The reporter who broke the R. Kelly story is ready for everyone else to care about it

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The reporter who broke the R. Kelly story is ready for everyone else to care about it


Reporter Jim DeRogatis’ phone rings all the time. It rings in the middle of the night, and it rings first thing in the morning, and it rings on Christmas, and it rings on Thanksgiving.

At the other end of the line are the women who say R. Kelly sexually manipulated and abused them when they were just girls, or the families of those girls, or the parents of daughters who are living with Kelly right now, in what DeRogatis has reported is a “cult” where Kelly’s whims and desires are law.

“You can’t turn these sources off,” DeRogatis told ThinkProgress. “They keep calling and calling. And I’m not a therapist, I’m just someone who is willing to listen. It’s been insane.”

These parents say they can’t communicate with their daughters; one woman’s parents say she is being “held against her will” by the singer-songwriter, who, according to DeRogatis’ sources, is keeping six women in his rented properties in Chicago and suburbs of Atlanta, where “he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”

As Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee, former members of Kelly’s inner circle, told DeRogatis:

Kelly confiscates the women’s cell phones, they said, so they cannot contact their friends and family; he gives them new phones that they are only allowed to use to contact him or others with his permission. Kelly films his sexual activities, McGee and Jones said, and shows the videos to men in his circle.

So instead of calling their kids, parents call DeRogatis. They’ve called the police, too. But it’s DeRogatis who always answers, who has been on this case since 2000, when an anonymous fax arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times and changed the course of DeRogatis’ career, setting him off on what Chicago Magazine recently called his “lonely crusade.”

The fax, sent after DeRogatis reviewed Kelly’s album TP-2.com, described Kelly’s “problem” with pursuing “young girls” and gave DeRogatis two leads to chase: A lawsuit, since settled, brought by a woman who said Kelly started having sex with her when she was 15 years old, and an open sex crimes investigation into Kelly by the Chicago Police Department.

Along with Abdon M. Pallasch, a Sun-Times legal affairs reporter, DeRogatis dug through cases and knocked on door after door; together they wrote a front-page story that ran on December 21, 2000, with a lede DeRogatis can still recite from memory: “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.”

One month later, DeRogatis was sent an anonymous sex tape of a man having sex with a girl. The Sun-Times turned the tape over to the police, who could not identify the girl and declined to file charges. FBI investigators believed her age was approximately 15.

It was early the following year that a manila envelope landed in the mailbox of DeRogatis’ home on the North Side of Chicago, an envelope that contained that tape: The 26 minutes and 39 seconds that led to Kelly’s indictment on child pornography charges. DeRogatis had met a woman while reporting his earlier story on Kelly, and he thought the girl in the video might be this woman’s niece. He called her, and together they watched the tape — “which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a reporter,” he told Chicago. She confirmed the identity of her niece, and her age at the time the tape was made: Fourteen.

That February, DeRogatis and Pallasch’s story on the police investigation into Kelly came out. The night the story hit newsstands, a bullet came through DeRogatis’ window.

Kelly was indicted that June, initially on 21 counts of child pornography that were later reduced to 14. He managed to delay the trial for six years, and when it finally came time to go to court, the girl in the video and her parents declined to testify. (About a dozen family members and friends did testify and confirmed her identity.) Kelly was acquitted. But, as DeRogatis said several times during his conversation with ThinkProgress, Kelly has never actually been tried for rape.

In 2010, DeRogatis left the Sun-Times. (He’s now an associate professor at Columbia College and host of “Sound Opinions” on WBEZ Chicago.) His 2017 story on the alleged cult of Kelly was the result of nine months of reporting — and it almost never ran. As Chicago reported, DeRogatis first developed the piece with MTV News until “higher-ups got cold feet“; then he tried the Reader, whose parent company also owns the Sun-Times, until they, too, passed on it. A third unnamed outlet also dropped the story. Having already given Kelly’s attorney a heads-up about the story, DeRogatis felt a clock ticking: He sent out three offers at once, to the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and BuzzFeed, which was the only one of the three to get back to him “promptly and definitively.”

Since the story came out last July, DeRogatis said, there’s been “a lot of media attention.” An astonishing change of pace, considering how many years went by when he was pretty sure he was the only person who still cared about the Kelly case, and who was interested in covering it at all. Kelly’s career has been neither stopped nor even slowed by the allegations — and in some cases, DeRogatis fears, fans love Kelly all the more because of the allegations, perhaps choosing to believe there’s some kitschy, ironic distance to the whole thing, or that Kelly’s kinks have been reduced to camp.

How else to explain, for instance, Kelly’s status as a headliner at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival — held, as DeRogatis pointed out, not half a mile from where “one of these girls he had sexual relations with as a teenager tried to kill herself.”?

DeRogatis spoke with ThinkProgress about what makes Kelly different from the multitude of alleged sexual predators in the entertainment industry — why DeRogatis thinks Kelly’s case is particularly chilling and urgent; why he believes it is so much harder to rally public support around Kelly’s victims and against Kelly’s work than it is for the survivors of Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein; and if he believes that, with Time’s Up amplifying the #MuteRKelly movement, with the momentum of #MeToo, in this strange, surreal time for societal attitudes around sexual violence, justice will finally come for the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B.

You’ve been covering R. Kelly for almost 20 years. And as I understand it, your work was getting fairly little traction, until less than a year ago when your first BuzzFeed piece came out last July. What’s that been like for you? 

A lot of media attention. But the thing is, the girls aren’t home yet. And that’s what’s different about this story. I’ve now talked to five parents who are desperate to get their daughters home. You look at the Matt Lauer story with the button under his desk to lock the door. If you’re a coworker walking by, and you hear a woman in that room scream, and you keep walking — that’s what this situation is. Parents want their daughters, who are 19 and 20, and one of these daughters has been there since 2008, when she was 17. That’s just horrifying, to me.

It seems like public perception around R. Kelly is shifting, though, with Time’s Up’s statement and the #MuteRKelly movement.

The Time’s Up announcement represented a sea change.

Let me ask the question that I think always comes up in cases involving an alleged serial predator — someone whose reported behavior has been known, or easy to know, for a long time. Why do you think more people don’t care about this? Why did it take so long — or should I say, why is it taking so long?

It depends which corner. Let’s start with law enforcement. These parents have talked to police in Georgia, Florida, several cities in Illinois, if we count Olympia Fields, Chicago authorities, because that’s where [Kelly] is.

Dick Devine, the former state’s attorney [of Cook County, Il.], had 26 minutes and 39 seconds of crystalline clear video, and he prosecuted R. Kelly only narrowly, on child pornography charges, because the 14-year-old did not cooperate. She would not testify, and neither would her mother or father. It took six years to go to trial – unprecedented in the state of Illinois. And despite her aunt, her pastor, best friends, teachers, principal, all testifying, the jury says, we never heard from the young woman and her parents, and he was acquitted. So it cost the state of Illinois millions of dollars to lose.

“You look at the Matt Lauer story with the button under his desk to lock the door. If you’re a coworker walking by, and you hear a woman in that room scream, and you keep walking — that’s what this situation is.”

I think the chilling effect is: It’s not that they don’t care. They don’t want to lose. They don’t want to go against an adversary who has so many resources. It’s a young African American woman who is the state’s attorney now, Kim Fox. And she’s done nothing… law enforcement in Chicago, Florida, Georgia: nothing. Hours of FBI interviews, which makes it federal: nothing.

I spent an hour on the phone with one of the fathers this morning. Every day he wakes up and his daughter is not home. He and his wife are certain his daughter are being mistreated every day. It’s horrifying.

R. Kelly arrives at the Cook County courthouse where jury selection is scheduled to begin for his child pornography trial May 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s been seven months since the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And we’ve seen a considerable number of these alleged or admitted sexual harassers and abusers face at least some consequences: They’ve lost their jobs, stepped back from public life, resigned from office. Bill Cosby was just convicted. What makes R. Kelly different from all these other men? Why do you think he — so far — has been able to get away with what these other men have not?

I’m a journalist and I’m a critic. I think R. Kelly is a uniquely black artist, with two exceptions: Space Jam and “I Believe I Can Fly,” a great crossover hit, a long time ago. But he is a black artist, and it’s black radio, and it’s black media that considers him a superstar, and he is. He’s not as well known in the white world… The almost exclusively mainstream white media does not understand him.

The other exception, besides “I Believe I Can Fly,” is this hipster embrace he got in 2013. He appears, two weeks in a row, at Coachella, with Phoenix, doing “Ignition (Remix).” And he headlines the Pitchfork music festival, where he’s playing to 30,000 bearded hipsters — mostly white. This is the white college festival crowd. Tens of thousands more at Coachella. For them to have been able to accept it as kitsch — “Trapped in the Closet,” “Sex in the Kitchen,” “Sexasaurus” — that’s particularly distasteful, to me.

“What’s unique about R. Kelly — and it’s really singularly unique — is the artist is talking about the alleged misdeeds. He’s pursuing an unfettered vision of hedonism, which is now documented by two decades of reporting, unrefuted.”

 

I think in the black world, there are many people who are now voicing disgust at the industry enabling— Ava [DuVernay], Shonda Rhimes, Tarana Burke [who started the ‘Me Too’ movement] is just a heroine — but other people say, “My baby was conceived to him, I love his music, I know he’s done some wrong, I can listen to the music and not think about the crimes.”

Just going to go out on a limb here and guess that you cannot listen to R. Kelly’s music and not think about his crimes?

I think the philosophical question of “can we separate the art and the artist?” is a deep and profound one. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer… I think every single one of us has to think about this.

I love Midnight in Paris. But having read the allegations by his family, I cannot watch Manhattan by Woody Allen. It’s about a 60 year old man pursuing a teenage girl, which is exactly what he was accused of doing. I love James Brown. There’s no modern black music without James Brown. He mistreated his wives. But he didn’t sing about it. I can listen to James Brown. I’m well aware of his history. I can separate art from artist.

What’s unique about R. Kelly — and it’s really singularly unique — is the artist is talking about the alleged misdeeds. He’s pursuing an unfettered vision of hedonism, which is now documented by two decades of reporting, unrefuted. It means to him, “I can pursue underage women, and I can control them mentally and physically, and mistreat them.”

Michael Jackson’s last two albums are full of songs that address the prosecution [he faced] twice in California for having sex with underage boys. I was the rock critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. If I am critiquing Michael Jackson and I bring up the charges, I am getting a ton of hate mail: “Leave him alone, get off his dick, he’s done a lot of good for the world, you fat fucking white asshole.” But Michael is singing about that! If the artist is singing about it, I think it’s fair game for the critic to talk about it, and as the listener, the fan, we all have to think about it.

I’m not going to preach to you about what your morality should be. All I know is, if we believe 20 years of reporting unrefuted, this is someone who has used the cover of a superstar pop and R&B hero to pursue, as a predator, underage women— girls.

Have you ever gotten pushback from fans who say you’re a white critic going after a successful black artist? Do you ever feel conflicted about that?

I got much more of that early on, in the first couple of years. But I think in general, the realization came that these were young black women that no one was listening to, except that fat white guy at the Chicago Sun-Times. Race has never come up in a single interview I’ve done with a victim or their families. They are eager to tell their story, and they’re hoping to get someone to help. So if social media or Wendy Williams or R. Kelly himself says, “this is a lynching of a black man,” the victims are black. Almost all the victims are black. The woman who spoke to me Friday is Puerto Rican. I have never had any interview or knowledge of a white victim.

Mark Anthony Neal, the great African American scholar, makes this point: “One white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different.” When I repeat something like that, or that “the saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” — I’m not talking as a 53-year-old white rock critic. I’m talking because dozens of black men and women have said that to me, and I’m amplifying their thought. And they say that with great sadness.

“[The fan] should know that this person onstage right now — half a mile away, one of these girls he had sexual relations with as a teenager tried to kill herself.”

I’d love to hear your experience as a music critic who essentially had to become an investigative reporter on the same beat where you do your cultural analysis. At my office I sometimes joke that I’m our Senior Buzzkill Correspondent, here to ruin all your favorite TV shows and movies! But really, it turned out that it was impossible to write about and report on pop culture without covering the actions of the people who create the art we consume. 

I think a good critic has to be aware of the context of the art. You and me, as people who do this professionally, are aware, obviously to a much greater degree than the kid in the field at Pitchfork. But he or she should know that this person onstage right now—  half a mile away, one of these girls he had sexual relations with as a teenager tried to kill herself, slit her wrists, half a mile from this stage. Especially with a crowd like that [at the Pitchfork festival], a well-meaning crowd that tries to be green and conscious and aware — that doesn’t end with the art we’re consuming. That’s my take. As a critic, I think we all have to be investigative critics, to some degree. You should know the context of the art you’re consuming.

I’m curious if there’s something particular about the nature of the allegations around R. Kelly that make people — fans and reporters — more skittish about discussing them or thinking about them. That there is something uniquely gross or strange about it that makes people just look away. Like Cosby, for instance, was just convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman. That very language — drugging and sexually assaulting — is not all that specific. It’s relatively neutral. Whereas with R. Kelly, you’re talking about something harder to wrap your head around and also more graphic to describe.

I think it’s the thought that these women are being held right now and told when to eat, when to sleep, how to pleasure him — it’s even worse, in some regards than Harvey Weinstein. Rape is rape, but this is weird. It’s super weird.

There’s also groupie culture. And I am a third wave feminist; I’m not a post-feminist, but I agree to the extent that, perhaps there is an element in female empowerment in sleeping with a rockstar. But not when you get hurt and your life is ruined.

“It’s a big disturbing stew, and in a lot of ways, Bill Cosby is an easier story and so is Harvey Weinstein.”

So all these things are really complicated with Kelly. They’re skeeved out. my friend Bill Wyman, he’s written a lot about Kelly, but he’s also written about Roman Polanski, and he coined a phrase, “the ick factor.” What Polanski did to that underage woman, anal rape in a hot tub… it’s just so distasteful that we don’t want to think about it.

And this 26 minute 39 second video, shown in open court numerous times during the trial, is horrifying. Prosecutors said this girl is 14. He tells her “call me daddy” numerous times. And he urinates in her mouth. There is no Kim Kardashian, Pam Anderson, good times romp. It is a document of a rape.

Pop culture has kind of morphed those crimes into a running joke about how weird he is. What’s on that tape gets referenced as a kink, not an assault.

I think you can think it’s just freaky weirdness. Dave Chapelle, “I want to piss on you.” Then you see that tape and the context. It’s rape because it’s statutory rape, even if she’s willing. and she does not seem willing. It is the vacant stare of a zombie. She is not enjoying that experience. Think about 26 minutes and 39 seconds. Think about how long that is. Think about the most horrifying thing you’ve ever seen lasting for that long.

I think there are jokes in the Barbershop movies about R. Kelly. [In 2003], when Chris Rock walked out at the MTV VMAs, he joked about how R. Kelly needed to be seated far away from the Olsen twins. And then there’s deeper satire. The Boondocks took him on. Certainly many other black comedians and activists and authors. When the videotape surface, Dr. Dre said, basically, “This man is a scumbag.” And Dr. Dre had thrown a female journalist down the stairs!

“I think we all have to be investigative critics, to some degree. You should know the context of the art you’re consuming.”

So I think the black world is divided, the white world doesn’t care, pop culture doesn’t know what to make of it. The hipster embrace of 2013 was particularly distressing. It’s a big disturbing stew, and in a lot of ways, Bill Cosby is an easier story and so is Harvey Weinstein. The women on New York magazine [who accused Bill Cosby of sexual violence] were so brave and so eloquent. The actresses [who came forward against Weinstein], we know them. They come into our homes and we go to the movie theater to see them. I don’t think America knows or cares to know the black victims of Kelly, except for Aaliyah. Which should have been enough.

It seems like, after Aaliyah’s death, that story was misremembered as: She wanted to be with him and her parents made her annul the marriage. Not a lot of interrogation going on about how she was only 15 and he falsified her age on their marriage certificate.

I’ve also had [her] family members, after her death in a plane crash, cry on my shoulder and say, “My daughter’s life was ruined by R. Kelly.” The family has not spoken and does not speak. And this is a very valuable property, her musical legacy. I think she was as damaged as many of the young women I’m talking to today. As damaged as Liz Martinez, who bravely went on the record Friday. And it was the same time period.

I want to go back to when you first reported on R. Kelly. I read that after one of your initial stories came out, someone shot at you through your window?

The day after we ran the story about the videotape, in 2002 — the big one that got him indicted, eventually — yeah, a bullet through the window. The Chicago Sun-Times paid to replace my window.

But after your story came out, there was no massive reaction to it in the rest of the media? It was just crickets?

It was. The Associated Press and UPI ran it. And every paper in America had a very small story. “The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.” That was the nut graf that took hours and hours and endless angst to craft, and the editors and the lawyers.

That’s what they reported, and then nobody followed the story up. Nobody else did any significant reporting. So the bullet thing, it was… you begin to say, did I make this up? I really wish I had saved the bill for replacing the window! But yeah, it was crickets for a long time, and it was crickets even after the videotape story.

“If it’s not mere entertainment, it’s art, and that means we have to think about it — the good and the bad of it.”

A telling detail I point out once in a while about how little the black victim mattered, at Dick Devine’s press conference, they handed the roomful of reporters the indictment and they had not redacted her name. She’s a 14-year-old rape victim. And they had to go back and collect the press releases and Sharpie out her name. You can’t make this shit up.

So it was crickets and then six years of tedious plotting toward trial, and then acquitted and then instantly forgotten.

And Vibe had already published the marriage certificate, right? So that information was out there: That Aaliyah’s age had been changed.

Aaliyah wins the MTV Award for Best video from a film September 7, 2000 at the MTV Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. CREDIT: George De Sota/Liaison

Vibe had published the marriage certificate with no context and no reporting. It was just a double-truck piece of art. It was our reporting: We got her birth certificate, and we got the annulment — they were sealed — and we were able to prove that her age was changed. But that didn’t seem to matter, even though she was a superstar.

And to get back to the beginning of your reporting: This all started for you with an anonymous fax?

I reviewed TP-2.com and compared R. Kelly to Prince and Marvin Gaye. And I got this fax said, “You compared him to Marvin, he had his problems, but not as bad as R. Kelly. Kelly’s been under investigation for two years by the sex-crimes unit of the Chicago police.” I threw it on the side of my desk and thought, “player-hater.” But I had been an investigative reporter in New Jersey for five years before I was lucky enough to get paid to be a rock critic. And in this fax, there was a police officer with this great Polish name. I just thought, no one would make that up.

I went to the city desk and said, “I think there’s something here,” and they paired me with Abdon Pallasch, the whitest white guy in the world. We just started ringing doorbells. We found that lawsuit against Kelly, and it had been filed at the end of the day on Christmas Eve. Nobody’s working at 4:30 on Christmas Eve. And the story was never reported. And what’s more, Kelly’s people got in front of it. They placed the story in the New York Daily News, and in the gossip columns, that “this woman is shaking down R. Kelly.” And he did sue her and that claim was 5 or 6 pages long. Hers was hundreds of pages of harrowing detail.

The lawsuits shut down and it all became out of court settlements, most negotiated by Susan Loggans. Girls would go to her with their stories and she would have them take a lie detector test and she’d go to Kelly’s attorneys and say, “We’ve got another one,” and she gets a big chunk of that settlement. I believe there were a dozen or more. They all signed NDAs. the same NDA tool that Weinstein used. And why didn’t Cook County didn’t pursue him for that? It’s public record!

So it’s been almost 20 years and for most of that time, you’ve felt like you’re the only person reporting on this — that the public and the media doesn’t care. Are you sensing a change now? Do you think R. Kelly’s reckoning is arriving?

I wish I was that optimistic! Tarana Burke brought [Kelly accuser] Jerhonda Pace with her on New Year’s Eve to bring down the crystal ball, and there were almost no stories in mainstream press about who she was standing next to. She did it intentionally, to bring that attention.

I think the Time’s Up thing is having a different impact, and I’m glad. But boy, wow, did this take a long time. Look at Kevin Spacey. Netflix shut down their most popular TV series, Ridley Scott erased Spacey from a movie overnight! For millions of dollars!

Is there something unique about music? Music has a power stronger than any other art form. Do we embrace the bad boy behavior just because of that? I don’t know. I’m troubled by that question… There’s a flip side, perhaps, and maybe it can be the most powerful tool to create evil. Because certainly, in media, in politics, in sports, in Hollywood, we are seeing the reckoning of Me Too and Time’s Up quickly — to the point where many people are talking about backlash.

People aren’t thinking about the music they consume. And that is something that bothers me intensely as a rock critic, because I can’t stop thinking about it! If it’s not mere entertainment, it’s art, and that means we have to think about it — the good and the bad of it.

This one line from your 2002 story has really stuck with me: “Sources said Kelly continues to seek meetings with underage girls by having an assistant press tiny balled-up notes with his phone number into the palms of their hands backstage at concerts or at video shoots.” It made me think about how what Kelly is reportedly doing — no one can do that by themselves. There’s a whole apparatus of people who make that possible. 

There’s hundreds of people: managers, accountants, agents, record execs, lawyers. There was one guy who had come up with him and was working as his right-hand man and told me early on in the reporting, night after night, there’s 20 women backstage, half-naked, beautiful and willing to do anything with him. And then there’s a little girl in the corner staring at her shoes, and she’s got acne, and she’s too shy to talk to anybody, and that’s the girl, somebody goes over and palms that number into her hand. It’s predation.

You’re talking many, many, many individuals. And they can justify it however they want. “She didn’t look 15. These were grown women.” I don’t know how these people live with themselves.

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the Kelly case?

I would just underscore again and again and again, young women, according to their parents, are in trouble right now. They’ve been separated from their parents for years with no contact. I hope it does not fade from the spotlight. That it wasn’t last week’s scandal of the day. This is ongoing, and I can’t think of another case that is.

The harrowing aspect right now is that the girl in the videotape is with him to this day. And her best friend from high school is with him to this day.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 




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