By CHRISTIAN BELANGER
Jim DeRogatis ended his talk Friday at the Seminary Co-op on a slightly deflated note. “The book’s a complete flop. We have printed 31,700 copies and sold 1300 since June. And that’s with being on Terry Gross!”
Over the preceding hour, DeRogatis had made a compelling case for why the audience of about 20 people should care about “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly,” which he was there to discuss. Released earlier this summer, “Soulless” is a thorough account of the alleged crimes of the R&B star R. Kelly, known for hits like “I Believe I Can Fly,” and “Ignition (Remix).” Kelly grew up on the South Side and briefly attended Kenwood Academy.
DeRogatis has covered the singer’s relationships with underage women since 2000, the year a mysterious letter was faxed to his desk at the Sun-Times, where he was then the paper’s music critic. A few days earlier, he had reviewed R. Kelly’s newest album, “TP-2.com.”
The fax—he’s never figured out who sent it, though he suspects it’s someone who worked for the singer—reads, in part: “You compared him to Marvin Gaye. Well, I guess Marvin Gaye had problems, too, but I don’t think they were like Robert’s…. Robert’s problem, you see, is underage girls.”
The letter led to a front-page story about a month later, in which DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch, a fellow Sun-Times journalist (whom DeRogatis described as a “Polish-Irish leprechaun”), reported on allegations that Kelly had “used his position of fame and influence…to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them.”
A little over a year later, DeRogatis received a package, again from someone anonymous—this one contained a pornographic video allegedly showing Kelly having sex with and urinating on a fourteen-year-old girl. DeRogatis turned it over to the police; Kelly went to trial and was acquitted in 2008.
During the next decade, DeRogatis occasionally surfaced to remind the public of Kelly’s actions. In 2013, for instance, he wrote a column for WBEZ criticizing the Pitchfork Music Festival’s decision to book Kelly as a headline act. But it wasn’t until 2017, when he published a long investigative piece in BuzzFeed detailing Kelly’s apparent “cult” for teenage girls, that the issue regained prominence.
The article led to more women coming out about their experiences with Kelly, and, eventually, a police investigation. Starting in February, Kelly was charged by both state and federal prosecutors with sexual abuse, racketeering, and sex trafficking. He’s currently being held in jail without bond, and he could face up to 80 years in prison if convicted.
For his part, DeRogatis said it’s taken too long. The book is about “every system in this city, which I love, but also despise at times, failing: the civil attorneys, the courts, the journalists, because where was the … Chicago Tribune for 19 years?”
He noted that, as one colleague put it to him, the problem was that none of Kelly’s victims was “a white girl from Winnetka.” Instead, 47 of the 48 women who have told DeRogatis about their experiences with the singer are African American; one is Latina.
But as early as the 1990s, Kelly had developed a reputation across the South and west sides for targeting underage girls. “We heard that from everybody we talked to. It is no exaggeration to say that if you talked to three African American women on the South and West sides in this city, two, if not all three, will have a story about him cruising Kenwood Academy, about him cruising Whitney Young, about him cruising the Evergreen Plaza shopping mall, or the Rock N Roll McDonald’s,” DeRogatis said. “And if it wasn’t them with the story, it’s their auntie, their cousin, their best friend.”
After briefly reading from the book, DeRogatis led a freewheeling audience discussion, namechecking Dostoevsky, Leni Riefenstahl and “All the President’s Men;” at one point, he tried out a bad British accent in imitation of his old editor.
He also discussed the ethics of consuming art made by people who have done bad things. “We cannot impose a moral litmus test on any artist…but the dividing line, and this came from [Roger] Ebert, is when the art is about the misdeeds,” he said, noting that he and Ebert had discussed it in the context of Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” “But with Kelly it is truly, singularly unique, from “Honey Love” all the way to “I Admit It.””
Wrapping up, DeRogatis said that even if the book had only sold 1300 copies, he thought people would come to it over time. “Nobody’s buying this one. I do think that eventually people will discover it because they’ll just want to know—how did he get away with it? How does this happen? The answer’s here, you know.”