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The Lonely Crusade of Jim DeRogatis

Over the past 17 years, the city’s loudest rock critic has been consumed by an increasingly high-profile undertaking: investigating the allegations of sexual abuse against R&B star R. Kelly.

Illustration: Diego Patiño

Jim DeRogatis is in his element. Which is to say, he’s talking. The famously opinionated radio personality’s New Jersey–inflected voice cuts through the street noise outside a Starbucks in Lake View, his flow interrupted only when he pauses to sip from his iced coffee or to issue a “Do you mind?” to a kid who tries to prop a bike against DeRogatis’s chair. Much of his living is made talking, and for the past two hours he’s been holding court with colorful tales from his professional life.

But then the talking stops as DeRogatis checks his cell phone and sighs. In an instant he has pivoted to a quieter, less public side of his work.

He’s reading an email from a potential key source for the next chapter of the R. Kelly story that he’s been chasing on and off since 2000. This woman has a tale to tell, one that fits the R&B star’s pattern of alleged mistreatment of young women. Two weeks earlier, in mid-July, DeRogatis wrote a 4,700-word article for the website BuzzFeed headlined “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult’: R. Kelly Is Holding Women Against Their Will in a ‘Cult,’ Parents Told Police.” It was a bombshell, drawing about 3.5 million readers, according to the website, and receiving the kind of saturation coverage that his previous pieces on the subject hadn’t approached. The follow-up, DeRogatis promises, will be even more compelling—if the woman decides to go public. But, he learns from the email, her lawyer is recommending that she not do so.

“People are making very hard decisions about coming on the record,” DeRogatis says.

Most people familiar with DeRogatis don’t think of him as an investigative journalist, though he’s happy to recount his roots as a Jersey Journal cub reporter getting a councilman indicted for voter fraud. DeRo, as his friends call him, is best known as a rock critic—or, in his case, a Rock Critic.

He wears that persona not only on his sleeve but on his arms, onto which he has had his favorite bands’ iconography inscribed (by tattoo artist Ben Wahhh), which would make him a walking Tower Records mural if Tower Records were still around and had been inclined to give as prominent billing to the 13th Floor Elevators, the Feelies, and Can as to the Beatles (the Klaus Voormann Revolver cover portraits), the Rolling Stones (the tongue and lips), and the Velvet Underground (the banana). DeRogatis’s beliefs on music are fiercely held and often contrarian, a fact that animated his two tenures as rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and his drastically shorter but nonetheless eventful time at Rolling Stone. For the past 19 years, this unyielding nature has also fueled his sparring with Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot on the weekly WBEZ show Sound Opinions, which airs on more than 120 NPR stations nationwide and draws 200,000 downloads a month.

That show’s success rests in large part on the Siskel-and-Ebert interplay between DeRogatis and Kot. (Disclosure: I’ve known both of them personally and professionally for years.) Whether speaking into a microphone or writing, Kot comes off as the more reasoned critic, bolstering his opinions with historical perspective and precise observations that showcase his broad tastes and erudition. DeRogatis goes deep, too, but he’s more of a flamethrower, one who’s not shy about sharing his comparatively narrow definitions of what’s good (punk, hard-hitting psychedelia, strong rocking women) and what’s not (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Keith Moon’s drumming, The Last Waltz), and he’ll defend his ground ruthlessly.

“My aesthetic,” DeRogatis says, “is ‘Fuck you.’ ”

Reflecting that sense of heightened drama, his career can be viewed as a series of set pieces—or greatest hits. There’s his life-changing encounter as a teenager with his idol, the late rock critic Lester Bangs, whose tattooed likeness glares out from DeRogatis’s right forearm; there’s his stint as the drummer in a Wire tribute band that actually toured with the U.K. group; there’s his firing from Rolling Stone over an editorial fracas he calls “Hootiegate”; there’s the expletive-laden voicemail left for him by musician Ryan Adams and the time Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins called him “that fat fuck from the Chicago Sun-Times” onstage; and there’s DeRogatis’s joyful slaughtering of such sacred cows as Eric Clapton, whom he once described as “a typical Grammy geezer, the sort of boring, predictable artist that the music industry’s old guard loves to honor with an armful of trophies.”

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Yet DeRogatis’s legacy, if we’re not being too precious by referring to such a thing, may ultimately depend not on his outsize role as a critic but on a pursuit that requires him to shut his mouth and open his ears. “They will call on Christmas Eve, and they will call on New Year’s Day, and they will call at midnight, and they will call at 6 in the morning,” says DeRogatis of the parents, aunts, and uncles of young women—and in some cases the women themselves—who have reached out with accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of R. Kelly, the Chicago- and Atlanta-based singer and producer famous for such ’90s and ’00s singles as “Bump N’ Grind,” “I Believe I Can Fly,” and “Ignition (Remix).” “And you are not a human being or a journalist if you don’t take those calls.”

To hear DeRogatis tell it, he’s just doing his job. “All I’m doing is listening to women who want to talk about how they were hurt, allegedly, by this superstar, and nobody else seems to want to listen to them.”

R. Kelly walking during trial
R. Kelly during his 2008 trial on child pornography charges. (He was acquitted.) Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

R. Kelly, whose given name is Robert, stood trial in 2008 on 14 counts of child pornography based on a videotape that DeRogatis had received some six years earlier allegedly showing the star having sex with and urinating into the mouth of an underage girl. But the singer was ultimately acquitted, and while DeRogatis’s recent reporting has turned up the heat again, Kelly’s career has sailed along with only the occasional obstruction. In 2010 Billboard magazine named him the most successful R&B and hip-hop artist of the past 25 years. The Recording Industry Association of America currently has him at No. 54 on its list of the best-selling album artists of all time, coming in just behind James Taylor and ahead of Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

What we have here is a major black star being accused of the serial mistreatment of young women, a story line that echoes some of the allegations against Bill Cosby. But while Cosby has maintained a wholesome public persona, Kelly has made sexual conquests central to his art and public life, including his annulled—and illegal—1994 marriage to then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah, for whom Kelly wrote and produced an album called Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. Also, as the Cosby story snowballed, media outlets competed furiously to advance it. By contrast, the Kelly saga somehow remains owned by a single reporter: DeRogatis.

Kelly’s people are happy to portray DeRogatis’s pursuit as the Rock Critic vs. the Singer. “Personally I think he’s a great music critic, but he hates my client, so what else can I say?” says Chicago-based entertainment lawyer Linda Mensch, who represents Kelly in his contract dealings and has issued official statements on the singer’s behalf, including a long string of denials to the accusations reported by DeRogatis. “He’s been after him for years.”

It’s tempting to cast DeRogatis as the obsessed Inspector Javert in a modern-day Les Misérables—except that DeRogatis hates musical theater (yes, even Hamilton) and rejects the comparison. “This sort of Javert-like crusade, that’s bullshit,” he says. “This story’s there for anybody who wants to pick it up. And nobody else is.”

 
DeRogatis on laptop
DeRogatis at Columbia College, where he teaches a course on arts criticism Photo: Andrew Nawrocki

If DeRogatis has any defining characteristic, it’s his love for Lester Bangs, the iconoclastic rock critic of the ’70s whose freewheeling, take-no-prisoners style stood in stark contrast to the professorial writing of his contemporaries Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. “Some of Lester’s tossed-off lines are deeper than the entirety of [Marcus’s] Lipstick Traces,” DeRogatis says. “When Lester would say, ‘Fashion is fascism, style is originality,’ it’s like, holy shit.”

As a Jersey City teen whose father died before he started kindergarten, DeRogatis sneaked into the Hoboken club Maxwell’s to check out R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, and the Feelies and devoured Bangs’s writing in the Village Voice and the rock magazine Creem, which Bangs edited. When DeRogatis’s journalism teacher at Hudson Catholic Regional High School for Boys instructed him to interview a hero, the 17-year-old seized the opportunity.

Not long after, DeRogatis found himself shouting up to a sixth-story window in New York’s Greenwich Village, waiting for Bangs, who lacked a working phone, to toss down his keys. “I spent a long day with him. It was April 14, 1982, and he was incredibly inspiring,” DeRogatis says. He repeats this date often—it’s part of his lore—and its significance becomes apparent when you consider that Bangs died at age 33 from a prescription drug overdose on April 30, 1982.

“I said, ‘Did you always want to be a critic?’ He said, ‘Music and writing were always my big obsessions, so it was always obvious I would do this.’ I felt the same way. … It was very much the Bangs that you see in Almost Famous,” DeRogatis says, referring to Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie.

As a teenage journalist years earlier, Crowe had enjoyed a similar encounter with Bangs—played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who listened to a recording of DeRogatis’s interview on set to get into the role—and DeRogatis credits Crowe with encouraging him to write the best-received and best-selling of his 10 books, the 2000 biography Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic.

In Crowe’s mind, DeRogatis catching Bangs’s keys was a turning point. “I think life sometimes gives you these moments where there’s a path uncovering itself for you,” Crowe says on the phone from Los Angeles. “The path for Jim was Lester saying, ‘Come on up.’ ”

To Crowe, DeRogatis reporting on the R. Kelly story represents a logical progression: “It’s uniquely Jim’s path to be doing that because, when you think about it, who else would be doing it? He can pivot in any direction and go digging deep when he needs to.”

“Name another writer over the past 25 years who’s as aggressive a reporter and as substantive a critic,” says Phoenix-based arts journalist Bill Wyman, who was DeRogatis’s original Sound Opinions partner while working as the Reader’s rock critic. “Who has been writing books like him and breaking stories like R. Kelly’s?”

Such praise may say less about DeRogatis than it does about the awkward relationship between entertainment journalists and hard news. Many critics aren’t strong reporters, or some may feel too beholden to the entertainment industry gatekeepers to stir up much trouble. At the same time, many investigative reporters look down on or don’t feel comfortable in the entertainment world. “I think there are people who didn’t take [the Kelly story] seriously because it was an R&B star instead of a politician,” says Kot, who does a fair amount of reporting himself.

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To the mostly white journalism mainstream, Kelly’s R&B subculture may feel especially alien.

But, as DeRogatis says, “I am a soon-to-be-53-year-old fat white guy. It’s not like I’ve got special magical powers when I go to the South or West Side and ring doorbells.”

In any case, DeRogatis argues that the distinction between critic and journalist is a false one: “I think they’re the same thing. After Lester, my other hero always was Roger Ebert. He was a shoe-leather reporter and a goddamn great and very intellectual critic.”

Yet the question remains: Why has it taken a rock critic to report the R. Kelly story?

Maybe it’s a matter of how this particular critic got to where he is. DeRogatis spent his early years reporting full-time in New Jersey while writing for music fanzines and hoping to get hired by the Village Voice. “They didn’t want to hear from an acne-plagued, all-amped-up 18-year-old who is arguing that [Hüsker Dü’s] Zen Arcade is infinitely better than [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born in the U.S.A.,” he says.

His independent streak was on full display while he was writing for Musicland’s Request magazine in Minneapolis, a gig that led to his hiring by the Sun-Times in 1992, back when it billed itself as the “paper with attitude.” “He was contrary in a way, and he was also really, really colorful,” says P.J. Bednarski, the former Sun-Times entertainment editor who brought him on board. “He criticized some rock acts that you didn’t see criticized so much, but he had pretty good ways to back it up.”

DeRogatis relished taking on the powerful, whether popular artists or media figures. By his own account, what killed his brief career as a Rolling Stone staffer was a comment he casually offered to the New York Observer. When asked if he thought Jann Wenner, the magazine’s publisher, who had spiked DeRogatis’s poor review of a Hootie and the Blowfish album, was a fan of the band, the critic replied, “No, I think he’s just a fan of bands which sell eight and a half million copies.” When DeRogatis arrived at the office the following Monday, he says, his belongings already had been packed up.

His spitballs-against-the-battleship approach has served him well on Sound Opinions, which he launched with Wyman on WLUP in 1993 and resurrected with Kot on WXRT in 1998. “He is not afraid to be the asshole,” says sports-radio host Matt Spiegel, who produced Sound Opinions on WXRT and in its early WBEZ days. “The first time he torched Springsteen in favor of Meat Loaf, and I realized he actually held that opinion and took joy in how it was going to anger people, I was like, Ah, this show is going to be a success.”

“He’s not going to worry about your feelings before he says something,” Kot says. “He’s very honest about how he feels. Even though we don’t agree about a lot of stuff, I know the guy has always got my back, and from that standpoint what more can you ask for from a friend?”

 

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DeRogatis first brought to light the allegations about R. Kelly’s behavior in 2000 after receiving an anonymous fax at the Sun-Times alleging that the singer had a “problem” with “young girls.” The critic, who’d interviewed Kelly in the ’90s, had just written about the whiplash-­inducing contrast between the sexual and religious content of Kelly’s 2000 album TP-2.com. The fax mentioned a Chicago Police Department sex crimes investigation, as well as a lawsuit, by then settled, brought by a woman who claimed Kelly had begun having sex with her when she was 15.

DeRogatis teamed up with Sun-Times legal affairs reporter Abdon M. Pallasch to comb through existing legal cases and to seek out sources on the South and West Sides to produce a front-page story that ran on December 21, 2000. Pallasch, who now works as the communications director for Illinois comptroller Susana Mendoza, describes long weeks of investigating, “going out, chasing down these girls, the friends of these girls.” The story began: “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.”

The following month DeRogatis received the first of two anonymous sex tapes. It depicts a man having sex with a girl, who could not be identified by police, though DeRogatis says FBI investigators estimated that she was about 15. The Sun-Times turned over the videotape to the police; no charges were filed.

DeRogatis says the second, more notorious tape arrived in early 2002 in a plain manila envelope in his North Side home’s mailbox. This 26-minute, 39-second video, which the newspaper also turned over to the police, led to Kelly’s indictment on child pornography charges. DeRogatis believed the girl in the tape might be the niece of a woman who’d come to his attention during his earlier reporting, so he called her. “All within three hours we had verified who the woman [in the video] was by watching that tape with her aunt, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a reporter,” DeRogatis says. The aunt said the alleged victim would have been about 14 at the time the tape was made.

On February 8, 2002, the Sun-Times published DeRogatis and Pallasch’s report about the police investigation of Kelly. That night, as DeRogatis and his first wife and another couple were watching a movie at his house, a bullet pierced the vestibule window.

No one ever claimed responsibility for the act, and asking DeRogatis about it elicits little more than a shrug. “I’m from Jersey,” he says. “I figured if they were trying to do more than make a statement, it wouldn’t have been the front window.”

So he wasn’t freaked out that someone put a bullet where he lived?

“No, it was just like, Boy, that’s weird. This is really weird.”

Robin Daughtridge, a Chicago Tribune editor who was at the house that night with her husband, says of the incident: “It was definitely alarming. It was like, ‘You’ve got to be careful, Jim.’ They had a young child. It was unnerving, for sure.”

By this point DeRogatis’s marriage was nearing its end. “It was a very stressful time,” he eventually admits. Asked whether his work on the Kelly story was a factor, he replies, “I’m sure, yeah. And stupid decisions on my part and not a shared worldview. That’s when I started smoking. I mean, Jesus Christ, how stupid can you be? I should really quit, I know.”

Says Kot: “I don’t think people appreciate how much this has taken out of him personally, just feeling the heartache of these women. I do know of threats being made—that’s stuff you can’t just brush off—but the harder you may try to get him to back off, he just digs in deeper. That’s the great thing about him as a reporter: He just will not back off.”

 

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DeRogatis didn’t. By June 5, 2002, when Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography (later reduced to 14), DeRogatis and Pallasch had reported on four women who had sued Kelly in Cook County over alleged inappropriate sexual behavior. DeRogatis says three of them were underage at the time of the alleged encounters. He and Pallasch had also written about Kelly allegedly making payoffs to various litigants and witnesses. The case was national news, and the following spring Dave Chappelle put his stamp on it with a video for a parody song titled “Piss on You” for his Comedy Central show. (“Only thing that makes my life complete / Is when I turn your face into a toilet seat / I want to pee on you.”) When a prominent comedian executes such a memorable public takedown—as Chicago native Hannibal Buress would do to Cosby years later—the subject of the attack sometimes never recovers.

Yet Kelly’s label, Jive Records, continued to stand by him; he kept releasing hit albums; and his lawyers managed to push the trial all the way to 2008. They also subpoenaed DeRogatis as a witness, and Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan declined to rule that DeRogatis was shielded as a journalist from having to answer their questions, a circumstance that might have forced him to reveal sources. So with DeRogatis fearing that he’d either destroy the press’s court protections if he answered the lawyers’ questions or be found in contempt if he didn’t, the Sun-Times’ lawyer, Damon Dunn, came up with what he called “the nuclear defense.” Dunn instructed DeRogatis to respond to Kelly’s attorney with the following statement, as he did 15 times: “I respectfully decline to answer the question on the advice of counsel, on the grounds that to do so would contravene the reporter’s privilege, the special witness doctrine, my rights under the Illinois Constitution, and the First and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

DeRogatis invoked the Fifth Amendment on the premise that child pornography is considered so toxic that by merely having possessed the tape he risked self-incrimination in discussing it. The judge allowed his action, sparing DeRogatis from testifying.

DeRogatis says he had no interaction with Kelly inside or outside the courtroom. In the end, the alleged victim refused to testify, and although roughly a dozen family members and friends identified her and confirmed her age from the stand, the jury acquitted Kelly.

DeRogatis left the Sun-Times in 2010, prompted, he says, by an across-the-board pay cut imposed by its new owners and the new job he’d landed at Columbia College. He’s currently an associate professor there, teaching a course called Music and Media in Chicago and another called Reviewing the Arts. “Mostly I teach how to be a critic,” he says. “Writing passionately about art is the same: context, evidence, insight.”

DeRogatis’s main writing outlet became his WBEZ blog, where he mixed critical takes with reported pieces slamming Lollapalooza and digging into financial and safety problems plaguing the now-shuttered Congress Theater. But for DeRogatis the Kelly story didn’t go away. When the Pitchfork Music Festival slated Kelly as a headliner in the summer of 2013, DeRogatis excoriated the producers on his blog. The event, he says, was “half a mile from where one of the women who filed suit against Kelly lived, where I interviewed her, where she showed me the scars on her wrist from where she tried to kill herself.”

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In December 2013, with a new Kelly album, Black Panties, in stores, Chicago-based journalist Jessica Hopper interviewed DeRogatis for a Village Voice article titled “Read the ‘Stomach-Churning’ Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full.” The Voice’s music editor at the time, Brian McManus, says this was the alternative weekly’s most read online story ever, racking up about five million hits. “Jim had reported on it so long and so well, but this, I think, was the first time it could be contextualized for a new audience on social media, who shared it like crazy,” McManus says.

Kelly’s career took a hit, with the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio, canceling his summer 2014 appearance, later stating to CNN: “The people of Columbus didn’t feel that R. Kelly’s reputation was reflective of their community, and took to social media to adamantly express their opinions. FMMF heard their concerns and took action.”

DeRogatis wrote his own Voice ­follow-up (“Why Are People Finally Paying Attention to R. Kelly’s Many Crimes?”) but wasn’t pulled all the way back into his pursuit of Kelly until November 2016, when he first heard about the “cult” that would become the basis of his next major article. That’s when an Atlanta-area woman named Jonjelyn Savage emailed him about her daughter, Joycelyn, who, she said, had met Kelly in 2015 at age 19 and was promised that he’d help boost her musical career. Instead, Joycelyn cut off contact with her parents while living in Kelly’s suburban Atlanta house under what Jonjelyn described as unsettling circumstances. “We weren’t getting anywhere with the local authorities because she was of age,” Jonjelyn says. “Jim had reported on other women in the past in similar situations. We trusted him as a last resort, so that’s who we felt comfortable giving our story to.”

DeRogatis spoke with Jonjelyn and her husband, Tim, as well as the distraught family members of other young women who’d been drawn into Kelly’s circle—plus three former members of Kelly’s entourage, who detailed the singer’s alleged MO. As DeRogatis wrote in the story eventually published by BuzzFeed: “They said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”

DeRogatis spent nine months researching and vetting the story for what would turn out to be three different media outlets. For the first three months, he says, he worked with MTV News, where Hopper was then an editor, but the higher-ups got cold feet, so he took the story to the Reader. Another three months of work followed there before the Reader and its parent company (which also owns the Sun-Times) let it go. DeRogatis then worked on the story at a third outlet, which he prefers not to discuss, before the piece met a similar fate. “In each case it was ‘Sorry, Jim, we’ve decided we can’t run it here, but you’re free to take the story elsewhere,’ ” DeRogatis says.

The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan later speculated that DeRogatis’s struggles to get the piece published owed to heightened squeamishness in the industry following Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy suit against Gawker, a crippling legal defeat that ultimately led the website to shut down last year. As Hopper would tweet the day that DeRogatis’s article finally saw the light of day: “It’s impossible to get stories like these published. In the last decade I had 6 stories like this come to me, never published a one.”

After the third rejection, DeRogatis felt some urgency because he’d already alerted Kelly’s lawyer to the piece. He was concerned that each day it remained unpublished was another day that Kelly’s legal team might try to thwart it or to diminish its impact. In a last-ditch effort, DeRogatis says, he simultaneously offered the story to the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and BuzzFeed. Only BuzzFeed responded promptly and definitively. “I think we started working together on a Thursday, and the story went up on Monday at 7 a.m.,” BuzzFeed deputy national editor Marisa Carroll says. “It was pretty much us working through the draft but also verifying all the information. He had really incredible reporting that he’d been doing for the past nine months, besides more reporting he’d been doing for years, so it was really well sourced.”

After the article went up, Kelly issued a denial, and Joycelyn Savage released a couple of videos stating that she was OK and her parents should leave her alone. Her parents have kept pressing to be allowed to see her in person. No corrections to the story have been demanded or legal actions taken.

Yet despite the enormous coverage given the BuzzFeed story in multiple entertainment and news outlets, and despite the two dozen or so interviews DeRogatis gave after the piece came out, few publications followed up with fresh reporting. The website Jezebel tracked down another member of Kelly’s circle, who confirmed details found in DeRogatis’s story, and other BuzzFeed reporters attempted to contact 43 of Kelly’s former collaborators, including Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper, to ask whether they’d work with him again; none offered comment. Meanwhile, the mainstream media appeared content to cite DeRogatis’s work and leave it at that.

 

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DeRogatis’s reporting on Kelly has won him new fans. Notoriously tough-minded Chicago-based recording engineer and studio owner Steve Albini, who has criticized DeRogatis publicly and has no qualms referring to him as “a bad music journalist” and “gullible,” says the critic’s R. Kelly work is “some of the best journalism that I have seen. Much respect. He was persistent with it and maintained perspective when everybody else dropped the ball.”

Says Joycelyn Savage’s father: “This man, Jim, is a hero. They say one man can’t make a difference? This man has made a difference. He’s an honest person.” Having spoken with DeRogatis only on the phone, Savage says that if he met him in person, “I would treat him just like someone would treat a firefighter who saved their family. I would give him a hug and probably would cry.”

“He’s the only one who took the interest to try to get our children out of this horrible situation that they’re in,” says Angelo, the father of a young Florida singer now residing in Kelly’s house. (She has not been publicly identified, so his last name is being withheld.) “There’s no authority in Chicago or other places who are interested in saving any young black ladies.” He adds: “If this was four to six white ladies, the whole world would have stopped. They would have knocked down every door to get them.”

DeRogatis doesn’t disagree. “I don’t think anybody in society matters less than young black women,” he says.

In early August, DeRogatis believed he was on the verge of breaking another major story, but his source—the woman who’d sent him the email at Starbucks—was still wavering about going public. “We’ve talked at length, but I need to get an on-the-record interview with her, which she’s going to give when she’s ready,” he said. “It’s hard. I think it’s a very brave thing to step forward and put your name on it and say, ‘This happened.’ ”

The following week she did just that.

On August 21 BuzzFeed published a 3,100-word article by DeRogatis bearing the headline “A Woman Who Says She Had Underage Sex with R. Kelly Is Finally Telling Her Story.” In the piece, Jerhonda Pace, now 24, recounts how she met Kelly while, of all things, attending his child pornography trial when she was a 15-year-old superfan of the singer. She says she was invited to a party at his suburban Olympia Fields mansion and began a sexual relationship with him. Some of her encounters with Kelly were videotaped without her consent, she alleges. The details echo other women’s accounts, including a financial settlement and the signing of a nondisclosure agreement. Pace is violating hers by speaking out. This latest BuzzFeed story has attracted more than a million readers, Carroll says.

Jerhonda Pace portrait
Jerhonda Pace, who accused the singer of sexually traumatizing her. Photo: Kristen Zeis

Kelly’s representatives called the allegations “false” and “made by individuals known to be dishonest,” and their statement characterized the article as part of an effort “to interfere with and damage his career. Mr. Kelly again denies any and all wrong doing and is taking appropriate legal action to protect himself from ongoing defamation.”

DeRogatis says he had been in email contact with Pace for years, but when she saw his first BuzzFeed story, she “decided it was time to talk. I had one long off-the-record interview with her and two on-the-record interviews with her. She was getting severe legal threats about honoring her nondisclosure agreement. She believed the sooner she got [the story] out there, the better, and I certainly cannot disagree with that.”

A few nights after the piece came out, Kelly performed in Atlanta despite Fulton County commissioners having called for Live Nation to cancel the show in the county-owned amphitheater. A group of protesters, including a current mayoral candidate, stood outside bearing “Sex Trafficking Begins Here” and other signs and chanting “Mute R. Kelly.” Several more tour dates were canceled, including the Memphis finale, scheduled for August 27 but scrapped by the venue two days beforehand because of what it deemed “unforeseen circumstances.”

 

DeRogatis, meanwhile, was starting a new semester of classes, and he and the band in which he’s been drumming for years, called Vortis, were keeping busy. Standing outside Liar’s Club on Fullerton for an early-September gig, DeRogatis was back in the role of music scene commentator. Taking in the scrappy collection of fans and bands out late on that Friday night, he said, “This has more to do with the music in Chicago, or any city, than what happens at Lollapalooza.”

With maybe 30 people in the bar—including Carmél Carrillo, his wife since 2003, who was seated at an optimistically stocked merch table—the trio went on at 11:40 p.m. From behind his drum kit, DeRogatis joined his bandmates in chanting “We are Chicago!” as they blasted through 18 songs in a half hour, DeRogatis sustaining the four-on-the-floor beat while gazing over his glasses at the guitarist, a high school teacher named Tony Tavano, who muscled ahead despite breaking a string. By the time they’d finished, it was DeRogatis’s 53rd birthday.

A couple of weeks later, any buzz from his on- and offstage triumphs seems to have worn off, and a familiar feeling of frustration has returned. Despite all the attention his BuzzFeed articles got, he says, “not a goddamn thing” has happened. “Those girls are still there. What’s been accomplished?”

DeRogatis says he has no Kelly stories in the works at the moment, but then again, that’s how it usually goes. “I follow leads that lead to a dead end: people who are afraid to talk or are paid not to talk,” he says. “There are weeks and months of nothing, and then something pans out.”

When will he be done with his reporting on Kelly?

“I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t think the reporter’s done until the story’s ended. I don’t know what that ending is because I’m not a clairvoyant. I’ll know when I stop getting calls from people saying, ‘Will you listen to me? I need help.’ ”

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