The tip-off came as an anonymous fax, a reader’s response to a review of an R Kelly album by Jim DeRogatis.
The Chicago music critic had likened “the dichotomy between his spiritual gospel-oriented stuff – praying to his dead mum in heaven – and the hot and horny, between-the-sheets, Saturday night stuff” to work by Marvin Gaye.
“Well, Marvin had his problems,” began the message. “But they’re nothing like Robert’s. Robert’s problem is young girls.”
DeRogatis chucked it on his slush pile of press releases and hate mail. But the level of detail in the fax haunted him over that weekend, and he began making enquiries.
After six weeks of 16-hour days with Chicago Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch, the first report hit newsstands on 21 December, 2000, accusing the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer of having sex with girls as young as 15 and recruiting victims from his old school’s choir.
So damning was the evidence that “we thought he was done,” DeRogatis tells i. But 22 years later, he is still writing about the depravity of the man who proudly dubbed himself “the Pied Piper of R&B” – and Kelly is still yet to face his full reckoning.
In September last year, he was found guilty of charges including sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, racketeering and sex trafficking, but awaits sentencing in June, and the prospect of several other trials.
Speaking about a new discovery+ documentary, R Kelly: A Faking It Special, and a new version of his book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, DeRogatis tells i that he hopes this will be one of his final interviews about the sex offender who has come to define his own career.
The nadir in his two decades of investigation came in 2008 when Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography trial that hinged on a 26-minute video, which had turned up in DeRogatis’s mail box six years earlier.
The journalist rejects descriptions of the film, which showed Kelly urinating in the mouth of his 14-year-old victim, as a “sex tape”. “It was a horrifying document of a rape. It was the vacant zombie-eyed stare of a rape victim, a child being ordered how to pleasure him.”
Kelly’s acquittal, he adds, “was absolutely the lowest point. Because the courts had failed, the schools had failed, journalism had failed. Certainly the record industry failed – there was no way they were going to derail that gravy train. And Kelly continued to cruise Chicago high schools.”
Like Jimmy Savile on this side of the Atlantic, Kelly was a predator and philanthropist operating “in plain sight” (his crimes such an open secret that they were the subject of jokes by comics from Dave Chappelle to Chris Rock).
Kelly’s songs included 1993’s “I Like the Crotch on You” (“Only if you’re old enough, baby / Eighteen and over or 16 and under”). He produced the debut album of Aaliyah, the protégée he married when she was 15 and he 27. The record’s cover shows him lurking, out of focus, in the background, and he also came up with its title: Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.
DeRogatis was quickly accused of racism for trying to bring down one of Chicago’s heroes, a man who “comes up from literally performing on the streets to becoming the dominant voice of R&B for a generation”. But a black colleague, columnist Mary Mitchell, came to his defence. “She kept saying, shut up about racism, these reporters are white, but these victims are your daughters, your sisters. He is preying on your community.”
DeRogatis believes race was central to why Kelly got away with his crimes for so long. “What I’ve heard more than anything else, from young black women is: ‘Nobody matters in our society less than young black women. We are not believed.’”
He is horrified by the abuse many of the victims still receive on social media. “They’re [called] ‘liars, bitches, hoes and gold diggers’. I don’t know how you say that about woman after woman after woman.”
Even following his 2008 trial, Kelly was surrounded by celebrity endorsers. In 2013, he recorded guest vocals on Justin Bieber’s “PYD” and Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want”. In 2016, he performed Christmas songs on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
He was only dropped from his record label following the success of the #MuteRKelly movement (which came off the back of DeRogatis’s 2017 report on Kelly keeping women against their will in an abusive “cult”) and the 2019 documentary series Surviving R. Kelly.
“People continued to choose to work with him because of this Midas touch in the recording studio,” says DeRogatis of a man who sold 75 million records and is thought to have made half a billion dollars for his original label, Jive Records. “And I think in Gaga’s case and Justin Bieber’s a certain transgressive attitude – I’m going to push the envelope and be naughty with the self-professed ‘sexual superfreak’. Without ever stopping to think about the wreckage left in his wake, the lives ruined. I mean, there are 68 women whose names I know.” (Gaga has since apologised for the collaboration, and expressed her support for Kelly’s victims.)
DeRogatis would like to see the millions that record companies made from Kelly donated to victims, and says only a feared financial penalty would make executives, managers and promoters think twice before turning a blind eye to another sex-offending superstar. “Ultimately greed prevails. When you’re talking about soulless American capitalism, having your bottom line impacted is the only thing that hurts.”
And he is doubtful that Kelly would have been convicted last year had the musician still been at the height of his commercial powers. “He no longer had the money to buy justice the way he did in 2008,” the 57-year-old reporter says of the star who had spent so much on lawyers and out-of-court settlements that he described himself four years ago as “a broke ass legend”.
DeRogatis takes a modest journalistic pride that “in all the reporting, there was never a single correction, clarification, retraction. But the tragedy of this is that it took two decades and so many lives ruined that didn’t have to be.”
- R Kelly: A Faking It Special is available to stream now exclusively on discovery+