Soulless author Jim DeRogatis explains the case against R. Kelly
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? That’s a question viewers and audiences have wrestled with for decades, if not centuries, but R. Kelly presents an especially thorny example. The R&B superstar behind such hits as “Ignition (Remix)” and “I Believe I Can Fly” has been accused of sexual assault against underage women by multiple individuals over multiple decades. Kelly was tried and acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 related to an infamous sex tape that allegedly showed Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl, but now he faces new charges of criminal sexual assault in his hometown of Chicago. Earlier this week, Kelly appeared in court to pleaded not guilty to all charges. The singer has consistently denied all accusations against him.
The reason we know about these accusations at all is due in large part to reporter Jim DeRogatis. Working at the Chicago Sun-Times as the newspaper’s pop music critic in 2000, DeRogatis received a fax after reviewing Kelly’s then-latest album. The fax was about Kelly: “Robert’s problem — and it’s a thing that goes back many years — is young girls.” That fax kicked off a reporting odyssey that has lasted 19 years, as DeRogatis has interviewed dozens of women who say that Kelly sexually assaulted them; he has also spoken to the women’s relatives and anyone in Kelly’s orbit who would talk to him. He reported these stories first for the Sun-Times, and in more recent years for BuzzFeed News. This week, Abrams Books published Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, DeRogatis’ book-length account of what he’s learned about Kelly and the women he allegedly preyed on. Though Kelly’s name is in the title and his picture is on the cover, DeRogatis’ book is dedicated “for the girls.”
EW caught up with the reporter and critic (who also teaches at Columbia College in Chicago) to discuss the case against R. Kelly. Read on for more, and find Soulless wherever books are sold.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been covering the R. Kelly story for almost 20 years. What made you think this was the right time to publish this book?
JIM DEROGATIS: I think the subtitle really says it all. Even with the renewed attention on Kelly, with the new charges in Illinois, with the federal investigations and Surviving R Kelly, I don’t think people are realizing the breadth of 30 years of crime and 48 women (whose names I know) whose lives were seriously damaged by this man. I don’t think people still understand that he is the worst predator (to my knowledge of rock history) in the history of this music, which has a long and sorry history that starts before Frank Sinatra and continues well after Ryan Adams (exposed in the New York Times not long ago). I mean, this man is a serial predator of underage girls. I think the book makes the case, and I think it’s going to stand for a long time, as him being the worst man preying on young women in the history of this music that you and I love.
Beyond that, I had ambitions like the heroes of the alternative press that i grew up reading, like the Village Voice and the New Journalists. I teach a class on journalism as literature; it starts with In Cold Blood, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, and we go through Susan Orlean and Michael Lewis. This notion of journalism as literature means the book is about many, many things beside R. Kelly. As I look at it, it’s not about Kelly, it’s about the women he hurt. But beyond those topics, it’s a book about Chicago. It’s a book about every institution in this great city failing these girls: churches, schools, courts, criminal attorneys, civil attorneys, journalism, criticism, which is my love, and most of all the music industry. It’s a book about the #MeToo moment, and it’s a book about journalism in the end, in the way that Spotlight and All the President’s Men were films about journalism. As much as I hate to live with the darkness of this story and the pain of all of these women who have spoken with me, I thought it was a book that needed to be written.
You describe in the book how Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial was narrowly focused on the tape, with the result that most of the jurors, as well as the parents of young women who came into Kelly’s orbit years later, had no idea about this pattern of predatory behavior that you and Abdon Pallasch had reported at the Sun-Times in the early 2000s. So now, no matter what happens with the new charges, at least this book means that the full case will be out there and accessible, right?
Like my students who are 18-22 at Columbia College, you are never going to realize what it’s like to be in a world where if something isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. The cultural knowledge of that trial can be boiled down to: There was a tape, there was a trial, he was acquitted. That’s what 95 percent of people know. So I guess it’s also a book about changing technology and the erasure of cultural memory. It will stand as a unique moment. There was “before” the telegraph/telephone/television, and “after,” when everything changed. This is a story that starts before the internet, with a fax. Have you ever even seen one of those curly-page yellow-paper heat-sensitive faxes? I haven’t taught anyone in 10 years who’s even seen a fax. So it’s a weird thing. People don’t know what happened at that trial.
If I could be the professor and critic for a minute, the brilliant director Mary Harron has got this new movie, Charlie Says, about the Manson murders, and it focuses on the women, like my book tries to. The question that lingers about the Manson family is that Charlie had 25 girls following him. How did that happen? This guy was obviously a dangerous lunatic hurting people. But the music in there… Manson said, “I had two tools: I knew the girls who would break down easiest, and I had the music.” Music is the lure. If that doesn’t sound like the Pied Piper… What really starts the book for me is a record review, and what ends the book is meeting this girl from the South Side of Chicago, Tiffany Hawkins, who sang beside her best friend Aaliyah across the world, and now even the joy of music has been robbed from her. On top of the career she deserved to have as a brilliant talented singer, on top of the guilt of having introduced Kelly to sexual contact with six of her fellow 15-year-old students, on top of all that, she can’t even, like, love the new Lizzo album. As someone who hosts Sound Opinions, and whose other books are about the power and joy of music, that f—ing kills me.
There’s this phrase you use toward the end of the book, “investigative criticism,” to explain how you went from Sun-Times pop music critic to doing all this investigative reporting. These days, I see on social media lots of people wanting to be critics. How do you hope that people will investigate and think about context as they evaluate the art they love?
I’m someone who believes there’s no more powerful force in the world than art. You could say social justice or politics or sex, but that’s all in the art. When we’re writing about art, especially music, we’re writing about the world and ourselves. For every aspiring critic, even someone who’s just blogging or posting reviews to Amazon or Twitter or Yelp, you have to do some level of investigation. If you’re writing about the new Lizzo album, do you describe her as a “super-skinny artist”? No! Her entire canon is “I am big and loud, and get out of my way, motherf—er.” I love Lizzo. I don’t think you have to go as deep as you do into Michael Jackson and Woody Allen all of the time, but 0.1 percent of the time, you’re going to have a thorny question. The first great female director is Leni Riefenstahl. I had this conversation years ago with Roger Ebert, who is a hero and was a colleague, and Ebert said, “You cannot write about the cinematography of that film without looking at the way this woman glorified hundreds of thousands of young men who were about to set Europe on fire and try to destroy several populations of people.” There is evil at the heart of that art. Did you know there are a couple dozen Charlie Manson tracks on Spotify? They’re bad. I mean, not for nothing did he need an alternate career. Why is that music there? It’s for sick f—s who enjoy listening to the music of a man who encouraged the slaughter of innocents.
But we can have a great conversation right now about the new Tacocat album, and this is not going to come up. You should know they’re a band from Seattle, and that a woman leads the band, but that’s about deep as the conversation has to go. I love it and you don’t, or vice versa, doesn’t matter. But every once in awhile, as Leaving Neverland or this book shows us, you’re going to have a deeper question. If someone honest and sincere says to me that “Step in the Name of Love” was their wedding song, or “I Believe I Can Fly” was their graduation song, I can’t condemn them if they know who R. Kelly is, and the women he’s hurt, and they can somehow deplore that but also love the music. I don’t think they’re wrong. I think every single consumer of art is going to have a different answer, and I think there’s no right or wrong in art. I don’t want to live without Off the Wall, by Michael Jackson. But the dividing line for me is his last two albums, Invincible and HIStory, which conveniently are the sh—iest, are full of songs protesting his innocence about what he did to young boys. Woody Allen’s made dozens of films, but only Manhattan is about an older man pursuing a teenage girl. So you have two albums by Jackson, one movie by Allen (though there are other touches here and there), but with R. Kelly, the entire canon is this unfettered vision of hedonism: “I will take my pleasure wherever I want.” And that’s paired with the spiritual songs like “I Wish” or “I Believe I Can Fly,” where he’s pleading to the heavens for forgiveness for unnamed sins. It’s always been there. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number was the album he made for Aaliyah. He calls himself the Pied Piper. He has been telling the world this for as long as he’s been selling records. It was not something he kept in the closet. And let’s not even talk about “Trapped in the Closet.”
That’s what’s so twisted. As you note in the book, when Kelly reached out to a younger white indie-rock audience in 2013 with festival appearances, part of the pull was this knowledge that he had done some real bad things. I remember your conversation with Jessica Hopper around the time Kelly headlined Pitchfork Music Festival that year; that was the first thing that turned me on to all of this and exploring these questions seriously.
I think it was for a lot of people. I mean, you were probably in your playpen when “I Believe I Can Fly” powered Space Jam. How can you know everything? I understand that, I certainly do. But there is a level of something smug and troubling about entire fields of privileged white people at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Pitchfork cheering as kitsch this music by a man who has hurt people their age and younger, and the only difference is those people were black. That’s creepy to me. I’m especially hard on Pitchfork, because in the city of Chicago it was unforgivable. Like I said, this is a book about Chicago. It always sounds like I’m exaggerating when I say this, but in Chicago if you and I took a walk on the West and South Sides and talked to three young mothers, two of them would remember being in high school and seeing R. Kelly cruising, or being at the Evergreen Plaza Shopping Mall, or at the Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald’s. It was that prevalent for 30 years. I did an event this week in New York with Jamilah Lemieux, who is now a mom. She was talking about being at Whitney Young High School and Kelly would come around. I’m not saying two out of three women would have been assaulted by Kelly, but they would have seen him, or their teachers warned them, or their mothers warned them, and some of them still were lured by the music. He knew who he was pursuing.
Race plays into this in many ways. When I told Jessica Hopper “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” I have to emphasize I was only repeating what I had heard hundreds of times from young black women. You and I, we’re privileged to have the megaphone we do. If I’m hearing from hundreds of black women for 19 years that “We don’t matter,” I see that as a problem, and I’ll do what I can to shine a spotlight on that.
How did you feel watching Surviving R. Kelly? You didn’t participate in the documentary, for reasons you explain in the book, but for years you were the only person doing any reporting at all about Kelly, so how did you receive that show?
I don’t think i’m disrespecting dream hampton when I say I don’t think there was anything new there. There was no one, in six hours, that I hadn’t spoken to already. Some of them said things differently or added things to the story, and that includes the former personal assistant interviewed in silhouette. You have to remember I’ve talked to lots of people who didn’t go on the record to me. But I think the power of what dream did, and it is extraordinary, I can’t praise her enough, is that for 19 years I sat with women one-on-one as they did the hardest thing any woman can do, which is rip out their soul and put their name to a story of their sexual assault. And now America for six hours got to meet some of those women. That had an incredible, visceral power. But I can’t emphasize this enough: It ain’t over. You ask how I felt. I felt like this is all well and good, but Joy Savage and Azriel Clary are still with him. I talked to Gayle King this morning, she said, “Well, they told me they’re where they wanted to be.” I said, “Yes, Gayle, and you have said to me and to others that you felt he was there controlling them.” He was there, he was in the shadows, coughing and signalling to them while they were being interviewed. I did not feel like they’re where they want to be. That’s what their parents started telling me in 2016; it took nine months to publish that story. If that was a setup, they are the most patient people in the world. They have not made money on this.
Anyone who has spoken against him, including dream hampton and [#MeToo founder] Tarana Burke, gets waves of the most vile social media hatred. The pictures that are posted, the lies that are posted, it’s horrifying. If you think it’s a joyride to get your Kardashian-like 15 minutes of fame on reality TV by talking about R. Kelly, no. When Tiffany Hawkins talked to me in January 2019 after 19 years of not telling her story, she knew what she was signing up for. Her name would be dragged through the mud, her daughter would get sh— in school, people would call her a liar, she knew that and she still talked. That is incredible courage, that is why I dedicated this book to the girls. I’ve gotten feedback from some readers who find the term “girls” insulting, but I think it’s a really important word. If I could show you the yearbook photos of these women whose stories are told in the book, you would see that these were girls. They were 13, 14, 15. That’s what they were, and we have to remember that. If you watch the tape, it’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
You say in the book that you would always pick up the phone when someone called you about R. Kelly, but you also talk about how despondent you felt after the 2008 acquittal. What was the closest you came to giving up the trail over the years?
That was honestly my feeling that day, the acquittal. But the next time the phone rang, or the email came, or the letter arrived, it was like “F— that,” and I’d go into work mode. I just never would not take the call. This story is still not over, even though the book is finished. I’m not some crusading white savior. There’s a lot here, and that’s what we should do as journalists. Whatever our beat is, we have to pursue the story that comes to us, whether it’s the racists in Charlottesville or the brave women coming forward about their sexual assaults. It was the girls. I was never not going to take that call. Now I have emails from Tiffany Hawkins, Lizzette Martinez, and Jerhonda Pace, saying thank you. Even Dominique Gardner, as conflicted as she is, she said, “Thank you, Jim, you couldn’t have done a better job telling my story.” I’m a guy from Jersey who’s too frank for his own good, what I’m saying is I cannot imagine a better “job well done” than emails like that from people whose courage I so admire.
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