Music

The Man Who Broke the R. Kelly Story—Twice—on Whether This Time Will Be Different

The R&B superstar is back on trial. Will his victims finally see justice?

R. Kelly
R. Kelly stands during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago on Sept. 17, 2019. Antonio Perez/Pool/Getty Images

Ever since reports of his predatory relationship with teen R&B star Aaliyah first appeared in 1994, Robert “R.” Kelly has faced countless allegations of manipulating, abusing, and kidnapping underage girls, eluding justice all the while. His only courtroom trial before now, regarding child pornography charges related to an infamous videotape, ended with acquittal back in 2008. But things may look different for the singer starting this week. On Wednesday, Kelly entered a Brooklyn courtroom to stand trial for several federal charges, including sex trafficking, racketeering, and bribing a government official to procure a fake ID for Aaliyah—identified as one of the 22 Jane and John Does involved in the case—so that Kelly could officially marry her. The new proceedings come two years after Kelly was arrested in his hometown of Chicago and charged there under 13 federal counts accusing him of sexually exploiting children, among other horrific details. Department of Homeland Security officials and police forces detained Kelly in a Chicago correctional center until he was transferred to Brooklyn earlier this summer to await his separate, New York–based trial.

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There are already signs this time may turn out differently for Kelly: According to a courtroom dispatch from Vulture, the proceedings began with the prosecutor referring to Kelly as a “a predator, a man who for decades used his fame, his popularity, and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom, and exploit girls, boys, and young women for his own sexual gratification.” Multiple accusers have already taken the stand, and there will be more to come.

This moment has been a long time in the making for Kelly—too long. It took a 2017 BuzzFeed report of his operation of a “sex cult,” along with new testimony from his victims in the explosive Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, to raise public pressure against Kelly back into court. Throughout the decades, R. Kelly remained one of the most successful and acclaimed musicians of his generation, even while accusations of sickening pedophilic conduct were reported in the news and given attention on popular TV shows like Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks. Of all people, reporter Jim DeRogatis knows how frustrating this has been to watch: He first wrote about accusations of R. Kelly’s sexual relationships with teenage girls in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000; two years later, he broke the story of the incriminating sex tape that would lead to Kelly’s first court case. In the following years, even as Kelly walked free and listeners welcomed R. Kelly back into their playlists, DeRogatis kept talking to women who’d been involved in sickening situations with the singer, reporting their stories wherever and however he could. His years of reporting finally culminated in the bombshell BuzzFeed report that helped land Kelly back in custody.

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Earlier this week, I spoke with DeRogatis over the phone about the new charges against Kelly, the turn of public opinion against the star, and what he and Kelly’s survivors think about finally arriving at the moment of this trial—and whether Kelly will actually face justice this round. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: Could you give us an overview of the case and the charges that R. Kelly’s facing?

Jim DeRogatis: I was talking this morning with Dream Hampton, who was the showrunner on Surviving R. Kelly, and we both agreed that, despite all the work we have done in reporting this story, we are fully expecting to be shocked by some of the things that come out in court. I know the names of 48 women whose lives R. Kelly has ruined. I just think the whole thing is a very long tragedy that is now perhaps coming to the beginning of a conclusion. I say “the beginning,” because the trial … in Brooklyn is one of two federal trials. Whatever happens in Brooklyn, the second federal case will proceed in Chicago. After that, there are state charges in Illinois and Minnesota.

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The two federal cases are truly unprecedented in the history of popular music. They are using RICO statutes to say that Kelly’s entire 30-year career—a period of selling 100 million records, both his own and those for which he produced and collaborated with artists ranging from Justin Bieber and Celine Dion to Lady Gaga—all of that was a criminal enterprise, and he was like a mafia boss or a drug lord. He had this organization that helped keep the money flowing by satisfying illegal sexual desires and victimizing young girls. We now know 20 Jane Does in the federal case in Brooklyn and two John Does. Of the 48 women whose names I know through my reporting over 20 years, I can already identify 10 of those women based on the charges in the federal indictment. I think everything that’s ever been reported before this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

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There are only two people named in the Chicago indictments—his last serious manager, Derrel McDavid, and his assistant Milton “June” Brown—so they’re not going to come up in Brooklyn. But who we’re going to hear from in New York among the victims and among the enablers, that’s a big mystery. The feds play their cards very close to the vest. We have not seen witness lists yet. We do not know if any of the people who worked for or with him are going to testify or be witnesses, or if any of his core people have flipped on him. We really don’t have a clue about the evidence the federal government will present. But I know that the federal government, the FBI, the United States attorneys, investigators, and the Department of Homeland Security spread out far and wide from coast to coast, and there’s nobody I’ve interviewed that they haven’t talked to. They knocked on every door.

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We now know, thanks to the federal indictments, how Kelly was found not guilty in his last trial through a pattern of intimidation, bribery, physical threats to the witnesses, just like the mob. And in Chicago, apparently, the girl on the infamous videotape and her parents are now cooperating with the government, having said they were bribed and paid and threatened not to testify truthfully in 2008. The tragedy is, how many victims came after 2008, that acquittal? How many victims came after our first investigative story in 2000? There were possibly hundreds of lives ruined by this man. And I think we’re going to hear about many more as these trials unfold.

How does it feel for you personally seeing this, as you say, unprecedented federal trial that basically indicts the entire music industry? Especially after you’ve been reporting on this case for literal decades now?

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I have always been extraordinarily proud of the fact that in 20 years of reporting, there has not been a single clarification, correction, or illegal threat. Every word I’ve reported and with other reporters—at BuzzFeed, at the Chicago Sun-Times, at the New Yorker—stands. So to see it all laid out in black and white, with additional detail that I never even knew of in two federal indictments … but I don’t think my feelings matter. I’ve been in touch with some of Kelly’s accusers in the past week as all of this is stirred up again, as all them get dragged through the mud and experience waves of hatred on social media, as all of them are wondering if or when they will be called. Because none of the women I’ve spoken to have even talked to a witness counselor yet, much less learned of whether they’re going to have to go to Brooklyn or Zoom in. They all say the same thing: It’s good that he is finally having to answer for 30 years of his behavior, but they cannot get those years back that he took from them or repair the damages that he inflicted upon them.

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Does the fact that R. Kelly has actually been detained for a couple of years now and is currently standing trial give any hope to those who’ve survived his horrors?

I think there’s a complex set of emotions. I always encourage every other journalist to talk to these women, because they deserve to have their voices heard. If he is convicted on even some of the charges in New York and some of the charges in Chicago, I am sure they will finally feel vindicated to some degree, but they are still getting social media hatred.

One of the reporters in Brooklyn covering the court case tweeted a picture of chalk drawings out in front on the street with “Free R. Kelly” and hearts and cartoons. The fact that so many fans of that music are still protesting his innocence despite the breadth of these charges, despite having heard from these women on Surviving R. Kelly and in my reporting, it’s really kind of horrifying. I understand the power of music. Art is intensely personal. But you have to realize the damage Kelly has wrought on three decades of young women. And you need to be aware of that context. Dream Hampton told me this morning that Kelly’s streaming numbers went up to nearly 5 million a month again on Spotify. I think we’re past the point of some people not believing—something Kelly’s half-brother Carey Kelly told me horrifies me, and I quote, “That motherfucker’s talking to other sick motherfuckers on his level.” They are liking the music because of what Kelly portrays, this unfettered vision of hedonism that says, I will pursue my pleasure wherever I please, and I do not care about the damage I caused. He never hid from you what he was singing about.

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Another question in the federal trial is going to be how thousands of people—from lowly tape operators and gophers at the studios, from street teams that hung up posters for him, to Clive Calder and Barry Weiss, the people who ran Jive Records—knew about this behavior over 30 years, and nobody had any problem with it as long as he was continuing to make money.

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There’s a quote I included in my book, Soulless, from Kelly’s last birthday party as a free man, before he was indicted. He’s smoking a cigar, and he’s got a glass of cognac in his hand. He says: “It’s too late. They shoulda done this shit”—meaning the #MuteRKelly movement—“thirty years ago. It’s too late. The music has been injected into the world.” I thought the use of the word inject—phallic and violent, not in the sense of injecting the vaccine, something lifesaving—I thought that was horrifying.

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This Friday, Aaliyah’s One in a Million is finally coming to streaming, but for years, the only Aaliyah work available for sale or stream was the Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. What are your thoughts are on the mess around Aaliyah’s music, and the fact that the album she did with R. Kelly literally creeping in the background was the only work of hers available for so long?

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I think it’s yet another tragic element of her too short life and career. In court—if not this week, then very soon—her name is going to be mentioned for the first time in connection to the current suits. [Aaliyah’s name was mentioned in court the very first day of this week’s trial.] The judge did not allow her name to ever be mentioned in the 2008 trial. This is going to be the first time. We’ve seen accusations by people like Damon Dash, who was very close to Aaliyah near the end of her life, about how damaged she was. She was underage. Kelly preyed upon her. “Jane Doe #1” in this case is Aaliyah.

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Why is it only now that we’re seeing a shift in public opinion of R. Kelly and his music?

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I think there are a couple of answers. There was a kind of hipster reevaluation of Kelly in 2013 engineered by that manager who’s now indicted: Kelly headlines the Pitchfork Music Festival, he headlines Bonnaroo, he performs at Coachella, and you have these bearded graduate student hipster music fans embracing “In the Kitchen” and Trapped in the Closet as kitsch, without caring about the many ruined lives left in this man’s wake. White music fans laugh off or dismiss the damage Kelly has done, while many Black music fans are extremely conflicted.

The answer that is really sad, that I get from many young women, is none of them believe this prosecution would be happening at all if he were still as wealthy and powerful as he was in 2008. If he still had that kind of money, I don’t know if we’d be seeing justice. People say, “Well, it’s a different period with #MeToo,” and I’m not so sure that that’s true. 1991 is the year of the first allegation against Kelly, and at that time, Anita Hill was telling her story on Capitol Hill—she was not believed, and Clarence Thomas was seated on the Supreme Court. A couple of years ago, as the feds were investigating what led up to Kelly’s trial, Christine Blasey Ford was testifying on Capitol Hill—and Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court. I’m sad and just heartbroken and sickened that it’s often two steps forward, one step back.

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On the other hand, the feds have learned how to make a case where it is not as easy to drag the female victims through the mud one by one in our rape culture, discounting them as liars. That didn’t hold up, and they convicted Weinstein. They brought down the NXIVM cult. Those are two comparisons that are very close to the case they’re making for Kelly. But the difference with NXIVM and Weinstein is, those are [predominantly] white actresses in many cases, and Kelly’s were victims of color, every single one of them. I’ve never interviewed a white woman of the 48 women who bravely trusted me to tell their stories. There’s one Latina and 47 Black women.

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Wow.

It’s possible he’s acquitted again. We can’t predict it. But since the breadth of these charges is so broad, I don’t think he escapes this time. And you’ve got Chicago waiting in the wings.

Do you think this time he will be convicted either in Brooklyn or Chicago?

I believe he’s never going to breathe fresh air again. I really do. But is that justice? You’ve got to bring it back to his victims and the few people who cared about them. They’ve been speaking out for 30 years. They were finally heard. But what does justice look like for his victims? I don’t know. Conviction doesn’t get them back the years they lost or make up for the pain they suffered. Nor does it begin to wrestle with the question of who in the music industry was responsible.

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