An ongoing investigation led by Homeland Security is expected to end with multiple federal indictments against R. Kelly. Officials in several states are questioning witnesses to verify recent allegations. In Chicago, the city where the R&B superstar was once considered a local hero, Kelly’s legal troubles continue to mount. After dream hampton’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly aired this January, Cook County charged him with 10 counts of aggravated child sexual abuse, and then an additional 11 counts of sexual assault and abuse just last week. He’s been arrested for unpaid child support and ordered to surrender his passport. Kelly also owes back rent on his recording studio, and he’s accrued fines for violating building zone codes. As Jim DeRogatis writes near the end of his new book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, “When Chicago decides to fuck with you, you are well and truly fucked.”
This might sound like redemption if it weren’t for the fact that R. Kelly has fucked up Chicago for the past three decades. “He may be indicted. He may be facing charges in Illinois, Georgia, and D.C. But he is still a free man,” DeRogatis said during our conversation about Soulless, which publishes June 4 from Abrams Press.
“As we are speaking, he’s holding two women in Trump Tower who are being told when to eat, when to sleep, and they will be physically and emotionally harmed if they break the rules,” DeRogatis said. Soulless is the culmination of the journalist and former Chicago Sun-Times music critic’s 18 years of covering the R. Kelly story, including interviews with dozens of the musician’s alleged victims. If there is one thing that becomes abundantly clear after reading this deep investigation into R. Kelly’s horrific actions, it’s that it’s all too little, too late.
In November of 2000, DeRogatis received an anonymous fax that read, “Robert’s problem—and it’s a thing that goes back many years—is young girls.” It sparked what would become a career-defining crusade for the writer that was often lonely, controversial, and sometimes dangerous to his personal safety. Soulless offers an in-depth account into the twisted trail of abuse that R. Kelly left in his wake, from DeRogatis’ first published story on the sexual abuse allegations against the singer, to the infamous child pornography video trial of the early ’00s, all the way to the recent claims that he is keeping women in a “sex cult.” The result is an infuriating, nauseating, and revelatory document of one man’s monstrous acts—and the society that allowed his monstrosity to go unchecked. If this book puts a spotlight on R. Kelly’s pathologies, it does so by condemning all the ways our systems of accountability have failed the girls of color who were under his sway.
DeRogatis quotes the alleged victims at length when detailing their experiences with R. Kelly, allowing their narratives to take precedence over his own voice. By his admission, he has interviewed 48 of R. Kelly’s victims, though he names only those who have agreed to go public or whose identities have become public through legal documents. Going as far back as 1991, their accounts are heartbreaking and horrific, almost repetitive in how experiences played out. Many were aspiring singers who R. Kelly promised to mentor. Several were approached by bodyguards in spaces popular with teens like the mall or the now gone Rock N Roll McDonald’s in Chicago. Tiffany Hawkins, the first woman to file a lawsuit against R. Kelly, in 1996, met him when he performed at Kenwood Academy on Chicago’s South Side, where she was a high school student. For these girls, and women, there were invitations to his studio, his penthouse, his mansion. Sexual contact was followed by sexual coercion, which was followed by a tyrannical control on their every move. They suffered physical and emotional abuse, to say nothing of the horrific repercussions of their plight.
However, we live in a culture that insists it needs to be said anyway, and even then some victims may never receive the benefit of the doubt, let alone true justice. This is the other narrative strain that runs throughout Soulless and expands the case against R. Kelly from that of one individual to that of a very broken society. Kelly is the most obvious villain in the book, but he is by no means the only one.
This spectacular failure of justice was all produced through means that are well within the legal playbook. Soulless often reads like a courtroom drama—except most courtroom dramas don’t let six years transpire between an indictment and the actual trial. That’s how long Kelly’s legal team, helmed by attorney Ed Genson, delayed the proceedings of the child pornography case against him, beginning in 2002, via motions and depositions that allowed Kelly to rule the charts during that time.
This was due in no small part to Judge Vincent Gaughan’s own approach to the case. In addition to sealing most of the records during that period, Judge Gaughan also ruled that only evidence directly related to the videotape could be presented in court. In other words, the four civil lawsuits filed against R. Kelly, his illegal marriage to underage singer Aaliyah, in 1994, and the flow of money between Kelly and the parents of the alleged victim were not presented at trial. Jurors were stunned to find out this information after the fact. This was legal.
Civil lawsuits were resolved via non-disclosure agreements that outlined monetary payments in exchange for silence. Some of the alleged victims were dissuaded from seeking criminal charges and one particular lawyer, Susan E. Loggans, benefited quite well from being the go-to lawyer for R. Kelly’s victims. This, too, was legal. A judge in Florida dropping charges on possession of child pornography because he considered the images to have been unlawfully obtained? Also legal. And what recourse do the family members of the women currently trapped in R. Kelly’s web have if they are no longer minors?
R. Kelly’s dirty secrets are revealed in this book, and so is the wide gap between true justice and the law. “I never felt like journalism and criticism mattered less,” DeRogatis writes about Kelly’s 2008 acquittal on the 14 counts of child pornography against him, which stemmed from a video allegedly showing him having sex with and urinating on an underage girl. I asked DeRogatis if he still felt that journalism didn’t matter, given the current charges against Kelly. He gave a long pause before answering: “Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court. Trump is in the White House… I think we gotta keep trying.” The R. Kelly case is not so much an aberration as it is part of a larger spectrum of violence against women, the most extreme and appalling symptoms of a society that is already rotten from within.
R. Kelly’s acquittal neutralized him as a threat in the eyes of the media, his audience, and many parents. In our cultural imagination, the video was a mock-worthy recording of a gross kink instead of rape. DeRogatis has no qualms about calling out the pop culture media landscape, the music critics, the concert promoters, and festival organizers, as well as the many artists and producers who aided and abetted the hipsterification of R. Kelly that was so widely celebrated in his headlining performance at the 2013 Pitchfork Musical Festival in Chicago. He points fingers at the major newspapers and outlets that ignored Kelly’s pattern of abuse for far too long and demurred in describing the urination in the video because it would upset readers. He describes the difficulties he had placing his 2017 story about R. Kelly’s newest predatory phase of keeping women in a so-called cult.
Despite this bleak topography, there is something affirming about DeRogatis’ refusal to let the story go. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over what to do with the art of deplorable artists, and in the era of the hot take, these debates turn into the reductive question of whether or not to “cancel” them. On the one hand, to believe art is created in some pure environment deprived of all the biases, subjectivities, and depravities of an individual or a society is willingly obtuse. On the other, canceling can feel too facile of a strategy, as if the answer is to take a Stalinist approach to our memories and doctor them so we can ignore the fact that we’ve found meaning in an artist’s output, maybe identified with it, established a personal relationship to it.
It shouldn’t stop us, however, from demanding accountability from others and, ultimately, ourselves. In a world that leaves so few venues for real justice, it is imperative that we wrestle with the consequences of our own fandom. There were so many instances where R. Kelly’s predatory behavior could have been stopped by the legal system, but it wasn’t. The persistent work of black activists, a handful of journalists, and the latest push of public outcry may be what stops him in the end. It’s the “we gotta keep trying” ethos that runs through the book.
DeRogatis has some choice aphorisms that pop up repeatedly in Soulless. One is the idea that a journalist’s duty is to follow a story until the end. I asked him what he envisioned that end being regarding the R. Kelly story. “You might think the end is when he goes to jail or he dies at the ripe old age of 90,” DeRogatis said. “To me the end is when the phone stops ringing and I stop getting emails from young women saying, ‘I’ve been hurt and no one will listen.’ That’s the end for me. But I will take those calls always.”