Is R. Kelly Finally Having His Bill Cosby Moment?

Jim DeRogatis on 16 years of reporting on the singer’s alleged sex crimes—and why he hopes this time will be different.

R. Kelly
DeRogatis’ BuzzFeed article could be the one to finally make a difference. (Above, R. Kelly at Bonnaroo on June 15, 2013 in Manchester, Tennessee.)

Erika Goldring/Wireimage/Getty Images

On Dec. 21, 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that “R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.” Two years later, DeRogatis was mailed a videotape that showed a man who looked like Kelly engaging in a sex act with what appeared to be an underage girl. That tape would be at the center of a 2008 criminal trial in which the singer was ultimately found not guilty of producing child pornography. Kelly was acquitted in that case after the judge did not allow jurors to hear evidence—much of which had been dug up by DeRogatis—that Kelly habitually had sex with underage girls, that he’d paid settlements to several of those girls, and that he’d married R&B star Aaliyah when she was 15 years old.

On Monday, nearly 17 years after he first reported on Kelly’s alleged sex crimes, DeRogatis published an article for BuzzFeed surfacing allegations that the Trapped in the Closet auteur lured multiple young women into abusive, controlling sexual relationships. The story focuses primarily on two aspiring musicians from Georgia and Florida—women DeRogatis does not name to protect their privacy—both of whom have cut off contact with their parents. Three women he does name, “former members of Kelly’s inner circle,” told DeRogatis that “six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”

The sexual relationships described in the BuzzFeed piece involve women who are above the age of consent. The story also notes that law enforcement officials from several jurisdictions have looked into the relationships and have not brought any charges. In a statement provided to BuzzFeed, Kelly’s lawyer Linda Mensch wrote:

We can only wonder why folks would persist in defaming a great artist who loves his fans, works 24/7, and takes care of all of the people in his life. He works hard to become the best person and artist he can be. It is interesting that stories and tales debunked many years ago turn up when his goal is to stop the violence; put down the guns; and embrace peace and love. I suppose that is the price of fame. Like all of us, Mr. Kelly deserves a personal life. Please respect that.

In an additional statement provided to USA Today, Mensch said, “Mr. Robert Kelly is both alarmed and disturbed at the recent revelations attributed to him. Mr. Kelly unequivocally denies such allegations and will work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name.”

During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, I asked DeRogatis about his reporting process, the evidence against Kelly, and whether the artist has suffered any repercussions for his alleged behavior.

Josh Levin:
To the extent you feel comfortable sharing, I’m curious how you got the story.

Jim DeRogatis: I got a call in early November from the Georgia parents, who at that point had been trying hard to get their girl to come home since she’d disappeared. They knew my work from reporting on this since 2000, and they had gone to the police—the campus police and the police in the area of Duluth, Georgia, the suburb where Kelly’s renting a home. They had gone to lawyers and they had not gotten any help at any turn, and they came to the media as sort of a last resort. Same thing with the Florida parents.

This is obviously an extremely different time now than it was in 2000. How would you characterize the response to the story today versus when you first wrote about Kelly’s alleged sex crimes?

There was intense interest when we ran the story about the videotape, for which he was indicted. The fact that it took a record-breaking [six-plus years] to go to trial was interesting. Many people, I think, began to lose interest, but then the trial was intensely covered. I think a big question that every journalist in our field then has to ask him or herself and that I think the music industry has to ask itself is how have we co-signed this artist for so long? He was on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon singing Christmas songs on Dec. 23 last year. It’s been in full view of the world for 20 years. And yet Kelly has not suffered repercussions on his career.

How much of that do you think is because, as opposed to the Bill Cosby case, there haven’t been as many people who’ve put their names to the accusation?

I think the biggest factor is one that the African-American scholar Mark Anthony Neal has said: These are all young African-American women, and I think if there had been a white girl it would have been different.

What are some of the common threads in the story you laid out in BuzzFeed compared to the stories you knew about from the past?

I’ve heard many times from people in Kelly’s circle that the women he’s with have to turn and face the wall whenever his male friends are in a room. That was something we had heard from his ex-wife Andrea Lee before their divorce. The videotaping, the recording of sex acts, sometimes with the girls’ knowledge and sometimes without—these are things that have been reported for 20 years.

As far as the promises that are being made to these women …

It’s just like Aaliyah, isn’t it? The two young women who are at the center of these accusations from Florida and Georgia, both are incredibly talented young singers. I’ve heard their music. And they and their parents were seduced or conned or believed the best, that R. Kelly could help give them careers in the music industry. That’s the Aaliyah story, and that was told in 2000 when we first ran it in the Chicago Sun-Times. And what did he call the album that he wrote for her and produced? It was his title: Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.

The audio recording that’s in the piece where he evinces very little interest in the young woman’s career …

Yeah. It’s hard, at the entire length, to listen to. Very, very hard.

Can you characterize it in any way?

I can’t go beyond what’s in the story at this point, but it’s very sexually explicit and disturbing. Not as disturbing as the videotape that was shown in his trial, but it’s very important to remember that he was acquitted by a jury of his peers but the trial never introduced any of the other evidence—the illegal marriage, the civil lawsuits by young women who said he abused his position and fame and influence to bully them into illegal sexual relationships. The one lawsuit that is mentioned in the story today—that girl slit her wrist after her relationship with Kelly ended. There have been more than a dozen settlements before a suit was ever formally filed. Susan Loggans, the attorney, would just go to Kelly and say, “Here are the accusations from my client,” and he would pay them. This is a pattern of a quarter-century of behavior, in full view of the music industry and entertainment journalism.

How long did you work on the story?

Nine months. It came to me in early November.

What was the reporting process like? Was most of that time spent trying to get people to talk?

Most of that time was spent, post–Hulk Hogan and Gawker, finding a media outlet that was willing to run it. I’ve been working with BuzzFeed since Wednesday afternoon, and those were 12-plus–hour days every single day until this morning.

How much consideration did you give to the fact that these are women who are older than the age of consent and the notion that they’re just choosing to do what they want?

I’ve been a rock critic since I was 17. I’m about to be 53. I understand groupie culture in R&B and rock ’n’ roll, and I’m firmly in favor of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t think this is that. I think this is something very, very different. And so to the extent that those women are of age and are able to do whatever they want—you know, their parents say it’s something very different. The two women who were brave enough to speak on the record who were part of this, for more than a year, each were saying that it’s something very different, and a former personal assistant says it’s something very different. So I don’t have to characterize it. I’m reporting what they’re saying. I don’t think it’s fun and games. You know this if you were in court [for his child-pornography trial]—that video was something horrifyingly different than the Kardashian sex tape.

When I wrote about R. Kelly again when the Bill Cosby stuff came out, I said these accusations hadn’t seemed to have any effect on Kelly’s career. Is that right? Has he suffered any consequences in terms of popularity or sales?

I don’t think he has. I think in some sick corners, it has made him more appealing. I think it was part of a vicarious thrill that Pitchfork Music Festival booked him as the headliner in 2013, and he was on The Tonight Show two nights before Christmas. How much more mainstream does it get? I think if his career’s been impacted by anything, it’s by the fact nobody is selling CDs anymore.

The thing that I find really curious is why other artists, especially with Kesha getting so much support …

Why does Lady Gaga, who champions sexual empowerment for women and gay rights, record with him in 2013 a big hit single, film a video that she later killed after people began writing about Kelly again? But she appears with him on Saturday Night Live and [on the American Music Awards] pretends to fellate him at the desk of the Oval Office in a twisted sort of Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton skit. What the hell was Gaga thinking? The history’s out there, the reporting’s out there, and people should be aware of it. And the parents should have been aware of it, but they say, “He was acquitted, we didn’t want to believe the worst of a man whose music we admire,” and Michael Jackson fans always said the same thing.

The women that you wrote about who did go on the record—Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee—did they talk about how they were able to get out of that situation?

I think it’s really important to realize that Kitti and Asante were older women in their early 30s, and they walked away. I think it’s different that the Georgia girl is 21 and the Florida girl is 18. Their parents say that, and Asante, who was part of this, says that.

Have you had any indication that because of this reporting there’s renewed law enforcement interest in Kelly?

The parents in Georgia have sat for hours with an FBI agent. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny an investigation. But the police in Georgia, Florida, and Chicago have been unable to help, as have civil attorneys that the parents have contacted. But, you know, they talked to the FBI.

And what are you hoping will happen because of this?

I suppose as a journalist I’m supposed to say that I don’t really have any hopes. But I would echo what the parents hope and what the three on-the-record sources hope, which is that those girls will no longer be in this situation.