Jim DeRogatis’ “Soulless,” is a work that follows and details the accusations, stories and the six-year court case, and the aftermath of numerous young women’s lives after meeting R. Kelly. The veteran music critic carefully lays out Chicago as a landscape he’s grown to understand and love as a New Jersey transplant who’s raised a family and built a life here. “Soulless” explores how R. Kelly and others who contributed to Kelly’s behavior made an indelible impact on the lives of many girls and women.
In this transcript, edited for length and clarity, DeRogatis spoke with a certain level of ease that has not come across in other interviews about the book as he lounged on a black leather sofa. Dressed in a button-down shirt and a pair of khakis, DeRogatis has a the approachable yet unflappable appearance of a middle-aged journalist, but his colorful tattoos that sleeve his arms with the likes of his hero, rock journalist Lester Bangs, and the memorable Public Enemy logo of a black man in front of a rifle’s crosshairs, let his punk roots peek out of a more sedate exterior.
It’s no surprise that when DeRogatis comments on R. Kelly, and the larger roots of sexism and abuse, he covers it with a sense of moral obligation and outrage that some people seem to lack, especially for women of color. The accounts of these women shake him, so his dedication, “For the Girls,” at the beginning of his book is not just a mere opening dedication. He consistently says, talk to these women, and names their names. At times, DeRogatis departed from his talking points in other interviews about “Soulless,” and shared a wry sense of humor, but he thoughtfully spoke about the traumatic and explicit nature of the book in a way that most people are just now beginning to think about in journalism and in public conversations. The discussion around “Soulless” led us into the adultification of black girls, #MeToo and the #MuteRKelly movement, post-racial identity, “High Fidelity,” the Chicago judicial system, the energizing power of music, and how predatory behavior has claimed the lives of many artists that we’ll probably never hear.
In a lot of the interviews that I’ve seen, you talk about the phrase that sources said consistently, “Brother needs help,” but to me, the more compelling statement that you made at one point in the book is how many of the girls looked back and said “I was dumb. I was just a kid.” Could you talk more about that?
I’ve been getting a schooling from folks like Kenyette Barnes, Oronike Odeleye and Tarana Burke on this concept of the adultification of women of color. How I look at Melanie, my daughter, when she was fifteen, you know, and to me, looking at Tiffany Hawkins at fifteen in her high-school yearbook picture, there wasn’t a difference, but the fact that society sees the fifteen-year-old black girl as adultified, ready for sex, fast, loose, scheming. I don’t understand that. You know, talking to a lot of African-American women telling me about it, it’s common in the black community as well as society at large. I mean, the fact that Lena McLin could’ve told us that “It takes two to tango.” You’re talking about a fifteen-year-old sophomore, and, at that point, a twenty-something man. Much less now, we’re talking about Azriel Clary was seventeen when he begins with her, and he was in his forties. I just don’t understand that.
As an aside, I think about how that has historic roots in American culture. When we think back to slavery, there was always hypersexualization and commodification of black bodies.
And how was it that Sally Hemings was in love with Jefferson and she was his mistress, but, he owned her? The #MuteRKelly ladies and Tarana Burke were saying this. One of the legacies of this story for black women moving forward is to talk about this concept of adultification of their girls.
To be clear, Tara, I am a fat, white, fifty-four-year-old cis-male rock critic. I’m a journalist. When I heard for the dozenth time, the hundredth time that no one matters less in society than young black girls, I’m reporting it. It’s not my role to speak for them. It’s our role as journalists to amplify the stories that aren’t being told. I’ve done a million interviews in two weeks. The world knows the book is out. Now I am able to say, you really need to come to Chicago and start talking to black women and not me. I’ve said that many times. That’s always at the end of the interviews, and it gets cut out.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald’s comes up almost every time I’ve talked to Chicago residents.
So many times, as a journalist, talking and writing about the story, I’m checking myself. Don’t be prompted to hyperbole, Jim. But when I’ve seen two out of three women on the South and West Sides having “I saw him cruising” stories, much less knew somebody that it happened to, I bet you’ll have a couple of conversations and you’ll find the same. I’m not exaggerating when I said I felt guilty when we were doing the story in 2000 that we were late.
Please clarify that timeline.
Because if Tiffany Hawkins starts in 1991, and it’s 1991-1993, and the lawsuit’s filed in 1996, and Aaliyah was 1994, we were a decade late when we did the first story. Never did we think twenty years later this would still be ongoing, because it is at Trump Tower. Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary are there.
And then, this moment is amplified by Trump and all that he’s said about women… to be living in Trump Tower. When I heard Gayle King say that, I was floored.
Yes. And Trump Tower rose where The Sun-Times stood. So, he lives thirty-seven floors above where I watched that videotape with Sparkle. You know, it’s like serial killer, melodramatic pathology: He gets out of jail. He goes to the Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald’s. That’s where he picked up Patrice Jones. When he was busking on the street, he lived at the YMCA. It became luxury condos. That’s the first condo that he buys. On one hand, there’s this Chicago pride, he made it. He never left. He’s ours. He’s from our streets, and he went to the top of the mountain. On the other hand, he’s got these psychologically resonant places in his unique pathology. I hate armchair psychoanalysis, but lyrical analysis is my job as a critic, and it’s always been right there in the songs.
I haven’t heard people talk about the moments in the book where you have compassion for Kelly as a human being. It’s not just about him. It’s about this larger culture that he was in. What’s his family like, people in his employ, and how does all that shape a person to become the person that they are?
People are super-complicated, right? None of these victims is pure. It’s rape culture 101. They’re complicated people. Some said “I was stupid. I was a kid.” Some of them took his money. They did this. They did that. And he’s not purely a monster. I think his acts are monstrous. I teach “Journalism as Literature” as one of my courses at Columbia. What is “In Cold Blood” about? It’s partly about the murder of the innocent Clutter family. Halfway through discussing the book, we ask how many murders are in the book. Well, there’s the Clutters. Where are the others? The state puts those two men to death. Dick is obviously a sociopath. Perry, who does the actual murdering, was abused as a child, horrific upbringing, and the state marches methodically over three years toward putting him to death. Is murder not always murder? That’s why that book is still of value half-a-century after we’ve forgotten about that mass murder in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. One of the consolations of living with this, which I never wanted to do, long after writing the book, is that maybe the book will be of value for saying certain things about Chicago, about journalism, what Kelly went through in his upbringing. There’s no way not to be sympathetic about that. That does not excuse the victimized becoming the victimizer, especially if we assume Tiffany Hawkins wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, Aaliyah wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, an acquittal in 2008 wasn’t enough of a wake-up call. Clearly, there’s pathology. He cannot stop.
Also, I understand the music. I’m really sympathetic if “Step In the Name of Love” was your wedding song. Every backyard barbecue you’ve ever been to age three to thirty-three has had “Ignition Remix.” “I Believe I Could Fly” was your high-school prom song. I understand the way music infiltrates people’s lives and becomes a part of it, and it’s not so much his song anymore. It’s as much your song, and you’re reluctant to cut that part out of your life. I understand that. I sure don’t want to stop listening to [Michael Jackson’s]”Off the Wall.” (That’s his best piece, not “Thriller.”) But I can’t listen to the last two albums because they’re full of Jackson talking about “they’re trying to crucify me like they crucified the Lord.” That song “All The Lost Children,” where he takes on the prosecutor of Santa Barbara by name, if you are bringing this into your art, then I can’t ignore it. I won’t condemn somebody who says “He’s a horrible man. He needs to be stopped, but I love me some ‘Step In the Name of Love’.” It has to be every individual’s choice.
Absolutely. I recall the first moment that I heard R. Kelly. I was a high-school senior, and was headed to the bus stop for school. One of my friends was playing R. Kelly & Public Announcement’s “Honey Love” on her headphones. I asked what she was listening to, and she let me listen. I thought “God, he has an amazing voice.” Over time, it got creepier and creepier.
When’s the first time you heard an accusation against him?
At some point when I was in college, which would’ve been 1992 to 1997. I definitely heard more stories when I started teaching writing classes and talking to other teachers shortly thereafter. I met Jamilah Lemieux when she was a young poet. She was in high school when I started teaching, and she grew up in Hyde Park.
So, for about a decade you were able to just listen to the music?
Not even a decade, but part of the power of the book is that it’s not the white guy damning this black person and lynching a black man in public. This is a book where you got the receipts.
The emotional power of sitting with these women and hearing them tell their stories. I was doing that for nineteen years, and now other people get to directly hear from them, but it takes longform journalism to connect all the dots of twenty years, to look at all the systems, the civil attorneys who failed, the courts, the churches, the schools, the fellow journalists. I don’t know. I don’t think that’s a podcast or a TV documentary. There’s still some things that we do as undervalued print scribes that can only be done in print.
Right, there’s this section toward the end of the book where you talk about pedagogy and talking to your students. There are so many moments in “Soulless,” where one could ask what are the ethics of telling these longform stories? How do we tell the truth, not coddle people from reality, and still have receipts to back it up?
I was never not aware of not being a member of the community. What don’t I understand about the South and West Sides? I think a journalist has to not be afraid to ask really stupid questions. Why wouldn’t you go ring a doorbell and try? I don’t know. I can’t answer that. The [Chicago] Tribune drives me crazy. We were always outmanned, excuse the sexism, we were always outhumanned six-to-one by the Tribune, and why on December 22, 2000, they didn’t see this as a story. What journalism should do is go, “Okay. Fuck you, that was a good scoop. We’re gonna go better and deeper now.” Right? And no one ever did nationally or locally. I don’t know why, because Abdon Pallasch and I were as white as two white guys get.
We were. He’s much whiter than me, little Irish-Polish leprechaun, which is what Susana Mendoza calls him. My editor was very concerned and said Abdon Pallasch is going to be offended. I said no, he’s not. He calls himself that. People were desperate to tell this story. Their daughters, their sisters, their loved ones were being hurt, and I had this secret magic sauce. I’m in your living room and you’re playing Mavis Staples. I let them know I’ve been hugged by Mavis Staples. “She’s amazing. She’s an angel, oh my god,” and now we’re cousins. Our upbringing, our culture, and our skin color is different, but now we’ve got that. I think many of the sources that were most valuable, I could talk music with them.
That’s an important skill as a journalist—relating to a subject and letting that open the door a little. Then you can start talking.
Yeah. People forget that. Everybody wants to tell their story.
It was interesting how you start the book with how you came to journalism and that opening salvo where you set the tone of Chicago as a city where all these conditions foment to lead up to writing this story. How did you start writing that opening of the book?
I was writing a completely different book. Obviously, R. Kelly is part of my story. I had this sort of postmodern idea. Side A. Side B. A life saved by rock ’n’ roll. The reason I’m not a fat, racist Jersey City cop, or a sadistic prison guard, or a depressed accountant in Montclair, like everyone I went to high school with, is I discovered this music and I discovered the writing about it by Lester Bangs. Side A. This notion of music being the motivating force with Wire, Kurt Cobain, and all of this, and this R. Kelly story. Nobody wanted that book. I had written twelve versions of that book proposal, and I ain’t gonna sit around. The selling of it is the part that I hate. You need to write a book proposal. My agent is gonna shop it. Nobody wants that, well, fuck that, I’m punk, I’m D.I.Y. I’ll do it myself. I’m writing a book. I’m writing Side A. I’m writing Side B. It was necessary for me psychologically to keep reminding myself. That’s what these tattoos are about. The music that shaped me and what the power of music is. And then there’s this dark story. If music can save your life, can it also be this ultimate tool to corrupt? Which it was with Kelly. Nobody wanted that book, and finally I admitted defeat, or said okay, this is a book of its own. Only two editors in all of New York publishing wanted that book. One works at Grove Atlantic. She went to Kenwood with Kelly. She’s quoted in the book. She’s the one who says Mrs. Lena McLin said I was a slut because my boyfriend was in the choir. Amy Hundley. And the other is Jamison Stoltz, who went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, where Reshonda Landfair went to school. So, these two editors in New York publishing, who both have Chicago roots and grew up reading me, who listened on the radio to me, and had personal connections because this shit touched their high schools. That’s why this book happened. I went with James, mainly because Amy was having a hard time convincing her publisher. You’re trusting three layers of people trying to convey your idea.
It becomes another sort of entity.
This was never a book that I wanted to write. When I say that, it’s because if I didn’t feel that I had to write it, it would be forty-eight women’s names I know that weren’t heard. My life would’ve been immeasurably poorer if I had not spent a day with Lester Bangs at seventeen. I would not be here today, but I could live very happily without the nineteen years that led to this book because those women would not have had that pain, which is not me saying I’m a white savior. They were hurt. No one wanted to tell their story. I listened. I told their story. It’s about them.
Do you think because you are a white male that made people look at this story? Even with your credibility and experience, do you think that if a black journalist told this story that would impact how the story had been received?
I’ve really only started thinking about this. I don’t think it was well-received because I’m a white journalist, because since day one Abdon and I were the white men trying to tear down the successful black superstar, and it was only Mary Mitchell screaming and yelling in thirty-eight columns [in the Sun-Times], “Black community, wake up, this is a predator in your midst.” I don’t know. Obviously, if a black music critic my age had been in my place in those living rooms talking to those women, talking to those family members, talking to those people around Kelly who at some point developed a conscience and spoke out, I don’t know. What people like Kenyette and Oronike, Jamilah, Kyra Kyles, Mikki Kendall and Tarana Burke tell me is that black men never thought this was a story.
There are so many questions of race that I can’t answer because I’ve only ever been a white man. I do know that maybe the difference was a help in this sense. I’m allowed to ask the stupid question. The stupid white person gets away with it once if they ask a black woman if they can touch her hair, and gets put in their place. Don’t you do that, and then you never do it again, right? I’m able to ask stupid questions. Not as offensive as touching someone’s hair. For example, with Tiffany Hawkins saying “He called me Madam. He called me the Cable Girl.” Understand what that means: “Yeah, I hooked him up.” She was saying, “I was a pimp. I hooked him up with six of my fellow fifteen-year-old classmates.” I’m just like, I don’t know what that means. I didn’t know what “tossing your salad” meant the first time I heard it. I figured it out. Abdon, to this day, still doesn’t understand that, but he doesn’t even know what anilingus is, and I’m not going to school him.
Just look that up in the dictionary.
A lot of it was an education. Also, in the same way, being a white man, always questioning what don’t I understand here, being someone who understood Chicago, being that some parts are like New Jersey, but not being from Chicago, I’m looking at Chicago maybe more quizzically and deeper and asking questions that a Chicagoan wouldn’t. There’s a certain attitude here that really depresses me. New York and Hudson County are horribly corrupt. Ed Koch comes in as a reformer, he becomes the most crooked of the crooked. Toss the sonofabitch out. David Dinkins comes in. We have high hopes. He becomes crooked. Toss the sonofabitch out. Bloomberg, it’s the same thing. In Chicago, there’s a cumulative what? Forty-five to fifty years of Daleys, and the same Chicagoans say he’s a crook, he’s a bum, and you go “What the fuck? You didn’t even run anybody in the last three elections?” And they say, “Eh, it’s Chicago.” As if you gotta live with that. YOU DON’T GOTTA LIVE WITH THAT! YOU DON’T. At least scream, yell, shout. You don’t have to live with that.
Right. It’s an interesting time in Chicago. Ever since I’ve been here and long before that, there’s always been a history of labor organizing and radical protest.
Studs Terkel’s Chicago.
Yes, Studs Terkel, the Black Panther Party and other groups, resistance has always been here, it just doesn’t always get recognized.
It’s true, and it erupts in 1968 and gets heads cracked open. Both the West Side riots and Grant Park, but at least they fought it. Resignation is the Chicago way. I ain’t gonna get the pothole fixed unless I give the alderman a hundred bucks. That ain’t right.
There are those two currents running simultaneously. Chicago is the devil that I know, and then there’s the people who say no, we have to fight to make it a better, different place.
Nelson Algren. “Loving Chicago is like loving a beautiful woman with a broken nose.”
Yes, it is.
But that plays into why would it be any different with Kelly? In the end, it all comes down, not from murdering, gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, but taxes. Maybe that’s how R. Kelly ends.
Ironically, when the Chicago Tribune ran a review by Tressie Cottom, it hit that point toward the end.
What do you think about that review?
It was an in-depth analysis of the book. She caught the story arc of the book, but toward the end she talks about how it is a financial end. That was the exact feeling that I had by the time I finished the book. Then there’s that emotional turn where you catch up with the women after much has been resolved in 2019, but the gravy train has stopped. He’s not making the peak hits that he once made. The label has dissolved. The money’s gone, which says a lot about the judicial system in the United States. I have to ask about Vincent Gaughan who presided over the 2008 case. Has he responded to anything?
No, I tried to interview him for the book, and he did not respond, and I think there’s a special place in hell for that man.
To have the history of Gaughan unfurled in “Soulless,” I discovered things that I did not know about him.
Every four years when he’s up for reelection, the judicial review committee says not really recommended. He runs an efficient courtroom, but with a hair-trigger temper. Patently unconstitutional behavior. He was scolded by the Illinois Supreme Court, after the McDonald-Van Dyke case. Given two more years, and two research assistants’ help, I would have liked to be able to prove more than I was able to write. What I was able to write is that for six years, Gaughan consistently ruled for the defense in closed chambers. We don’t know what happened.
Is there more to that story? Probably.
And they were only able to talk about the videotape.
Right, narrowing that case. People who I respect have said the concept of not prejudicing the jury say he was charged with making pornography. Why should he have allowed more than that tape? It seems to me that the Montina Woods case, which was a woman who was taped without her knowledge having sex with Kelly, was relevant. The other tapes that were on the street were relevant. The investigation into videotape number one that we gave the police would’ve been relevant. If not as a pattern of predatory behavior of teenagers, but he wasn’t charged with statutory rape. A pattern of videotaping people that he has sex with? That seems relevant. Dr. Sharon Cooper, one of the world’s foremost psychiatric pediatric experts, was prepared to testify about why the girl might not want to turn evidence, but she was barred from testifying by Gaughan. When I interviewed Cooper for the first time about what she was planning to say, and she tells me about the girl and the pressures. I said you must’ve been disappointed to not be able to give that testimony, and Cooper said, “No, I know how corrupt Chicago is. I thought it would be a stain on my career, and I might be hurt by Kelly’s people.” That was revelatory to me. I believe she had just come back from a world conference in Amsterdam. This giant in her field told me, “I prepared for this case, and it significantly upset me that I was going to testify and I couldn’t.” That said a lot. There’s a lot of questions that linger for me. [Kelly attorney] Ed Genson giving that interview in the Sun-Times, a few months ago, saying, “Yeah, we all knew he was guilty as hell.” That’s fascinating to me. What were the political power and money dynamics happening with Judge Gaughan, the defense team, Dick Devine…?
We probably will never know.
If somebody else wants to pick up the mantle maybe, but this damn near killed me. I lay it all out and there’s a lot that’s between the lines, I think. I did my best.
How do you approach talking to young writers about telling the truth about powerful people?
I am beginning to get these questions in the last couple of years from journalists. “How do I tell this #MeToo story?” Step number one is if there’s a court paper, you’re protected. If Tiffany Hawkins hadn’t sued him in 1996 and settled in 1998, I think we would’ve never been able to do that first story. The fact there is 238 pages of a legal file that begins with “R. Kelly pursues teenagers,” this is the story of one of them, but notes that there were many others. That’s filed in court, so you’re protected. I think it’s only the women who spoke out and broke the nondisclosure agreements that enabled Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor to do the Weinstein stories. There’s court papers filed. That’s the easiest way.
Because it’s public record.
Right, but somebody just comes to you and starts telling you accusations about a person in power, and it’s just he said, she said, that’s really hard for the journalist. It’s really hard for the civil attorney. It’s really hard for the criminal attorney. It’s difficult, which is part of rape cultures. Look at the statistics of how few rapes are reported, and of those reported how few of them get to trial, and then of those that get to trial, how few of them result in a conviction. We are now talking about the narrowest slice of the pie. It’s just the system does not believe women, especially women of color.
We didn’t believe Dr. [Anita] Hill. We didn’t believe Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford. How much have we changed since Nirvana was at the top of the charts? None. We have a president who wants to grab women by the you-know-what…
And he can say it publicly.
So we are not in good times. If there’s a danger of #MeToo, not the male backlash, the entire history of humanity is way overdue for men to get out of the way. The danger of #MeToo is that we’re gonna get complacent and think that the conversation that started is the end of it. It ain’t the end. Look at the sprint board. Look at the South and Ohio trying to turn the clock back to pre-1971. Look at the president. No more than we were post-racial when we elected our Hyde Park neighbor. Remember that? There was a good six months there of “America is post-racial.” How’s that square with Charlottesville for ya?
Postracial. What is that word? It makes no sense.
No, we are not postracial, and we sure ain’t post-#MeToo.
We’re not. There are so many things that are due to change in the culture. How have men responded to the book and the stances that you’ve been taking?
A lot of men, male journalists, are a little bit guilty. By far, most of my interviewers, broadcast and print, have been women. Many women of color. Most of the producers who have booked me for television have been women of color. Yamiche Alcindor, Gayle King, Tyra Martin, this is a story of women of color. I’m glad the book is out there. I’m proud of it. Now, go interview some black women. Why is the rest of the world talking to me? I did my appearances. Now, here is who you should call.
It could definitely shift some things.
I think the book has to come out now because the case hasn’t been made yet, despite surviving, despite twenty-one counts of sexual assault, the full case, forty-eight women whose names I know, and every system failing and enabling this. Whatever happens to him next is a footnote. Jail, suicide, he becomes a fat, old, pathetic, disgraced R&B has-been that no one ever listens to again, all of that is just a footnote. How did Chicago fail, for thirty years, so many black girls? And how did the music community know, but refuse to pay attention, and then the bigger things like Chicago and journalism? So yeah, it starts for me with a record review and the facts about the lawsuit with Tiffany. It ends for me nineteen years later with her saying I want to talk to you about it and tell my story once. You haven’t seen her anywhere else. She’s not talking to anybody else. She was like, “I trust you. I want to do this once. We’re gonna do it right.” For me to have gotten the approval of the women, it’s really difficult. People see themselves differently than the mirror from how we see them. So, did you tell the story and get it right, and for Dominique Gardner to say yes, and Jerhonda to say yes, and Lizzette to say yes, okay.
I know it’s not commensurate with people that you’ve written about, but how do you deal with the aftermath of reporting on this for so long?
Every week, we tape a new episode of “Sound Opinions.” Roky Erickson died. Roky Erickson’s story is amazing. The music is amazing. Many people still do not know it. The people who do know, worship it. I get to do twenty-five minutes on that, and someday, we’re gonna get Chuck D to come and do a classic album dissection of “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back.”
Not “Fear of a Black Planet?”
It’s a hard call, isn’t it? Probably “Fear.”
“Nation” is good, too. You really can’t go wrong with either.
Maybe we’ll get Lizzo. Probably not, but maybe.
I’d love that.
I LOVE LIZZO! Greg [Kot] and I always say if you’re a critic and that the best record you’ve ever heard is not the one you hope to hear next week, then it’s not an album worth reviewing.
It totally makes sense.
Maybe I never succeeded in selling the proposal, which is why nobody wanted to buy that book. But also, I have this notion that we’re both Gen-Xers, which was the age of irony and postmodernism, but I do not buy this notion that Nirvana equals Bush or Limp Bizkit, it’s all just show business. I’m sorry. Taylor Swift, no slight to her, she’s fine for who she is, but she is not Courtney Love. She is not Patti Smith. She is not Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex.
She is none of those women.
We are coming up in a time when authenticity is being dismissed. There is no authentic. Yeah, but there is. Mavis Staples? Authentic. Queen Bey? I didn’t really think so until “Lemonade.” Solangé? Much more so authentic.
I think that comes with maturity. Beyoncé couldn’t have made “Lemonade” when she was still a teenager in Destiny’s Child.
You know what I’m saying. This idea that art means something. I think that’s coming back into fashion. That’s why I wanted to write that book. With Kelly, every single one of those forty-eight women, he told them that he loved them. He never did. He loves nobody but himself. That’s what the title “Soulless” means to me, a complete lack of empathy. I wanted to balance that. Maybe some small press will want my other book. So, you ask how nineteen years, there’s this other stuff, and there’s the new Lizzo, and also Tacocat.
I was actually listening to Tacocat last night. Lyrically, it’s interesting in terms of how female agency is represented. You mentioned Solangé, Lizzo, Tacocat, Beyoncé’s recent stuff. Are there other artists that aren’t as mainstream that you think are doing that?
Oh yeah. A million of them. Savages is the best band I’ve heard since Nirvana. Those two records [“Adore Life” and “Silence Yourself”] are amazing, unbelievable.
How do you think people’s discernment is changing?
Basically, everyone teaching, no matter what specialty, from this point forward, will have to teach media literacy. How to separate reliable from completely fake? If we are post-textual, as some of my English colleagues would suggest, then how do we speak this new language?
Right. Even if it’s primarily auditory or visual, we’ve already been challenging ideas of how the visual portrays some ideas in print.
Everybody is talking about one of the great challenges in 2020 is going to be faked video. That’s one of the ironies of the Kelly trial.
It was technically impossible to fake at the time.
It was technically impossible. Yesterday someone just showed by steering me to a tweet of Sam Adam Jr. in 2015 and his great victory with the Kelly case and how the mole was fake, and the video was fake. You could tell by the pixels. What’s wrong with that sentence? It was VHS. There were no pixels.
Pixels didn’t exist. If you ever taped video as a kid, you know you got shadowy and grainy.
He [Adam] was full of shit, and that’s a man that has little black babies. You think about Reshonda Landfair meets him at twelve. The most horrifying testimony in the book during the trial, to me, was the Kelly office assistant who said her parents would bring her to the studio with her overnight bag and pillow and leave her, and now, twenty years later, that girl is still not cooperating with the state. Once again, she’s going to be dragged in with this new videotape, that’s really an old videotape, and you could say her life’s going to be ruined, but I think she never had a life. My editor and I wrestled ethically with do we name her, and it was a six-year trial. Her name was said on record about one-hundred times a day. Only Reuters named her in the original trial coverage. I think that was another reason that Kelly was able to skate. She was not Reshonda. She was “the girl on the videotape.”
We talked about the trial dragging out for six years. If she was fourteen when the tape was made, and by the time of the trial, she’s twenty-something-years old, she’s not a little girl anymore. How does that play out in a courtroom?
That video of Sam Adam Jr. is floating around YouTube. He says the mother, the father, and Reshonda, all told the grand jury it wasn’t her, so I have this between the lines in the book. The prosecution, had they subpoenaed her, would have forced her to perjure herself. If they had convicted Kelly, she would’ve committed perjury. She would have been subject to jail. So, not only was her life ruined, then they were gonna throw her in jail. There was no way she was going to tell the truth on the stand. She would’ve lied. That girl never had a life.
In some ways, you have to wonder if a book like this could change how we consider proceedings for sexual assault. I hope so.
There’s not a single sexual crimes prosecutor who won’t say that it needs to change. It does. Again, I’m a music critic, I want to talk about the new Lizzo record, but to the extent that these questions will get started and these ideas will be planted. That was why I had to do the book.
I think there’s lots of layers that enable that book to start a lot of discussions, which as an author that’s a feat.
There’s also something that Bill Wyman called the “ick factor.” It was just so disgusting what Kelly did on that tape. It was easier to believe the jokes that were made about it than the reality. It’s easier to go with [Dave] Chappelle than it is with the reality of that twenty-six-minute, thirty-nine-second videotape. Roman Polanski wasn’t fooling around with a teenager. He was anally raping a fourteen-year-old girl in a hot tub. That makes it a little harder to forget. What are we really talking about? People shy away from that.
You didn’t just write about R. Kelly over the years. You’ve written about a precedent of men in American culture being predatory toward women, especially younger women. It’s basically an open secret that people don’t want to acknowledge.
For sure, for sure. Mary was writing about that from day one. Kelly is not unique. All of these fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls in the black community who are getting pregnant are not getting pregnant by fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys. This story was big enough. I wasn’t a cultural reporter or a full-time investigative reporter. You can easily be overwhelmed by all these issues that there are to write about, but if you look at it as a big evil iceberg, the only way to tackle it is to begin to chip off a little chunk of it at a time.
Right, which is why I think the book tackles so many layers. We’ll look at this part, then how does it move into this next idea… It could have been way more salacious, and a very different book. Going back to the overall narrative of the book, has there ever been a photograph of the duffel bag? I’ve heard about and read about the duffel bag, but tapes have been stolen from it, which is why we’ve seen tapes at all. No proof of this bag? No pictures?
He’s able to go to these high-end gyms and the court is his. Think about it. There are no pictures of him with Andrea, and they were married for eleven years. Google it.
I have. There are no pictures of them together. I thought that was odd.
I think there were a couple of things at play. He’s a superstar, but he’s a black superstar. You know Jordan is photographed in Chicago, but he’s all colors-superstar. He’s not “black” anymore, he’s just famous. Or Oprah, she’s not black anymore, she’s just famous. But aside from “I Believe I Can Fly,” you could’ve plopped R. Kelly down anywhere in Wrigleyville in the first fifteen years of his career, and I doubt he would’ve been recognized.
You mentioned in the book that part of the reason that no one paid attention to the court filing was not just because, it was just before the holiday, it was also because they didn’t know who Robert Sylvester Kelly was.
And there were no black reporters.
That’s part of the beauty of the moment that we’re in now. There are many more black writers, and there are many more people who’ve grown up with hip-hop and R&B. I think it might not slip past somebody now if they’re doing the work. We weren’t quite there yet.
That era of 2000 to 2008. And the internet’s not there yet. It is now a completely different world. But literally, from the start, from “Honey Love,” Kelly could’ve stopped the SUV on any block on the South and West Sides, got out, and been mobbed. If he pulled that shit on Michigan Avenue and Cedar Avenue, he’d have gotten his ass kicked for holding up traffic. Nobody would’ve recognized him. That’s really extraordinary because that wouldn’t have been true of Jordan, wasn’t true of Oprah, because Kelly was “black famous.”
Oprah and Jordan have had moments where we are all reminded that they are indeed black. When you think about what happened to Michael Jordan’s father which clearly would not have happened if he had been white and wearing a NBA championship ring in the South.
And Jennifer Hudson.
Hudson too. If you’re black and you’re famous, you’re probably never going to transcend your blackness.
People thought Obama did.
That bubble got burst.
Right. These are questions that I can’t really answer, but I’m hugely grateful to people like Mark Anthony Neal, Karen Attiah or Mary Mitchell. When Dream Hampton said in every interview that Jim DeRogatis’ work was foundational, that’s how I feel about those people I just named because I don’t understand these things, I’m not gonna be ashamed to ask the questions. I’m not going to pretend to know what I don’t know.
As the journalist coming to it with new eyes because the regular person on the street, who’s not doing any research, doesn’t need the expert questions. They need the questions clarified and to make sense of the all the facts in the best way possible. I appreciated how you made the distinction writing about abusive behavior and carrying it out, like Eminem writing about his ex-wife Kim.
I think Odd Future are despicable, but they aren’t doing it.
You can gripe about your exes, but it doesn’t mean that you go out, beat people, kill people or stalk them. I also thought about how Kelly was trying to renew his career with younger white artists who would not remember his past in the same way.
It was brilliant. I think it was Derrel McDavid. I don’t think he understood what he was doing. In “Soulacoaster,” Kelly said I got embraced by indie rock, and I knew he didn’t write that or say that or speak that. I think Derrel McDavid was really smart, and then Kelly being both incredibly shrewd and street smart, and sometimes very stupid, kicks him out, and fires him and accuses him of stealing his money. I think he’s going to come to regret that if the Feds ain’t trying to get him to flip right now…
It wasn’t just saying these girls aren’t telling the truth. The alternate script was these people don’t work for me anymore, and that’s public knowledge.
The number of people he’s kicked to the curb, and that’s the narcissism. I’m sure that’s created three decades of people holding a grudge against [him]. You’ve got a way bigger list of people who’ve been trying to bring you down before me.
That circles back to the first tape that you got. That could have been any number of people who sent you the tape.
Even if you want to be sympathetic, why did they hate him? Even if part of it was money, he’s fucking their fifteen-year-old nieces! Is that not enough reason to hate somebody?
As a longtime Chicago resident and music critic, what are your thoughts on “High Fidelity?”
Ain’t no way that Lisa Bonet would never have played Lounge Ax.
I didn’t think so either.
That movie is brilliant for the scene of “I’m going to sell five copies of the Beta Band.” This is probably the problem with it as much as the book, I hate that exclusionary attitude of boys with their baseball cards approach. I’ve had too many people I love in my life who are not like that. For example, if you and I are at the Empty Bottle, and they know who I am and they come over, and they’re not even going to say hello. They go right into it with me about what did you say about The Mountain Goats. I’ll be like, there’s another human being here. Would you like to meet her? I hate that. My wife gets that all the time. Or there’ll be a cursory “Are you into music?” No, I’m the movie editor, then it’s like she doesn’t exist. I hate that. That’s what gives music geeks a bad name.
That’s very indicative of Gen-X because Nick Hornby’s book is very Gen-X. That whole idea that not just the albums are like baseball cards, but women are like baseball cards if they’re both top five lists.
There are moments in the movie that are good. “I will now sell ten copies of this record…”
Yeah, and some of the records mentioned in the movie, regardless of what generation you are, you should know what they are.
I never looked down on Abdon because he didn’t know who Curtis Mayfield was. I gave him the boxed set.
What a pleasure is that? If a friend can introduce you to Curtis Mayfield, that’s a whole other type of friend.
Don Jackson, the self-professed coolest black man from Trenton, New Jersey was working in The Gap in New York, and moved to Jersey City. He sits me down in his apartment one day and he’s got a futon mattress and a guitar, and he’s got a stereo, that’s all he’s got in his apartment. He says you need to hear Wire. Everything changes. That’s like the day I met Lester Bangs. That’s the greatest gift that you can give somebody. This is what we do. Those of us who care about art, have you read fill-in-the-blank? Oooooh, let me lend you my copy.
You mentioned Tiffany Hawkins, and all the women who wanted to be musicians and vocalists, and there are so many failed writers or they’ve disappeared.
Look at the [J. D.] Salinger story.
Yes, the Salinger story was awful.
I don’t think [David] Foster Wallace was much different.
It makes you think how many books and albums by women have we lost?
How many other Aaliyahs? What would Tiffany’s album have sounded like? What would Lizzette’s have sounded like? And Azriel and Joycelyn?
What if this is just another way to feel powerful and take out your competition?
To the people who say “#MuteRKelly? No, that’s cancel culture,” how about the many voices that Kelly has muted? We all know there are plenty of women who give up their dreams to support the man, but he promises them.
Then said, “I’ll help you.”
And then they’re never heard from again.
And again, Kelly is not the only one, and music is not the only artistic discipline where that happens.
It’s like those people who sign somebody just so they can shelf their record and silence them.
Dionne Farris’ “Wild Seed — Wild Flower” comes to mind…
They tried to do that to Lupe Fiasco. They did it to Tom Petty. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, but women are in an even worse position. What could be more insidious?
Especially when women age, and they say you’re too old and you won’t look hot on a poster. On a brighter note, what are you working on now?
I have this other book percolating which is my tribute to authenticity and how I got here. Here’s my journey with this music. I want to remind people music matters, especially after this book. That’ll be my therapy.
Jim DeRogatis will discuss “Soulless” at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 South Woodlawn at 6pm on August 9. A Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.
Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.