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Veteran reporter Jim DeRogatis is no stranger to strong allegations against R. Kelly: He’s the reporter who in 2000 received the sex tape that prosecutors alleged showed the singer having sex with a 14-year-old girl, and which led to Kelly’s highly publicized 2008 trial on child-pornography charges. And while that case was ultimately dismissed, multiple allegations of sexual misconduct have surrounded the singer since the mid-1990s — including his brief and illegal marriage to singer Aaliyah, when she was just 15 — and DeRogatis has reported on all of them.
Thus it was not entirely surprising to see his byline on Monday morning’s bombshell, a BuzzFeed News article wherein three sets of parents claim that Kelly is holding their daughters in an abusive “cult.” The new report claims that the young women fell under Kelly’s sway after being brought to him by their parents in an effort to further their musical careers, but that he then “brainwashed” them.
According to parents and the former associates, Kelly keeps several young women at his homes in Atlanta and Chicago; replaces their cell phones with ones specifically used to communicate with him and forbids them to contact their families; requires they call him “daddy” and ask permission to leave the studio or their residences; films their sexual encounters with him; and abuses them physically and verbally. The three former Kelly associates who support the parents’ claims — Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee — have gone on the record to support the parents’ claims. While some of the parents, who have not seen their daughters for many months, have contacted police, the young women claim that they are not being held against their wills. (Reps and an attorney for R. Kelly had not responded to Variety‘s requests for comment at press time.)
The report withholds the identities of the young women but claims BuzzFeed News has verified their identities — and in the interview with DeRogatis below, the writer says he expects the parents to hold a press conference imminently.
Why are the young women named in the story anonymous?
The parents intend to come forward — they’ve always wanted to, but we at BuzzFeed would not name the victims of domestic abuse so we are respecting their privacy by not using the parents’ names in the story. But [Jones, Mack and McGee] were fearless in speaking on the record with their names — two women who were part of the “cult,” as one woman and the parents call it, who had sexual relationships with Kelly and left, and the third woman on the record is a woman who worked for a year and a half for him as a personal assistant. But probably not for long — the parents have said they’re going to hold a press conference in Atlanta, possibly very soon.
How did this latest development in the story reach you?
As you know, I’ve been on this story since 2000 — the videotape that got him indicted and tried and acquitted came to me when I was a reporter at the Chicago Sun Times, and because of all that work, the two parents from Georgia came to me in November. The Georgia parents’ daughter stopped going to college and began living with Kelly midway through her fall semester, in October or November of 2016, and they’ve only heard from her with two texts and seen her once in that time, and that’s the entirety of their communication with their daughter.
If any of the accusations against R. Kelly are true, how does he continue to get away with it?
I think there are two factors here. One is that parents know he was acquitted [in 2008] but they don’t necessarily know the long, detailed history of the many accusations from civil lawsuits dating back 25 years. They want to believe the best of a man whose music they love. All of these young women were promised musical careers, like Kelly gave Aaliyah — and let’s not forget the history there, he married Aaliyah illegally at age 15 under a falsified Cook County [Illinois] wedding license at a hotel near O’Hare airport, and that marriage was annulled and they were separated. None of that evidence was ever brought up at his child-pornography trial. So the parents believe that they will have a career for their daughters and the daughters want that very much, and they trusted a man that parents say they perhaps should not have trusted.
Number two, the music industry continues to enable him. He appeared on Jimmy Fallon on December 23 singing Christmas songs. He’s got an endorsement deal with Alexander Wang. He headlined a show Saturday night in Merillville, Indiana; he’s on tour today. Lady Gaga made a song and video with him [“What Do U Want”] three years ago — it doesn’t stop, and people are not questioning whether they should be in bed with him. A representative from his record company did not respond to requests for comment; we have three cellphone numbers for Kelly, he did not answer; and his civil attorney gave us a one-paragraph answer that is in the story. So I don’t think the record industry was unaware — they were certainly aware and I don’t think they cared.
How is that possible?
Look, I’m a fat, white 52-year-old guy. It’s been said by African-American scholars who’ve written about this, most notably Mark Anthony Neal, that if it had been one white girl, this would have been a different story. But it continues to be young African-American women that he’s preying on, and I can’t think of anybody who the media cares less about. It’s horrifying to me. These parents are devastated, they’ve been living in hell for a year and a half.
There were photos of Kelly in prison togs in 2002, public sentiment seemed to be dramatically against him, and yet the case dragged on and he was acquitted. How did that happen?
It’s rape culture. The fact that the girl in videotape and her mother and father never testified in the trial — despite three dozen other people testifying: relatives, basketball coaches, ministers, teachers, friends, best friend’s families — they never heard from the young woman in the videotape. She continued to be part of this R. Kelly “cult,” as it’s been described, along with her best friend from high school. So I think the fact that we’ve never met the young woman in that video tape — who was allegedly 14 years old when she was having a sexual relationship with R. Kelly — it remains in the realm of gossip and Dave Chappelle skits and jokes in the “Barbershop” movies. We’re not thinking about the very real damage to these young women.
And why other reporters — except for Jennifer Vineyard at MTV News [in the 2000s and] Jessica Hopper for The Village Voice — have never followed up like they did with the Bill Cosby story is an indictment on entertainment reporting, in my opinion. The culture of celebrity journalism, the culture of the music industry, and the fact that African-American victims in general are often not believed in domestic and sexual-abuse [incidents] created a perfect storm of things that have not yet produced a Bill Cosby moment for R. Kelly.
Also, there’s a judge in Chicago who heard that case, Vincent Gaughan. It took six-and-a-half years to go to trial, it broke all records, and every 6-8 weeks the judge would convene the prosecution and defense in the courtroom for a status update. He would immediately retire to closed chambers, and everything that happened every six to eight weeks for six-and-a-half years remains sealed. The Chicago Sun Times, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago public radio sued to get those transcripts opened, it lost in the Illinois appellate court and the Illinois Supreme Court. So nine-tenths of what happened in the R. Kelly trial remains sealed from the public record, and to this day we do not know what other evidence has been prohibited from open court. In my opinion — based on research and lots of evidence — Kelly has gotten considerations from the legal system that no other citizen would have gotten.
Have you tried to speak with the girl in the videotape?
Oh my god yes, we were on her doorstep when we got the video. She’s never spoken to the media. She has a story to tell, whether she ever decides to tell it.
But the parents of the young women who are in the “cult” have no legal recourse?
No, and they’re incredibly frustrated and they’ve done everything you would think a parent could do. They went to police in Florida, Georgia and Chicago, they have had well-being checks conducted and the women come out and say we want to be here and they’re of legal age, so the police and lawyers can’t do anything. But the Georgia parents have spoken for several hours with the FBI, which will neither confirm nor deny an investigation to us, but [the parents are] optimistic that perhaps the FBI can help.