Jim DeRogatis believes in following a story to its end. He’s been reporting on sexual assault accusations against R. Kelly since 2000, much of that time, a lone voice among his peers.
The story found him when he was a rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, via a fax on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The sender said they didn’t know where else to go and stated cryptically that Kelly had a “problem” with young girls. DeRogatis then teamed up with Abdon Pallasch, a legal affairs reporter, for stories on Kelly having sex with underage girls.
A couple of years later, after DeRogatis was sent a horrific sex tape involving Kelly and a minor, the story landed on the front page. And yet, in 2008, a jury acquitted Kelly of child pornography charges in a case that took six years to come to trial.
In an interview in the library of his Chicago home, DeRogatis, who is the co-host with Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot of the public radio series, “Sound Opinions,” reflected on how the story he didn’t want to tell evolved into “Soulless,” a book he says he didn’t want to write.
“My publisher told me to stop saying that,” he jokes. “But if I didn’t have to write this book, it would mean I don’t know the names of 48 women whose lives he’s ruined. I suspect there are many, many more.”
Even if Kelly is convicted on the recent sexual abuse charges, DeRogatis would not consider that to be the final chapter in his relentless investigation into the three-time Grammy-winning R&B superstar. The end would not be Kelly behind bars. “For me,” he said, “it ends when I stop getting phone calls (from Kelly’s alleged victims, saying,) ‘No one will listen to me. Can I tell you my story?’”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q • Do you consider this book the legacy format for this story?
A • Yes. Not to be a Luddite or to slight the power of television or of podcasts like “Serial” — there are certain things that only long-form journalism can do, and that’s connecting 1,000 dots over more than 20 years.
Q • You began reporting on Kelly before Facebook and Twitter, and it was virtually ignored. Do you think that social media would have made a difference?
A • I think the single biggest factor with Kelly is that his victims were young black girls. I am only repeating what so many young black girls have said. Tiffany Hawkins (who alleged a sexual relationship with Kelly when she was 15) tried to press criminal charges in 1996, and nobody took her seriously. She says, “Who’s going to listen to me?” I’ve heard that 100 times. (She ultimately settled her case.)
Q • What do you think has helped to bring about what appears to be his moment of reckoning, as the singer faces 11 new counts of sexual assault and abuse?
A • There is a combination of factors, which are Dream Hampton (director of the Lifetime documentary miniseries, “Surviving R. Kelly”) and people like (Washington Post media columnist) Margaret Sullivan, but first and foremost, it was these women brave enough to speak out regardless of their fear of serious physical damage, financial ruin and ostracization by the community. Beyond that is that Kelly is “a broke ... legend” as he sings in “I Admit” (a song in which Kelly accuses DeRogatis of “tryna destroy me”). If he hadn’t run out of money, I think there would be no reckoning.
Q • In the book you quote a lawyer who says that this story has poisoned you. Do you agree?
A • I smoke now; I didn’t before. I’m sure it was a factor in the end of my marriage to my daughter’s mother. We can be melodramatic about this; a window in my apartment was shot out, and I’ve heard a lot of threats. But I don’t think it’s anything compared to what a correspondent in Afghanistan is going through. Journalists are being killed. And what I’ve gone through is nothing compared to those girls who lost those precious years from 15 to 18.
Q • Do you agree with #MuteRKelly?
A • Every single one of us has to answer that question for themself. I can find joy in (Woody Allen’s) “Midnight in Paris.” I’m a Francophile, I love Hemingway and Dali, and it helps that Woody Allen is not in it. I can never watch “Manhattan” again having read what Dylan Farrow wrote. We could go down to the Picasso in Daley Plaza. We know that he treated women badly, but we don’t see it in that sculpture. R. Kelly has had it in his art from day one. I will never be able to hear R. Kelly music with any joy whatsoever.