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Nation Discovers R. Kelly's Past

"On December 6, R. Kelly dropped one of the most anticipated releases of 2013, his 12th studio album, Black Panties, which arrived after months of hype that found him duetting with Lady Gaga, headlining the Pitchfork and Bonnaroo music festivals, and popping up beside Phoenix at Coachella," Jim DeRogatis writes for the Village Voice. "It was his year as much as anyone else's.

"So why is he nowhere to be found in this year's Pazz and Jop poll results? Is this the year people stopped ignoring R. Kelly's many crimes? Why, after my 15 years of reporting on those many crimes, have people started to take notice?

"The short answer may be the interview the Village Voice ran in December, a conversation I had with fellow Chicago journalist Jessica Hopper that in its first 24 hours online racked up 1 million views. As of this writing, it's approaching 4 million hits. It is, essentially, all the reporting I've done over the years in one place, a one-stop shop for the truth about R. Kelly in the age of social media. Could it be why?"

Yes, I think that's exactly why. And that's a huge indictment not just of the music industry but of the news business.

*

That December interview was a revelation to many - and a reminder to some - of the horrid, life-wrecking behavior of R. Kelly that is indisputable, despite his acquittal in a criminal court on a narrow charge that juries other than the one empaneled could very well have gone the other way on. The lock-down reporting of DeRogatis (and then-colleague Abdon Pallasch) while at the Sun-Times unmistakably paints a picture of a sexual predator who preyed on young girls at Chicago high schools and commanded them to perform various sex acts they were clearly unable to comprehend. DeRogatis and Pallasch combed through civil lawsuits and extensively canvassed Chicago neighborhoods to piece together a horrifying picture of a rapist run amok, protected by a coterie of hangers-on and a checkbook that bought the silence of victims and their relatives. How anyone could listen to Kelly's songs about believing he could fly as well as believing he could bring nirvana-like heights of sexual satisfaction to others after learning the truth about the his practices and proclivities is beyond me.

Unfortunately, the Sun-Times reporting never really went beyond the Sun-Times, which I suspect is a major reason why it never got traction. This was the news pre-Internet.

In 2003, I castigated the Tribune in my old Press Box column for Chicago magazine for essentially ignoring the Sun-Times's reporting. Their excuse at the time was that they didn't believe in reporting on civil lawsuits, given that anyone can sue anyone for anything in a civil suit. And that is true; filing a civil suit isn't exactly akin to getting a criminal indictment or charge.

But what the Sun-Times reporting showed was the utter validity of those lawsuits. Still, the Tribune sat on the sidelines, and being a bit of a student about Chicago media culture, it's a good bet that they simply ceded the story to their competition. "That's their story," I've heard said far too many times from local news shops. (That's essentially been the Trib's stance on the David Koschman story as well.)

Of course, media outlets spend much of their time reporting the same stories every day. So when an outlet chooses to take this approach, it's quite meaningful; it means the editors are simply lazy or uninterested. In the case of the Trib, they are also likely making a marketing judgement about their audience. "Two-thirds of our readers are suburban, you know," they are wont to say. (Yes, and their kids all buy R. Kelly records!)

This dynamic was at play, as I've written before, when John Conroy was blowing the lid of the Jon Burge torture scandal for the Reader. He once said on a panel I moderated that he kept expecting the other media in town to jump on the story and turn it into a competitive venture. That didn't happen, and he was left hanging out there alone for far too many years - despite his amazing reporting being rock-solid.

*

Here's that 2003 column:

When you've got a rare and extraordinary interview with a global musical superstar from your hometown who is facing child pornography charges in two states in a continuing investigation, on top of several civil lawsuits alleging sex with underage girls, you probably want to get it into the paper as quickly as possible - and on the front page. The Tribune chose another route, publishing its R. Kelly story Monday on the front page of Tempo and not exactly taking a hard edge that pushed the best revelations to the top. Kelly wouldn't discuss details of the cases against him with writer Soren Baker, but Tribune entertainment editor Scott Powers says there were no ground rules going in. Still, Powers says, Baker suspected Kelly wouldn't address the allegations against him. So the story's angle turned on how Kelly's life has been turned upside down since the charges. Given the Tribune's perplexing lack of interest in the R. Kelly saga, this is troublesome. All the more frustrating is how revealing the interview proved to be anyway. Kelly doesn't specifically deny the accusations against him; he merely explains that he doesn't believe he's a criminal. "I've always loved women," Kelly told Baker. "I've never had a problem with saying that. But I don't have a bag with little suckers in it, hiding behind some tree talking about, 'Come here, little girl.' Not me."

And then, there was this jaw-dropper: "I think I'm the only one that can understand how bin Laden feels, and I'm not supposed to know what he feels like, being a predator, being someone that's hunted down or being someone that's constantly made to look like the devil himself. And I know I'm not that. I'm not God, but I'm not the devil." Relating to Osama bin Laden is probably not a good career move, aside from the astonishing lack of perspective it displays.

Snoop Dogg, a friend of Kelly's, is then quoted as saying, "I think the media treated him very unfairly in the beginning." But he is never asked, or never offers, just exactly how.

The other curious aspect of the piece is that the interview took place in June. "We were not in a hurry to put this in the paper," Powers says. "We wanted to be extra careful we had everything together." With a court date this week in which Kelly sought permission to travel out of state for a series of concerts, the paper got the peg it felt it needed.

Baker returned to the Tribune's pages a few months later and buried this lead from an author who was close Kelly: "I knew that some of the things people were saying in judgment about Rob were true."

That appeared on page 3 of the Trib's Tempo feature section, under the Books rubric.

*

DeRogatis is to be commended for never lettting the story go - as if he could. But where was everyone else?

It's been observed many times in many places that had R. Kelly's victims been white girls, the media would have been all over it. This is true. The Tribune would not have stood by while its readership was victimized - especially by a black musician.

It's one of the biggest misses in local reporting history. Hyperbole? No. After all, Kelly rose to superstar status as one of the biggest acts on the planet. Dude's right in your backyard.

*

DeRogatis, as a rock critic, has ruminated about whether we can enjoy the art of artists who are awful people. Kelly apologists often cite immensely flawed artists like James Brown as examples of enjoying the art despite the artist.

"A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people," DeRogatis told Hopper.

James Brown beat his wife. People are always, "Why aren't you upset about Led Zeppelin?" . . . Led Zeppelin did disgusting things . . . I have a couple of responses to that: I didn't cover Led Zeppelin. If I was on the plane, like Cameron Crowe was, I would have written about those things if I saw them.

The art very rarely talks about these things. There are not pro-rape Led Zeppelin songs. There are not pro-wife-beating James Brown songs. I think in the history of rock 'n' roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls - not one, not two, dozens - with harrowing lawsuits."

I think there's an even simpler response: It's not as big a sacrifice as you might think to give up artists whose work you treasure. There is a ton of great music out there. Sacrificing one great artist whose work means something to you actually isn't that big a sacrifice in the big picture. One must listen to James Brown to learn and appreciate his role and influence in music, for example, but apart from that, could you have done with refusing to spend any money on the man? Certainly. There is so much great music out there that none of us can get to everything we really want to. Removing an artists from the field of possibilities is an incredibly tiny loss. My all-time favorite artist is Bob Dylan, and my all-time favorite band is The Replacements. Going without them seems impossible, but if either were revealed to have even a tenth of R. Kelly's history, I could easily jettison them in disgust and replace them in my bandwidth with more of my other favorites or bands and artists I simply have not had time to get to whom I'm fairly sure I would love. The notion that it's so hard to give up, say, an R. Kelly, is just laziness and uncaring on the part of the listener, in my book. What it really means is you don't want to and you don't care.

*

This issue arose at last summer's Pitchfork festival, which DeRogatis wrote about. (Two years before that, it was DeRogatis rightly asking similar questions about Odd Future.) Would life have been that much less enriching had someone else headlined?

Certainly not. The world would be far, far better off without Kelly's art if we could give those girls their lives back. Because we can't do that, we can at least spare them the idolization, amnesia and forgiveness of their tormentor.

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Previously:
* Lady Gaga's Affront To R. Kelly.
* Ask R. Kelly.
* Meet Mrs. R. Kelly.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 17, 2014


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