Jim DeRogatis was the first reporter to investigate allegations about Kelly. Bob Chiarito meets him in Chicago
Jim DeRogatis has written seven books, including one which is considered to be the best biography of the legendary rock critic, his idol, Lester Bangs. He’s been a rock critic for three decades and co-hosted a radio show on America’s National Public Radio that is broadcast across the country every week.
But if he passed away tomorrow, the first sentence of this obituary would likely include the name Robert Kelly, the music star who DeRogatis has written about since 2000, and who is currently facing four felony charges for sex with underage girls.
That’s because DeRogatis was the first reporter to write about allegations about Kelly and has been the only one who continued to write about him after what he says was the epic failure of the multiple institutions, including the music industry, to stop Kelly.
Contrary to popular lore, the story did not begin with an anonymous videotape that landed in DeRogatis’ mailbox. That happened, but it was a full 14 months after he received an anonymous fax in 2000 alerting him that R. Kelly “has a problem” and tipping him off about lawsuits and investigations into the singer — something that led him, along with his Chicago Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch, who was the paper’s legal affairs reporter, to investigate on their own.
The inaccurate videotape story is still circulating among the public and in the news — but a new book written by DeRogatis, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, (Abrams Press) set to be released June 4, he sets the record straight, detailing not only the history of the allegations and the current cases against Kelly, but what he says was the failure of the courts, the press, the churches, and the music industry over a three-decade span.
Kelly would be indicted in 2002 on child pornography charges and acquitted in a 2008 trial. Since then DeRogatis has continued to cover Kelly after leaving the Sun-Times, writing for Buzzfeed and most recently for The New Yorker.
In January, a six-part documentary by producer Dream Hampton, Surviving R. Kelly, aired on the Lifetime network and brought renewed attention to Kelly. A month later, he was indicted again in Cook County, Illinois, this time charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against four different victims, three of whom were underage when the alleged crimes took place.
DeRogatis’ book, which was in the works before Hampton’s documentary and before the current indictment against Kelly, is something he says he came to reluctantly. He gave his first interview on his upcoming book to NME, meeting reporter Bob Chiarito at a Chicago diner for breakfast. It was over eggs and coffee that DeRogatis discussed his reluctance to write the book and much more, repeating more than once the wisdom first imparted onto him by two news editors where he started as a young reporter in Jersey City: “Sometimes you find a story and sometimes a story finds you.”
This book has been in the works for some time but are we right in thinking it didn’t come about because of the recent indictment?
“I never wanted to write this book. I didn’t want to live with that darkness. My agent really wanted me to write a book about R. Kelly and toxic masculinity, something a little more critical, professorial, wearing my critic and professor hat, in July or August 2017. I was reluctant. My initial idea for a book was something I’ve wanted to write for a long time about playing in bands, how all the hassle of rehearsing, hauling your gear to play at CBGB’s on a Tuesday in February at one in the morning to play for six people is the best 30 minutes of your life. A memoir of a life saved by Rock and Roll. The reason I am not a racist Jersey City cop or a prison guard or a sanitation engineer like 90 percent of the kids that I went to high school with is because of music.”
“I had this post-modern idea of two sides. A life saved by rock and roll, a life destroyed by rock and roll. The power of music to transform, the power of music as the ultimate tool to corrupt. So, I wrote like 10 or 11 versions of that book. My agent shopped it around, nobody wanted that book. Nobody was clamouring for an R. Kelly book, either. So, that took months and I was writing the whole time. I was writing side A and side B. My timing always sucks, I’m bad at selling. So I wasted months on that. If I had waited until the first week of this year to sell the Kelly book, I might have done better, but as it was there were two editors who were interested. One at Grove Atlantic who happened to go to Kenwood Academy with R. Kelly, and one at Abrams who went to Oak Park River Forest High School, where [one of the alleged victims] attended. If there hadn’t been that personal connection, them having read me for years, listened to me on the radio and a personal connection to the Kelly story.”
“I never wanted to write this book. I didn’t want to live with that darkness. My agent really wanted me to write a book about R. Kelly and toxic masculinity, something a little more critical, professorial, wearing my critic and professor hat, in July or August 2017. I was reluctant”
“One of the courses I teach at Columbia College Chicago is Journalism as literature. We start with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and end up up with Susan Orlean, Mark Bowden and Michael Lewis. I think it was only when I realised that maybe this book can be that, that I said OK. These two editors were interested in that book, not the Side A, Side B book. Sometimes you choose your story and sometimes your story chooses you, I write that in the book.
“There are certain things television does well. The power of Dream Hampton interviewing those women and introducing them to America is undeniable. But, the complexity of almost 30 years of this and the dots that needed to be connected, and the bigger story in the end is the story of journalism in Chicago failing, the court system failing, one exceedingly questionable judge failing, the civil attorneys failing… the police did a pretty good job until about 2002, but the cops since then have failed. The music industry failing, which particularly hits close to home for me because I am a true believer. Criticism failing. Some parents failing, the schools failing. Everybody in this city failed. As I say in the book, there are 48 women whose names I know and I’m certain there are more. Everybody failed those women.”
When R Kelly was indicted [in February], it must have seemed like good timing for the publisher.
“I don’t know how the business end of it works. I think there is also going to be a trial, I think there will be federal indictments which will be much more substantive and much more revealing because they are looking into 30 years of sex trafficking. That’s the scope of what the book is about.”
The one thing that really struck me reading the book — If I had to pick one theme from it, is that most of the people who are victims or who had knowledge of his activities felt like, ‘He is sick, he needs help,’ more than he’s crazy and/or a horrible person.
“I think for years that was true. I think that’s changed now. A lot of these women were speaking to me in isolation and I was telling their stories in isolation. I think what people are now only beginning to realise is that this took place over 30 years and involved dozens of women. Degradation at a scale, pretty much unrivalled in entertainment. Harvey Weinstein operated that way for decades and had many victims, but he was sort of in the shadows. He’s a famous producer and certainly in the industry he’s a giant, but Kelly was in the world spotlight, singing at the World Cup, singing at the Winter Olympics. This was in full view of the world.”
What’s your personal feeling about Kelly? Do you hate him?
“I don’t know if that’s a relevant emotion. I hate what he’s done to those women I’ve met and talked to. I haven’t met Reshona Landfair [the girl in the 2002 tape and one of the four victims in the current indictment]. I hate that tape. I’ve never seen anything worse in my life.”
Does any part of you feel sorry for him?
“Umm, I would have said yes midway through these 19 years, but if the first lawsuit by Tiffany Hawkins in 1996 was not enough of a wake-up call; if the indictment and acquittal was not enough of a wake-up call; obviously the sickness he has is so deeply rooted along with the egotism, the narcissism, the complete lack of morals, he’s not going to stop. He’s never going to stop. I hate that so many people have enabled him, I hate what he did to the women I’ve met. I’ve seen the evidence and now I think people are finally starting to realise it.”
“Obviously the sickness he has is so deeply rooted along with the egotism, the narcissism, the complete lack of morals, he’s not going to stop. He’s never going to stop. I hate that so many people have enabled him.”
I’ve heard you say that through your reporting, you’ve held the megaphone for these voiceless women who nobody cared about. In doing so, did you perhaps cross the objectivity line?
“Well, as someone who considers himself a new journalist, a literary journalist… When I say in the book that I was reading The Village Voice in the seventh grade; Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism Anthology was a sacred text to me. I can show you my first edition. I think objectivity is a ruse. I was a huge champion of the alternative press, The Chicago Reader, The New Times papers which did good work but ended up in disgrace, and The Village Voice, which was at the top of that pyramid. Was Tom Wolfe objective in The Right Stuff or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Was Truman Capote objective? What’s the title of In Cold Blood mean? There are two different sets of murders in that book, the Clutter family and state executing these people.
“Anyway, I don’t think you can be totally objective. I think you can be fair. This was not a conversation we were having at the Sun-Times. I don’t think any of those pieces qualify as ‘new journalism’ or literary journalism. The book does, the Buzzfeed articles did, but even then the laying out of the facts was always scrupulously dry because every editor I ever worked with bent over backward in order to be fair and also because we didn’t want to be sued. We never have been. Not a single word retracted, corrected or clarified, much less sued. You’re a reporter, how can you not have emotions sitting with victims and victims parents, and watching that tape. How can you not have emotions?”
Although you and Abdon Pallasch were the first to write about allegations that Kelly had sex with under-age girls in 2000, you’ve said you actually were late to the story.
You interviewed R. Kelly’s 15-year-old protegé Aaliyah in December 1995 in advance of a concert she was giving. It was six months after BET jokingly asked them both if their relationship like “girlfriend and boyfriend or cousins” and a week after VIBE published a copy of their marriage certificate that you would confirm was authentic with the Cook County Clerk’s Office. Did you have this in the back of your mind when you received the fax in 2000?
“Yes and no. There are about six other steps I could have taken [in 1995]. I write in the book about how I called the Cook County Clerk’s Office [about the marriage license] and called Reverend Nathan J. Edmond [who was listed on the marriage certificate as the officiant]. I could have tried to get her birth certificate, although in Illinois you can’t unless you’re a parent or the person. I didn’t dig that hard [in 1995]. Maybe she was lying about her age, publicists were denying that she was 15 and they were married. That was enough for every journalist in the music world. Something was fishy, but it seemed more like gossip or anything relevant to the music at the time.”
One of the many fascinating stories in your book is the conflicting stories R. Kelly has told about his mother’s death. She died of cancer early just as his career was beginning to take off. I bring this up not to discuss the specifics of her illness and death, but to wonder if he doesn’t know the difference between fact and fiction?
“I think he does, I just don’t think he cares. I think he spins, he constantly spins.”
You interviewed R. Kelly twice in 1995, once briefly in person when he didn’t receive a Grammy nomination and then a longer phone interview about ‘You Are Not Alone’, a Kelly song Michael Jackson recorded that went to No.1 — ironically his first hit after his own child sex scandal. He talked about the song, saying that Michael is special because despite the stuff going on in his life, he was still able to get his message across in music. You also brought up criticism he received about misogynistic lyrics — to which he brought up the sexual lyrics of Marvin Gaye. Looking back, do you think there was more under the surface that no one really was aware of?
“It seemed that way then, when we were doing our reporting in 2000. Everybody who was close or had been close with Kelly, I was asking what was happening between those two [Aaliyah and Kelly]. It’s interesting, look at that interview. It was so long ago and there’s this business about ‘There’s R. Kelly and there’s Robert.’ And I wasn’t even the first to get that line. Now it’s crystal clear that R. Kelly is a monster and Robert is an extremely troubled, extremely troubled individual.”
And the only one to go to jail was—
“Chuck Berry, and that was racial. Only black people were initially convicted of violating the Mann Act.”
You write about Kelly having numerous tapes, carrying them around in a gym bag as “trophies.”
“That’s the language that Abdon and I got from the psychologists.”
It seems so screwed up. Why would you want to keep evidence of your own crime?
He is both shrewd and smart and stupid. I’ve got that from everybody who is close to him. That’s obviously a compulsion that he can’t stop and it’s the stupidest thing in the world.”
Most people aren’t aware or forgot that he was also arrested in 2003 in Florida for possessing child pornography, which you also write about. However, in March 2004, charges were dropped because of legal technicalities. Do you think this just emboldened him?
On page 138 you quote an unnamed associate of Kelly’s talking about his song ‘Heaven, I Need A Hug’, which was released while Kelly was on trial the first time. It’s riveting. He says: “I know Robert, and he knows exactly what he’s doing,” a former associate told me. “He’s smarter than everybody thinks, and what he’s doing is, he’s fucking with all of us.” Do you think that is indeed the case?
“Absolutely. That was one of the key things that in 19 years of reporting where my mindset shifted. He is speaking to the people who not only forgive him or doubt that what he’s done is a crime, but applaud him, which is really scary… You can understand why I didn’t want to write this book.”
You write about testifying at his 2008 hearing regarding the tape — although you only answered one question – giving the answer to what you do for a living — and then read a statement 16 times, once for each question, citing the first and fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and thus, refusing to answer. Would you do that again? Do you anticipate being called by either the state or the defence in this case?
“Every prosecutor I’ve talked to from the Feds, I’ve begun by saying ‘Don’t subpoena me’ [he laughs]”
Do they laugh?
“They laugh. I’m asking them for information. Sometimes they ask me, but I’ve never told any law enforcement anything that I haven’t printed, but there’s a lot of catching up [for them] over 19 years. Here’s a book’s worth.”
“I think the reporter’s privilege is real. I think the Illinois shield law is powerful…and everything I fucking know is in that book, and if it isn’t in the book it’s because I couldn’t prove it.”
But if you’re called to testify again, would you?
“No, because you just mentioned an unnamed source who I talked to. There are still people to whom that pact I made weeks ago or years ago that I’m not going to violate, including members of the prosecution who have talked to me over the years. I say I know the names of 48 women but I only list half that many. I’m not betraying the trust of a woman who’s been sexually assaulted.”
Deep into the book, page 253 to be exact, you quote Asante McGee, a legal adult who had a decade-long sexual relationship with Kelly. She said something that struck me: He likes when you talk like a little girl. When Azriel [Clary] was doing sexual stuff with him, he wanted her to sound like a little girl, so the whole voice would have to change.”
Do you think this may be a strategy of his lawyers? Basically, ‘my client is a pervert, he likes to fantasise that he’s having sex with juveniles, but they are really adults and thus, although it may seem weird to most, it’s not a crime’.
No, because Jerhonda shows him her state ID. He knows how old Aaliyah is, he knows how old Tiffany is. He’s known and I don’t think it’s defensible. He certainly knew Reshona Landfair was 13 when he met her. I don’t think it can be dismissed as play acting.
This all does bring up the issue of separating the art from the artist — but I’m curious if you support the #MuteRKelly movement that has gotten him removed from radio airplay on several stations?
“I think it’s a really complicated, philosophical question and I think there is no right or wrong answer. I think each of us have to weigh each situation for ourselves and come up with our own answer. I think #MuteRKelly – the name bothers me. I don’t know as a free-speech advocate that anyone should be muted. However, I find it sickening that radio stations are continuing to champion his music — Live Nation and other huge concert promoters were continuing to book him, but I think #MuteRKelly has put a stop to that. It was the most effective tool, more effective than the courts or journalism in taking away his livelihood. But as I say in the book, none of that would have happened without the girls coming forward.”
“I don’t know as a free-speech advocate that anyone should be muted. However, I find it sickening that radio stations are continuing to champion his music”
He hasn’t been convicted of anything. Should he lose his livelihood before he’s been convicted?
“Trump hasn’t been convicted of anything. There’s a 443 report laying out evidence against him. Hitler didn’t live to be convicted. I don’t know, I don’t know if that matters. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder but I’ve never met a single person, black or white, who doesn’t believe O.J. did it.”
You’ve said it today and you’ve mentioned it before that one of your editors told you years ago that ‘sometimes you find a story and sometimes a story finds you.’ Do you ever wish this one missed you?
“Yeah. I mean, if Lester Bangs hadn’t spent a day in his life with a clueless, fat 17-year-old nerd from Jersey City, I wouldn’t be here today. My life would have been poorer because writing that book was a joy, even though it was sad and although it was really hard work, it was something that I’ll forever be proud of. I don’t have any of these feelings about this book. I think I did as good of a job as I could, there is some satisfaction in that. But I never wanted to write this book. If I didn’t have to write this book it would have meant that those women hadn’t been hurt, and that would have been a fine trade off for me.”
You’ve worked on R. Kelly stories for two decades now. Will this book be the last of it for you?
“I don’t know. If The New Yorker wants me to do ‘Mencken at the Scopes Monkey Trial’ — DeRogatis at the Kelly trial… If I get a six or 12 hour jump on federal indictments coming down, you know I’m writing that up and I would hope I do, I’ve been cultivating sources with the Feds. And I suppose we’d have to do an updated paperback edition of the book.”
Like you’ve said in the past — you’re a journalist and a journalist follows a story to the end.
“Yes. That’s part two of ‘Sometimes you find a story and sometimes a story finds you.’ You don’t stop until the end.”
Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly by Jim DeRogatis is published on June 4
Both R Kelly and Harvey Weinstein deny any allegations of wrongdoing made against them.