BuzzFeed Journalist Jim DeRogatis on Why His R. Kelly Story ‘Touches on Everything That’s a Problem in America Today’

Lyndsey Parker

On Monday, the music world was rocked by an explosive exposé in BuzzFeed claiming that controversial R&B star R. Kelly (a man with a long history of alleged sexual misconduct) has “brainwashed” at least six young women — all of them aspiring singers, hoping he could mentor their careers — and is keeping them in a “cult” in his Chicago and Atlanta homes. (Kelly has vehemently denied the report, as has one of the women, Jocelyn Savage; Kelly’s record label, RCA, has yet to respond to Yahoo Music’s request for comment.) Veteran music journalist Jim DeRogatis worked on the shocking article, which can be read here, for nine months — but DeRogatis’s history with Kelly actually dates back two decades.

Seventeen years ago, when DeRogatis was a Chicago Sun-Times pop critic who had chronicled local hero Kelly’s rise from subway busker to superstar, he received an anonymous fax alerting him about an ongoing investigation of Kelly by the Chicago Police Department’s sex-crimes unit. DeRogatis began covering the story, and a year later, he received another, much more shocking anonymous dispatch: a videotape depicting Kelly engaging in a sexual act with an allegedly underage girl. Then in 2002, when Kelly was arrested and indicted on 21 counts of manufacturing child pornography, DeRogatis was there to cover the case — and was even ordered to testify about the sex tape in the trial.

When Kelly was acquitted of all 21 charges in 2008, industry insiders and fans alike seemed willing to forgive, forget, and quickly move on. DeRogatis was the exception, and he continued what by now had become a personal crusade. At the very end of 2013 — a year in which Kelly had released the sexually explicit Black Panties album, headlined Chicago’s indie-rock Pitchfork Music Festival, made a much-hyped surprise appearance at Coachella, and joined Lady Gaga for risqué “Do What You Want” duets on Saturday Night Live and the American Music Awards — DeRogatis spoke at length with the Village Voice about what he had witnessed while covering Kelly’s “stomach-churning” child pornography trial. The article went viral, raising countless eyebrows and racking up millions of page views — but Kelly’s professional success continued into 2014 and beyond.

Now, with this week’s BuzzFeed bombshell, Kelly — and DeRogatis — are back in the news, their names once again linked in the headlines. It remains to be seen if this latest scandal will be the one that derails Kelly’s career in this post-Cosby age, but in the meantime, Yahoo Music spoke to DeRogatis about why he never gave up on the R. Kelly story, and what his findings have to say about celebrity culture and rape culture in America in 2017.

YAHOO MUSIC: It’s hard to believe you’ve been covering this saga for 17 years now.

JIM DEROGATIS: Yes, [December] 2000 was the first investigative story that I wrote with the legal affairs reporter, Abdon Pallasch, at the Chicago Sun-Times. I don’t think you’re a journalist if you don’t follow a story to its end. And this story has never really ended.

Obviously. It’s only getting weirder, and even darker.

Well, yeah. In fact, there’s a long context of Kelly leaving a trail of damaged African-American women in his path, since the mid-‘90s. What we reported in BuzzFeed is, I think, an especially harrowing twist. The Sun-Times reported for years that he consistently abused his position of wealth and fame to pursue illegal relationships with underage women. And he was tried for 21 counts of making child pornography, and he [allegedly] illegally married Aaliyah when she was 15 with a falsified marriage license. The twist that BuzzFeed reported Monday morning — my work for nine months — was that Kelly is now holding six or seven women in a state of what our sources called “slavery,” against their will, being brainwashed. These are all the words that the two sets of parents and three women who were on the record used to describe life with Kelly. He tells them when to eat, when to sleep, how to dress — in baggy jogging suits, so that his male friends won’t notice their form — and how to pleasure him sexually in encounters that he records. He takes their cellphones so that they cannot contact family and friends, and replaces them with new phones that they’re only supposed to use with his permission and to contact him. Mentally and physically, he abuses them — allegedly, our sources say — if they break any of these rules.

I really don’t want this in any way to sound victim-blaming, but something that shocked me when reading your story was the fact that — despite the past allegations against Kelly — so many parents believed he was someone who could help their daughters in their music careers. I was surprised they were so trusting.

The parents were not naive; they were aware of some of what Kelly has been accused of. But they thought, “It’s going to be different for my daughter, who’s incredibly talented.” Both of the young women [from the two sets of parents interviewed for the article], from Georgia and Florida, are great singers. And there was this model of, “He made Aaliyah into a superstar,” and “It’ll be different because I’m going to be next to my daughter every step of the way.” But when you talk to them, you understand how they made the biggest mistake of their lives, they now admit, in allowing their daughters to be near Kelly. That he slowly but surely and methodically separated the young women from their families and friends, and it was a process of seduction toward a very dark end. And they were unaware until it had actually happened. All I can say about people who are eager to say that the parents are partly to blame, or that the young women are partly to blame — and it should be stated, clearly and unequivocally, that the young women [who are still living with Kelly] are saying they want to be where they are — is that until you talk to the women who have left this “cult,” which is the word they use, and until you talk to the parents, it’s easy to vilify them. But these are human beings that made mistakes and regret the decisions they made, and they are now horrified to see young women paying the price. It’s easy to judge from outside. I think it’s brave of these people now to be coming forward and telling their story.

I’m seeing some parallels here between the Svengali story of R. Kelly and these aspiring young singers, and people like Lou Pearlman and the boy bands he worked with, Dr. Luke and Kesha, Kim Fowley and Jackie Fox of the Runaways…

It took decades for the Kim Fowley story [about Runaways manager Fowley allegedly raping bassist Fox when she was 17] to come out. And Kesha was vilified and not believed. And there was Jimmy Savile with the BBC over in the U.K. too. I think we have to ask ourselves, as people who chronicle the music industry, if journalism has done a good job here. And I think we have to look at the music industry. RCA Records has had Kelly proudly on their roster throughout his entire career; Jive was subsumed by RCA Records, speaking of Lou Pearlman. RCA has refused to comment about this. On Dec. 23 last year, Kelly was on The Tonight Show, singing his Christmas songs and getting a big bear hug from Jimmy Fallon. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have sought out R. Kelly to produce recordings; Gaga went so far as to perform with him on the AMAs in this ultra-bizarre skit where she’s fellating him at the desk of the Oval Office. Alexander Wang has hired him to be an endorser. And he’s touring this summer [and] being promoted by Live Nation, the biggest concert promoter in the world. So Kelly has suffered nothing in his career.

I was surprised that Lady Gaga — a feminist, a sexual assault survivor, and an advocate for other survivors — recorded a duet with him, especially one that said, “Do what you want with my body.”

Gaga is a brilliant woman. There may be an excuse for an 18-year-old girl from Florida or a 19-year-old girl from Georgia to not know the history of Robert Sylvester Kelly, but there’s no excuse for Gaga not to know. She has people around her who should have made her aware: “Are you sure you want to co-sign this artist and work with him, when he has hurt so many young women?” But, you know, she’s not alone; there’s dozens of artists who want to work with Kelly. And Jimmy Fallon’s happy to give him a hug.

I think for a long time, a lot of people thought about Kelly as some sort of eccentric, ironic character, because he was so over the top. I’ll admit I was once obsessed with the sheer ridiculousness of Trapped in the Closet, and I was also amused by the Gaga AMAs performance and when Phoenix brought him out at Coachella for a mash-up. Now I feel incredibly guilty for having ever been entertained by any of this.

[Phoenix and R. Kelly at Coachella] was the same year Kelly headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival. Here’s what’s unconscionable to me: He’s headlining Pitchfork for 30,000 bearded, craft-beer-drinking hipsters in [Chicago’s] Union Park, half a mile away from where the first girl who sued him lived. It’s public record; her name is Tiffany Hawkins. He began a sexual relationship with her after he picked her up when he came back to his old school, Kenwood Academy, and talked to the choir class. And he discarded her two years later and she slit her wrists in an attempt to kill herself. She lived about six blocks away from Union Park. And I hit hard the promoters of the Pitchfork Music Festival, for not caring about the young women of Chicago in the community that surrounded the site of their festival. All of those years of damage, allegedly, to all those young women. And for what? To hear him sing “Ignition (Remix)”?

You know, there were no black fans at Pitchfork. He was singing to a white community. I understand the black community’s relationship [with R. Kelly] is confusing. There are many older Chicago lovers of R. Kelly’s music who love the stepping music and the gospel stuff. But the stepping and gospel stuff is not why Pitchfork or Phoenix co-signed him.

Yes, I think they saw him as kitsch.

Let’s take a step beyond “kitsch.” I think there is some sort of vicarious thrill in knowing that this is a very bad boy. … I believe, throughout his career, that R. Kelly has been telling us exactly who he is, through his music — if we cared to listen. We’re dismissing it as kitsch, or comedy, or over the top, and I don’t think it is. … I think people are wrestling today [after the BuzzFeed article came out] with, “I always liked his music, but I can no longer ignore this evidence of him allegedly hurting young women.”


It seems many people are eager to compartmentalize, in their minds, the music they like from the terrible things the musicians may have done.

We don’t want to believe the worst of our heroes — especially when they’re artists that create art that we love. … You and I both love Lou Reed, right? Lou Reed showed a great amount of empathy, according to the late, great [legendary music journalist] Lester Bangs, for people in society who no one else cared about — transvestites, hookers, junkies — but Lou Reed was a nasty man, mistreated most of his bandmates. But the art is beautiful, and I don’t think you hear that [nastiness] in his art. R. Kelly, I think, is different. I mean, when we look at the album that Kelly wrote and produced for Aaliyah, what did he call it?

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.

It’s right there, isn’t it? I think if you look at Trapped in the Closet, and [lyrics like] “I wanna be your sexasaurus” and “sex in the kitchen” and “I wanna ride you like I ride my Jeep,” I think what he is singing about is a vision of unbridled hedonism that is about his pleasure, and to hell with any repercussions. You know, there’s a reworked version of “I Believe I Can Fly” as a nine-and-a-half-minute opera, in which he imagines himself dying and going to the Pearly Gates, and he says to St. Peter: “I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to let me in, but I hope you will, because my sins are so many and I can’t even name them, they’re so horrible. But please forgive me; I’m one of God’s children too.” And I’ve always wanted to ask Mr. Kelly, “What were those sins?” Because he does not confess to them in [his autobiography] Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. I should note that my name appears in Soulacoaster three times, by the way.

Why?

Because I had to testify at his [child pornography] trial. The First Amendment protections for reporters, the Illinois state shield law, and the Reporter’s Privilege Act did not hold sway in judgments in [Judge Vincent] Gaughan’s courtroom — and the Illinois Appellate Court denied my protections, and so did the Illinois Supreme Court. So 15 times I was asked 15 questions, and I responded each time by taking my Fifth Amendment rights. Because to even to say that I had watched, or held in my hands, the videotape of him having sex with, allegedly, a 14-year-old girl — that was the core of the case — would have been admitting a felony. So I would not uncouple my First and Fifth Amendment protections. But rather than risk revealing sources, I had to testify at his trial — and look at him across the courtroom.

That must have felt crazy. And you’d been following and covering his career from the very beginning.

Yes, and it was an inspiring story [in the beginning]. This is a man of immense talent who started out busking for change on subway platforms and singing at backyard BBQs, and he has since become the most successful R&B singer of his generation — and certainly one of the most successful artists Chicago has ever produced. When you look at the [Chicago] greats like Mavis Staples or Curtis Mayfield, the number of records they sold, in comparison, pale. And these were artists who walked hand-in-hand with Dr. Martin Luther King and used their music to fight for civil rights. And what has R. Kelly done? Yet he remains a huge hero here [in Chicago] to many people. You know, the statement that R. Kelly’s lawyer put out was, “R. Kelly’s all about peace and love and trying to stop the violence in Chicago.” He vociferously denied [the BuzzFeed report]. Actually, the word they used was he will “forcibly fight” these allegations against him. I think “forcibly” is a curious word.


I know you interviewed Kelly many times in his early days, but have you had any more recent communication with him?

Well, I had to look at him in court. And I was threatened by his former business manager — he called me up in the middle of the [child pornography trial] reporting and said, “I know you have a daughter.” And the day after the Sun-Times ran a story about the videotape, somebody shot out my front vestibule window. The newspaper paid to replace the window. I don’t know; it could have been a coincidence.

But no recent communication about this latest BuzzFeed story?

No. We tried five times to get RCA to comment. We tried the three cellphone numbers we had for Kelly when we were doing our reporting. … The only statement for the first 24 hours was from his civil attorney in Chicago saying R. Kelly is all about peace and love.

There are some people in the music business, like PWR BTTM and music publicist Heathcliff Berru, who were recently accused of sexual misconduct and there was immediate fallout for them. Their careers were over, almost overnight. Do you think things are slowly changing regarding the public’s or the music industry’s tolerance for this sort of thing?

Perhaps the Zeitgeist is shifting. But there is the even bigger context of rape culture. FBI statistics tell us that only one in 10 cases brought to trial result in the conviction of a rapist. And that’s only the people who actually file a report; there are so many women who won’t even come forward, because they don’t want to be not believed. This is a chronic problem in our society that goes far beyond R. Kelly.

But why do you think there are some industry people whose careers are destroyed by such allegations — Gary Glitter is another one that comes to mind — yet R. Kelly remains mostly unscathed?

You want to know what I really think? Having talked to many African-American cultural critics — Mark Anthony Neal being one of my heroes — Mark Anthony Neal says that if there had been one young white girl from the suburbs [accusing R. Kelly], then it would have been a completely different story. But Kelly has only ever preyed on young black women. And I’m paraphrasing Malcolm X, when I’ve said to the Village Voice and I’ll say it to you: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. They’re “bitches,” “hos,” and “gold-diggers,” and they are not believed.

There are other examples of people in the entertainment industry taking a blind eye to the bad behavior of celebrities [like] Chris Brown, Bill Cosby, even Michael Jackson.

Let’s never forget that Kelly and Jackson recorded together. Yeah, that’s interesting. I always wondered what those two talked about.

Well, do you think this is going to be R. Kelly’s “Bill Cosby moment”? That this BuzzFeed article will finally be what ruins his career?

I honestly can’t say. … I would have thought that being tried for 21 counts of making child pornography would have put the nail in that coffin.

There are many people who have worked in industry with Kelly. Have you had anyone come to you saying they feel bad that they were complicit, that they knew something was going on?

Oh, yeah. At least a dozen over the years. Probably more. Recording studio engineers, people who worked for Jive Records, people in the publicity industry, radio station people, concert promoters: “I knew it was happening. I didn’t stop it. I’m sick that I didn’t do anything.” I’m seeing their faces right now as you ask me that question. … I don’t think anybody can say they didn’t know. And I don’t think we as journalists can say we didn’t know.

Can you understand — not excuse, not condone, but understand — how some people in the industry may have been afraid to come forward?

I don’t understand it and I never will. … I have a really hard time now getting those emails from people who worked at the Chicago Recording Co., going, “Oh yeah, I was a tape operator there for years, and you wouldn’t believe the crap I saw.” Really? Really. So why didn’t you do anything?

In the 17 years of covering all of R. Kelly’s alleged wrongdoings, what haunts you the most?

I think it’s the same as the parents: That tonight, in a guest house in Georgia, or in the recording studio half a block away from Union Park, those girls are being told what to do, like robots, allegedly. So as horrifying as it was to be confronted with the evidence of the girl who slit her wrists, that was way back when, in the ‘90s. But this is happening today, tonight, right now. I live about three miles away from that recording studio.

This story is intense…

Believe me, it’s not a story I’ve wanted to live with for the past 17 years, or for the past nine months. … Look, as music journalists, we cover what is 99.9 percent of the time entertainment. But art reflects the society around us. And there are so many bigger issues — of race, of a woman’s right not to be mistreated, of the justice system. This Kelly story touches on everything that’s a problem in America today. But we also elected a president who thinks it’s OK to say “grab the woman by the you-know-what.” So really, rape culture stretches from the street to the White House.

All this must have weighed heavily on your mind over the years.

Yes, and it still does, because I don’t think it’s over. I’m not sure if it’s ever going to be over, but we’ll see. You’re not a journalist if you let go of a story that still needs to be told. … I will just say the parents want one thing. They want their daughters to come home.

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