Music

The Man Who Broke the R. Kelly Story on Why His 30-Year Sentence Is Just the Beginning

The stories about the singer somehow just keep getting more horrific.

R. Kelly wearing a suit and sunglasses and walking under an umbrella
R. Kelly leaves the Cook County Courthouse after a hearing on multiple counts of criminal sexual abuse in Chicago on March 22, 2019. Reuters/Kamil Krzaczynski/File Photo

After more than 30 years of journalistic reports and court cases and protests and documentaries and increasingly horrifying stories from survivors, R. Kelly will finally face prison time. Last year, after a federal trial in Brooklyn took a wide scope of the allegations throughout Kelly’s three-decade career—from his pre-stardom days to his marriage with an underage Aaliyah to the infamous urination tape with a minor to the kidnapping of young girls—the R&B superstar was convicted on nine counts of racketeering and sex trafficking. On Wednesday, Kelly was formally sentenced to 30 years of prison time based on those counts. There could be more to come: In August, Kelly will face another federal trial in Chicago on charges of producing child pornography and obstruction of justice.

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For too many people, this moment has been too long in the making. The first story about R. Kelly and Aaliyah was reported in 1994. In 2000, Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis broke further accusations of Kelly having had sex with underage girls. He kept on the story for years, uncovering even more accusations and survivors of Kelly’s abuse, only to see a highly publicized 2008 trial end in acquittal for the singer. Even as “the pied piper of R&B” shrugged off the court case to continue his successful recording career, DeRogatis kept reporting stories of Kelly’s alleged crimes, culminating in an explosive BuzzFeed News story in 2017 about the underground “cult” Kelly had been overseeing. The fallout from the story, which came less than three months before investigative reports about Harvey Weinstein launched the #MeToo movement, led to renewed backlash against Kelly, a startling docuseries featuring testimony from his accusers, and finally, a new federal case against the predator.

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I spoke to DeRogatis last year on the eve of that trial, and on Thursday morning, I caught up with him again to talk about the sentencing, what it took to reach this point, and what comes next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: What was your initial reaction to the sentencing?

Jim DeRogatis: Well, given that on the morning of Dec. 21, 2000, Abdon Pallasch—my partner at the Sun Times—and I really thought we’d laid out a rock-solid case that this man was hurting young Black girls in Chicago, and that that story would force him to stop and get some justice … it took a long time, 22 years, for him to get what he deserved. Mind you, we were late to the story in 2000: Victim No. 1 was 1991. That’s a little less than one year behind bars for all the years he was ruining young lives.

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Did you think we’d ever get to this point?

It was hard to be optimistic about that. I haven’t gotten to talk in enough detail about this, but every system in Chicago failed these young Black girls, for 30 years, in the full glare of the brightest spotlight imaginable for a superstar who was selling 100 million records, generating $1 billion in income for Jive Records, and then RCA, and then Sony, with half a billion dollars going into his own pocket. Every system in Chicago—and by extension, the entire country—failed these young Black girls, refused to believe them. The court system in Chicago has a lot to answer for, especially the 2008 trial, at which he was acquitted, after which his behavior only became more dangerous and more ruinous to young girls. The cops, many of whom turned a blind eye, some of whom worked security for him and then would come off their shift and put on their uniform.

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The schools failed. Kenwood Academy should never have allowed him to come in and talk to sophomore choir classes. He would cruise regularly through other high schools, including Whitney Young, one of the best public high schools in Chicago. The Black churches failed. They took his money. He had, as his spiritual adviser, Jesse Jackson’s right-hand man, Rev. James Meeks. They would bring in a school bus full of kindergartners in “Free R. Kelly” T-shirts, which they paid for with his money, to every one of his court appearances in 2008. The politicians failed. The Black congressional caucus in Chicago booked him to do a fundraiser while he was waiting for his trial in 2008 on child porn. Journalism failed, with the fact that the Sun-Times was the only major news organization forwarding this story for more than a decade. And finally, the music industry failed. Everyone in the music industry turned a blind eye. And believe me, Clive Calder—the head of Jive Records—was in a position to know, because the accusers were being paid off and forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, which are very threatening to young women with no legal support. The music industry aided and abetted him, from the lowliest tape operator and gopher at a recording studio to Calder.

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Dozens of the victims I’ve interviewed over 22 years have told me: “I was a young Black girl. No one was going to believe me.” Let’s dig deeper into that. At the start of this story, Anita Hill testified before Congress about very credible allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas. As the R. Kelly story was reaching a peak, Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress about sexual abuse by Brett Kavanaugh. Both of those men [who denied the allegations] sit on the Supreme Court now. We didn’t believe those women, and last week they were the driving forces overturning a woman’s right to control her own body. So, to the extent that I keep talking about this story, it’s because it has ramifications far outside one tawdry and disgusting story. And it is epic. Nobody in the history of popular music has ever been convicted in all of pop music history of charges of the breadth and depth of Robert Sylvester Kelly’s. He had a song, “The World’s Greatest,” to which I would only append “The World’s Greatest Predator,” at least in pop music.

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Why do you think it’s Kelly, out of all of these musicians, who has now gotten the sentence, even when this never seemed inevitable?

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On occasion, listeners of [my radio show] Sound Opinions throw at me something like, “What about Led Zeppelin?” Again, I will point to the epic conviction in September on multiple counts of sexual abuse. Nobody [in the industry] has ever been accused of that many crimes that were proved in a court of law, and it truly is singular. I think that hasn’t really sunk in to people. This was a cult leader, a serial abuser on the level of Charles Manson, minus the murder. He was brainwashing, controlling, and [abusing] young victims. I don’t say “allegedly,” because it has now been proved in a court of law in front of a jury of his peers, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison. He’s 55 today. Federal statutes mandate that you must serve at least 85 percent of a federal sentence, but there’s a second federal trial to come in Chicago that centers on another five or six videotapes of him [allegedly] sexually abusing five underage girls. Even if he’s not convicted there, he’s never coming out in anything other than a wheelchair.

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CNN mentioned that Kelly replaced his legal team after his conviction with the attorney who helped Bill Cosby get his assault conviction overturned. Do you think there is a chance of anything similar happening with Kelly?

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I don’t think so. I think that the breadth and depth of the evidence that the team of several dozen federal investigators compiled for these two federal cases far outshines the technicality on which Cosby and his verdict was overturned. But it is a very hard time to be optimistic about the judicial system in America, given the past week’s rulings by the Supreme Court. The court system is broken. American politics is broken. Let’s not forget we also elected, as a country, a man who was himself credibly accused of rape, and some people applauded that. The problems of race and the problems of treating women equitably and without abuse are deep. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have begun the conversation, and begun to agitate for change. But it often seems like it’s two steps backward for every step forward. So many of the women I’ve interviewed for 22 years have told me, it is too little, too late for them. They can’t recover from the damage done to them at 14, 15, 16, and 17. All of them have said to me, “Finally, I was heard and believed, but why did it take three decades?”

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We’ve seen a lot of Kelly supporters, sitting outside of the Brooklyn courthouses and maintaining his innocence. We’ve seen something similar with the misinformation around the Depp-Heard trial, and how a lot of the same people fueling that are now trying to downplay the Marilyn Manson allegations as well. I’m wondering, in a world where these allegations against Kelly weren’t uncovered until very recently, what effects we would’ve seen from the spread of disinformation around celebrities today.

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Again, if you zoom out and look at the big picture, these are incredibly distressing times in America. There’s an unhealthy proportion of this country that believes the 2020 election was rigged and the results are false. This big picture of “we don’t believe journalism, we don’t believe facts,” it’s plaguing every level of society right now. It’s obligatory, I think, for every journalist to fight that with everything she has in her power. But there is a deep strain of racism and misogyny in this country, and that’s what we’re seeing come out in these people.

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I had interviewed and first told the stories of several of those women who took to the microphones yesterday to talk after the verdict, and who spoke before he was sentenced. If you cannot believe them, you’re just denying fact. You’re not living in this world.

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How would you explain, in laypeople’s terms, how the prosecution built the case to actually lead to this verdict?

I think after my reporting for Buzzfeed in 2017 about the cult, and the #MuteRKelly movement being inspired to launch because of that story, that leads to Surviving R. Kelly and having these women in your living room, one after another, tell their stories as they did to me for 22 years in conference rooms and in meetings where it was just us. It’s all credit to them. They did the bravest thing any woman can do in trusting a fat, white music journalist and critic to tell their story.

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I think all of that brought pressure on the federal government. I know it did. Three dozen or more investigators, mostly from the Department of Homeland Security, spread out across the country. They interviewed every single woman who ever told me her story and is in my book. To be clear, all of those women, they never said, “I hate that evil monster.” What I heard again and again was, “The brother needs help. Brother’s got a problem. Brother has got to stop.” Nobody hated this man. Nobody wanted to destroy him. It was not a case of “tear down the successful Black superstar.”

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The federal government’s case in New York was broad. There were very specific violations of the Mann Act—which, if you’re a student of music history, you know Chuck Berry was convicted for bringing an underage Mexican sex worker across state lines on tour with him in the ’50s. For Kelly, there were charges of sexual entrapment and sexual kidnapping of underage women. He’s locking a girl in the tour bus, dictating how she can dress, when she can eat, when she can sleep, how he must sexually pleasure her, and he’s going to record it. He’s forcing her to eat her own feces if she violates his rules. To me, the single most heartbreaking moment in six weeks of federal testimony was when one of the victims read the letter she wrote to herself at age 17. She’s reading it now in her mid-20s on the stand, about how she must follow Daddy’s rules, how she must always act as a young girl eager to please Daddy or suffer the consequences—which were physical beatings, sex acts, eating her own feces, accepting his urine, having sex with other boys, namely homosexual boys he was also abusing.

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In all of the years I’ve covered this, I thought I’d heard everything, but there were still victims who testified, including the two young men—I had never heard those stories. And I think it’s going to be the same in August when the second federal trial starts, because those videotapes, as I’ve heard from my sources, are just beyond horrifying. Mind you, the 26-minutes-and-39-seconds videotape at the heart of the 2008 case was the most horrifying, disgusting, disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Could you talk about what’s coming in the next trial he’s facing?

The trial that starts in August in federal court in Chicago centers on five or six underage [alleged] victims and five or six [alleged] videotaped encounters of those underage victims. Plus, while the New York trial was partly about how he was the head of a racketeering enterprise, no one else was indicted who was part of that enterprise. In Chicago, he’s going to be tried besides two of his longtime enablers. [Both Kelly and his two employees have pleaded not guilty.] They are fighting mightily to have their cases separated from his, but really, they’re the beginning.

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