R. Kelly is back in the news thanks to Surviving R. Kelly, a powerful six-part documentary that became a social media sensation. If you didn’t know it before, it’s now clear: The Kelly tale is uniquely sordid. Most notoriously, he was put on trial in Chicago in 2008 after a tape surfaced that prosecutors said showed him having sex with, and urinating on, a 14-year-old girl. But it continues to this day, with new accusations made to police that he is keeping a number of women in his various homes cut off from family and friends.
A parallel story unfolded in journalism over the last two decades. In this one, a reporter from Chicago breaks the Kelly child sex allegations and pursues them relentlessly — even as an influential critic, from his perch in the cultural section of the nation’s most powerful newspaper, in his own relentless fashion lauds Kelly over and over again as a pop genius, and downplays the reports coming out of Chicago.
In 2000, Jim DeRogatis, a writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, began looking into allegations he’d been hearing about a superstar who’d been raised on the city’s South Side. At the time, R. Kelly was known as a protean pop auteur who’d produced the uplifting megahit “I Believe I Can Fly” — and also rougher R&B tracks filled with innuendo and raw sexuality.
DeRogatis, the paper’s pop critic, teamed up with Abdon Pallasch, a court reporter at the paper, and produced a bombshell story in December of that year detailing charges that Kelly had been having sex with underage girls.
The pair’s pursuit of the story paid off, in a way, a year later, when DeRogatis received an anonymous package — a VHS tape that showed someone who looked a lot like R. Kelly having sex with a girl who looked an awful lot like the daughter of one of the members of his entourage. The tape ended with Kelly urinating in the girl’s mouth.
The girl was identified by family members as being 14 at the time, and she was referred to by name by Kelly on the tape. The story DeRogatis and Pallasch wrote about the tape soon produced legal charges against Kelly, which the star fought aggressively. It took local prosecutors six years to get him on trial.
Kelly’s legal team said that it was not Kelly on the tape, then suggested that he’d been inserted into it by computer manipulation. They argued that the man on the tape was actually the singer’s brother. Then they argued that the girl was an adult. When his case went to trial, prosecutors could not get the young woman in the video or her family to testify. They opted to charge Kelly with making child pornography. The tape was shown publicly to jurors; one woman testified that she knew the tape featured Kelly and the particular girl because the witness had herself participated in group sex several times with the pair, which the star had also filmed.
But prosecutors could not convince the jury, and in June 2008, he was acquitted. Kelly and his team have always denied that he had sex with minors or that he filmed children having sex, and all of the other assault and abuse charges against him.
Today, 10 years later, he’s back in the news thanks to Surviving R. Kelly, which premiered on Lifetime two weekends ago and has been running incessantly on the channel since. The six hours of documentary consist in large part of on-the-record testimonies of women — by turns scorching and heartbreaking — who say Kelly approached them when they were underage and then assaulted or abused them.
The six episodes “feature women who described being controlled or abused by him,” the New York Times reported, “often when they were teenagers, as well as associates and relatives of the singer."
What the Times story doesn’t say is the role, or rather the lack of one, the Times itself played in the R. Kelly story.
The New York Times played a special role. One of its music critics, Kelefa Sanneh, emerged as R. Kelly’s most influential critical champion.
The DeRogatis exposés came before the arrival of Facebook and Twitter. While Kelly’s eventual trial in 2008 was covered widely, the sensational stories in the Sun-Times in the years before the trial were overlooked by many publications. Kelly’s predilections were no secret — the comedian Dave Chappelle produced a devastating parody of Kelly on his hit Comedy Central show in 2003 — but many outlets, perhaps challenged by even how to report the facts of the case in a way that would not induce readers to lose their breakfasts, passed on the story or reported on it elliptically.
The New York Times, however, played a special role. One of its music critics, Kelefa Sanneh, emerged as R. Kelly’s most influential critical champion during this time, arguing again and again that Kelly was a pop visionary of the highest order. The stories he wrote — two or three substantive pieces annually in the years before his trial, a major coverage investment by the Times — are a journalistic case study in the challenges of how to write about an artist’s art at a time when the artist’s life has become toxic.
Sanneh chose to downplay the charges against Kelly, and even to portray the singer as a victor over his troubles, because he kept producing successful records and tours.
The result was a bizarre ongoing skein of coverage. Reams of marveling prose about the singer’s talents were mixed with sotto voce asides about sex and legal troubles. These were always described vaguely and then buried with more verbiage of helpless admiration.
The stories, and their headlines, were written in a tone of amused surrender. “R&B’s Eccentric, Unbowed,” read one typical headline.
Here’s a passage from Sanneh in a 2006 concert review, “R. Kelly at Radio City: Songs Served With a Side Order of Ham”:
Mr. Kelly, the legendarily freaky R&B star, long ago established himself as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation. The sex scandal that threatened to derail his career in 2002 ended up doing the opposite: it made him more productive, more successful and, somehow — maybe because more people began paying attention to his excellent music — more respected than ever before.
Here are many of the elements that would characterize the Times’ coverage of Kelly. Sanneh made it sound as if the sex scandal were over, when of course Kelly had not yet been brought to trial. And the assertion that Kelly was more respected than ever was dubious at best.
A few paragraphs down, Sanneh mentioned the scandal again, but elided the nature of the tape:
Mr. Kelly’s career is a prime example of how to survive scandal. After the discovery of a pornographic videotape that the police say shows him with a minor, Mr. Kelly returned with some of the raciest songs of his career; he didn’t sound ashamed, so people weren’t ashamed to listen. During Tuesday’s show, he was more comedian than lothario. His voice was strong but not overpowering — he had to save his breath for the asides.
Again the scandal is mentioned only in the context of Kelly triumphing over it. And Sanneh didn’t mention that a key tool Kelly had to “survive scandal” was the major news outlets that weren’t telling readers what the scandal was about.
Long before this, more and more stories had emerged about Kelly. DeRogatis wrote a 2002 GQ magazine piece featuring on-the-record testimony of teenagers describing how Kelly and his entourage picked them up at a Chicago McDonald’s as a start to sexual relationships. The piece details many instances of abhorrent behavior; one 16-year-old said she was later coerced into getting an abortion — a claim Kelly’s attorneys denied. (I knew DeRogatis well when I lived in Chicago, and created the radio show Sound Opinions with him in the 1990s; his R. Kelly stories came out after I had left the city.)
Various lawsuits alleging sex with minors had been filed against the singer as well. (Most were settled out of court.) In June 2002, even as Kelly was being indicted in Chicago for the sex tape, he was arrested again in Florida, after police found nude pictures of young girls on the singer’s camera. (A judge ruled that the material had been seized improperly, and the case was thrown out.)
The Times kept publishing flattering portraits of Kelly, always with the allegations downplayed and bracketed with positive prose. The story by Sanneh I quoted above was not unusual. Here he is again reviewing a 2007 Kelly album:
Five years ago a sex scandal threatened to dethrone [Kelly], but in the end it merely gave him more of what every star needs: attention and motivation. A double-entendriffic comeback hit, “Ignition (Remix),” marked his return in 2003; since then he has affirmed his position as one of the era’s greatest and weirdest pop stars. He still faces 14 counts of child pornography, stemming from a widely circulated video that allegedly shows him with an under-age girl. (The trial hasn’t begun.) But you’d never guess it from “Double Up,” which might be the most cocksure album of his career.
Sometimes Sanneh didn’t even bother to mention the legal problems at all, as in a 2007 roundup of R. Kelly guest appearances on some then-current R&B tracks. Worse, the piece took the Kelly whitewashing to another level. Mentioning the singer Ciara, Sanneh wrote, “She is often compared to Mr. Kelly’s onetime protégé Aaliyah, who died in 2001.” What a nice guy R. Kelly is, an unknowing reader might think. He mentors young singers. How protégériffic!
Ciara fans might well have hoped the similarity to Kelly’s mentorship ended there. Sanneh didn’t tell readers that the singer Aaliyah had joined Kelly’s label at the age of 12, and that at 15 she was married to Kelly, with her age falsified on the marriage certificate. Her parents managed to separate their daughter from Kelly soon after. Kelly denied the charge despite the publication of the marriage certificate, and the marriage was later annulled.
In August 2007, in a piece about Kelly’s oddball film project, Trapped in the Closet, Sanneh reported that Kelly was “giddier than ever.” Here, too, Kelly’s legal troubles are described backhandedly amid upbeat riffing on Kelly’s unstoppable talents:
Listen closely, and you can hear Mr. Kelly chuckling too. Ever since the appearance in 2002 of a video that the police say shows him with an under-age girl, his jokes have grown bigger and sillier. Maybe that’s an expression of his relief at the way his career has rebounded from scandal. Or maybe it’s an expression of his continuing anxiety about his forthcoming trial on charges of child pornography. (It is scheduled to start Sept. 17 in Chicago.) Or maybe it’s just a phase.
If it is a phase, it’s an extraordinarily entertaining one.
The world was different in the 2000s; the Times’ influence in cultural matters was even more powerful than it is today. I watched the Kelly saga unfold at the time — I lauded DeRogatis’s reporting and charted the lack of coverage elsewhere in my blog, Hitsville. It was dispiriting to watch. Vibe magazine produced some original reporting on Kelly — the magazine produced the Kelly–Aaliyah marriage certificate, for example.
But otherwise I’m not aware of any publication that advanced the story, and most if not all followed the Times’ lead and referred to the details of the Kelly case elliptically. A review in Rolling Stone by another Times critic, Jon Pareles, of Kelly’s 2004 album Happy People/U Saved Me laid down a template: Kelly’s legal problems are mentioned in passing, and the overall tone is upbeat and positive. This review also agreeably takes at face value Kelly’s supposed religious side: “The songs … use gospel’s strategic buildups to sweep Kelly toward faith.”
When it comes to downplaying the allegations against the star, it’s hard to tell whether the Times was sharing the approach of other publications or setting a “let’s not ask too many questions” example that other outlets followed.
A then-major publication like Entertainment Weekly might or might not mention Kelly’s legal problems in its reviews — but even when it did, the disclosure gave readers little sense of the breadth of the allegations against him. I couldn’t find any serious coverage of the Kelly affair in Billboard; what is findable are reviews of the singer’s albums like this one, which doesn't mention the legal problems at all. It’s not hard to find other newspapers writing on Kelly and not even bothering to mention the charges against him, like this Boston Globe review.
You could read similar things in Pitchfork, the ultrahip online magazine. Here’s a 2010 review of the Kelly album Untitled, displaying the same hallmarks of Times coverage. The scandal is mentioned, but only in terms of Kelly’s triumph over it:
What a decade it’s been for Kelly — he’s thrived in a curious way, morphing from true blue 1990s R&B icon into an increasingly strange and beguiling pop culture oddball. He is known by more people now than ever, though not always for the best reasons. ... He released bold albums (Chocolate Factory), brave albums (Happy People/U Saved Me), and bad albums (TP.3 Reloaded). … He had sex in the kitchen, sex in the jungle, sex with your girlfriend. And on June 13, 2008, Kelly battled and beat child pornography charges. Which, to many, is all that matters now.
But Untitled isn’t sunk by the vestiges of scandal…
By the following year, Pitchfork could review a Kelly album and not mention the allegations at all. It all created an atmosphere in which Kelly was a winner because everyone was calling him one.
So while other outlets gave Kelly a pass as well, it’s hard to imagine they could have gotten away with it if the Times had treated the story with the seriousness it deserved. Instead, its coverage was by far the most egregious of the time — set apart first by the sheer volume, and second by its unremitting enthusiasm and superficiality.
Indeed, as the 2000s went on, Sanneh’s drumbeats hit a crescendo. In November 2007, the Times sent him to Georgia to tell us that Kelly, embarking on a new tour, was “thrilling, hilarious, and downright mystifying, sometimes all at once.”
Today, in the #MeToo era, some of the things he chose to highlight come across as tone deaf, to say the least: “‘What happens in the building stays in the building,’ [Kelly] sang, softly and prettily,” Sanneh wrote.
Kelly’s legal problems don’t come up until the ninth paragraph of this review:
Right now, [Kelly] also happens to be a criminal defendant: He still faces 14 child-pornography charges in his native Chicago, stemming from a widely circulated video that reportedly shows him with an under-age girl. That scandal, which erupted in 2002, once threatened to end Mr. Kelly’s career, especially since his songs don’t make it easy to change the subject. He survived it in spectacular form, mainly by refusing to be cowed. If anything, his raunchiest songs got even more outlandish in the years after the report broke; what else could fans do but shrug and grin and sing along?
Here again, what Kelly does on that video is not described. (In fact, the Times barely ever mentioned the humiliating end to the video, even after it was played in court for jurors.) Instead, Kelly is described as having survived a scandal — in “spectacular form,” no less — that he was in fact still fighting against, and it must have pleased the singer and his PR team that the nation’s paper of record was characterizing it in that fashion.
In the review of the Georgia show, Sanneh went on to ridicule criticisms of Kelly. (“The local clergy was not amused.”) It reminded me of another aspect of the paper’s coverage: There didn’t seem to be any voices challenging the singer.
If the Times had wanted to balance the coverage out, the paper could have asked DeRogatis himself about what it was like to watch the tape that had been delivered anonymously to his door.
“[T]his is not Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson,” DeRogatis commented at one point. “It’s not fun and games. This girl has the disembodied look of a rape victim and he’s urinating in her mouth. It’s a sickening spectacle.”
I hate to pile up on Sanneh, but his Kelly fixation followed him even to the New Yorker, where he now writes. In a long 2009 profile of the singer Will Oldham, Kelly came up a few times; Oldham had even appeared in Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet. To Oldham, Sanneh wrote, Kelly was a “living hero.”
The Times’ coverage of Kelly may have been influenced by the burgeoning rise in the 2000s of a strain of music criticism that came to be known as popism. “Popists” felt that old-fashioned “rockist” critics only liked old-fashioned rock bands, and didn’t appreciate pop performers, whom the popist writers, to their minds, had a special insight into.
The popism versus rockism debate was detailed in a piece in the Times in 2004, written by Kelefa Sanneh himself.
A rockist isn’t just someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.
Any critic can of course praise any performer on whatever grounds he or she chooses — and criticize other critics for what they like. That’s all part of the fun. I personally find Sanneh’s construct here crude and easily refutable. Rock critics — then as now too largely a male preserve — have actually always heralded the pop confection. To refresh my memory, I chose a year at random and went back to look at the annual national poll of rock critics overseen by the Village Voice, a rockist enclave if ever there was one. The top five singles in 1999 featured the Backstreets Boys’ “I Want It That Way” at No. 5, Cher’s “Believe” at No. 4, Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” at No. 2, and TLC’s “No Scrubs” at No. 1.
No. 3 was Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” — a bit more rockist, but a big pop single nonetheless. The rest are of course all pop confections of the first order.
Perhaps in 1999, I thought, rock critics had already become woke. I went back to 1979 — and found that a quarter to a third of the top singles of the year were disco tracks, with acts like Donna Summer, Sister Sledge, and Chic well represented. (Donna Summer was in the top 10 album list as well.) There were a few new wave–ish acts on the list, but punk rock as a genre was nowhere to be seen.
Oh, those hurtful rockists! I think there’s evidence here that the issue for popist critics isn’t rockist criticism, but any criticism at all.
The attack on rockism has always had all the elements of a straw man.
Indeed, the lead of Sanneh’s story was about Ashlee Simpson’s disastrous 2004 SNL appearance, where the singer, there to lip-synch, melted down on live TV when she and her prerecorded backing tape couldn’t agree on what song to sing. The well-deserved derision Simpson endured was seen by Sanneh as somehow not sporting.
That’s one of the hallmarks of the popist critic, and it gives you an insight into how the Times’ coverage of Kelly became so disjointed. Any criticism of a pop act is seen as out of bounds; the critic is always solidly on the side of the star, contributing to a celebrity narrative that inevitably sees the artist triumph over criticism.
The attack on rockism has always had all the elements of a straw man. The real goal of popism was to give intellectual cover to those who chose to write upbeat accounts of popular artists without weighing the pieces down with pesky judgments about aesthetic worth or the like. Newspapers and magazines at the time, faced with declining readerships, were desperate to put celebrity-friendly material front and center — even at once-hip outlets like Rolling Stone. So a new breed of critic emerged that was willing to write deeply appreciative words on artists who — surprise, surprise — could help the outlets sell magazines. Gone was the need to muddy the positive PR message with complaints about authenticity and quality, not to mention (in Simpson’s case) professional buffoonery or (in Kelly’s case) the unspeakable trauma visited upon some unknown number of young girls, most if not all of them poor and black.
As those Pazz & Jop polls indicated, the popist complaint about rockist critics was largely chimerical, and Sanneh didn’t bother to include in his article any quotes from an actual rockist critic defending his or her position. Ironically enough, the one supposedly rockist working critic quoted in the piece was none other than Chicago’s DeRogatis, whose explosive story about the R. Kelly child rape recording had come out two years earlier.
That wasn’t mentioned; instead, oddly, Sanneh quoted DeRogatis praising pop singer Avril Lavigne; to his mind DeRogatis hadn’t been fulsome enough.
In any case, here we are some 15 years after that. And, as a new series of disturbing reports by DeRogatis on BuzzFeed News over the past year has revealed, Kelly’s new habit is, according to the alleged victims’ families, finding pliable young women whom he can keep in virtual imprisonment, cut off from their family and friends. This created a long-overdue new wave of interest in Kelly’s horrific behavior, 15 years too late.
I wrote to Sanneh to ask about his Kelly coverage in the 2000s; I explained my connection to DeRogatis, and made clear I was a critic of his writing on Kelly in the Times. I was impressed by his response:
Like lots of people, I’ve been impressed by the extraordinary work Jim DeRogatis has done reporting on R. Kelly, and shocked by what we’ve learned.
You’re right to point out that in my writing, during the ’00s, I mainly focused on his music, and on his continued (and surprising) professional success in the face of these charges.
I never assumed he was innocent, but I also didn’t imagine what now seems clear: that his abusive conduct was ongoing, and that it was, if anything, even more disturbing than what prosecutors were alleging then. I wish I had thought more about that, and that I had dug deeper into the many allegations against him. Certainly I would write about him very differently today.
The pass the Times gave Kelly certainly helped the star out: It allowed his career to flourish in a way it would not have had the paper routinely let its readers know exactly what Kelly was being accused of, not to mention perhaps adding to the reporting itself.
It continues to this day. Just a few years ago, in a 2015 review of an R. Kelly album, for example, USA Today’s Elysa Gardner confided to readers that Kelly had “made sexual healing his stock in trade” — with no mention of the forms of sexual healing he’d accomplished on videotape with a 14-year-old.
Since the first accusations against Kelly came out, he has recorded with an array of top pop stars — Michael Jackson and Jay-Z, T.I. and Snoop Dogg, Usher and Kanye West. None of them took much PR heat for hanging out with a guy who allegedly urinated on a middle school girl in his spare time. By 2013, the Pitchfork Music Festival, sponsored by the music magazine, could blithely book R. Kelly to headline. The festival was held on the West Side of Chicago, just a mile or two from the schools where the singer trolled for victims. Pitchfork’s coverage of its own festival didn’t mention Kelly’s accusers and ignored criticism of the booking. The Times’ coverage of the fest referred to Kelly as a “local hero.” Five years later, Pitchfork said inviting R. Kelly had been a mistake.
The new interest in this story may or may not find him in a courtroom again. But any full accounting of the tale of R. Kelly should note the role, or rather the nonrole, certain major media outlets played. It should also note the contributions of a clear-eyed journalist like Jim DeRogatis, who kept reporting on the girls no one else cared about. He did it in the face of derision from the nation’s paper of record, which itself spent the era publishing cheerful paeans to the songs of a monster. ●
Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and NPR.