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At long last: R. Kelly officially guilty

R. Kelly, Sept. 17, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Jim DeRogatis, WBEZ photo

“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.”

For those averse to math, that's 20 years and 9 months ago.

DeRogatis continued reporting this story before and after Robert Kelly stood trial in 2008 on 14 counts of child pornography, the charges stemming from a videotape that DeRogatis had received six years earlier allegedly showing the star having sex with and urinating into the mouth of an underage girl. The trial took place more than six years and endless hearings after Kelly was indicted in 2002.

For what it's worth, I covered one of those hearings on a day in July 2005 when Kelly also had the No. 1 album in the country, TP.3 Reloaded. While Kelly's behavior was being widely reported--and Dave Chappelle was mocking him with his parody "Pee on You" video--the major R&B stations were keeping his music in heavy rotation because they perceived that the public demanded it.

Toward the end of my story, I described Kelly leaving the courthouse after the hearing:

Passersby, particularly young women, brightened up when they recognized him, waving and yelling, "R. Kelly!" or "Hey, baby!"

He nodded his head in recognition, then exited out the front door with his entourage, who led him into a black Ford Excursion.

One of the young women who attended the trial daily, then-15-year-old Jerhonda Pace, would testify in court years later that she was 16 when the singer, having seen her there, began to have sex with her and engaged in a pattern of physical and emotional abuse.

Kelly, somehow, was acquitted of those first charges, and a case of collective amnesia followed.

In 2013 the Pitchfork Music Festival spotlighted Kelly as a headliner, and that same year Lady Gaga featured him on her single “Do What U Want” and brought him onto Saturday Night Live so she could pantomime sex acts with him as part of her performance. Others, such as Chance the Rapper, collaborated with him as well, and radio stations kept playing his songs.

But Kelly's behavior--and the story--never faded. In 2017, when I profiled DeRogatis for Chicago magazine, he had recently written a blockbuster piece about Kelly that multiple mainstream outlets refused to publish. BuzzFeed became the home for DeRo's 4,700-word article headlined “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult’: R. Kelly Is Holding Women Against Their Will in a ‘Cult,’ Parents Told Police.” Six weeks later came his incendiary follow-up, "A Woman Who Says She Had Underage Sex With R. Kelly Is Finally Telling Her Story," in which Jerhonda Pace told her story publicly for the first time.

In my Chicago article, I wrote:

It’s tempting to cast DeRogatis as the obsessed Inspector Javert in a modern-day Les Misérables—except that DeRogatis hates musical theater (yes, even Hamilton) and rejects the comparison. “This sort of Javert-like crusade, that’s bullshit,” he says. “This story’s there for anybody who wants to pick it up. And nobody else is.”

Even after the Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment/assault accusations went public a couple of months after DeRo's second BuzzFeed piece and propelled the #metoo movement, other outlets were slow to connect the dots or to follow up on his reporting. It was late April 2018 when the Women of Color committee of the Time's Up movement--including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes and actress Jurnee Smolett-Bell--released a statement calling on the music industry to cut off Kelly.

"We stand linked with our sisters and will no longer tolerate the predatory behavior of R. Kelly to go unchecked," Smolett-Bell said.

A few days later, on May 4, 2018, the Washington Post's Geoff Edgers advanced the story with a piece headlined: "The star treatment: As R. Kelly's career flourished, an industry overlooked allegations of abusive behavior toward young women."

Edgers' piece credited DeRogatis's reporting as he wrote:

For more than two decades, the recording industry turned a blind eye to Kelly’s behavior as his career continued to thrive and he was afforded every luxury of a chart-topping superstar.

A Washington Post investigation found that this disregard for the singer’s alleged behavior played out on many levels, from the billionaire record executive who first signed the dynamic young vocalist in the early 1990s to the low-paid assistants who arranged flights, food and bathroom breaks for his traveling entourage of young women.

Six women once connected with Kelly spoke to The Post about what they say were abusive relationships. Two of those women, Tracy Sampson and Patrice Jones, have never publicly spoken about him before.

Yet the public-outcry tipping point didn't come until January 2019, when the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly debuted. The next month a Cook County grand jury indicted Kelly on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse; more Cook County charges followed that May; federal indictments on child pornography, obstruction of justice and sex trafficking were filed in Illinois and New York in July; and more charges came after that.

The long-delayed conclusion finally arrived yesterday in a New York courtroom. As Jason Meisner and Megan Crepeau wrote in the Tribune:

What was left was Robert Sylvester Kelly, 54, dressed in a navy blue suit, some 800 miles from his hometown, staring straight ahead as he awaited a verdict that was years in the making.

Moments later, the jury’s decision was read in Judge Ann Donnelly’s hushed fourth floor courtroom: Guilty of racketeering conspiracy and eight other counts alleging the singer used his organization to lure and trap girls, boys and young women to satisfy his sexually predatory desires.

Kelly's sentence may run from 10 years to life in prison.

It's worth noting that this dangerous predator remained on the streets while journalism outlets were more robustly staffed than they are now. The type of investigative reporting that DeRogatis, Pallasch and others did is hard and requires great personal and institutional commitment. (DeRo wasn't dissuaded when a bullet pierced his home's front window.) With so many publications currently strapped and stripped down, investigative work needs more support than ever before, just as victims and survivors deserve that much more encouragement and gratitude for speaking out.

So the Kelly verdict is more than vindication for DeRogatis and all who sought justice for so many years. It's a reminder of these fundamentals: Be diligent and conscientious, do the work, and don't look the other way even when you think a song is catchy.

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