DeRogatis believes in following a story to its end. He’s been reporting on this one 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 Sun-Times legal affairs reporter, for stories on Kelly having sex with underage girls. A couple 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 the book he proclaims that 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, DeRogatis would not consider that to be the final chapter in his relentless investigation into the alleged crimes of the three-time Grammy-winning R&B superstar. The end, he told The Washington Post, 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 . . . 20 years.
Q: How did this book evolve?
A: I was planning on writing a different book, one that explored the flip sides of a life saved by rock-and-roll and one corrupted by it. I believe in Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Susan Orlean, Mark Bowden and Michael Lewis. I believe that journalism can be literature, but as Wolfe said, it is more important and powerful because it’s true. Nobody was getting the [R. Kelly] story right. It’s so complicated and so long and I think it’s a bigger story. It’s not just about the guy on the cover [of the book]. It’s about the systemic failure in Chicago of the churches, the schools, the parents, the police, the courts, the attorneys; everybody failed these young black girls.
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?
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 ass 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.
Q: What about the so-called cancel culture that would disappear his music? Spotify removed Kelly from its playlist, and his record label dropped him.
A: I’m a free-speech absolutist. I’m glad that “Mein Kampf” is in print because we need to understand where that evil came from. I don’t know what should happen to Kelly’s music. I know I can never listen to it. I don’t see it as a free-speech issue. I see it as a consumer issue. At this point in the cultural conversation, people are well aware of Kelly’s behavior. I’m beset on social media [by people] who know and don’t care, which is a truly horrifying thought to me.
Q: Separating the artist from the art is complicated. Lenny Bruce once said he loved W.C. Fields even though he claimed he was anti-Semitic.
A: Kelly is not complicated, not with the evidence I lay out in 301 pages.
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. He is published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York magazine’s Vulture website.