On Monday (July 17), Chicago-based reporter and critic Jim DeRogatis published an in-depth BuzzFeed piece about Chicago-based R&B singer R. Kelly, in which various sources — both anonymous and named — allege that the singer is holding young women against their will in what they describe as a “cult.”
For nearly two decades, DeRogatis has followed the career, and more so, the behavior, of Kelly. In December 2000, DeRogatis broke his first in-depth piece on Kelly’s offstage behavior, and by January 2001, DeRogatis had received, from an anonymous source, a sex tape showing R. Kelly with an underage girl. From there, the floodgates opened. Victims continued to come forward, suing Kelly for alleged underage sex and emotional abuse, and in 2002, he was arrested and indicted on 21 counts of manufacturing child pornography. By 2008, though, he was acquitted.
Now, Kelly’s past is being revisited in light of the new reporting — which spanned nine months — from DeRogatis, who spoke with Billboard about piecing the story together, next steps and more.
Since you first reported on R. Kelly back in 2000 for the Chicago Sun-Times, how have you been following or tracking his actions?
The parents from Georgia came to me in early November 2016, and they came to me because of the years of reporting I’ve done that dates back to 2000. This was a new story and a different kind of story, that these girls were being held — according to the parents and other sources in the story — against their will, being brainwashed and are part of what the parents and other sources call a cult.
How has today felt compared to when your initial report broke almost two decades ago?
Back in the early 2000s the Internet was not a thing that Al Gore had invented yet. I’ve been hearing from a lot of news outlets, which as a journalist is always a little disappointing to me; I feel like they should go out and do reporting of their own. But the parents just held a press conference with the woman who was brave enough to use her name in the BuzzFeed story, and that happened in front of the Kelly guest house, where he houses the girls when he’s in Georgia. I think this time, things may be different.
When you were first approached by the parents in November, how did you react?
I can’t say I was surprised. I’ve heard from so many young women who have been left in Kelly’s wake over the last two decades, whose lives were ruined by his behavior, allegedly, they said in lawsuits and interviews and, of course, the trial, which he was acquitted. I can’t say any of it surprised me. It very much disturbs me, and I think that the entertainment journalism industry and the record industry itself, the concert industry, have continued to make money off of this man despite him having a really negative impact on a lot of young women’s lives. I don’t know how they can ignore that.
Something I’ve seen mentioned online a lot today are the comparisons being drawn to Chris Brown in that sense.
Or Bill Cosby. Cosby was hurting women for decades, and Kelly has been hurting women since the mid-’90s.
Starting from when the parents first contacted you, what was the timeline for piecing this story together?
It’s been really difficult talking to the parents several times a week, every week, and hearing the heartbreak and the pain that they’ve been living with. They turned to police in Florida, they turned to police in Georgia, they turned to police in Chicago, they turned to civil attorneys, and what they got every time in response was, “Your daughter is of legal age, and she’s free to be where she wants to be.” Indeed, when the police did the well-being checks in Georgia and in Chicago, the women said, “I want to be here.” Now, the parents are saying they’re brainwashed and that’s why they’re saying it. I think the pattern of behavior described in the story, according to three sources on the record and four parents of the girls, being told when to eat, when to sleep, when to bathe, if they can watch TV, how to pleasure him sexually and, you know, not being allowed to talk to any other man, their cell phones being confiscated and they’re given new cell phones they can only use with his permission, separated from friends and family… I think it’s very different than celebrity groupie culture, and this is an order of magnitude far more disturbing, according to all the sources we have at BuzzFeed, and we stand by every word, obviously, that we printed today. It’s nine months of reporting, and it’s a hell of an accusation, but I think his behavior has been extraordinary in a very bad way.
What roadblocks did you hit while reporting?
It was difficult to find the right place to publish this story, and BuzzFeed was definitely the right place. I think Shani Hilton and Marisa Carroll are fearless editors and that they have a very good legal team at BuzzFeed. It was absolutely the right place to take it.
What are your next steps?
Other young women, I’m sorry to say, who have been in very similar situations are coming forward, and I think the parents are not going to rest until their daughters are home. They’ve been eager to tell this story.
If these young women are so cut off, do you think they’re even aware that this piece ran today?
I’m not sure, but if R. Kelly encourages them to leave and see their families, that would be a good thing.