R. KELLY & OUR FAILURE
How did we let him abuse young black girls for years?
Jim DeRogatis interview- Part II by Jason Gross
(if you came here from another website, see Part 1 of the interview)
PSF: Even with all of that reporting, some people will still question the 'motives' of Kelly's accusers and I wonder and worry that if someone reads the book and/or watch the series, they might still be skeptical. How do you counter that thinking?
JD: Jerhonda Pace first spoke to me and it took her five years to decide to go on the record. The Savages and the Clary's first came to me and it took me nine months to tell their story in Buzzfeed. So this notion that all of these people were out for fame and fortune and money and celebrity… I mean, nine months is a very long time to talk to a journalist before anything's published, much less five years.
Think about that- if this was all a big con, and these people were just looking to hate on a famous person and have their 15 minutes of fame, nine months is a fucking long time to wait. And not a word was published until July 27, 2017 (in the Buzzfeed story). Tiffany Hawkins was sexually assaulted in 1991, and Lizette Martinez in 1995, and neither of those women went public or talked to me for the first time until the last year.
With Jerhonda (Pace), it took five years for her to decide to go on the record, and Dominique Gardner took nine months. So, to see these women vilified and… you know, they're complicated people, they made mistakes. They say stupid things. They do stupid things, like we all do.
I freely admit my own foibles. People are complicated- that doesn't mean there isn't truth and that it isn't gettable. Even in this era of fake news where everything is … it's completely Orwellian. 'Words don't matter,' you know, and that is a horrifying thought. Words do matter, facts do matter.
PSF: In this story, there are a lot people involved and a lot of pieces to it so that complicates it and stops most people from wrapping their mind around the whole Kelly saga, even though in Bill Cosby's case, it was the cumulative stories that came out that finally brought him to trial. How do you think the complexity of the story figures in the way it might distance some readers from the Kelly story for that reason regardless?
JD: Yeah, I think the turning point in Cosby was so many of those women putting their names and faces on the cover of New York magazine. And I think the turning point similarly with Kelly was obviously Surviving R. Kelly. dream Hampton introduced America to some of these women, many of whom I've been sitting with for 19 years, one on one, interviewing. And it was different on TV. I think it was more powerful to hear from those victims and 'meet' them on your television screen for six hours. So clearly, there is something in our post-textual age where nobody reads. There is something that a broadcast, even a podcast like Serial… some things that are more powerful done in other media. But one thing that long form journalism can do that nothing else can do is chart the complexities. So, on one level, Surviving R. Kelly was exceedingly powerful and on another level, there's only so much complexity of a 30 year story with 48 victims whose names I know, which means that there are many more things… you know, any one medium can't do everything. We need it all.
PSF: Interesting that you bring up different media because the next thing I was going to ask you about was the Leaving Neverland documentary and how that revived long standing accusations about Michael Jackson in a real, public way that hadn't been heard since his own trial. It's like you were saying before- it's not real to most people until it's seen on a screen. You seem to think that's what's happening with the Kelly story too.
JD: Yeah, but there's also something else, with the power of music. Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, 30-35 miles south of Chicago. I mean, Chicago considered him one of their own too. And the amount of hate mail I would get whenever I would have one or two sentences in a review about the charges that had been made against Jackson, it was amazing. First it was just the dentist's son and then it was the indictment in Santa Barbara and (he was) acquitted. Now there are two more accusers. But to this date, people do not want to turn on Jackson because of the emotional resonance. If he was played at your high school prom or your kindergarten graduation or your wedding, same as Kelly, every backyard barbecue you've ever attended, you are now being asked to turn on a part of your own life, because such is the emotional connection that music has with us, it becomes ours.
To me, there was no way I couldn't mention those accusations against Jackson because on those last two albums (1995's HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I & 2001's Invincible), which come out while I'm a Sun-Times critic… I've got to talk about that, you know? In that song "D.S." he's just changing the initials of the prosecutor in the Santa Barbara county. That song "All the Lost Children," you know, and his protestations of "you're trying to crucify me like you tried to crucify the Lord." And with Kelly, as you know, I've given this rap many times- it's been in the music from the beginning! From "Honey Love" to "I Admit," he's never not been addressing his actions. "Heaven I Need A Hug" was issued weeks after the indictment. "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number" while he's having sexual contact with and illegally marrying Aaliyah, who was 15. I mean, it's always been there!
And so, to ignore it, is particularly egregious to me. You know, critics would do this and Kelefa Sanneh is a big one. He flew to Chicago for the New York Times to see the opening of (Kelly and Jay Z's) 'Best of Both Worlds' tour in 2004, seeing exactly what I saw, exactly what (Chicago Tribune writer Greg) Kot saw… Kelly seducing women in a jail cell, in a jail uniform. I mean, Jesus! And then Kelly's team saying 'no, that didn't happen. That wasn't what we meant.' I mean, there it was. And then for Sanneh to give him a pass, by glancingly nodding, 'despite all the unpleasantness… for all the charges brought against him, the man is prolific and he's a genius…' You know, I don't think you're listening very hard! I don't say that you have to agree with me but take on a little more. What is "Trapped in the Closet" about? What… is.. he… singing… about? It has to be heard in context.
I mean, you can't review the Charles Manson album, streaming on Spotify, and not say what happened in 1969. It's just part of the story! You can't just say 'this hot new band has an amazing sound and they're called the Rolling Stones!' (laughs) 'Hey, wait a minute…' And we have no problem with that most times. We have no problem saying 'Greta Van Fleet equals Led Zeppelin lite.' So why do we have a problem bringing up the context with R. Kelly or Michael Jackson? It's gonna be interesting to see what happens with the next Ryan Adams record 'cause he just resurfaced. I was like, 'OK, c'mon Ryan…' (laughs) 'Bring it! Tell us your side of the story!' But know that no critic can ignore the charges against you now.
PSF: Related to the complicated relationship that readers would have with this story and the Kelly book, as you said, his music is a part of so many lives and so of those people might then think of themselves as unwitting enablers of him.
JD: Yeah… but I think there is no wrong or right in art. First of all, I think everyone is a critic. You, me, the Lyft driver, every single person who cares about music, OK? The 14-year-old whose high school class I may speak to and the 78-year-old Rolling Stones fan. We are all critics. And there is no wrong or right in art. We are each entitled to our emotional reaction and our intellectual analysis and in art, you need both, head and heart. I learned that from Lester Bangs. I learned that from Roger Ebert. I believe it. I live it.
I think we are now being asked, courtesy of #MeToo, to be a little more aware of the context. I choose not to shop at Walmart- they have no problem selling ammunition but they will not sell birth control. That's my choice as a consumer. I choose now not to listen to R. Kelly. If you shop at Walmart 'cause they got cheaper paper towels and you listen to R. Kelly, you're not wrong, I'm not gonna condemn you, that's your choice. I just want you to be aware of the context, to consider it, and then do what you will.
What was especially egregious to me in 2013, with Pitchfork, Coachella, and Bonnaroo, you have giant fields full of tens of thousands who would not eat at Chick-Fil-A because 'they're anti-gay, they're right wing, they fund things I don't agree with.' I will shop at Target but not at Walmart. Is drinking Starbucks OK? Organically grown, responsible coffee, right? I mean, whatever the fuck. And yet, with art, which is more important than any of that, in my opinion because I live for this art, we are not asking those questions. To what extent it will be asked from here out, I don't know. I mean, I ain't gonna stop listening to James Brown or Led Zeppelin. I am aware of the context. I've read the books. I don't hear it in the art.
For me, there's actually a pretty clear dividing line for when we should separate the art and the artist, when we should tune them out or "cancel" them. Ask yourself, is the art ABOUT the misdeeds of the artist? Separating the art and the artist is a very noble ideal. One of the biggest intellectuals of art, philosophy and criticism, Oscar Wilde, was incredibly conflicted. On the one hand, he says 'there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. It is merely good or bad.' On the other hand, a man who was thrown in the Tower of London to waste away to his death for daring to commit the sin that dare not speak its name, also said 'the moral core of the man is always present in the art.' Ah, so you're kind of conflicted with yourself there, Oscar. I empathize! It’s a complicated question. But I think there can be a clear line if you investigate, even superficially, what the artist is singing about, and if he is celebrating or championing or espousing behaviour that hurts people.
Again, there's really no right or wrong. I really like Midnight In Paris. I'm a Francophile, I love history, Dali, Hemingway. It's wonderful- what an idea! It helps that Woody Allen's not in it. But I could never watch Manhattan again, not after reading what Dylan Farrow said about what her father did to her. It's in the art. There's a 46-year-old man chasing a high school girl. I will not stop listening to Off the Wall or much of Jackson's catalog. The last two albums, which conveniently are shitty, HIStory and Invincible, are full of songs about his trials, tribulations and false accusations, which I do not believe are false. So, I cannot listen to those. If I was writing about it I'd have to address that context. For Kelly, I think it's there pretty much in the entire canon, this unfettered view of hedonism which I'd say is "I will take my pleasures wherever I desire and to hell with my partners." And you can say 'yes, but what about the spiritual songs?' OK, but he's always begging for forgiveness for unnamed sins. To which I've always wanted to ask, 'Robert, 'can you please enumerate?'
You know, if you honest to God get pleasure out of the Manson songs or you think that one of the many clown face paintings by John Wayne Gacy is the most beautiful piece of art in the world, and you know what the Manson family did and you know that Gacy would sometimes dress up as a circus clown and lure young boys to their deaths, but you really like that art… Even in those super extreme cases, and they seem almost comical they're so extreme, I can't condemn you because there is no wrong or right in art. And we certainly don't want to impose some moral litmus test on every creator before we consume their art. There's the way you see it and react to it and the way I see it and react to it. But I think that's the thing- you've got to be aware of the context, because it's part of your reaction, or should be. Period. To not consider it is to not really consider the art.
Jim DeRogatis' Soulless- The Case Against R. Kelly is available from Abrams Books
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