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Reporter Who Broke R. Kelly Story: Abuse Was In 'Full View Of The World'

This has happened in full view of the world for 30 years while he sold 100 million albums, opened the winter Olympics. ... It all happened as everybody watched and nobody did anything." - Jim DeRogatis

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R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Courthouse in Chicago, Ill., on May 7, 2019, following a hearing in relation to the sex abuse allegations made against him., Nuccio Dinuzzo / Getty Images

Originally published on June 7, 2019 1:49 pm

Editor's note: This story includes graphic descriptions of an alleged sexual assault.

In November 2000, Jim DeRogatis, then music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times,received an anonymous fax in response to a review of he'd written of R&B star R. Kelly's album TP-2.com. The faxDeRogatis says, read:

I've known Robert [R. Kelly] for many years and I've tried to get him to get help, but he just won't do it. So I'm telling you about it hoping that you or someone at your newspaper will write an article and then Robert will have no choice but to get help. ... Robert's problem — and this is the thing that goes back many years — is young girls.

DeRogatis began investigating the allegations in the fax and, in December 2000, he and his writing partner, Abdon Pallasch, published a story in the Sun-Times alleging that Kelly had engaged in sex with teenage girls. Kelly has denied all allegations.

DeRogatis expected the response to the story to be explosive, but instead it was muted. It was the beginning of his coverage of a story that he would chase for the next 19 years.

In February 2002, DeRogatis received another anonymous tip, this time in the form a videotape purportedly showed Kelly having sex with and urinating on an underage girl. "It was horrifying," DeRogatis says of the tape. "The worst thing I've ever had to witness in my life."

DeRogatis handed the tape over to the police, and in May 2002 Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography, seven of which were dropped before the case went to trial. In 2008, a Chicago jury acquitted Kelly of the remaining 14 charges.

This has happened in full view of the world for 30 years while he sold 100 million albums, opened the winter Olympics. ... It all happened as everybody watched and nobody did anything." - Jim DeRogatis

Still, allegations of abuse continued to swirl. In January 2019, Lifetime aired Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries focusing on Kelly's alleged victims and their family members. In February of this year, he was charged in Cook County, Ill., on 10 counts of sexual abuse; last month, those prosecutors indicted him for a second time on new charges of sexual assault and abuse.

But DeRogatis maintains that the Illinois charges "barely scratched the surface" of Kelly's misdeeds. "This has happened in full view of the world for 30 years while he sold 100 million albums, opened the winter Olympics," he says. "It all happened as everybody watched and nobody did anything."

DeRogatis recounts his investigation into the singer in the book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.


Interview Highlights

On the decision to hand the 2002 video over to the police

We saw it as evidence of a felony, and child pornography is such a toxic crime that for us to have watched it or touched it or copied it, we were committing a felony. But more importantly, if this girl is continuing to be hurt; we cannot not act here. ... We didn't waste a lot of time talking about it. ... This needed to be in the hands of police. We did not tell them we knew who the girl was. We didn't tell them where it had come from, because I don't know to this day where it came from, who the source that delivered it was. We didn't tell them anything. We just said, "This is evidence of a crime. You need to have it."

On copies of the video being sold to the public

Shortly after we wrote about that tape, those began to be sold on the streets. And it took police six months before the indictments came in June of 2002. ... They were for sale in Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia, in obviously Chicago, they were widely being bootlegged. Kelly having sex with and urinating on this 14-year-old girl. Police announced with the indictment if you bought one of these tapes you are in possession of child pornography and you're committing a crime unless you destroy it. These tapes were everywhere.

So the rumor had been there since 1991: "R. Kelly likes them young." We had reported it out in December 2000. Now the tapes are everywhere in February 2002, and yet so many people continue to not believe what's right in front of them: that this man is preying on teenage girls.

On Kelly keeping women silent with non-disclosure agreements

The vast majority of girls I interviewed broke nondisclosure agreements and told me they had taken his money and they were now trusting me to tell their story. ... Kelly has threatened but never actually retaliated against any of the women who have spoken to me, and I will add that in 19 years of reporting on Kelly I have never had to issue a retraction or a clarification or been sued.

On how the music industry enabled Kelly

If [R. Kelly] is brought to justice now in the state of Illinois or a federal charges it is only going to be because he's broke. - Jim DeRogatis

I'd like to know how Clive Calder, the president of [one of Kelly's former labels], Jive Records, how Ed Genson, the leader of the defense team, how the managers and concert industry promoters who worked with Kelly, how they look at themselves in the mirror. Many of them have granddaughters and daughters and how they, ... by refusing to derail the gravy train, allowed this man to continue — because it was money. It was money that allowed him to prey on these girls, and the only reason he may be facing a moment of reckoning — and I say "may," because it's not over — is that, as he sang in his confessional song "I Admit" a couple of months ago, "I am a broke-ass legend." If he is brought to justice now in the state of Illinois or [on] federal charges, it is only going to be because he's broke. ...

I thought we had finished this on December 21, 2000. I thought we had finished this when he was indicted in June 2002. Here we are, at the end of 30 years of this behavior. Whatever happens next, it is too little, too late.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last week, R&B star R. Kelly was charged with 11 new counts of sexual assault and sexual abuse. In 2000, my guest, Jim DeRogatis, broke the story of how Kelly used his fame to get girls in their early teens to have sex with him. DeRogatis started his investigation after he received an anonymous fax alleging Kelly had sex with underage girls. At the time, DeRogatis was the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. He teamed up with the paper's legal reporter, Abdon Pallasch, and they followed up on the leads in the fax. Their first R. Kelly article was published in the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2000. In early 2002, DeRogatis received a very disturbing sex tape of Kelly and a 14-year-old girl. That now-infamous tape, which Kelly made, led him to be indicted on 21 counts of child pornography and tried on 14 counts. A jury found him not guilty, which enabled Kelly to continue his successful music career and continue to prey on girls.

Meanwhile, DeRogatis continued his investigation, talking to other women who had been his victims, as well as families of girls Kelly sexually assaulted. In 2017, DeRogatis published a story about how R. Kelly led what was essentially a sex cult in which girls were prevented from leaving or from communicating with their families. Now DeRogatis has written a new book called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." DeRogatis is the co-host of the public radio show and podcast "Sound Opinions" and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

Jim DeRogatis, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the years of reporting that you spent on this story. So...

JIM DEROGATIS: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Let's start with the new criminal charges against R. Kelly. What are they?

DEROGATIS: Kelly was charged with 10 counts of sexual assault stemming from three new victims and a videotape that dates from the time of the original tape that got him indicted in 2002. And then they added several more charges, 11 more charges, to one of the victims. She first broke her nondisclosure agreement with Kelly in speaking to me for BuzzFeed News in August 2017. She was 15 years old and cutting high school classes to attend Kelly's trial, and he began sexual contact with her not long after he was acquitted.

GROSS: And this is the woman identified as J.P. in the indictment but you know as Jerhonda Pace.

DEROGATIS: Yeah, she was Jerhonda Johnson when she was a teen. She's Jerhonda Pace now - a very brave, young woman, mother of three.

GROSS: So these are charges against him for aggravated criminal assault. So he not only had sex with the young women. He assaulted some of them. What was the nature of some of the assaults?

DEROGATIS: It was coercing these young women to pleasure him. You know, the problem with the Illinois charges is they barely scratched the surface of 30 years of crimes by Kelly, you know, which is - this was never a book I wanted to write. This was a dark and horrible place to live. But I think even with all of the discussion that's following "Surviving R. Kelly," you interviewed Dream Hampton, you know, we are not realizing that this behavior of pursuing young girls and, you know, sexually assaulting them begins in 1991 and is continuing right now as you and I are talking.

You know, there are two young women, 19 and 22, with him at Trump Tower Chicago where he's residing. And, you know, they're physically and mentally abused if they break his rules according to other women who witnessed it who broke away from him. It's horrifying. You know, this has happened in full view of the world for 30 years while he sold 100 million albums and, you know, opened the Winter Olympics. And it all happened as everybody watched, and nobody did anything.

GROSS: So it wasn't just sexual assault. He physically battered some of the women...

DEROGATIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Who he was with, some of the girls he was with.

DEROGATIS: Yeah. I spoke to Dominique Gardner and, you know, the world wanted to know what happened to her after she split from Kelly. She was with him for nine years, begins as a 17-year-old shortly after his acquittal in 2008. And she broke her silence and spoke to me for the first time in The New Yorker. There's 48 women whose names I know that he's abused, you know, and she said, you know, I loved him and he loved me. And when it was good, Jim, it was perfect. But, yes, he beat me with an extension cord and, yes, he choked me and, yes, he starved me and, yes, he tried to break me down.

And I think, you know, we still don't really understand this weird power and charisma of this man, this super predator. You know, there's the music. There's the fame. There's all this allure of being next to R. Kelly. Many of these women - almost all of them wanted to be singers. He was going to make them a star, like he did with Aaliyah, who he married when she was 15. But above and beyond that, Dominique Gardner looked at me and the fourth or fifth time - took her nine months of me communicating with her. She would always text me, email me, call me. I never twisted her arm, and she finally said, I'm ready to talk on the record. I'm only going to do it with you, Jim.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you started investigating the R. Kelly story. You got a one-page fax November of 2000. What did that fax say?

DEROGATIS: Terry, you know, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2000, I got a fax that said I'm sending this to you, Mr. DeRogatis, because I don't know where else to go. I had written a record review of Kelly's fifth album, "TP-2.com." And, you know, this is almost a cliche - I'm sorry to admit it. I was saying, you know, the juxtaposition between Kelly's hot and horny bedroom jams and his tearful pleas to the Lord for forgiveness were so jarring, they could cause you whiplash. This, of course, is a trope in R&B - you know, the Reverend Al Green and Prince and Marvin Gaye, sex and salvation. It's a fine line.

And the anonymous writer - I do not know to this day who this was, and I certainly tried hard to find out - said, I quote, "I guess Marvin Gaye had problems, too, but I don't think they were like Robert's. I've known Robert for many years, and I've tried to get him to get help, but he just won't do it. I'm telling you about it hoping that you or someone at your newspaper will write an article and then Robert will have no choice but to get help. Marvin Gaye had his problems, but Robert's problem - and this is a thing that goes back many years - is young girls."

So this had been a rumor. Terry, I feel guilty that when I began reporting this story with Abdon Pallasch, my colleague at the Sun-Times, in November 2000, we were already more than nine years late. You know, the first sexual contact with teenagers as documented in Tiffany Hawkins' lawsuit begins in 1991, and he marries Aaliyah in 1994 when she is 15 - illegally. You know, that this was - everybody from the tape operators at recording studios and the junior under assistant Midwest promo people, you know, at the labels to the president of Jive Records, Clive Calder, they all knew about this. There were lawsuits being filed, and they were being named as a party, the recording companies, the managers. Yeah. And I threw that fax in the slush pile, Terry, but I went home and I had Thanksgiving - long weekend. And something about it bothered me. I just read that passage to you. I'm hoping Robert will have to get help. I didn't think that a random hater would show that kind of compassion. And there were a lot of details, names and dates and facts.

GROSS: Yeah. There were leads in the facts.

DEROGATIS: Yeah, there was substantive.

GROSS: What were some of the leads in the facts?

DEROGATIS: The main one is - you know, there was a lawsuit filed by a young girl named Tiffany Hawkins. They had the date wrong. They said 1997. It was 1996. I think if we had not found that lawsuit, which had been filed on Christmas Eve, 1996, Abdon and I would have never started six weeks of 18-hour days of reporting. But the thing that really got me was you could call Sergeant Chuziki (ph) of the Chicago police - she's the one who was in charge of investigating Robert. So that whole long weekend, Thanksgiving, I'm cursing myself I didn't bring this fax home so I could reread it. I go back into the office, and I really looked at this fax. And I called CPD switchboard, and I asked for Sergeant Chuziki, and I spelled it off the fax. And they said, oh, we don't have anybody by that name. And I almost hung up. And then I said, do you have anybody with a similar Polish surname in sex crimes in - yeah. And suddenly, there's a pause, and I get connected, and a woman picks up the phone - Chizahuski (ph), special investigations.

And I said, I'm Jim DeRogatis. I'm calling from the Sun-Times about the investigation into R. Kelly. And she says - and this is, like, one of those moments in my life that I will never forget - oh, I was wondering how long it would be before somebody called me about that. I can't talk to you - and hung up. That was code for there's a hell of a story here, and I ran to see Metro editor Don Hayner, and it all starts there.

GROSS: So your colleague who covered legal issues at the Sun-Times, Abdon Pallasch, teamed up with you. And he knows how to research stuff in the legal system, and he found the filing for this lawsuit. It was, like, over 200 pages of documents in the file.

DEROGATIS: Two hundred and thirty-five pages (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah.

DEROGATIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And he copied them, and you had that as background. So where did that lead you?

DEROGATIS: There were many witnesses named in the lawsuit. You know, Abdon started digging around in court and talking to investigators. I started talking to everybody named on the witness list. And the two of us - kind of as white as white guys get - begin ringing doorbells throughout the south and west sides of the city. And the thing that was extraordinary to us is, you know, we continually were invited into people's homes. And people were continually - they were not surprised that we were asking about R. Kelly and underage girls. They were inviting us in and saying, no one has ever wanted to listen to us. Thank you for caring. And that's November.

GROSS: So you said you were knocking on doors. Whose doors were you knocking on? Like, you weren't knocking randomly on doors. What leads did you have...

DEROGATIS: No, no.

GROSS: ...Pointing you in the right direction?

DEROGATIS: There were a couple of dozen names on the witness list for the Hawkins case. And, you know, there had been, apparently, a deposition, we learned later - 7 1/2 hours of her being grilled by Kelly's attorneys. Now, that was public record. But to this day, it has disappeared from the legal files. Cook County court is notorious for being just a cesspool where things go missing and things are misfiled. And we were lucky we found 235 pages of the Hawkins case. The deposition is missing. There were no other depositions, so we began doing what a lawyer would have done and asking these people what they were going to say. And they were telling us.

GROSS: So let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is music critic Jim DeRogatis. His new book is called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." And he's been covering R. Kelly for two decades, and he broke the story of that original videotape and has been following this story ever since. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is music critic Jim DeRogatis. He has a new book called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." He's been covering R. Kelly for two decades, and he broke the R. Kelly story - the story of how he was sexually and physically abusing underage girls.

So you met the aunt of the girl described in the fax as the girl that Kelly called his goddaughter, but he was really having sex with her. So the aunt's name was Stephanie Edwards. But professionally and then personally, she's known as Sparkle. And she actually introduced R. Kelly to her niece when her niece was 12. Her niece's name is Reshona.

DEROGATIS: Reshona Landfair, yeah, and she was wracked by guilt by that, as was Kelly's manager, Barry Hankerson, for introducing Kelly to his niece, Aaliyah.

GROSS: And both of them were thinking, oh, R. Kelly will help, you know, our nieces with their careers. And...

DEROGATIS: Yeah.

GROSS: They became his sexual...

DEROGATIS: He sexually abused them as minors. Yeah. I mean, no two ways about it. And they were already at the end of a long number by that point. It was more than a dozen according to the lawsuits that were filed by Tiffany Hawkins and the other women, you know?

GROSS: So you find out about this girl who was just - who Kelly was describing as his goddaughter. The police told you they'd interviewed her twice, and she denied having any type of sexual encounter with him. Her parents wouldn't talk to the police. How did that figure into how you weighed what you were told by her aunt?

DEROGATIS: You know, we did not mention any of the relationship stuff. It's not a relationship. It's illegal sexual contact. We did not mention the illegal sexual contact in our first story, December 21, 2000, because the Landfair family would not talk to us. And Sparkle had been elliptical. I introduced my niece to Kelly. I split from Kelly. She's still hanging around. I don't think it's a good idea, but I'm not her mother or whatever. She's talking about her sister.

We knew this was happening. We had her eighth grade and high school freshman yearbook pictures. And two weeks after story No. 1 - December 21, 2000's the first story - two weeks later, I got a videotape Fed-Exed to me at the Sun-Times. It was Kelly having sex with a young woman. We had these - this collection at this point - so sad to say - in a manila folder of yearbook pictures and eighth grade school photos. It was none of those girls.

We tried for two weeks to report out who that girl was using a discreet headshot. To this day, she's never been identified. What you have to understand is Chicago was lousy on the streets, as they say, with videotapes of Kelly having sex with young women, some of them minors. So the tape that got him indicted didn't come to me till February 2002.

GROSS: So I want to get back to talking about the process of reporting this story 'cause it's a very interesting process and also a very challenging one - personally, legally, journalistically. So the first sentence of your very first story about R. Kelly reads (reading) 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.

So you expected a really big reaction. What was the reaction you got?

DEROGATIS: Deafening silence and condemnation - condemned by black radio, condemned - talk radio and the music stations, condemned by the black community, condemned by Reverend Jesse Jackson - there are bigger problems in the world than R. Kelly - condemned by the Baptist power structure. Yeah, we got a lot of hate mail. There's an extraordinary columnist, and she's still hard at it at what's left of the Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Mitchell. I was a little scared of Mary. Mary was a fierce, ferocious advocate for black women. And Mary didn't trifle, you know, with the pop music critic.

And I was walking the halls at the Sun-Times - this is a woman who, at age 41 after raising three kids in the projects, goes back to college, becomes a journalist - Columbia College Chicago where I teach now - becomes a journalist at the Sun-Times, becomes a member of the editorial board and a columnist. Mary stops and gives me a hug and says, that was a good story. You guys did good. And she wrote 28 columns in the first two years of R. Kelly reporting because she wanted the black community to stand up and pay attention for its daughters. You know, yes, he is a black superstar, a hero. Don't the girls matter?

GROSS: So how long did it take until you got the second video?

DEROGATIS: The second video was 14 months after story No. 1. It showed up on the first Friday of February 2002.

GROSS: And describe what you saw in that video.

DEROGATIS: That is the worst thing I've ever had to witness in my life.

GROSS: Which is why I want to say to our listeners this is a very disturbing video. You might have already heard the details of it. You might not have. But it's a very upsetting video, so this is a warning to listeners and especially to parents of young children who may be listening now.

DEROGATIS: So I'd heard about this thing, and as soon as - I was working in my office at home transcribing an interview with Alicia Keys, and the phone rang, and I did that, you know, I'm too busy for this journalist thing. DeRogatis, go to your mailbox.

GROSS: That's what the caller said, go to your mailbox.

DEROGATIS: Go to your mailbox, hung up. So I went to the mailbox, and there was a manila envelope with a videotape - no markings on either. Popped it - "Toy Story 2" out of my daughter's VCR. She was at school. I watch. I knew right away what it was going to be. And it's 26 minutes and 39 seconds, which is the length of a sitcom, you know, which is forever when you are watching something as disturbing as Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old, telling her what to do, how to perform for him, dance for him, urinate for him, open your mouth, he urinates, he pleasures himself on her. He calls her by name. Yeah. I mean, it was horrifying. And it goes on and on and on and on. And he adjusts the cameras. He checks the - I mean, he's directing this scene. And this girl has the disembodied look of a rape victim. It's horrifying, Terry. It's a rape, and you're witnessing a rape.

GROSS: So this is more evidence for you in your investigation. It's also criminal evidence. And you and your writing partner, Abdon Pallasch, and your editors decided to hand the tape over to the police while you continue to investigate this story. How did you decide to do that? Because a lot of people would say you're a journalist, it's your job to cover the story, not to become involved in the investigation and give evidence to the police.

DEROGATIS: You know, we saw it as evidence of a felony, and child pornography is such a toxic crime that for us to have watched it or touched it or copied it, we were committing a felony. But more importantly, if this girl is continuing to be hurt, we cannot not act here. Now, when we had this conference, we had it about the first videotape because we didn't know if that was a minor. We'd had this conversation in January 2001. So we'd crossed that Rubicon and we're condemned to this day by some journalism professors for having given the first tape to police. The second tape - we didn't waste a lot of time talking about it. You know, this was much clearer that this needed to be in the hands of police. We did not tell them we knew who the girl was. We didn't tell them where it had come from because I don't know to this day where it came from, who the source that delivered it was. We didn't tell them anything. We just said this is evidence of a crime. You need to have it.

GROSS: My guest is reporter and music critic Jim DeRogatis, author of the new book "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." After a break, we'll talk about how Kelly silenced his victims and why many of them spoke with DeRogatis. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new autobiographical novel by Ocean Vuong about a young Vietnamese immigrant. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with reporter and pop music critic Jim DeRogatis, author of the new book "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." In 2000, DeRogatis broke the story that the R&B star had sexual relations with underage girls. A couple of years later, DeRogatis broke the story of the now-infamous, disturbing video made by Kelly of him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. DeRogatis has been investigating Kelly for two decades. Last week, Kelly was charged with 11 new counts of sexual assault and abuse. In 2008, Kelly was tried on 14 counts of child pornography related to the tape DeRogatis reported on in 2002.

So there were 14 counts against R. Kelly, and he was found not guilty on all 14. What do you attribute that to since, I mean, there was a videotape? Now, the young girl in the video did not come forward. Her parents did not come forward. Her aunt, Sparkle, did testify.

DEROGATIS: At length. Yeah. There were 15 witnesses for the state who testified that the girl was the girl and Kelly was Kelly and they knew about this relationship, starting with Reshona Landfair's aunt, Sparkle, and her uncle. And, you know, the uncle's wife, who happened to be a Chicago cop. Her basketball coach. Some of her best friends. The best friends' parents.

The jury heard all of this evidence. But Reshona Landfair, her mother and father never testified. And there is another videotape of Reshona with Kelly that is part of the current Illinois indictment. She is still - according my sources, my understanding, the prosecution - not cooperating with the state of Illinois. It's the same story again as 2008. The trial took six years to go to trial between indictment and trial. Broke every record in Cook County.

And throughout that time, Judge Vincent Gaughan methodically ruled in favor of the defense on myriad motions. He would not allow any evidence of the three civil lawsuits brought by underage girls against Kelly, of the legal age woman who sued Kelly for videotaping her without her knowledge having sex with him, of the Aaliyah thing, of any payments that were made to the family of the girl on the videotape, of any pattern of buying women's silence with nondisclosure agreements in return for payments. The judge made the many crimes that Kelly had committed since 1991 - in 2008, by the time it went to court, he made it about one girl on one video. And she didn't testify. Neither did her mother and father.

And although the jury all believed that it was Kelly in that tape, because they'd never heard from a victim, they acquitted. It was also Father's Day weekend, and they didn't want to be sequestered over the holiday.

GROSS: You mentioned payments to the parents of the girl in the video. Do you have evidence that R. Kelly paid the parents to not speak about the video?

DEROGATIS: I don't report that in the book, and I don't know for a fact. And to this day, you know, no, I cannot prove that. Many sources say that the family was paid off. What the book does, Terry, is 30 years of Kelly using this tool that Harvey Weinstein used, the nondisclosure agreement - I will give you money in exchange for you promising never to tell your truth. It was an effective tool that he used for 30 years to silence women he'd hurt. I cannot prove that he paid witnesses.

But the federal investigation that's ongoing, the federal grand jury that's sitting in the Northern District of Illinois, is hearing obstruction of justice, aka payoff evidence, in addition to sex trafficking, and transporting minors across state lines and tax evasion. That's their case.

GROSS: Did most of the young women you spoke to tell you that they had signed nondisclosure agreements with R. Kelly and that they were breaking those agreements by talking to you?

DEROGATIS: Every single one. Yeah. I mean, there were some of the witnesses to the other girls' cases that did not sue him and were not paid off by him. But, yeah, the vast majority of girls I interviewed broke nondisclosure agreements and told me they had taken his money and they were now trusting me to tell their story.

GROSS: So did that mean you had to tell their story anonymously, or were they willing to face the consequences of breaking the NDA?

DEROGATIS: No. Yeah. I mean, I - when Jerhonda Pace went on the record - Jerhonda Johnson when she was a kid - went on the record in August 2017, she knowingly broke her nondisclosure agreement. Lizzette Martinez spoke to me for the first time, you know, for BuzzFeed. And her story's in depth in the book. She had never taken his money. Tiffany Hawkins, the very first girl who tried to stop him, that sexual contact begins when she's 15. It continues from 1991 to 1993, before Aaliyah. She sued in 1996, only after going to the state's attorney in Illinois and wanting to press criminal charges. They were not interested in pursuing the case. I said, why, when we finally talked? She said they were not going to believe a young black girl.

It was 19 years, Terry. That story starts with her. If it hadn't been mentioned, her lawsuit and the facts, I don't think this reporting would have ever been started. And I finally met her in January. And we had rung her bell. We had talked to her mother on the phone. We had gotten nowhere. They weren't going to break the NDA in 2000. In January of 2019, she said, I want to tell my story once, and there's nobody else I trust. I want to talk to you. Let's meet. And we did, with her attorney. And he said, I have to advise you, you know, you're breaking a nondisclosure agreement.

And we talked for three hours. And she hugged me. And I said, it had to be one of the worst days in your life when we put your name in the newspaper in December 2000 and said you had taken this man's money. And she said, no, I respect what you did.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the story she told you about her relationship with R. Kelly and what he did to her.

DEROGATIS: She said, you know, he called me the cable girl. And I said, Tiffany, what do you - cable girl? Yeah. I hooked him up. I'm not proud of this, she said. I introduced him to five or six of my 15-year-old high school mates, and he had sex with them before he and I ever had sex. And I'm going to have to live with that. When she broke away from Kelly, after singing with Aaliyah, this girl from Cottage Grove Heights on the South Side of Chicago has a voice like an angel when she's in high school. He picks her up in the high school choir class. He returns to visit his alma mater. He attended one year and never graduated. She and her two best friends sing behind Aaliyah, and she really becomes Aaliyah's best friend. And Aaliyah's parents call her house when Aaliyah is missing because she has run away to marry Kelly, thinking they'll be at Tiffany's house. And she wasn't with Tiffany.

So Tiffany had sung with Aaliyah, seen Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, London - toured the world. After splitting with Kelly and losing her best friend Aaliyah because the teenage sex and hooking him up - living with the guilt of knowing that she hooked him up with six of her 15-year-old friends, she attempted suicide. She survived. She got a mere two-thirds of $250,000 because the lawyer kept one-third. And she took that money. She squandered it. She was...

GROSS: That money was the payoff from...

DEROGATIS: The money was the payoff...

GROSS: ...R. Kelly for her silence.

DEROGATIS: ...In exchange for the nondisclosure agreement. And then she picked herself up. She had a young son by a high school boyfriend she'd reunited with. She goes to school with him in her lap. And she - you know, and she runs an ultrasound department at a hospital now. She got a master's degree in business after she got her bachelor's degree. You know, she built a life. And she said sometimes people say - who knew - you know, that was R. Kelly's money that you have a nice house, that you have a car. And she - no, no, no. She'd wasted it all. And it was nothing to begin with - two-thirds of $250,000 after the legal fee. She'd blown it, and then she built this life. And she not only survived, she thrived. And it took her 19 years, and then she decided to tell her story.

GROSS: Did any of the women who you spoke to face consequences for breaking their nondisclosure agreements with R. Kelly?

DEROGATIS: No. Kelly has threatened but never actually retaliated against any of the women who have spoken to me. And I will add that in 19 years of reporting on Kelly, I have never had to issue a retraction or a clarification or been sued.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim DeRogatis, who broke the R. Kelly story and continued to follow it for two decades. He's still following it. Now he has a new book called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is music critic and reporter Jim DeRogatis. He broke the story along with his writing partner Abdon Pallasch about R. Kelly and his sexual abuse, his assault of underage girls. He has a new book about two decades of covering that story. It's called "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly."

What are some of the questions about R. Kelly that are still unanswered that you would like answers to?

DEROGATIS: I'd like to know how Clive Calder, the president of Jive Records; how Ed Genson, the leader of the defense team; how the managers and concert industry promoters who worked with Kelly - how they look at themselves in the mirror. Many of them have granddaughters and daughters. And how - they know what he did. But they - turned a blind eye is not accurate, enabled - enabled by refusing to derail the gravy train, allowed this man to continue because it was money.

It was money that allowed him to prey on these girls. And the only reason, you know, he may be facing a moment of reckoning - and I say may because it's not over - is that, as he sang in his confessional song "I Admit" a couple of months ago, I am a broke-a** legend.

If he is brought to justice now in the state of Illinois or a federal charge, it is only going to be because he's broke.

GROSS: So can you just sum up for us where things stand now with R. Kelly and the charges against him?

DEROGATIS: So right now, today, R. Kelly faces 21 counts of criminal sexual assault in the state of Illinois with four victims, three of whom are cooperating. But the other is a videotape from - circa 1999, 2000. There's a federal grand jury - at least one - sitting in the Northern District of Illinois. There was one sitting in the Southern District of New York. The federal investigations are being spearheaded by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the IRS. Their charges are looking more at what the book is about - 30 years of sex trafficking, 30 years of obstruction of justice. Whether those charges are forthcoming, we shall see.

GROSS: Has following this story, the R. Kelly story, for two decades led you to rethink the stories of other music stars who are alleged to have relationships with young girls?

DEROGATIS: You know, certainly there is a long and ignoble history of male superstars in music treating women badly. It starts before Frank Sinatra, and it continues until well after the Ryan Adams story that recently broke in The New York Times. But I don't - I think what's unique, Terry, about Kelly is, even as an ardent student of musical history, there is not a body count of 48 women whose names I know for anyone else we can name, not Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin or Jerry Lee Lewis or anyone. I think this is truly a predator who happened to be using the guise of pop-music superstar the way some priests have, the way some teachers have. It's truly a singular case.

GROSS: You express your concern in the book that while you're reporting the story, while more and more evidence is coming out that R. Kelly is a predator, that many critics are continuing to review his music in a vacuum, in a kind of cultural vacuum, in the sense that they're not putting it in the context of the allegations against him. I'd like you to talk about that a little bit because I think that gets to a very complicated question for everybody who reviews and for listeners, too, you know, and for viewers of TV and movies and readers of books - like, does the art stand independent from the person who made it and what they've done that might be very bad in their own life?

DEROGATIS: Yeah. Well, you know, the professor side of me has looked at all the greatest philosophers of criticism - Oscar Wilde to H.L. Mencken to the late Lester Bangs - and I think that 99% of the time, the ideal of separating the art and the artist is a noble one. And certainly, we wouldn't want to impose a moral litmus test on every creator of any piece of art we consume.

And then I think about having this long conversation with Roger Ebert in the middle of all this, about "Triumph Of The Will" and how there is no way to watch that film by Leni Riefenstahl and just talk about the incredible cinematography, without talking about hundreds of thousands of young men who were about to set Europe on fire and try to wipe out populations of people.

GROSS: These were propaganda films that she made for the Nazis.

DEROGATIS: The propaganda film of all time, "Triumph Of The Will," made for the Nazi regime. "Birth Of A Nation" is similar. The lasting legacy, to me, as a critic, from #MeToo and Time's Up, is going to be us having to look at when it's impossible to separate the art and the artist. And me, as a professor or critic, I say there's no right or wrong; we just have to always, each and every one of us, consider the context.

And if you can continue to take pleasure in a Woody Allen film and I can't, or vice versa, or I can really still enjoy "Midnight In Paris," but I cannot watch "Manhattan" with the accusations made against him by his daughter - you know, I don't think there's a right or wrong, but I think if we take art important - as something important, as the most important thing in life - certainly, that's how I look at music - I think you have to consider these things.

GROSS: Can you listen to R. Kelly's music now?

DEROGATIS: No, no. And I have done it strictly - it sounds like hyperbole - I've done it in the same way I had to watch that videotape; I have got to do this to tell this story right. But no, it triggers me in a way that it triggers these women. I mean, they all have told me, I am at a backyard barbecue, I am in church, I am at a relative's high school graduation, and I hear this music, and it makes me physically ill. But that's me. I don't expect anybody else to tune it out, but I do expect you to be aware of it and of how this man has hurt so many women.

And you know, I mean, you have your morals; I have mine. I'm not going to prescribe anyone else's, especially not when it comes to art. But I think it was wrong for so many of my critical peers, for so long, to literally give it a snide, passing - despite all that unpleasantness, R. Kelly is a genius. And I mean, literally, those words were written dozens of times - despite all that unpleasantness. You are talking about destroying the lives of many underage girls. That's not unpleasantness. That's a horror.

GROSS: Jim DeRogatis, I want to thank you for being on our show again, and thank you for your reporting.

DEROGATIS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jim DeRogatis is the author of "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly." You can hear DeRogatis on the public radio show and podcast, "Sound Opinions," which he co-hosts with fellow pop-music critic Greg Kot. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new autobiographical novel by Ocean Vuong, who emigrated from Vietnam with his mother when he was 2. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO & RAVA QUARTET'S "L'AVVENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.