she was just 5 years old, nothing happening at all, one fine day on a New York station —” My life was saved by rock ’n’ roll.
I believe the music matters. All art matters, but the music’s the most important, according to me.
I think we cannot judge it in a vacuum. I think we have to look at the context of where it comes from.
Did Eminem kill [his ex-wife] Kim? No. Did Eminem fantasize [in songs] about killing his ex-wife Kim, numerous times, in horrifying descriptive language? Yes. We know he didn’t do it. That means something. I still find it incredibly misogynistic and offensive.
Dr. Dre! Cuddly Dr. Dre, selling us Beats headphones. Well, he wrote “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” and “To Kill a Ho.” I found those stomach-churning in 1991, and I still do now. But he didn’t do those things. R. Kelly did it.
We are now faced with the question of Michael Jackson. Look, my life is going to be poorer if I can never listen to “Off the Wall” again. To me, the dividing line is, is the art about the thing that the artist has done. And Michael Jackson’s last two albums, Invincible and HIStory, are full of those protestations of “you tried to crucify me like they crucified the Lord.” He calls out the Santa Barbara prosecutor by name, and that song “The Lost Children”? You know that tune?
It begins with two kids lost in the forest. It’s really creepy, and they’re saying, “How will we ever find our way home? What will become of us?” And then Michael swoops in with the saccharine strings: “All the lost children, I want to save them.” [The exact line is “All the lost children, wishing them well and wishing them home.”]
I liked Midnight in Paris. Great movie. Helps that Woody Allen’s not in it. But I can’t watch Manhattan. Not after reading what Dylan Farrow wrote her father did to her. Manhattan’s about a 46-year-old comic — Woody — preying on a high school girl.
It’s rare, and Lord knows, especially as a pop music critic — sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, I endorse all three; I do not want to impose a moral litmus test on every artist. I love Moby still! Moby’s also an asshole.
Like, “Is this artist a good person?” We’re not going to do that. But in 0.1 percent of all art, we’re going to be faced with this question. That is one of the many legacies of #MeToo and Time’s Up, and it’s about time, because this music matters.
So is the question, “Is this art potentially making me complicit in the act that the artist is accused of?” Because it’s about the thing the person did, and it’s putting you into their point of view?
I don’t think you’re complicit. I just think you have to examine your conscience. That money is going to R. Kelly when you stream his music, when you go to see a concert that Live Nation is promoting. That’s what #MuteRKelly is about. They’re not about censorship. They’re about hitting him where it hurts, which is in his wallet, which is how he’s gotten away with this [predatory behavior] for 30 years.
There’s a backlash among some black academics — men — saying, “Cancel culture, we can’t endorse this.” Well, what they [the organizers behind #MuteRKelly] are saying is, “If your money matters to you, and art matters to you, don’t spend it on someone who is hurting young women.” I think that’s entirely reasonable.
I haven’t bought any memorabilia from the Donald Trump store, either. That’s a personal choice. If you have, as kitsch or anything else, I’m not going to condemn you. But I’ve thought about it, and I’ve made my choice.
All I’ll say as an art critic, as a dad, and as a professor to my students is: Think about the art. It matters. Then make your choice.
You’ve stuck with this story for almost 20 years now, even after journalism stopped being your full-time job and you were teaching more. What is it about the story that matters to you?
The girls have never stopped calling.
Since I’ve finished the book, I still get the calls, some from girls that I’ve never spoken to before and some from others who say, “The hate I’m getting, I don’t know how I can put up with this.”
There are two women in this room with me [Constance and DeRogatis’s publicist]. Statistically speaking, if there was a third, one of you would have had an experience with some degree of sexual assault.
I think as men, all we can do is listen and empathize to women who we know have been through this. And as a journalist, it’s also a story, yes, but you’re not a human being if a woman says, “I’ve been hurt, no one’s listening, can I tell you my story?” [and you don’t say yes].
It’s about the girls.
I wanted to ask about the title of the book. You say in the book that one of the things that is repeated to you most often while you’re reporting is that Kelly needs help, that he’s sick and that someone should fix him. But the title, Soulless, would suggest that you don’t think he can or potentially should be fixed. Is that the case?
No, no. To me, Soulless means that he’s preyed on young women without any regard for their well-being. When you realize that some of these young women have attempted suicide after their relationships — which is not even the right word. It’s so hard to talk about! You know this. It’s not a relationship, because she can’t consent legally. But after the sexual contact with him ends, which can last two or three years, [some of these women have tried] to kill themselves.
It’s not an exaggeration when I write, “I know the names of 48 women whose lives have been ruined by this man.”
To me, Soulless is the classic pathological sociopath: “I don’t care. I have no empathy.” That’s what I’m saying. I don’t believe he cares.
All of those women: “I love you,” he said to them, many times. And they said, “I thought he loved me and I loved him.” And yet it doesn’t turn out that way. That’s what the title means to me.
The subtitle [The Case Against R. Kelly] means that I still don’t think, as much as he’s in the spotlight right now — and [Surviving R. Kelly executive producer] dream hampton introduced America to many of those women, some of them that I’ve talked to and many more I haven’t — we now are beginning to understand, but we still don’t realize [how huge the scope of Kelly’s alleged crimes is].
1991. Thirty years! And as you and I speak [in New York City], at Trump Tower Chicago, where once stood the Sun-Times, [Kelly] is with two women who have not seen their families in three years.
Their families say “brainwashed” and “cult.” Those seem like sensationalistic words, but when I have heard them from the 15th source, I have to say this is not hype. This is not sensationalism. This is not lying.
That’s the [argument Kelly’s camp is making]. “They’re all lying. All of these women are lying.” I don’t know how you can say 48 women are all lying.
What do you think it would take for you to feel a sense of closure on this case?
I hate that question. I don’t have an answer to it. Personally, for me, it ends when my phone stops ringing.
I don’t know what justice looks like for those women. I think anything that happens in the court system is too little, too late for them.
I don’t know what justice looks like, which is exactly where we started: “Brother needs help. Brother’s got to stop.” Because it isn’t stopping still, right now.
And that’s scary. I do not understand. There’s a whole sex trafficking office in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, and they put out these press releases all the time, and they shut down Craigslist. I mean, why aren’t you ringing the doorbell every hour on the hour? There’s two women, who Gayle King said, when they were on her show, it seemed as if Kelly was controlling them. I ain’t making this up. Gayle King don’t lie!
I don’t know. It’s beyond bizarre.
Mary Harron’s new film is brilliant. It’s Charlie Says, about the three girls on death row after the Manson killings. I think that weird level of charisma and brainwash and cult, that weird mix in that story, here it is [again] 50 years later and we’re barely understanding it. Mary, as a feminist and a brilliant woman, she probes. I mean, these are girls like you. What, are you going to follow this guy who says, “Helter skelter, go kill for me, write ‘pigs’ in blood on the wall”?
Again, it sounds sensational, but when Jerhonda says to me, “It was like Manson,” when [R. Kelly accuser] Dominique Gardner says, “Look at them eyes, Jim” — there’s something there that I don’t understand. Even after 19 years.