It's been nearly 15 years since music journalist Jim DeRogatis caught the story that has since defined his career, one that he wishes didn't exist: R. Kelly's sexual predation on teenage girls. DeRogatis, at that time the pop-music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, was anonymously delivered the first of two videos he would receive depicting the pop star engaging in sexual acts with underage girls. Now the host of the syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions and a professor at Columbia College, DeRogatis, along with his former Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch, didn't just break the story, they did the only significant reporting on the accusations against Kelly, interviewing hundreds of people over the years, including dozens of young women whose lives DeRogatis says were ruined by the singer.
This past summer, leading up to Kelly's headlining performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival, DeRogatis posted a series of discussions about Kelly's career, the charges made against him, and sexual assault. He published a live review of the singer's festival set that was an indictment of Pitchfork and its audience for essentially endorsing a man he calls "a monster."
In the two weeks since Kelly released his latest studio album, Black Panties, the conversation about him and why he has gotten a pass from music publications (not to mention feminist sites such as Jezebel) has been rekindled, in part because of the explicit nature of the album and also because of online arguments around the Pitchfork performance. I was one of those people who challenged DeRogatis and was even flip about his judgment -- something I quickly came to regret. DeRogatis and I have tangled -- even feuded on air -- over the years; yet, amid the Twitter barbs, he approached me offline and told me about how one of Kelly's victims called him in the middle of the night after his Pitchfork review came out, to thank him for caring when no one else did. He told me of mothers crying on his shoulder, seeing the scars of a suicide attempt on a girl's wrists, the fear in their eyes. He detailed an aftermath that the public has never had to bear witness to. DeRogatis offered to give me access to every file and transcript he has collected in reporting this story -- as he has to other reporters and journalists, none of whom has ever looked into the matter, thus relegating it to one man's personal crusade. I thought that last fact merited a public conversation about why.
In this interview (which has been condensed significantly), DeRogatis speaks frankly and explicitly about the many disturbing charges against Kelly and says, ultimately, "The saddest fact I've learned is nobody matters less to our society than young Black women. Nobody."
Refresh our memories. How did this start for you?
Being a beat reporter, music critic at a Chicago daily, the Sun-Times, R. Kelly was a huge story for me, this guy who rose from not graduating from Kenwood Academy, singing at backyard barbecues and on the El, to suddenly selling millions of records. I interviewed him a number of times. Then TP2.com came out. I'd written a review that said the jarring thing about Kelly is that one moment he wants to be riding you and then next minute he's on his knees, crying and praying to his dead mother in Heaven for forgiveness for his unnamed sins. It's a little weird at times. It's just an observation. The next day at the Sun-Times, we got this anonymous fax -- we didn't know where it came from. It said: R. Kelly's been under investigation for two years by the sex-crimes unit of the Chicago police. And I threw it on the corner of my desk. I thought: "player-hater."
Now, from the beginning, there were rumors that Kelly likes them young. And there'd been this Aaliyah thing -- Vibe printed, without much commentary and no reporting, the marriage certificate. Kelly or someone had falsified her age as 18. There was that. So all this is floating in the air. This fax arrives and I think, "Oh, this is somebody playing with this."
But there was something that nagged at me as a reporter. There were specific names, specific dates, and those great, long Polish cop names. And you're not going to make that crap up. So I went to the city desk and I asked, "What do we do with this?" They said Abdon Pallasch is the courts reporter, why don't you two look into it and see if there's anything there? And it turns out there had been lawsuits that had been filed that had never been reported. When you cover the courts in Chicago or any city, you go twice a day and you go through the bin of cases that have been filed and every once in a while Michael Jordan's been sued or someone went bankrupt and it's this sexy story and you pull it out. These suits had been filed at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Ain't no reporter working at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and they flew under the radar. So we had these lawsuits that were explosive and we didn't understand why nobody had reported them.
Explosive in what regard?
They were stomach churning. The one young woman, who had been 14 or 15 when R. Kelly began a relationship with her, detailed in great length, in her affidavits, a sexual relationship that began at Kenwood Academy: He would go back in the early years of his success and go to Lina McLin's gospel choir class. She's a legend in Chicago, gospel royalty. He would go to her sophomore class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio. She detailed the sexual relationship that she was scarred by. It lasted about one and a half to two years, and then he dumped her and she slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. Other girls were involved. She recruited other girls. He picked up other girls and made them all have sex together. A level of specificity that was pretty disgusting.
Her lawsuit was hundreds of pages long, and Kelly countersued. The countersuit was, like, 10 pages long: "None of this is true!" We began our reporting. We knocked on a lot of doors. The lawsuits, the two that we had found initially, had been settled. Kelly had paid the women and their families money and the settlements were sealed by the court. But of course, the initial lawsuits remain part of the public record.