Anyone who has followed the harrowing allegations against R&B singer, songwriter, and producer R. Kelly should be familiar with Jim DeRogatis. For two decades, the Chicago-based journalist has remained steadfast in his dogged pursuit for the truth about accusations of pedophilia, child pornography, statutory rape, and sexual and psychological abuse levied against Kelly by dozens of women, girls, and their families. Without DeRogatis’s years of committed reporting, there is no question Kelly would still be heralded as one of the most celebrated icons of contemporary R&B and a fixture of the mainstream American musical landscape. Soulless is the essential account of the case against R. Kelly and a book that only DeRogatis could have written.
Part biography, part investigative exposé, part cultural critique, Soulless provides an extensively researched account of the Kelly case and documents, in painstaking detail, the “pattern of predatory behavior and payoffs” (144) that have characterized the artist’s prolific career. Expanding upon his previous reporting, DeRogatis offers new insight and evidence gleaned, in part, from interviews with dozens of key actors in the Kelly saga to provide an ambitious and astute assessment of the full scope of Kelly’s misconduct. Organized in three parts, Soulless follows a rough chronology of Kelly’s evolution as both an artist and a predator, structuring the larger story around key moments in the development of this story, both as they occurred in the timeline of events and as they were revealed via DeRogatis’s ongoing investigative work.
In Part I, DeRogatis returns to the moment his personal and professional life first became intertwined with Kelly in November 2000 when an anonymous fax landed on his desk at the Chicago Sun-Times with a plea to cover Kelly’s abusive behavior. DeRogatis recounts how his reporting would soon come to find that Kelly’s history of harm—his “problem [with] young girls” (1)—was by then already a pattern of behavior nearly a decade long. Part I also digs into Kelly’s marriage to R&B singer Aaliyah, his 15-year-old protégé, and the subsequent dissolution of their personal and professional partnership. Part II begins with the notorious second VHS tape that was sent anonymously to DeRogatis in 2002, which led to an indictment of twenty-one counts of child pornography against Kelly and chronicles his career and cultural standing through the initial charges and his ultimate acquittal in 2008—“the most successful and lucrative period of Kelly’s long career” (139). In Part III, DeRogatis delves into allegations first brought to him by two concerned parents claiming their daughter was one of several young women living with and being controlled by the artist in his Atlanta and Chicago homes. DeRogatis details his reporting on these allegations, which produced a bombshell Buzzfeed exposé in 2017 and paved the way for the subsequent #MuteRKelly movement and six-part dream hampton-produced Lifetime docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, which together led to new charges of sexual assault and abuse for which Kelly now awaits trial.
Soulless is not merely a report of one musical hero’s epic fall from grace. It is also—and perhaps more importantly—an indictment of the individual, structural, and systemic failures within the music industry, the media, and the legal and judicial systems that enabled Kelly’s predation to persist for decades. Indeed, as much as Soulless reads as the monumental culmination of DeRogatis’s years of investigative reporting, it also serves as a thoughtful address to ongoing questions pertaining to why this case took so long to be recognized by other media outlets and what allowed the music industry—labels and fans—to knowingly overlook the recurring atrocities of one of its stars. In this way, Soulless raises larger questions of intersectionality (although not referenced by name) to highlight the myriad ways in which interlocking systems of power relegated Kelly’s survivors—almost exclusively Black women and girls—to the margins, rendering them both silent and invisible. Through his resolute reporting, DeRogatis claims he “learned the names of forty-eight women whose lives R. Kelly has significantly damaged and sometimes destroyed…and [can] put the number of people who knew about or witnessed that damage in the thousands” (263). Indeed, as DeRogatis articulates, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young Black women. Nobody” (237).
At the same time, Soulless recounts the intersection, and now inseparability, of these two men, situating DeRogatis more fully as the journalist who first brought this story to life. By interweaving updated coverage with biographical background, DeRogatis further offers insight to situate his tenure as the de facto journalistic voice on the Kelly beat in conversation with the larger narrative of the cultural and criminal case against Kelly. As DeRogatis clarifies throughout the book, this was not a story that he sought out as the Chicago Sun-Times music critic, but that “it had chosen [him]” (93). As Soulless clarifies, it would choose him again and again as he became trusted to hold and pursue sources’ stories, tips, and evidence. It is also a candid behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the editorial boardrooms that vetted and published—or, ultimately passed on—DeRogatis’s work, while also a recognition of his fellow reporters, including most prominently the Sun-Times’ Abdon Pallasch and Mary Mitchell, whose careers have also been tied to Kelly through their support of and contributions to this larger story.
In providing readers with an inside look at the journalistic practices and editorial decisions that ultimately shaped certain aspects of the Kelly coverage, DeRogatis’s aim is not simply to recount the step-by-step trajectories of articles from initial tip to publication. Rather, it is a critical reflection on his own missteps or oversights as a reporter that have become clear with the benefit of hindsight and the emergence of new evidence. DeRogatis also provides space for transparency about the larger ethical concerns that arose throughout his reporting, such as the Sun-Times’ decision to share the infamous VHS tape with the Chicago Police, or the oft-presented question of whether one can or should morally separate great art from bad artists. DeRogatis further details the complicated role he has played in the Kelly case as a journalist in search of the truth and a key witness called to testify in Kelly’s child pornography hearings.
Soulless also functions as a snapshot of Kelly’s life off-stage, offering a revealing picture of Robert Sylvester Kelly before stardom and his artistic evolution as R. Kelly, a man who, DeRogatis argues in no uncertain terms, “will come to stand as the worst [predator] in the history of popular music” (265−66). DeRogatis delves into early and complicated relationships with women in Kelly’s life, from his mother and his half-sister to his beloved high school choir instructor and recounts Kelly’s own experiences of sexual abuse and the early outlet that music provided for Kelly as a young boy. With this, Soulless reflects upon the importance of Chicago in Kelly’s individual growth and artistic identity, a mutual and localized affinity that upheld him as a seemingly untouchable “hometown hero” (43), who not only “made it,” but had chosen to stay. Kelly’s deeply intertwined relationship with Chicago is further complicated as DeRogatis maps out the places of the city that transformed from landmarks of Kelly’s childhood and adolescence to sites he revisited to “‘cruise’ young girls” (64).
Soulless offers a rigorous examination of the case against R. Kelly and a scathing rebuke of the individuals, industries, and systems that complied with Kelly’s predatory behavior. It calls out the structural roadblocks that delimited DeRogatis’s dogged attempt to give voice to Kelly’s survivors—what he articulates as “journalism’s epic failure” (227). Soulless is thus a pertinent case study in investigative journalism and a critique of the possibilities and failures of the press. One such possibility is an investment in what DeRogatis terms “investigative criticism,” a reimagining of what journalism can and should be, eschewing the brackets that separate investigative journalism from artistic criticism to make space for in-depth examinations of art that necessarily account for the socio-historical contexts and actors from which such art emerges. “It’s never just music” (227), he argues. “We all need to be investigative critics, to think about whether the art we embrace lives up to the ideals by which we live, and to call it out when it doesn’t” (267). As the case against R. Kelly continues to unfold, we are sure to see more from DeRogatis, whose commitment to this story—and to the girls and women whose lives it has forever changed—has not wavered since that anonymous fax first crossed his desk in 2000.