“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”
I remember reading those demoralizing words in a 2013 Village Voice interview with journalist, author, and professor Jim DeRogatis. After nearly 15 years of investigating and reporting on numerous allegations against R. Kelly, DeRogatis, a white man from Jersey City, publicly uttered a truth few others would—except, perhaps, for other black women and girls. I stopped listening to Kelly a few years prior because of the overwhelming evidence against him. I believed the black women and girls coming forward, because my own work on violence against black girls and women showed me time and time again how few people trust and support black women and girls. But by 2013, the convergence of anti-black racism and sexism had created a perfect storm of indifference and impunity for a celebrity accused of being a serial sexual predator.
At the center of this perfect storm were several black girls and women, the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B,” an infamous tape featuring child sex abuse material, rumors, settlements, numerous credible allegations, a history of sexual abuse, greed, and the worst aspects of celebrity fandom. DeRogatis tenaciously chronicled this storm for nearly 20 years. In Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, he painstakingly details how a fax received in 2000, on the day before Thanksgiving, led to the “reckoning” that has occurred in 2019.
While inspired and even moved by more recent coverage of both new and old accusations against Kelly, and particularly by the women publicly speaking out about their experiences with Kelly, DeRogatis also noted that, “the question that’s going to linger long after people care about who R. Kelly was is how did this happen. How did the Chicago legal system, the police, the school, the churches, some of the parents, journalism—how did everyone fail these young black women? Why?”
Those questions, he said, led him to write the book now, in the wake of #MuteRKelly in 2017 and as the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly debuting this past January. The importance of documenting this story in a long-form book was the ability to “draw these connections among these dots of 30 years.” Every time he repeated that figure, 30 years, I cringed.
Broken into three parts, the book begins with a cryptic fax and ends with a recent conversation with one of Kelly’s first known victims. DeRogatis blends investigative journalism, pop cultural criticism, and social commentary to establish a distinct tone for unpacking what many may feel is a story we all know at this point. DeRogatis knows what we know and more. Soulless moves between the intimate and mundane details of investigating and covering R. Kelly, an acute and growing awareness of DeRogatis’s own perspective as both a critic and human being, and several points of reflection on the role of race and gender in the ongoing case against R. Kelly.Without question, a white reporter relentlessly investigating a black man accused of raping and sexually assaulting multiple girls and women is at best touchy. DeRogatis is cognizant of this.
Part I focuses on Kelly’s and DeRogatis’s background, Kelly’s rise to fame, and the numerous allegations and settlements that occurred before Kelly’s first indictment for child pornography in 2002. Part II deals with the infamous “rape tape,” Kelly’s career and behavior post-indictment and through his acquittal, the trial, and the multitude of responses to “the tape.” This section hinges on DeRogatis’s abundance of facts and measured commentary about the race dynamics evident throughout this period. His frustration leaps off the page, when recollecting what occurred. As he describes the rape in vivid detail, he remarks on the indisputability of the man on the tape, something that was a point of contention at the time. The final section hones in on Kelly’s indictment in 2019, his alleged “cult,” and his career in the aftermath of his acquittal. The tension continues to build in this section, as it becomes clearer how little black women and girls matter to far too many people.
In DeRogtais’s own words, “it was always about the girls.” But the book begins with his acknowledgment that he disregarded and planned to discard a November 2000 fax stating that, “Robert’s problem—it’s a thing that goes back many years—is young girls.” Like many others on the music scene in the 1990s, he had heard rumors about Kelly’s “preference,” but didn’t pay much attention to the gossip or assign any predatory significance to the hearsay. DeRogatis confesses that in the 1990s, he identified as a Kelly “fan, albeit one with reservations,” and one who had been proud at one point of Kelly’s budding career.
In 2000, Kelly was beloved. Rumors of a marriage to 15-year-old R&B superstar Aaliyah and sex with young girls weren’t even discussed as sexual misconduct or assault. Even if people believed the rumors, the girls and young women were easily framed as “fast,” gold diggers, or consenting parties. Four weeks after they received the fax, DeRogatis and fellow Chicago Sun-Times reporter Abdon Pallasch published their first piece documenting multiple sex acts between R. Kelly and young girls. They dropped a bomb, but the fallout for Kelly was minimal, and the response to their work was swift and contemptuous. The story, for most, came and went. But in time, what had first seemed like salacious gossip rapidly morphed into credible and harrowing stories of sexual predation.
Although DeRogatis goes to extraordinary lengths to center Kelly’s alleged victims, he doesn’t shy away from interweaving important information about his own background, Kelly’s upbringing, and the broader social, cultural, and political context in which Kelly’s predatory behavior went unchecked for so long. Through published and new interviews, expert commentary, excerpts from Kelly’s 2012 autobiography, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, credible rumors, and an array of legal documents, the first chapter offers some biographical insight into the storied entertainer. The choice to contextualize could register as an attempt to explain or “rationalize” Kelly’s behavior, but DeRogatis skillfully resists any attempt to diminish Kelly’s accountability for harm to young women because of Kelly’s own reported history of sexual abuse. However, the decision to include reports and rumors of Kelly’s own abuse, coupled with expert commentary and context from psychologists, does illuminate the prevalence of cycles of abuse and how they work, while in no way letting Kelly off the hook.
It is quite different to read about Kelly in a post-viral #MeToo moment, one that offers new possibilities for public conversations about rape culture, even if these newer discussions still include victim-blaming and the harmful power of social media as a tool to harass, virulently defend, or rationalize harmful behavior. To this day, the levels of harassment that the women who came forward and DeRogatis have faced is jaw-dropping. DeRogatis noted to me that stakes were and are high for him, but they are life and death for the women telling their stories.
Even now—as Kelly has been indicted and other high-profile men are being called out for sexual misconduct—DeRogatis lamented that couldn’t say that much has changed in terms of people, institutions, and systems caring for and about black girls. He did acknowledge, however, that this book exemplifies how he views his job as a critic: a person who engages the music and its context. For DeRogatis, the context that resonated profoundly was that while music saved him personally, music directly and indirectly destroyed the lives of the girls and women he wrote about in Soulless.
Without question, a white reporter relentlessly investigating a black man accused of raping and sexually assaulting multiple girls and women is at best touchy. DeRogatis is cognizant of this throughout the book, in interviews, and in our conversation. Given this nation’s history of false rape accusations against black men, as well as pervasive racial and sexual stereotypes about black men being hypersexual, inherently violent, and aggressive, it is unsurprising that so many people would dismiss some white guy’s stories about a famous black man being a serial sexual predator.
In conversation and in Soulless, DeRogatis is quick to acknowledge that he was not alone in his efforts to report on Kelly; he often references black women such as Mary Mitchell and Natalie Moore as colleagues who persisted in their coverage of Kelly and helped him to understand the reluctance of many within black communities to believe the heinous allegations. He lauds the more recent work of black women such as Jamiliah Lemieux, Mikki Kendall, and co-founders of #MuteRKelly, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye. He concedes that even after years of investigating Kelly, witnessing people defend him, forming relationships with many of Kelly’s accusers, and watching the justice system fail to hold Kelly accountable, he could never fully understand the pain of knowing how little black girls and women matter to our society.
DeRogatis judiciously points out every entity, system, and individual who failed these girls. The stories of black girls and women didn’t stop Epic Records from supporting and profiting from R. Kelly. The accusations didn’t stop popular artists from nearly every genre from collaborating with Kelly. Prominent religious leaders stood with and defended Kelly even after the release of a rape tape. It’s a long list, but each player chronicled in Soulless helped to create a seemingly impervious layer of protection for Kelly. The potent mix of celebrity, greed, the cult of personality, and disdain for black girls and women proved almost too powerful to overcome.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the wide range of responses to DeRogatis’s coverage of the child sex abuse tape he received in February 2002. This was not the first time DeRogatis received a tape allegedly featuring R. Kelly; this tape, however, vividly captured the rape of a minor and various acts of degradation. His powerful recollection of watching and then verifying the tape with a family member of the girl allegedly on the tape is one of the book’s most emotionally jarring moments. His exasperation at the way this tape was treated was even more evident when we spoke at length about what transpired during that period. DeRogatis recalls how many times those in the courtroom “had to rewatch the victimization of this black girl.”
Jim DeRogatis didn’t seek out this story, and yet it became career-defining. DeRogatis did not want to write this book, or, as he notes, to “live with this darkness.” But how could he not write this book while, as he reminded during our conversation, “two women are currently living with Kelly in Trump Tower in Chicago” amidst multiple indictments and investigations into his sordid history of sexual violence and more recent allegations of a violent sex cult? With so many black women and girls entrusting him with their stories and risking their physical and emotional well-being to speak out about serial abuse at the hands of a man they loved and admired, he felt compelled to do whatever he could.
Soulless helps readers understand Kelly as an exalted figure, something even more complicated and in this case sinister than a serial sexual predator. DeRogatis illuminates the unwavering love of Kelly’s fans despite every despicable detail of decades of predation. Ultimately, Soulless and DeRogatis’s two decades of investigating and reporting on R. Kelly indict all for whom black girls don’t matter.
In a book full of stories that spark discomfort, rage, incredulity, confusion, and disappointment, the discussion of this tape, the subsequent indictment and trial, and Kelly’s behavior from the indictment to his acquittal, Part II of Soulless proves to be a case against us. It is unflinching in its indictment of a culture and legal system unable to render any semblance of justice for black girls. You can feel the frustration and sadness with the outcome, an outcome that arrived six years after DeRogatis first saw what he identifies as “the rape tape” and eight years after receiving that career-changing fax.
Even as someone who regularly researches and writes about violence against black women and girls, and specifically sexual violence, the 30-year history of predation documented by DeRogatis in Soulless is hard to stomach. The book unflinchingly captures our failure to care for, protect, and intervene for and with black girls and women. Although I stopped enjoying Kelly’s music not long after the release of the “rape tape,” I didn’t demand that those around me stop making jokes about a black girl being urinated on by Kelly. I also didn’t question when people referred to the girl on the tape, or the black and brown girls mentioned in salacious gossip about Kelly, as “fast.” I felt sorry for those girls, but I didn’t see them as ideal “victims.” It wasn’t until years later that I recognized my own internalization of racist and sexist ideas about black girls and women being hypersexual and more adult-like. This book was the last step in a full reckoning with my complicity in the victimization of black girls and women; I, like, the millions of people who continued to listen to, support, and defend R. Kelly, proved just how powerful the combination of rape culture and cult of celebrity are. Those black and brown girls and women didn’t stand a chance.
The investigative journalism DeRogatis offered throughout his career and recollected in Soulless is the kind of intervention we need, especially when the stakes are this high. Unfortunately, we are still reluctant to believe and support black girls and women. Consequently, books such as this, campaigns such as #MuteRKelly, and projects like Surviving R. Kelly are integral to holding those who harm black girls and women accountable. It is rare that change-making, investigative journalism or activism don’t come at a steep cost. In particular, pushing back against the potent combination of anti-black racism and misogyny is an arduous and seemingly unending task. Soulless is a cautionary reminder of how important it is to remain committed to ensuring that black girls and women do in fact matter. For them to matter, however, we have to care about them. We must confront why we haven’t cared enough to collectively intervene when they needed us the most.