In his new book, the Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has reported on the R&B singer R. Kelly’s alleged sex crimes for almost 20 years, notes that he’s heard a similar refrain from nearly everyone he’s interviewed about the star. “Few said they hated Kelly,” DeRogatis writes in Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. “It’s always, ‘Brother needs help. Brother’s got to stop.’”
When he first received an anonymous fax alleging that Kelly had a “problem” with “young girls,” in November 2000, DeRogatis was a music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. In the years that followed, he reported on Kelly’s various settlements and criminal cases. DeRogatis and his colleague, Abdon Pallasch, broke the news of the now-infamous tape that allegedly depicted the singer having sex with—and urinating on—a minor. (This, too, was sent to DeRogatis anonymously.) Soulless, out this week, chronicles DeRogatis’s attempts to report on, and attract journalistic allies in covering, the complicated saga of Kelly’s manipulation machine. The artist has not responded to the book’s publication, but he has always denied committing any of the crimes he’s been accused of.
Soulless is excruciatingly comprehensive: It maps out the insurmountable legal hurdles and institutional apathy that have accompanied DeRogatis’s endeavors to report on the accusations against Kelly. The veteran reporter recounts in vivid detail not only the depravity of Kelly’s alleged behavior, but also the insouciance—or worse, active support—with which his associates, fans, and legal gatekeepers handled him after it was revealed. Soulless implicitly challenges their characterization of Kelly as a despondent sufferer in need of nebulous, benevolent “help” as opposed to accountability.
DeRogatis’s book presents previously unreported information, including a particularly troubling revelation from Kelly’s first trial attorney, Ed Genson. The dream hampton–produced docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime in January, quoted Genson as saying he believed Kelly was “guilty as hell.” Now Soulless references this late-in-life admission from Genson, and also reveals a more specific, clinical condemnation. After quoting Kelly, who didn’t admit guilt but said he’d “done a lot of things in my life right now that I’m trying to get help for,” DeRogatis offers a rare glimpse at one preventive measure that the singer later shirked:
Two of his handlers told me they forced him to take medication to curb his sex drive (his attorney Ed Genson later confirmed that, saying, “I had him go to a doctor to get shots, libido-killing shots”) and he talked to a professional about his sexual addiction and compulsion to pursue young girls. Kelly saw Dr. Carl Bell, director of public and community psychiatry at the University of Illinois, and one of the most respected therapists in Chicago’s black community. Not surprising, given patient confidentiality, Dr. Bell declined to speak to me.
The interview in which Kelly calmly alluded to his need for “help” first aired in May 2002, after the emergence of the notorious tape. Kelly’s long conversation with the BET Tonight journalist Ed Gordon, who DeRogatis writes had a reputation for being “tough but fair,” was intended to function as “the opening salvo of an aggressive campaign to minimize the damage to an incredibly lucrative career.” Kelly was joined by his “spiritual advisor,” the Reverend James Meeks, who was the pastor of Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side. These were shrewd decisions, the hallmark of an artist who understood the importance of keeping the public on his side. Kelly, even at his most grotesque, has always been a performer.
Because the tape provided seemingly concrete evidence of his predilections, DeRogatis writes, the singer’s camp expected him to be indicted. Kelly did indeed face child-pornography charges, and his case was adjudicated in June 2008 after a six-year trial delay, during which Kelly continued to release hits that often made winking references to his alleged crimes. (Vincent Gaughan, the Chicago judge who granted delays to Kelly’s defense team all those years, also oversaw the 2018 trial of the police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated assault after killing the unarmed black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. The judge “tried to conduct that trial the same way” he did Kelly’s, DeRogatis writes, until “the Illinois Supreme Court scolded Gaughan for what Chicago media publications called ‘patently unconstitutional conduct.’”)
During Kelly’s trial, Gaughan also refused to admit any evidence pointing to Kelly’s alleged pattern of behavior, DeRogatis writes. The prosecution was barred from mentioning anything outside the scope of the specific child-pornography charges, including the fact that Kelly had already married the singer Aaliyah using forged court documents that indicated she was 18 (and not 15, as she had actually been at the time). Or that he had settled a dispute out of court, with a young woman named Tiffany Hawkins, who alleged that they began a relationship while she was a minor, and that Kelly became abusive. Prior to the tape’s appearance, Kelly had also married and allegedly abused one of his dancers, Andrea Lee. Though Lee hadn’t sought criminal proceedings, the rumors of Kelly’s persistent behavior had been mounting.
After Kelly’s contentious trial, during which he was found not guilty, DeRogatis reports in Soulless that the singer stopped taking the libido-reducing drugs his handlers insisted on. He stopped seeing Bell. Kelly reportedly abandoned therapy and pharmaceutical interventions following his acquittal; since then, there’s no evidence of him seeking any kind of assistance to curb his behavior. Instead, he met Jerhonda Johnson (now Jerhonda Pace), then only 15 years old, outside the courthouse. Of Kelly’s alleged return to pursuing young girls, DeRogatis told Variety, “We can’t absolve him of this sickness. How many wake-up calls does a person deserve?”
As a teenager, Pace was a Kelly superfan who regularly attended the musician’s trials; like many other young black women in Chicago and beyond, she rejoiced upon his acquittal. “They can’t call him a pedophile anymore,” she said at the time. “They can’t say he likes little girls! They don’t have proof of that, because he’s innocent now, he’s free!”
Now, 11 years later, Kelly is facing 11 new counts of sexual assault and abuse stemming from Pace’s account of their multiyear relationship. Pace first told her story to DeRogatis in a 2017 story for BuzzFeed News; she said she’d been held captive alongside numerous other women as part of a sex cult that Kelly orchestrated. (Kelly has maintained that his relationship with Pace and the other women was consensual; two of them recently defended him in a bizarre interview with CBS News’s Gayle King.)
These harrowing allegations, among others, were also brought forth in Surviving R. Kelly. The singer was arrested and briefly jailed in February, after the documentary inspired a rare groundswell of public backlash and judicial inquiry. But these new charges, for which Kelly is due to appear in court today, are the most serious that have ever been brought against him. Should he be convicted of the felonies, Kelly could face a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Soulless was completed before these charges were made public, but even without their inclusion, the book is a devastating, thorough accounting of Kelly’s alleged abuses as systematized predation. In explicitly outlining the multiple junctures at which Kelly, his supporters, law enforcement, and journalists have failed the dozens of young black women whom Kelly is accused of abusing, DeRogatis definitively—if also wearily—conveys the sheer magnitude of Kelly’s relative impunity.
That the artist’s alleged victims—DeRogatis notes there are at least 48—might one day see some semblance of justice is a shaky consolation. But even now, Kelly’s only references to his behavior have been cloaked in manipulative self-pity. His pleas for help still come at the expense of the women most affected by his alleged problem.