For most of the decade between his 2008 acquittal on child pornography charges and 10-count indictment on aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges in February, R. Kelly’s star continued to rise. While the R&B superstar wasn’t selling at nearly the same level as previous years, he still published his memoir Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, created new chapters of “hip hopera” Trapped in the Closet, performed at numerous top festivals and enlisted myriad A-list collaborations, all while emerging virtually unscathed from any legal trouble. Many willingly ignored accusations of sexual abuse, but Kelly’s alleged pattern of predatory behavior has never escaped music critic and reporter Jim DeRogatis, who broke the stories that were crucial to keeping Kelly’s alleged crimes in the public eye and helped lead to the criminal charges.
“You’re talking about an [alleged] serial sexual predator who has destroyed the lives of 48 women whose names I know, all right?,” DeRogatis tells Rolling Stone. “And if I know many, how many more are there? And in full view of the world for 30 years.”
DeRogatis’ powerful new book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly details his investigative reporting of the singer, from receiving the first tip to the star’s current accusations. As he writes in Soulless, “Sometimes you choose your stories, and sometimes they choose you”; for DeRogatis, it began with a fax anonymously sent to him in November 2000 that read, in part, “Robert’s problem — and it’s a thing that goes back many years — is young girls.” It led him and his former Chicago Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch to uncover harrowing stories of underage girls with life-shattering claims and multiple lawsuits alongside non-disclosure agreements with alleged victims.
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Following his initial December 2000 report, DeRogatis was anonymously sent two sex tapes that were subsequently turned over to authorities. The first arrived at the Sun-Times two weeks after their first story published. The second, delivered to DeRogatis’ home in February 2002, captured what appeared to be a 14-year-old girl engaged in sexual acts with the singer and eventually led to 21 counts (reduced to 14) of child pornography against Kelly in 2002. (Kelly was acquitted of all charges in 2008, partially due to the alleged victim not testifying against the singer. He has consistently denied all wrongdoing.)
Between 2000 and 2008, DeRogatis and Pallasch shared 33 bylines covering Kelly. However, as he points out, there was little published outside their work. “We felt very lonely,” DeRogatis says. In July 2017, the journalist broke the explosive news about Kelly’s alleged abusive “sex cult,” which appeared in Buzzfeed. Following DeRogatis’ first Buzzfeed piece, more women went on record with him to tell their stories, including Jerhonda Pace, Lizzette Martinez and Dominique Gardner. His recent reporting has also appeared in The New Yorker.
Surviving R. Kelly, the Lifetime docuseries that aired in January and is deeply informed by nearly 20 years of DeRogatis’ dogged reporting, amplified the women’s stories. Coupled with a groundswell of movements such as #MuteRKelly, #MeToo and Time’s Up, the women’s stories received the wider attention and outrage they have long deserved. Days after the docuseries aired, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx urged victims to come forward, which led to the 10-count indictment against Kelly in February. Kelly has pleaded not guilty.
“There’s nothing entertaining about … the scars on the wrists that survivors have shown me.”
Soulless paints vivid portraits of the alleged victims and gives an unflinching look at society’s neglect of young black girls and how money and fame financed the power to continuously get away with heinous alleged crimes. It also exposes a tangle of enablers — from religious organizations to the music industry to attorneys — all of which helped keep Kelly’s alleged abuse a secret. DeRogatis spoke to Rolling Stone about the institutions and people who helped enable and ignore the alleged sexual abuse, what the first trial lacked and his perspective on the new indictment and possible future legal investigations.
How challenging was it to relive 19 years of reporting and connect all the dots again?
It’s hellish … [but] it just seemed like it was still necessary because people do not know the history. It’s about Chicago, and by extension society and America, failing young black girls at every level: the churches, the schools, the law enforcement system, one ridiculous judge, one super-cynical civil attorney, journalism, criticism … Harvey Weinstein is a horrible predator, but he was somewhat in the shadows: he’s a producer; the industry knows him. R. Kelly, however, is singing at the opening of the Winter Olympics and the World Cup. He’s selling 100 million albums and nobody stops him, and instead thousands of people enable him literally passing his phone number on to preteen [and] teenage girls to Jive Records making almost a billion dollars on his record sales and of course never thinking to derail the gravy train. It’s a horrible, cynical story.
Many women claim Kelly abused them, but still loved and felt sympathy for him. Why do you think that was?
I don’t understand it, but I know enough talking to psychologists and sexual assault experts [that] it’s an exceedingly complicated issue in our rape culture. And there’s a wide variety of reactions and in cases of domestic abuse, whether you’re talking to a psychologist or talking to a cop on the beat … “Oh no, it’s just a big misunderstanding; nothing happened. I love him; he loves me.” And I think from the beginning that was [the case] from that very first fax: “He needs help, maybe you can help stop him” to Dominique Gardner telling me, “I loved him; he loved me.” There was never hatred; it was never people trying to tear down this super-successful black superstar. To hear the same stories being told again and again and again over many years by people who never spoke to each other in different parts of the country, when his attorney now says all those women are liars, I just find that literally impossible.
Let’s talk about the music industry’s seeming culpability.
Jive Records was named in many of the lawsuits. And [Washington Post‘s] Geoff Edgers is the only one who’s succeeded in getting [Jive label heads] Barry Weiss and Clive Calder on the record and he did and that’s valuable. And Weiss was blowing it off: “I ran a record company, how was I supposed to know?” Well, you’re being sued for $10 million, that’s how you know. [Jive Records was a co-defendant in accuser Tiffany Hawkins’ 1996 lawsuit against Kelly, which claimed the singer had underage sex with her starting at age 15. The label’s attorneys successfully argued that they should not be found liable.] There’s no way that didn’t cross your desk. It’s reprehensible, it’s unconscionable [and] it’s part of their corporate culture. Britney Spears was allowed to literally destroy herself in full view of the world. Look at Lou Pearlman with Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync. Jive was a truly despicable company. (Weiss declined to comment for this article.)
What I think is singularly unique about Kelly is the sheer body count of the biggest voice in R&B for the last 30 years in the world spotlight … From Frank Sinatra — way before Frank Sinatra — to Ryan Adams, bad behavior proliferates in rock & roll. It is now rock & roll’s time, and by rock & roll I mean all popular music; it’s [the music industry’s] time in the #MeToo spotlight. I’m unaware, as a student of rock history my whole life, of a body count like this. … I know that what I’ve seen for 19 years is deadly real. There’s nothing entertaining about that videotape [from the trial] or the first one [also sent to DeRogatis], or the scars on the wrists that survivors have shown me from when they’ve tried to hurt themselves. That’s real. That’s as real as real gets.
Many of Kelly’s accusers were aspiring singers that he allegedly lured with the promise of nurturing their careers. You speak to Tiffany Hawkins, the singer who first sued Kelly in 1996, for the first time in the book. What did you take away from that conversation?
I believe in authenticity and I believe in sincerity and the power of this art. So, when it ends and Tiffany tells me, “I don’t sing anymore” — this is a girl who’s from [Chicago’s] South Side [and] sees Amsterdam, Paris, London, everything in America, singing behind her best friend Aaliyah — and she can no longer sing. And then not only can she no longer sing, she no longer listens to music. That just breaks my fucking heart.
Beyond the music industry failings, there’s also the justice system. Where did the prosecution go wrong in the child pornography trial or is it really just that the alleged victim didn’t testify?
I place much of the blame on Judge Vincent Gaughan, who for six years would gather in closed chamber hearings and seal everything, [keeping it from] the press. [It] remains sealed to this day. We still only know a fraction of what happened during the Kelly trial. Everything that happened in closed chambers in six years remains a mystery and sealed by this judge and Illinois’ higher courts backed him.
Gaughan is a bad actor. There’s no two ways about it. I think his motivation was largely just that this was a high-profile case and he was going be the Lance Ito of this case … [Gaughan] made it about one girl on one videotape and the fact that neither she nor her parents testified or even appeared in court for one day enabled the jury to acquit because they had reasonable doubt. They had no doubt that that was Kelly on the tape, they’ve all said, but they never heard from the victim. This is Rape Culture 101. (Through a rep for the Circuit Court of Cook County, Gaughan did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
“It’s about Chicago, and by extension society and America failing young black girls at every level.”
I think if the Aaliyah stuff had been allowed into evidence – [Kelly married the singer when she was 15 and he was 27] — if the civil lawsuits had been allowed into evidence, if other young women had been allowed to testify that he had done similar [things] to them… There were other videotapes on the street; apparently one of the ones in possession of the State’s Attorney right now was already on the street. Nothing else was allowed in court except one 26-minute-and-39 second videotape, which really should’ve been enough. It’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen.
Just reading the videotape description in your book was enough for me to be like, “How was that not enough?”
Kelly had the best-paid attorneys in Chicago — four of them — one of whom bragged that “this case is putting my grandchildren through college.” He gamed the system with his money. The difference between 2008 and 2019 is he is broke. Why is he broke? Because so much of that money has gone to lawyers and to covering up, to settlements, to get non-disclosure agreements for 30 years.
Do you think the sexual abuse charges levied in February are stronger?
Kim Foxx’s case is a joke. All four of those victims are going to be torn to shreds. Jerhonda’s story is a complicated one. [In 2017, Jerhonda Pace broke a non-disclosure agreement to share her story of Kelly’s alleged abuse with DeRogatis. She is one of the four women whose allegations formed the basis of Kelly’s original February indictment alongside 11 new counts of sexual assault revealed last week.] She was incredibly brave in telling me everything, including things that were very embarrassing to her. She was a kid. She was stupid. She took his money. Took his money twice. First time, she tried to give his money back because she felt sorry for him.
I’ve spoken to the hairdresser [who has accused Kelly of sexual assault]. She’s a very bright, articulate woman, but [the alleged 2003 assault is] also very old. According to federal authorities who have been talking to me, there are three federal investigations — Southern District of New York, Northern District of Illinois and the Homeland Security Department. [The latter is] a 26-member task force that is looking at 30 years of sex trafficking because that is in their purview and the Mann Act; transporting underage girls across [state lines]. [Foxx] rushed the case is what the Feds tell me. They are frustrated with her. She watched Surviving R. Kelly and held a press conference three days after the last episode aired.
“He gamed the system with his money. The difference between 2008 and 2019 is he is broke.”
As you mention in the book, Foxx watched the first trial in 2008.
She was a sex crimes prosecutor in the office — not on that case — and stopped into court several times. And I believe she was rightfully [and] righteously outraged at that verdict and that trial, but I think in rushing to be the first to indict him now, it just makes for a weak case, especially given the revelations coming out with her and [celebrity lawyer Michael] Avenatti. [Chicago Tribune reported the pair were in close contact and also met at O’Hare airport in the lead-up to Kelly’s February indictment]. I think anybody with half a brain would have been skeptical of Michael Avenatti in the first place, which is not to say he doesn’t have real evidence. But there were so many videotapes. Look, there are videotapes somewhere in a locker at [Chicago Police Department]. There’s the images that surfaced when [Kelly] was arrested in Florida. There’s the first videotape that the Chicago Sun-Times gave to police in January 2001, two weeks after our first story ran. This city is lousy with R. Kelly videotapes. They’re dusty now and they’re on VHS.
Do you have any sense of where the strongest case might be?
I have a lot of faith in the Department of Homeland Security, which I wouldn’t say in any other realm in which they operate. But having talked to investigators, they are being methodically thorough. There’s nobody in the book that they haven’t talked to. They’ve spread out across the country: Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. They are being remarkably thorough. But it’s hard after 19 years not to be super cynical.
Another institution that could be held culpable and you address in the book is journalism and music critics.
[R. Kelly] was never more successful at any point of his career than in those six years while he’s on trial for 21 counts of child pornography and that is sick. Is there something inherently in popular music, in rock & roll, that we are drawn to the most transgressive people? That’s a really disturbing thought for me. There’s this weird thing that I think we haven’t even begun to wrestle with that may be really unique to music more so than any other art form because of the way it’s so ethereal and becomes part of our lives. I understand the people who had R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” at their wedding or “I Believe I Can Fly” at their graduation and to turn their back on that now is to reject part of their lives. It’s become their song.
That’s why I’m saying there’s no right or wrong. I don’t know what the right response from journalism and criticism should’ve been. Journalism should’ve done the reporting, but the critics … There was a good decade there where I was still reviewing his music and a few of the concerts and just trying to bring my perspective of what I knew about what he’d been accused of into what I’m hearing in the art, when the innumerable references in songs and in his stage shows to golden showers, and there it is on the videotape. And that’s one of many examples.
And we’ve seen him locking a woman up in a cage onstage, which seemed brazen given his past history.
Here’s where I can’t forgive critics. He’s never made a secret of this, from the very beginning — [Aaliyah’s Kelly-produced debut album] Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number to [Kelly’s 2018 song] “I Admit” — he is talking about it. And this is why I say criticism has failed. If it’s in the music, we can’t ignore it. That’s my definition of what a critic is. My job is to listen and think and put it in context as a critic. And if you’re hearing Trapped in the Closet, “In the Kitchen” and these songs, and you’re saying they’re all shtick, you’re either ignorant of the context or you’re turning a blind eye toward it and both are unforgivable in the ranks of any serious critic. I’m not saying he could’ve been brought down by criticism, but I’m saying criticism left this out of the conversation.
You had the idea to start a book about this in 2017 and then the new indictment comes with even more possible charges. Did you have any hesitation for waiting on the book to add new information?
No. I mean, Number One: I still think that the conversation in general is not focusing on the scope of these crimes … I still think certainly Kim Foxx isn’t talking about the breadth of 30 years and dozens and dozens of women. That’s necessary for the discussion. Number Two: the day I can hang this up and read about it instead of having to report any of it is going to be a good day. I don’t know if I want to live with it much longer.
Social media is a useful new tool in this for all of us as journalists. It also is a double-edged sword. When I have trolls posting video of my daughter, pictures of my ex-wife and smears, it’s horrifying. It was difficult enough to do this story when I was getting nasty letters, nasty faxes and nasty voicemails and one bullet through my window in January 2001. And now the fact that they can destroy you online is just horrifying. There’s a price to be paid for controversial journalism, and I think that’s why a lot of people shy away from it.
Can you? This has been a defining part of your career for so long. What if more women approach you with information?
Well, look, Lester Bangs [is] tattooed on my right forearm. If I had not spent a day with him at 17 two weeks before he died [and] written his biography in 2000, my life would be immeasurably poorer. I would not be here doing what I do today talking to you, or talking on the radio or teaching criticism. I could’ve lived very happily never writing this book, because if I hadn’t written the book, it would’ve meant those women weren’t calling me and telling me their lives were ruined. And that would’ve been a fine trade-off. I do think there are mechanisms now. There are now more places for women to turn.