As Ronan Farrow has with Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and the manipulative culture of male empowerment over women in the film and news business, Jim DeRogatis has done so with Robert “R.” Kelly and music.
Only, DeRogatis – a revered music journalist with major chops in investigative beat journalism – has been at this, singularly and doggedly, for 20 years, as the only man who would listen to, and believe, over 40 black girls-turned-women and their families pour over the torturous aspects of rape and abuse at Kelly's hands.
“I've never not taken that phone call,” said DeRogatis when asked if the case is over now that he's published "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly," with its subject behind bars for six months. DeRogatis is one part of a night of revelation at the annual First Person Arts Festival taking part in the event’s marquee production, #IMNOJANEDOE on Nov. 3. He sat down with us ahead of the event.
You have lived with this story for 20 years. Are you at all tired of having to re-run or re-live this for people who are only now dealing with R. Kelly's guilt?
Yeah. I hate it. I'd rather be talking to you about Lizzo or virtually anything else.
I get it, but, why keep doing it? Why keep going?
I hate the Javier narrative, that I AM OBSESSED with R. Kelly (laughs). Early in my career, when I was an investigative beat reporter in New Jersey, and writing music for free for fanzines, I had two brilliant women editors who were mentors. They told me that sometimes you choose the story, and sometimes your story chooses you. So, since November 2000 when I got the fax that started this – Robert has a problem, Robert likes young girls – turned out to be true, it's not me chasing the story. It is women coming to me who saw my stories and saying that I got it right. They say, “I have a story. No one will listen to me.”
And so it continues then.
To me, you're not a reporter, much less a human being, if a woman is on the phone, saying, "No one will listen to me. Can I tell you my story," and you don't take that call. Whether it's the girls who spoke to me in the fall of 2000 – and girls is the right word, as their contact with me started at age 14 and 15 – or the Savages and the Clarys coming to me in 2016 about the cult story, and 48 women whose stories I heard in the intervening years … this story chose me.
You are coming to Philly for a festival that focuses on the memoir as art. How is this story your story?
If I look at a career as a writer, starting with the day I spent at age 17 with Lester Bangs, then publishing his biography in 2000, or sitting with Kurt Cobain before In Utero came out, or getting shouted out in the audience by Common only to have this guy hand me his mixtape and tell me he's coming up – that's how I met Kanye – I'd rather talk about those stories. R. Kelly? I wish it hadn't taken up 20 years of my life. I prefer to dwell on the good power of music. If you don't think the best music is being made now or is about to be made in a basement in Tulsa or a bedroom in Brooklyn, then get the fuck out of the way. This is the best beat in the world. In my head, I'm still 17.
Before I became a writer full-time, I worked, in the 1990s, in the music business and had contact with people at Jive, Kelly's label. They knew about his predilections. What did you know about him before 2000?
I started at the Sun Times in 1991 as the pop music critic. “R. Kelly likes them young” was always the phrase I heard.
The Aaliyah thing blew up in 1996. I interviewed her, and Kelly when he produced "You are Not Alone," Michael Jackson's only No. 1 hit after the accusations against him. Kelly did not talk about the Aaliyah incident, but he said that he wrote that Michael song about “some shit going down in my life.” Clearly, that's about Aaliyah, though she denied it. Everybody I spoke to at Jive and the minister whose name was on the wedding certificate denied it. I was facing a wall of denials. Still, that didn't sit easy with me. In 2000, that fax came through mentioning a lawsuit and an ongoing police investigation – numerous things that turned out to be true. I took those words seriously. Our lead in that Dec. 20, 2000, story was prescient and borne out now by 41 felony counts against Kelly, with possibly more to come. Our lead was that R. Kelly has consistently abused his position of wealth and fame to pursue illegal sexual contact with underage girls. Bam.
On Dec. 21, 2000, what were you thinking, after the story ran?
That we were late to this story, as victim No. 1 starts in 1991. Shame on the media. Shame on us. We should have taken this seriously sooner. Me and all of my colleagues also thought, well, now R Kelly is done. Boy, were we wrong.
Now, he's done.
He's never going to breathe fresh air again. Put this in perspective, brother: 41 felony counts. No one in the history of pop music, which has a long, sad history of men abusing women – before Frank Sinatra to well after Ryan Adams – has ever faced a trail like this, with federal racketeering suits, with his enablers being indicted, with 195 years behind bars.
So why didn't people come forward?
We all heard the whispers. But, Kelly was an unprecedented cash cow … he himself earned a quarter of a billion dollars, and that Jive earned a billion dollars and sold a 100 million records, to say nothing of what he produced and wrote for Whitney Houston and Celine Dion to collaborations with Lady Gaga. How did these record executives shave or put on their makeup knowing that daughters and sisters were getting hurt…
Popular culture and the media turn this into a joke couldn't have helped. Dave Chappelle. Saturday Night Live.
We were normalizing the behavior of a serial rapist. It shouldn't have been “the pee tape.” It should have been “the rape tape.”
How was it as a Caucasian man going to these Black girls and Black mothers to report on the crimes of a beloved, successful Black entertainer?
I know, the fat white rock critic, right? The bullshit phrase of anyone with white privilege that “I don't see color,” that's nonsense. I was clearly not a member of that community, and yet, my overwhelming experience was not to have doors slammed in my face or being distrusted. I also never heard “I hate R Kelly.” What I heard was that “brother has a problem,” and “brother's hurting people and needs to stop.” I was welcomed into people’s homes, had people cry on my shoulder, and was offered tea and conversation, glad to talk to me because no one else wanted to listen.
Understanding the music must have helped.
Yes. Despite the fact that I was waiting for Wire to come to town the next night, they might have a Mavis Staples record on the table or Common playing in the background. If I told them about being hugged by Mavis Staples, that the experience was like being hugged by an angel, suddenly we're cousins. I understood Kelly's music and how people could be smitten with him. I understood the power of music, and its ability to get inside your soul, and seduce.
#IMNOJANEDOE | Nov. 3, 2 p.m. Levitt Auditorium, 401 S. Broad St. firstpersonarts.org/Festival