“rock & roll” – the velvet underground (1970)

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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.

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“do what u want [remix feat. christina aguilera]” – lady gaga (2014)

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The Oscars aired last night and, continuing my streak for a while now, I did not watch. For me, watching the Oscars has always just been entertainment, not something to take seriously.  And while the Academy deserves to be checked for not being inclusive enough when it comes to films coming from people of color or from smaller, independent filmmakers, how seriously people take this celebrity spectacle frankly just bores me.

After the broadcast, I did check online to see the winners.  Most were standard and assumed, and a few were surprises.  And, as expected, people ended the evening upset. It always happens. No matter what, the toxic culture of social media amplifies the manufactured outrage and they rally about injustices that really do not matter. This usually lasts a few days, sometimes a week, and whatever did upset them goes into the dustbin of history to be remembered years later in some snarky op-ed about some future Oscars ceremony or in a pub trivia question.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of all the categories, the only one I felt was an absolute 100% guarantee was “Shallow” for “Best Original Song” from Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born.  Joined by his co-star, Lady Gaga and Cooper performed the song together at the ceremony with all the confidence of people who knew their Oscar was just moments away. And while “Shallow” was the best song in the category, this win, unlike the others during the night, troubled me a bit.  Specifically, its loose connection to the other big pop culture story of the last week.

Kelly was arrested last week after two decades of committing sexual assault against minors, many of whom he had groomed from an early age and kept trapped in the cult of personality carefully crafted and cultivated by the disgraced singer. Kelly’s arrest came right off the heels of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that aired in January.

While I applaud that Kelly has been arrested and will, hopefully, pay for his crimes, I am deeply disturbed by how long it has taken. Kelly’s sexualizing of underage girls and women can be traced back to the early 1990s through his lyrics and comments he has made, both public and in private. In the mid-1990s, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah Haughton. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for emotional and physical abuse stemming from a sexual relationship with him.

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, two reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times published the first report of Kelly’s relationships with underage girls. Since then, DeRogatis became entrusted by these girls and young women to expose Kelly for the abuser that he was. DeRogatis was sent video evidence of Kelly having sex with an underage, immediately sending it to the authorities.

One would think that video DeRogatis received would have ended Kelly’s career and landed him in prison.  However, it did not. Kelly was sued and taken to court by multiple women in 2002, but all the cases were settled out of court and Kelly was able to continue living as a free man. Being a teenager at this time, this part of Kelly’s history will always be remembered through Dave Chappelle’s portrayal on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, a satirical take on Kelly with Chappelle performing the song “I Wanna Piss on You.” This was a takedown from a comedic master who was truly ahead of his time, even though the rest of his industry was not. Kelly was allowed not only to continue his career but thrived within it every time he faced controversy over the years.

Now, let’s jump to 2013.  It has been roughly two decades since the earliest documented evidence of Kelly’s comments about underage girls, over a decade since his first court appearances and Chappelle’s super popular portrayal, and Lady Gaga is preparing to release her third studio album Artpop. In just a few short years, following the release of The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way, Lady Gaga was dominating the music industry with her pop hits. Designed to be an introspective look into pop stardom with a Warholian slant, Artpop was meant by Gaga to show that she was more than just the latest pop star in a long line of pop stars.

When the second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want” dropped, it was blowing me away.  Filled to the brim with raw, dripping sexuality and the freedom within, this 80s-style synthesizer-heavy track was a serious jam.  I loved it.  Or, more correctly, I wanted to love it. As hard as the music slapped and as well as Gaga performed on the track, one thing kept me from truly enjoying it as much as I could; R. Kelly was a guest vocalist on the track.

I listened to “Do What U Want” a lot when it came out.  However, with each listen, I liked it less and less.  Not because I was getting tired of it, but because Kelly’s involvement with the song really made me feel uneasy.  I was questioning why Gaga, who had survived sexual abuse herself, would give Kelly space on her album. It felt like a slap in the face to people who had experienced violence and had seen Gaga’s music as a place of refuge where they felt valid for who they were.  Gaga, in response to the criticism to working with Kelly, said

“I’ve been living in Chicago and spending a lot of time there, and that’s where R. Kelly hails from. I was working on Artpop and I wrote [‘Do What U Want’] on tour. It was about my obsession with the way people view me. I have always been an R. Kelly fan and actually it is like an epic pastime in the Haus of Gaga that we just get fucked up and play R. Kelly. This is a real R&B song and I [said ‘I] have to call the king of R&B and I need his blessing.’ It was a mutual love.”

Gaga also said

“R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us. That we were able to say, the public, they can have our bodies, but they cannot have our mind or our heart. It was a really natural collaboration.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped listening to the song and just kind of gave up on Gaga.

Within the last few years, the #MeToo movement swept through the film industry and took down some of the more serious abusers. While a lot of past behavior by many people within the industry went unchecked as the media focused on the bigger Hollywood names facing scrutiny on social media and in the courts, the music industry largely went unscathed.  And despite the massive cultural shift tat #MeToo and #TimesUp were bringing, Kelly continued to thrive.

Even DeRogatis, who had been championing justice for the young women abused by Kelly, was becoming frustrated with how Kelly managed to continue having a career.  I remember reading Jessica Hopper’s First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, and she discussed the time DeRogatis called her out for supporting Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. DeRogatis had questioned Hopper how, as a woman, she could support someone who had a long history of abusing women.  Like Gaga, Hopper’s excuse was that she grew up with his music.

As #MeToo continued to dominate social media and the entertainment industry, some commentaries questioned when it would get Kelly. In 2019, it took a new documentary series, largely retelling the story DeRogatis had been reporting to disinterested audiences for almost two decades, and a new tape sent to lawyer Michael Avenatti, to finally bring Kelly into custody. On one side, it is great that it looks like Kelly will finally pay for his crimes. On the other, when I consider how long it took to bring Kelly to justice, and the voices of people like DeRogatis being largely ignored because the music industry is a large fraternity organization only looking out for their own, I am also disappointed by the complicities of the music industry and the players involved.  Players like Lady Gaga who, because she grew up with his music, felt compelled to introduce Kelly to a whole new generation of potential fans.

Gaga has since recognized the error of her ways.  The track “Do What U Want” has been pulled from all streaming services, and Gaga has gone on record saying she stands by survivors.  She rationalizes the collaboration with Kelly saying, “as a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

I am unsure if I can accept that given that Kelly’s history of abuse had spanned two decades by the time the collaboration was released. I don’t question that Gaga was going through a rough patch in her life, but I do have to question her judgment when there was so much evidence against Kelly. In 2016, prior to denouncing the collaboration with Kelly, Gaga performed the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about universities covering up rape and sexual assault cases. In the performance, Gaga shared the stage with the victims of campus rape. It surely adds some complexity to Gaga’s history when it comes to working with Kelly. So, with her being celebrated at the Oscars for her performance this year and ultimately winning the award, I’m not impressed. While #MeToo did some great things, there are still many problems within the entertainment industry.  Not only did they award Gaga who was previously complicit when it came to Kelly, but they gave an Oscar to a man who would frequently show his penis to people on set.  It reinforces to me how the Oscars are a farce and not something to take seriously as a measure of quality.

After not listening to “Do What U Want” for several years, it wasn’t until recently that I learned the song was remixed to exclude Kelly’s vocals and replaced with Christina Aguilera’s. Debuting on New Year’s Day inn 2014, this “Do What U Want” remix with Aguilera was still released during a time when Gaga was complicit when it came to Kelly and his crimes.  However, I loved the that I could now listen to this jam again guilt free because Kelly was nowhere on it.  Recorded in a session in Carly Simon’s living room, this new version elevates the song and gives it a power that was absent when Kelly’s vocal was originally included.

As people everywhere are groaning over the wrong film winning the top prize at the Oscars for being too white, let’s not forget that the industry is still problematic when it comes to sexual abuse. And Gaga’s win last night reaffirms that.  While people grow and learn from their mistakes, the media cycle moves so quickly that we forget sins of yesterday for the outrages of today. I am not saying that Gaga cannot be forgiven for her work with Kelly. I am sure she is sincere when she denounces it now. We all learn and grow and better ourselves.  However, this was not that long ago, and people are largely quick to forget when they are distracted by things that do not really matter.