Journalist Jim DeRogatis on Being Named in R. Kelly's 'I Admit' and What the Song Means for the Singer's Future

R. Kelly performs in concert during the '12 Nights Of Christmas' tour at Kings Theatre on Dec. 17, 2016 in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

R. Kelly performs in concert during the '12 Nights Of Christmas' tour at Kings Theatre on Dec. 17, 2016 in New York City. 

On Monday morning, R. Kelly released a 19-minute song called “I Admit” that directly addresses the multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against him that have, in recent months, sparked the #MuteRKelly social-media campaign and led the Women of Color of Time’s Up – a subcommittee of the anti-sexual harassment group – to call on companies with business ties to Kelly to sever their relationships.

The song, in which Kelly also reveals he was sexually abused as a child, is notably the first time the singer has refuted claims that he’s holding several women against their will in his properties in Atlanta and Chicago, as was first reported in July 2017 by journalist Jim DeRogatis for Buzzfeed News, and controls nearly every aspect of their lives as part of a “sex cult” in which he maintains nearly unchecked power over his captives.

“What’s the definition of a cult?/ What’s the definition of a sex slave?/ Go to the dictionary, look it up/ Let me know, I’ll be here waiting,” the R&B singer declares in the sprawling song, which was first posted on the SoundCloud account of Julius "A&R" Darrington, CEO of Audiodream Records. Kelly has been long been accused of predatory behavior toward underage women – most famously in a child-pornography case that was brought against Kelly in 2002 and later dismissed. That case centered on a sex tape whose existence was first reported by DeRogatis, then the music critic at Chicago Sun-Times. But “I Admit” also contains a rare instance of Kelly openly discussing a preference for women of all ages: “I admit I fuck with all the ladies, that’s both older and young ladies/ But tell me how they call it pedophile because that shit is crazy.”

Kelly also singles out DeRogatis, who has continued to report on Kelly’s alleged misconduct, in the song itself: "To Jim DeRogatis, whatever your name is (whatever your name is)/ You been tryna destroy me for 25 whole years/ Writin' the same stories over and over against/ Off my name, you done went and made yourself a career/ But guess what? I pray for you and family, and all my other enemies/ I'm not gonna let y'all steal my joy, I'm just gonna keep on doing me."

In the wake of the song’s release, Billboard spoke with DeRogatis about why “I Admit” is another in a long chain of denials from Kelly, his thoughts on being named in the song, and why he worries the music industry may never hold the singer accountable for his alleged actions.

What was your initial reaction to “I Admit”?

It’s an odd thing to wake up to on Monday morning. BuzzFeed News stands by every word we've reported since the first piece I did for them on July 17, 2017. The Chicago Sun-Times has stood by every word that myself and Abdon Pallasch reported there since the first story in December 2000. The lead of that [first Sun-Times] piece was “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.” The subhed for the July 17 story in BuzzFeed last summer was “Parents have told police that R. Kelly is keeping woman against their will in an abusive ‘cult’ that’s tearing families apart.” That’s the word they used, and the word they've given to police. There have been hours of interviews, by law enforcement in Georgia, Florida, and Illinois in the last year. There have been a dozen on-the-record sources for our stories. No action has been taken. The FBI has spent even more time interviewing those sources, but they will neither confirm nor deny [the] investigation despite the calls for action by law enforcement, by #MuteRKelly, and by Time’s Up. The music industry is largely remaining mum and has not taken action.

Were you surprised that he specifically singled you out? Or by his implication that you’ve dedicated your entire career to tearing him down?

Um, no. As for the notion that this has been my career: I've written 11 books, I have a weekly radio show on 118 public radio stations with 250 thousand additional podcast downloads for the last 660 episodes. And I'm going to teach two sections with 300 freshmen total this semester in music and media at Columbia College Chicago. So I've done a lot more. And if I'm rich because of this story, that is completely news to me.

Kelly has largely stayed quiet since your first BuzzFeed article until now.

What’s interesting is that a few weeks after the indictment [for child pornograpy charges] in 2002, he rush-released a single called "Heaven I Need A Hug." And he addressed the charges there: He blamed the media and members of his crew who were trying to down him. There’s also an unreleased track which is epic, and it’s very much in the style of the new one. The Loveland album was pulled from distribution in 2006, but he floated it on the ‘net, and it’s got like a 19-minute operetta on it, called "I Believe I Can Fly [Remix]" in the style of "Ignition [Remix]." In the song, he dies and finds himself at the pearly gates in front of Saint Peter, and he begs for entrance to heaven. And Saint Peter says, “We don't want your kind here, you've committed too many sins.” And he prays to his mama, Joanne: “Have you followed the path I've tried?” And then Jesus forgives him and lets him in. So this isn’t the first time [he’s used music to respond to accusations]. Usually it’s been a couple of lines here and there. But "Heaven I Need A Hug" is a whole song about it. "I Believe I Can Fly [Remix]" is an epic song about it. That came out before “Trapped In The Closet,” but it’s the same style, this kind of long, mock-operetta.

Why do you think he’s releasing this song now? Wouldn’t it seem wiser for him to remain silent?

I think that this is part of a very sophisticated spin campaign. “I was sexually abused as a child, I cannot read, feel sorry for me.”

He’s clearly playing the victim. But with such a public backlash in recent times, this very much feels like it’s coming from someone on their last legs.

He's having his Trumpian moment of “I can shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and get away with it.” There’s something megalomaniacal and insanely hubristic about saying, “Yes, I like young ladies, I like old ones too” and comparing himself to Hugh Hefner. It’s brilliant, it’s stupid, it’s everything in between. That’s me as a critic. And I've been a journalist on this story more than I've been a critic. But my insight is: He's [tried to get sympathy] before. He did it with the [2012] book, Soulacoaster. He has long tried to play on people feeling sorry for him, as if that somehow condones two-and-a-half decades of allegedly mentally and physically abusing young women, dozens of whom have gone on the record with public lawsuits and in reporting with me and other journalists. It’s never been [about just] one girl on one video tape for which he was acquitted. This is a pattern of alleged behavior. And when he says “Jim DeRogatis… you been tryna destroy me for 25 whole years,” I've literally only been reporting since December 2000. 25 years puts us at '93-94. That’s [around] when a young woman, a 15-year-old high-school sophomore named Tiffany Hawkins [whom he allegedly met in a high school choir class and began engaging in a sexual relationship, came forward. She sued Kelly in 1996; Kelly later settled, in 1998, for a reported $250,000].

Your reporting for BuzzFeed brought to light the allegations that he’s overseeing a “cult,” and you’ve spoken with women who have said they escaped from it, as well as the parents of those women allegedly still in it. What are your thoughts on Kelly directly addressing and even blaming the parents in this new song? He sings, addressing the parents, “Your agenda is to get paid and get mad about it when it doesn't go your way.”

Well, if you go back to the first BuzzFeed story last year, those women, the mothers, admit that they made a mistake [in introducing their children to him]. They were aware of some of what Kelly had [been accused of] in his past. They thought, “Maybe he can do for my daughter what he did for Aaliyah, what he did for Sparkle [and make them successful].” And “I'm a good mom, I'm never gonna leave her side.” And the many sources I've talked to in 18 years of reporting say he is a very skilled predator who separates young women from their families. I think this is a unique American disease: Everybody wants fame and fortune. And if you talk to JonJelyn Savage, the mother of Jocelyn, or you talk to Alice Clary [the mother of Azriel Clary] today, or you talk to Michelle Gardner [the mother of Dominique Gardner], they say, “I don't know how I ever could have been so stupid.”

All the parents, the two women that say they broke away, Kitty Jones and Asante McGee, and seven or eight other on-the-record sources have all used the word “cult.” [Accusers] Jerhonda Johnson and Lizette Martinez, the other word they all used is “brainwashed.” And in 2006 I found a column that my Sun-Times colleague Mary Mitchell wrote about Andrea Lee, Kelly’s wife, with her mother saying that, at that point, they had never met their grandson; they hadn't heard from their daughter in years; and Kelly was not allowing her to talk to her family. Andrea’s mother said, “I think she’s brainwashed.” This is a word that has come up many times. It's a fraught word. It’s a loaded word. It’s a melodramatic word. But I've been hearing it from sources for 18 years.

I'm specifically interested to hear your opinion on Kelly’s future music career or lack thereof. He makes reference in the song to being fronted money by his record label because he's in severe debt.

[Kelly’s label] RCA/Sony still has not gone on the record about whether he’s signed to the label and, if so, why. Live Nation has not [commented on calls to cut ties; Ticketmaster, a subsidiary of Live Nation Entertainment, sells R. Kelly concert tickets on its website]. Those organizations were named by Time’s Up in their statement in March. This industry -- radio, the recording industry, the concert industry -- continues to [tacitly endorse] Kelly. We've seen Hollywood take fast action against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. We saw Fox News take action on Bill O'Reilly. We've seen the sports world [respond]. So media, sports, the culinary superstars [have responded], but not the music industry.

From the outside, it at least feels like the public has finally turned on Kelly and collectively no longer wants to support him.

I'm the wrong one to ask because I still get calls, four to fives times a week, from those parents who just want their daughters home. If you talk to the Savages and the Clarys, they’re not going to say that they’ve seen a tide shift. They have not seen their daughters in three years.

What, if any, are Kelly’s next moves?

Well, he sat for two-and-a-half hours with Wendy Williams and made her cry and told his whole sad story. And the show [reportedly] decided not [go forward with an interview] because of [pressure] possibly from advertisers. So I think talking through his music is the last resource he has.


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