Journalist Jim DeRogatis has been on the R. Kelly story for about two decades. In 2000, after he published allegations that the R&B superstar had sexually abused girls, Kelly’s career continued to thrive. In 2008 he was acquitted of child pornography charges. Last week Kelly was arrested and faces a total of 18 federal counts, including charges of making child pornography, engaging in sexual activities with underage girls, and obstructing justice for allegedly paying to silence victims.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Kelly’s actions have received more scrutiny. Earlier this year the Lifetime “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries drew widespread acclaim and Kelly faced additional charges. He melted down in a televised interview with Gayle King and his record company dropped him.
Obviously, the legal system failed, and so did law enforcement, for almost seventeen years after the Youth Division of the Special Investigations Unit at CPD and the Polk County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office arrested R. Kelly in 2002. Since none of the original charges stuck for making child pornography, maybe the police and prosecutors who followed just didn’t want the trouble. Or maybe they thought anyone that rich or famous would just get off again. It had happened with his acquittal in 2008, and it had taken a big toll on everyone in law enforcement who worked on that case. It took years for me to convince some of them to talk about it again.
I can’t discount journalism’s epic failure. Yes, it also took years for the media to expose Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, not to mention Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Les Moonves, James Levine, Brett Ratner, Louis C.K., Bryan Singer, Jeffrey Epstein—hell, the list is seemingly endless—but once the first reporters did, the floodgates opened. Almost two decades passed before other journalists began to follow a fat music critic and an impish legal affairs reporter who started digging in public files and ringing doorbells, and a tireless columnist, Mary Mitchell, who wouldn’t stop shouting that her community needed to recognize the predator in its midst.
Because my first love is music criticism, I’m especially disappointed with my peers in that benighted field. In an essay she wrote when accepting the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2014, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron maintained that her early days as a reporter in New Jersey “covering small-town zoning battles and urban renewal fiascos” were “fundamental to my development as a critic. I jokingly began thinking of myself as an investigative critic.”
I love the idea of investigative criticism, and I don’t think it’s a joke. We need it more than ever when assessing any art in the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Trumpian assault on decency, democracy, and truth, at least if you believe as I do that everyone should be a critic. Why? Because art matters, damn it! It changes the world because it changes us. We all need to be investigative critics, to think about whether the art we embrace lives up to the ideals by which we live, and to call it out when it doesn’t. Or so says the fifty-four-year-old white cis male music critic and professor who, like young Jenny in my favorite Velvet Underground song, still believes in a life saved by rock ‘n’ roll.
In the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm, Andy Warhol presciently predicted everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame, which presumes everyone wants it. Maybe he’s right. In the months after my first BuzzFeed News stories, some of my sources, including a few who’d initially been reluctant to talk on the record for months or years, embraced the spotlight, appearing in Surviving R. Kelly and other documentaries, on radio, and on television talk shows such as The View, Megyn Kelly TODAY, and The Dr. Oz Show. Some started websites, posted YouTube videos, opened Twitter and Instagram accounts, and made Facebook Public Figure pages. A few hired celebrity lawyers and publicists to field interview requests.
The singer’s second wife, Andrea, has yet to publish the book she promised in 2012, Under the Red Carpet, but she did make a “video memoir” that she posted online as a pay-per-view, and she screens it before speaking engagements. Kitti Jones self-published a book, I Was Somebody Before This, and she sold the film rights. Jerhonda Pace nee Johnson wrote and published A Life Beyond Abuse, and she’s working on a sequel. Lisa Van Allen wrote Surviving the Pied Piper: The Untold Story, and Amazon is selling No Longer Trapped in the Closet: The Asante McGee Story. You can also add Sex Me: Confessions of Daddy’s Little Freak to your cart. That anonymous tome reads as such tawdry porn that I initially thought it was sick “fan fiction;” but one of my sources claims to have spoken to its author, who swears she lived with the cult for a time.
It must feel liberating for these women, after years of keeping their stories and their hurt bottled up, to finally have the support of a sympathetic audience. It took extraordinary courage for them to speak out, and I’m sure it’s emboldening to feel that our culture has reached a tipping point. Bravo to them. I am not shaming or judging anyone who’s finding some mix of recompense and catharsis after being hurt by Kelly; and these stories needed to be told. Sadly, some of the women who summoned the courage to tell them have suffered. Lizzette Martinez lost her corporate job at a national restaurant chain after my story first published her name in May 2018. She appeared in—but did not watch—Surviving R. Kelly. “I need a break from all of this. This is a big mess in my eyes,” she said.“I’m struggling bad. I lost my job at Benihana months ago, and things are not so good, but I’m trying to stay upbeat.”
The thought of Lizzette still struggling after all these years saddens me, and so does the way some of the people in this story have turned on another, after first being brought together by that intrepid amateur detective, J. Savage. Some resent the Savages’ tendency to spread any scrap of information far and wide. Some are pursuing additional lawsuits against Kelly. Faith Rodgers, a Dallas woman in her early twenties who claims Kelly gave her herpes, was initially represented by renowned civil rights attorney S. Lee Merrritt, but in early 2019, she, her mother, and Dominique Gardner’s mother, Michelle Kramer, appeared at a press conference with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. The Clarys preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, until they announced that another celebrity attorney, Michael Avenatti, was representing them in early 2019. All of them hope the civil and criminal courts will finally give them some measure of justice, and the Clarys’ and the Savages are still desperate to bring their daughters home.