Dec. 21, 2000, was the day that then-Sun-Times reporters Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch broke the story of R. Kelly’s sexual pursuit of underage girls.
Not many people wanted to hear it back then. We took some flak for publishing it.
After all, Kelly had done Chicago proud. He was riding high, a music prodigy who rose from singing for spare change on L platforms to become a superstar. His concerts sold out. His songs topped the charts and earned Grammy nominations. People danced to his tunes at house parties and backyard barbeques and nightclubs.
So his legions of his fans didn’t want to believe the story that DeRogatis, a music critic, and Pallasch, who covered legal affairs, painstakingly pieced together from court documents and interviews. The bright light of Kelly’s talent blinded them from seeing what he — a married man then in his 30s — kept hidden behind closed doors.
The details were disturbing, but only a foreshadowing of worse to come: Kelly had paid $250,000 to a young woman who said she had sex with the star when she was just 15. Kelly had routinely “cruised” his former high school, Kenwood Academy, and lured girls with promises to help them become stars. Kelly had dispatched assistants to pimp — there’s no other word for it – for him, pressing slips of paper with his phone number into the hands of young women at his shows. Even some of his acquaintances acknowledged he had a “compulsion” and needed help.
The response was, as they say, crickets.
Life for the Pied Piper of R&B went on. He headlined a sold-out United Center concert the day after the story was published. Radio stations shrugged and kept playing his music. “We play hit songs from hit artists that our audience likes,” one radio station manager said.
But our story prompted someone to send DeRogatis a videotape in 2002, showing Kelly engaging in sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl. We turned it over to Chicago police, who turned it over to Cook County prosecutors, who charged Kelly with 21 counts of child pornography.
Kelly’s excuse: The 26 minutes on the tape had been faked.
Meanwhile, Miami police nabbed Kelly on a visit to their city and piled on 12 more counts of child pornography after a search of Kelly’s Florida home turned up photos of the singer with a nude, underage girl.
None of the charges stuck. In Chicago, Kelly was acquitted in 2008. In Florida, the charges were dropped.
But Kelly’s fall from grace was set in motion, though the music industry and loyal fans kept his career alive. Buzzfeed last year published a lengthy expose by DeRogatis, who had by then moved on from the Sun-Times but kept covering the story. The piece detailed accusations that the singer had kept young women hostage in an “abusive cult.” The BBC broadcast a scathing documentary on Kelly, with similar allegations, earlier this year.
And Kelly now faces more legal trouble in Texas, where a complaint filed with Dallas police accuses him of sexual assault and giving drugs and alcohol to an underage girl, as well as infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease.
Kelly’s now the target of #MuteRKelly, a campaign founded by two young Atlanta activists that is determined to make him pay the price for years of abusive behavior toward young black girls. Under pressure from them, the University of Illinois at Chicago cancelled Kelly’s scheduled May 5 concert here. Meanwhile, radio DJs are refusing to play his music, and his publicist, lawyer and executive assistant severed ties with him.
The singer once said his fans were the only ones who could fire him. It’s time, way past time, for them to finish the job.
If you’re thinking of buying a ticket to one of his shows or downloading one of his songs, go read the two decades of reporting on him — in the Sun-Times and elsewhere — before you do. You’ll probably want to take several showers afterward. But those stories will save you some money, if you’re smart.
The Pied Piper of R&B won’t get his just desserts until he doesn’t make another penny from his music.