In Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, Jim DeRogatis, the journalist that dedicated much of his career to investigating R. Kelly’s sex crimes, recounts the long journey from an anonymous tipoff he received in 2000 to Kelly’s conviction and sentencing to thirty years in federal prison.
Over the course of nearly 300 pages, DeRogatis details the reporting he began while working as a music critic at the Sun-Times, when he received a fax claiming that “Robert’s problem is young girls.” DeRogatis would go on to become the face of the investigative journalism that exposed Kelly’s crimes: prominent enough to be called as a witness to Kelly’s 2008 trial for child pornography charges, and even to be called out by name in the singer’s 2018 song, “I Admit.”
DeRogatis paints a disturbing picture of a man who, surrounded by enablers, methodically pursued underage girls and young women, seducing them into controlling relationships that included physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as production of non-consensual pornography. He also provides important insight into how crimes such as statuatory rape complicate journalistic processes, the emotional impact of interviewing survivors about their abuse, and the systems that allowed R. Kelly to carry out his crimes over a decades-long period.
So why was Kelly not stopped from hurting women earlier? DeRogatis’s front row seat allows him to interrogate the multifaceted answer to this question, and to directly condemn many of the singer’s main enablers, as well as the legal bumbling that allowed him to avoid indictment in 2008, when a tape emerged of Kelly raping an underage girl.
Once Kelly finally finds himself in court in 2008, Soulless introduces some near-cartoonish villains. The judge, Vincent Gaughan, is a “good-old-boy” known for his “short fuse” who, after returning from Vietnam in his 20s, had been arrested on several charges related to firing an M1 rifle out of his bedroom window into neighbors’ homes. He apparently faced no legal consequences.
After a six year delay—during which Kelly released one of his all-time biggest hits, “Ignition (Remix)”—Gaughan refused to permit submission of any evidence not directly related to the tape, including the myriad accusations against the singer, physical evidence from a separate victim, and records of Kelly’s illegal marriage to then-fifteen-year-old singer Aaliyah in 1994. When the jury found out about the other evidence later, one member said, “if they had presented it, who knows what we would have done.”
Gaughan seemed to revel in the high-profile trial (he also presided over another historic Chicago case: the murder trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for shooting teenager Laquan McDonald in the back sixteen times, killing him as he fled.)
Susan E. Loggans, the personal injury lawyer who encouraged early R. Kelly accusers to take settlements instead of pursuing criminal or civil cases, is portrayed as a dubious ally to the young women who sought her counsel. Loggans is quoted as calling underage sex laws “two-sided,” because teenagers are independently sexually active, and expressing concern about phony legal claims against powerful men. In fact, DeRogatis makes the case that Loggans served as part of the machine that didn’t take Kelly accusations seriously as criminal acts, thereby enabling his ongoing abuse.
DeRogatis provides ample reminders of the sexist, slut-shaming, and racist language that was used at the time to describe Kelly’s victims, both in the courts and by his supporters—language that, of course, still exists today in similar situations. In one particularly cringe-inducing moment, R. Kelly’s defense attorney, nepo-baby (and later Blago defender) Sam Adam Jr. claimed that to indict Kelly on child pornography charges would be to call the underage victim “a whore!”
A longtime music critic who got his start interviewing Lester Bangs (his idol, and the subject of one of his books), DeRogatis spent fifteen years at the Sun-Times, during which the Kelly investigation unexpectedly fell into his lap. The personal anecdotes that he weaves into the telling of the decades-long process of investigating Kelly show how prominent this undertaking became in DeRogatis’s professional, and even personal, life.
Some more personalized subplots, such as DeRogatis’s involvement in Kelly’s first trial, are interesting to read about, and explore the ethical and professional standards of journalists in such situations. DeRogatis, determined to protect his sources’ anonymity, eventually decided against such dramatic options such as “going underground,” and took the stand, citing his First and Fifth Amendments to evade questions from the defense.
Other subplots are less engaging. Clearly, DeRogatis was hurt by the years of disregard and criticism made by other music journalists of his dogged reporting on R. Kelly, and he relishes the chance to point out the journalists that eventually apologized for their lack of rigor on the subject. Make no mistake, DeRogatis deserves the credit: he was drawing attention to Kelly accusations for twenty years while other major music critics ignored or made light of the allegations. Sometimes, however, DeRogatis’s writing is disorganized in a way that reduces those feelings to personal gripes.
The lacking narrative structure diminishes the general experience of reading Soulless. It sometimes feels like a long-winded conversation with a reporter so familiar with a case that he cannot remember which are key contextual details, and which are superfluous. DeRogatis has a habit of introducing a character by name without clarifying their importance to the story, then doubling back to add in necessary details, which can muddy the reader’s understanding of relationships, chronology, and the significance of revelations as they appear.
To his credit, DeRogatis does not shy away from the hardest questions. Even after years of investigation, he never became inured to the suffering of R. Kelly’s survivors, and still refuses to dismiss the ongoing permissiveness of the music community despite their allegations. The list of artists that worked with Kelly long after he was credibly accused of rape and assault is shocking, and includes Phoenix, Ciara, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, and Lady Gaga (a survivor herself, DeRogatis notes). Reading about how recently many of these collaborations occurred is enough to turn anyone’s stomach—especially when accusations date back decades before the collaborations took place.
DeRogatis does not even let himself off the hook. While most of his criticism is rightly directed towards the people who aided and abetted Kelly, he also shows awareness of his own moments of clumsiness. This includes a correction he and his reporting partner, Abdon Pallasch, made to the first article they published about Kelly’s accusations in 2000: instead of referring to the singer “having sex” with underage girls, he writes they should have called the action rape.
In a 2013 interview, more than a decade after he began his investigation, DeRogatis reflected upon the general ambivalence surrounding R. Kelly’s abuse allegations: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is that nobody matters less to our society than young Black women. Nobody.” This statement eventually made its way through Twitter to the parents of one of Kelly’s later victims, tipping them off about DeRogatis’s ongoing investigation of Kelly. The parents reached out to DeRogatis for help in connecting with their daughter, and ultimately kicked off another wave of accusations: these ones involving mostly of-age young women who had become entrapped in a highly abusive, cult-like environment with the star. The sequence of events adds a caveat to DeRogatis’s statement: perhaps young Black women are not valued in society at large—but the people who love them will go to impossible lengths to keep them safe.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the entire R. Kelly saga is its longevity. Kelly faced numerous accusations, a very public 2008 trial for child pornography charges, the #MuteRKelly music boycott, and ongoing reporting from DeRogatis and others throughout the highest points of his career. He feigned interest in teenagers’ musical ambitions, inviting them to his studio, or simply sent members of his crew to press his phone number into the girls’ hands. Then would begin a cycle of abuse that included sexual assault and emotional conditioning that many Kelly survivors describe as “brainwashing.”
Soulless ends with the author reflecting on his dueling identities as music critic and investigative journalist, and proposing the concept of “investigative criticism,” which he likens to the ethos of Lester Bangs and Roger Ebert. No art, DeRogatis argues, happens in a vacuum—and context matters, particularly in our era of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and ongoing assaults on democracy.
“Politics, sex, religion, morality, social justice—any issue you can name is in the art,” DeRogatis writes. “It’s never just music.”Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly is not a book to read for fun. But the stories of the many women, girls, and boys that R. Kelly harmed—and Jim DeRogatis’s tireless work to report them—are important testaments to a society that has permitted powerful men to abuse their position with impunity. Listening to them constitutes a promise to never let this type of abuse happen in front of all of our eyes again.
Sage Behr is a writer and clown originally from Iowa City. She has reviewed books for South Side Weekly since 2021.