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Renée Graham

A journalist’s long pursuit of justice for R.Kelly’s accusers

Police officials surrounded Grammy-winning singer R. Kelly as he arrived at a Chicago court for an appearance in 2002.
Police officials surrounded Grammy-winning singer R. Kelly as he arrived at a Chicago court for an appearance in 2002. M. Spencer Green/AP/Associated Press

‘SOULLESS: THE CASE Against R. Kelly” is a horror story. That’s why Jim DeRogatis didn’t want to write it.

A longtime Chicago-based music journalist, DeRogatis knew his latest book, about one-time R&B hitmaker R. Kelly and the dozens of black women who’ve accused him of sexual and physical abuse, would be his most challenging.

“I knew I’d have to live with the darkness,” DeRogatis told me recently . “It’s a dark, horrible, troubling story. But it got its teeth into me.”

For nearly two decades, DeRogatis held onto this story when few others cared.

After Kelly was charged last February with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse, many credited the harrowing six-part Lifetime documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” with reviving interest in the accusations. (He was charged Thursday with 11 new sex-related counts in Chicago.)

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DeRogatis was not part of it, yet no one has worked longer and harder to tell these women’s stories and hold Kelly accountable.

DeRogatis’s reporting on Kelly began in 2000 with an anonymous fax that said, “Robert’s problem is young girls.” (Robert is Kelly’s given name.) With Abdon Pallasch at the Chicago Sun-Times, he worked for six weeks on the story that first detailed Kelly’s alleged sexual predation of young girls. At the time, R. Kelly was a chart-topping singer, songwriter, and producer.

With the story’s publication, DeRogatis said, “I honestly expected that people would be horrified — that the criminal investigation that was already underway would take off, and he would stop hurting young women.”

That didn’t happen. And that’s also a theme of DeRogatis’s book — this nation’s systemic failure to protect black girls and women. “Only thing I’ve ever done is amplify what these young women have told me — nobody matters less than young black women. I’ve been told this too many times not to believe it.”

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It’s been proven every time DeRogatis has broken a big story about Kelly.

In 2002, DeRogatis received a video tape that reportedly shows Kelly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. He turned it over to the Chicago Police Department, and wrote another story with Pallasch. It led to child pornography charges and a lengthy trial, but Kelly was acquitted.

Bizarrely, the allegations became a cheap joke, with Kelly’s accusers as the punchline. Comedian Dave Chappelle performed a skit riffing on the infamous video tape. And it wasn’t just comedians who were complicit in downplaying the allegations. It was also performers — including Jay Z, Celine Dion, and Lady Gaga — who chose to work with him in spite of the charges.

No one can say they didn’t know. Years earlier, Kelly married Aaliyah, the singer and his protege, when she was 15 and Kelly was 27. Their brief union was annulled in 1994, yet his career continued to flourish, with such hits “I Believe I Can Fly” and Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” which Kelly wrote.

In 2017, DeRogatis broke the story about an alleged “cult” of women abused by Kelly and kept against their will. It came out months before the New York Times and the New Yorker published investigations into film producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of alleged sexual misconduct. Yet DeRogatis’s reporting received far less attention, and Kelly’s accusers were left waiting for their #MeToo moment.

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To DeRogatis and Kelly’s alleged victims, the reason is as clear as it is depresssing: Most of Weinstein’s accusers are white, while Kelly’s are all women of color.

With Kelly again facing charges, his fans, many of whom are black, are now attacking anyone critical of their idol.

When I’ve written columns critical of Kelly, I have received some of my most scathing responses. I’ve been accused of being “one of those black women” eager “to bring a black man down,” but Kelly-stans can miss me with that garbage. They should ask themselves why they care so little about the safety of black girls and women.

“It’s bad enough for us to contend with the horror that every system imaginable — churches, schools, journalism, law enforcement — failed these young women,” DeRogatis said. “Now these people know and it’s not like they don’t believe it. They know, and they don’t care.”

DeRogatis, who is white, gets it even worse than me. He has endured threats, scurrilous accusations, and social media mobs for the stories that have defined his professional life. Yet he can relate to what drives the blind devotion of Kelly’s most ardent fans.

If Kelly’s music was “the song at your wedding, if it’s the anthem at your backyard barbeque, if it was your prom song, or kindergarten graduation song, I understand that,” he said. “Music touches us in this way. It’s so deep and powerful, and that’s it magic.”

Still, he keeps harassment targeting him in perspective. “The hate these women get on social media?” he said, referring to Kelly’s accusers. “I’ve got no right to complain.”

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“Soulless,” which comes out Tuesday, is not the end of DeRogatis’s pursuit of this story. As he has done for years, he continues to take calls from worried parents who believe Kelly has brainwashed their daughters, and from young women finally ready to share their truth. Others send emails, and DeRogatis answers every one. He has dedicated his book to Kelly’s accusers, but knows his work alone can’t bring these women the resolution they’ve long deserved.

“Those 48 women whose names I know — I don’t know what justice is for them. Can they get justice? They can’t get that part of their lives back, right?” he said. “Whatever happens, it’s too little, too late. The best I can hope for is that no more girls or women get hurt.”


Renée Graham contributed a cover blurb for “Soulless,” but was not compensated. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.