It’s been 19 years since music critic Jim DeRogatis received a fax at the Chicago Sun-Times office about R. Kelly that would change his life. “Robert’s problem — and it’s a thing that goes back many years — is young girls,” it said, in part, leading DeRogatis to investigate the first of many stories about the R&B megastar’s alleged predation on underage girls. In total, he knows of 48 women who say they’ve been victimized by Kelly, and whose allegations he now reports on in his new book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.
After hearing the stories of so many victims and watching Kelly dodge criminal charges for years while making millions, DeRogatis is sick of talking about the singer. Yet he still feels a responsibility to keep reminding people about the women who’ve come forward and the many we’ll likely never know about, not to mention everyone who allegedly enabled, protected, or supported the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B even in the face of testimony and video evidence. “I tried to write a book that’s obviously about a very particular story, 19 years of my reporting on it, but is also about other issues: the power of art, the corruption of Chicago, rape culture,” he says of Soulless. “I didn’t enjoy writing it. I don’t think people will enjoy reading it, but I think it’s important.”
Ahead of Soulless’s June 4 publication, Vulture caught up with DeRogatis to discuss the latest charges against Kelly, what he’d ask the singer if they ever met, his feelings on the “pee tape” becoming a joke, and why this story is about more than just one artist who allegedly preys on young girls.
It’s quite a coincidence that the Chicago district attorney filed new charges against R. Kelly days before your book comes out. How are you feeling about them?
Well, I hear that the federal indictments based on the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and IRS investigations are coming within the next month. The charges last week are additional charges based on what happened to Jerhonda Johnson, now Jerhonda Pace, whom I first reported on in BuzzFeed in 2017. So it’s just additional charges, as if what happened to her wasn’t horrifying enough.
Does it seem like they have a solid case against him?
I think the state of Illinois’s case is weak. Soulless lays out 30 years of a pattern of predatory behavior and obstruction of justice and enabling by the music industry, the legal system, lawyers, the churches, the schools, and many other villains. This case doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the true magnitude of Kelly’s crimes. Victim No. 1 [is related to an alleged incident from] 1991 and even as you and I speak, Joy Savage and Azriel Clary are sitting with Kelly at Trump Tower [in Chicago]. You can say, “Well, they’re of legal age. They have a right to be where they choose.” Then you can reread what Dominique Gardner, who was there for nine years until a couple of months ago, told me about being beaten with an extension cord and choked and starved. It’s horrifying and sinister to me that we don’t have law enforcement ringing R. Kelly’s doorbell every hour on the hour to make sure that those girls are okay.
It seems like you’ve been screaming about his crimes into a void for years. It can’t bring closure, but does having the book out take any weight off your shoulders?
No. My phone keeps ringing from young women who want to tell their stories. To be clear, it really doesn’t matter about how hard a slog this has been for me for 19 years. I don’t give a fuck about that. When you think about the courage of a young woman doing the hardest thing she could possibly do, to sit and rip out her soul and talk about her sexual abuse … The book was necessary because of Tiffany Hawkins, Patrice Jones, Tracy Samson, Montina Woods, Jerhonda Pace, Dominique Gardner, Andrea Kelly, Lizette Martinez, and [the rest of the] 48 women whose names I know. All of those women cannot be lying, despite what Kelly and his attorneys say.
In the book, you talk about how Kelly’s manager floated the possibility of interviewing him in 2018 but it never happened. What would you say to him now if you got that opportunity?
I would give him the names and I would want to hear him say to a camera, to a recorder that Tiffany Hawkins is a liar. That the people who love Aaliyah are liars. That they are all liars. He claimed to love them. I want to hear him tell me they’re horrible gold diggers, liars, opportunists, publicity hounds trying to get their 15 minutes. I want to see what his face looks like. But I also think he’s a sociopath who probably doesn’t have any emotional feeling for anybody but himself.
But you know what? None of that’s a secret. It’s been in the music from “Honey Love” to “I Admit.” There’s a Dostoevsky-like element here of him being torn apart by this guilt and singing about it. At the same time, he’s bragging about his actions in song. They’ve sold 100 million records. They’re not hard to find. They’re still on Spotify. If listening to the lyrics is too hard, read [his autobiography] Soulacoaster or watch his interviews. Watch that incredible performance with Gayle King. People say, “I never really understood.” Well, Robert was trying to make you understand.
In the book, you mention that even the most well-meaning people discussing Kelly will say, “The pee tape.” You call it “the rape tape.” How frustrating is it for you that it’s referenced so flippantly now?
That 26 minutes, 39 seconds of video is the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. To see it reduced to a joke when you have this 14-year-old being violated … I have a really difficult description in the book of exactly what’s on that tape. There’s nothing sexy about it. It’s the document of an [alleged] assault. She has the look of an automaton who was following orders.
I fully understand comedy or laughter as a necessary tool to deal with overwhelming emotional problems, but that’s not this. There is stomach-churning, vile, evil disgust on that tape. It’s shown in court a dozen times; those jurors see it and Kelly is acquitted. The money and the power and the politics and the church, all these things conspire […] and it continues for 11 more years.
With the charges Kelly is facing now, what do you see is the appropriate punishment for him?
I really hate that question because I have no answer. I know it’s too little, too late for those 48 women. I have no idea what justice looks like for them. I honestly do not have an opinion about what sentence R. Kelly deserves except for he needs to be stopped from ever hurting another person, period.
The heroes of the book are those young women who had the courage to speak out. I hope people will begin to take every rape victim a little more seriously. Beyond that, I especially hope young black girls begin to be seen as being of worth. For everyone saying I’m a racist who tried to take down the successful black superstar, that never made sense to me. Don’t these women matter? These were not women anybody cared about. And yet, one young, beautiful white college girl goes missing in Mexico and it’s 24/7 cable news. Even the Weinstein case — which is in no way to minimize those victims — those were beautiful, almost all white actresses that we felt we knew. Nobody knows these black girls.
What other plans do you have to keep telling this story? There was talk of a documentary, right?
Well, the documentary fell apart. It would be nice to not have to tell new elements of this story, yet if I hang up and another woman calls me and says, “No one is listening to me. Can I talk to you about this?” I’m not going to not take that call. I haven’t not taken that call in 19 years.
I would really like to stop talking about R. Kelly at some point. I’d like for it not to be necessary. If I’m not talking about him anymore, it means there’s been some resolution and people aren’t being hurt.
This interview has been edited and condensed.