If you lived in still at any point in the last 25 years, and consider yourself somewhat media savvy, you may have stumbled upon the name Jim DeRogatis. DeRogatis started his Chicago media career at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992 as their resident music critic. He had a brief departure from the newspaper in 1995 while working as a writer for Rolling Stone, but was fired for a bad review and returned to Chicago. Since then, building upon his reputation as a great writer and discerning music critic, DeRogatis would branch out from the newspaper writing for several other publications, teaching at Columbia College, and even hosting a popular show on public radio. Despite the national distribution of his writing and radio show, DeRogatis largely remained a local Chicago. That is until, only with the last year, he finally gained the respect and attention he deserves for an investigation, ongoing for two decades, about the most notorious sexual abuser in music history.
On June 4th, DeRogatis’ latest book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly was published, a book documenting an investigation that has gone one now for 19 years. In November 2000, DeRogatis received an anonymous fax that would change his life. The fax alleged that R&B singer R. Kelly had a problem with underage girls which immediately sparked an investigation by DeRogatis that has been ongoing for nearly two decades. As the journalist who broke that story and has consistently been covering it for 19 years, DeRogatis documents his journey proving that Kelly had exhibited consistent predatory behaviors against underage girls from the earliest allegations in 1991 to how those patterns of behavior evolved to include an alleged sex cult of brainwashed women in 2019.
Often alone in this journalistic endeavor, though aided by his writing partner Abdon Pallasch, DeRogatis received pushback from politicians, law enforcement, lawyers, journalists, music critics, Kelly’s fans and employees, and even family members of the victims with the intent to protect a musical figure that generated so much revenue for so many people. In addition to covering the timeline of the abuse and the investigation, DeRogatis offers thoughtful analysis about how systemic issues within law enforcement and the entertainment industry, as well as social and racial factors, failed so many young black girls and women who sought justice for the crimes committed against them by a man they loved and trusted and whose music provided the soundtrack for their lives and lined the pockets of others. Relatively unknown and unappreciated since starting his investigation in 2000,
DeRogatis’ work has since been validated within the last year due to additional reporting from other media outlets and a successful Lifetime TV documentary series, all of which expound upon DeRogatis’ work. However, all this seems too little, too late for DeRogatis who delves into the problematic reality that, while Kelly was on trial in 2008 for his sex abuse crimes, the singer was experiencing his most critically and commercially acclaimed period of his career with his albums selling better than ever and critics praising Kelly’s genius while dismissing the sex abuse allegations as being trivial distractions. This book by DeRogatis not only makes the case that Kelly is the most notorious sexual abuser in music history, but it also sheds light on how poorly black women are treated in society by exposing the patriarchal and racist political, business, and social systems that silences their voices, erases their identities, and robs them of their humanity.
Last week, I attend a panel discussion organized by the Chicago Humanities Festival featuring DeRogatis discussing his book as well as the ongoing grand jury trial Kelly currently faces. During the panel, DeRogatis was joined on stage with Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the co-founders of #MuteRKelly, with questions moderated by Kyra Kyles, an award-winning writer.
During the panel, the group discussed DeRogatis’ investigation and the many systems and people that not only pushed back against his reporting, but who had also failed the young black girls and women within the segregated communities adversely affected by poverty and other racial and social factors. The panel also discussed the secret to Kelly’s seemingly untouchable profile being his money and how his music has collectively raised over $1 billion, prompting Barnes and Odeleye to discuss the success of their tactics to tighten Kelly’s revenue earning by protesting and, ultimately, shutting down his concerts. It was a powerful and emotional discussion.
Before the panel discussion, DeRogatis performed a reading from his book. Specifically, the ending of his book. After 19 years of talking to several dozens of Kelly’s victims, and the countless people who enabled the singer, DeRogatis finally met the women who was the first to challenge Kelly for his abuse and pursue legal action. In a small café on the northside of Chicago, DeRogatis met with Tiffany Hawkins who publicly discussed her relationship with Kelly for the first time.
Hawkins met Kelly in 1991 at the age of 15 where she was coerced into a sexual relationship with the singer, as well as experiencing violence retribution for not obeying his orders. In 1996, Hawkins sued Kelly for $10 million but settled in 1998 for an undisclosed amount. Hawkins spent years healing from the abuse, focusing on her own life and wellbeing, and raising a family.
Reading from the book, DeRogatis asked Hawkins if she could listen to Kelly’s music anymore. She couldn’t stand it for a long time and hearing his music everywhere would cause untold stress and grief, but she learned how to tune it out. When DeRogatis asked about her interest in singing, referencing her early career as a backup singer for Aaliyah, Hawkins said she could not singer anymore. Though she tried singing years after the abuse, she just didn’t have the passion anymore.
As DeRogatis read about the next question he asked Hawkins, he started to become emotional. With his voice wavering and fighting back tears, DeRogatis asked Hawkins if she could listen to any music at all. Hawkins answered no.
DeRogatis shared how not only had he built a career on his love for music but believing that music saved his life. Hearing that someone could not find joy in something so beautiful, so universal, and so joyous unfathomable to DeRogatis. Kelly’s abuses are many and unspeakable, but to rob someone of their ability to experience happiness from music, an artform so unique and expressive and beloved to so many, that was too much for DeRogatis. Even after 19 years hearing what he has heard and seeing what he has seen, this is the detail the elicits such an emotional reaction.
In this except DeRogatis read from, which closes out the book, DeRogatis refers to his life as one “saved by rock and roll,” a line from the signature song “Rock & Roll” by the Velvet Underground. Released on the album Loaded in 1970, but not as a single until 1973, “Rock & Roll” has endured as one of the band’s most signature and defining songs. In the liner notes for the box set Peel Slowly and See, “‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”
As with Reed, and many others, rock and roll saved DeRogatis’ life. It has certainly saved mine. However, for Tiffany Hawkins and the dozens of others, known and unknown, hurt by Kelly, music has become something impure and corrosive. Lives destroyed by music. Destroyed by Kelly. A monster. Soulless.