Lock Him Up

Jim DeRogatis: Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly (2019, 306 pp.)

There’s plenty of Jim DeRogatis in Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, and he deserves the ink. dream hampton’s six-part Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly was the proximate reason that early this year the washed-up r&b hitmaker finally began to face serious prosecution for the kind of atrocities he wiggled out of in a long-delayed 2008 trial of dubious jurisprudence, and we owe her for putting her prestige and crusading spirit behind the cause. But for two decades, DeRogatis pursued the case so unstintingly as the Chicago Sun-Times rock critic and then a freelancer that ultimately the music world was forced out of denial—it was his tireless Christmas 2000 follow-up on an anonymous tip that brought to his door the notorious videotape of a man who’s the spitting image of Kelly urinating on a teenaged girl. And though Kelly is the focus of this precise, detailed book, its subtext is the painful, grueling, sometimes perilous slog of DeRogatis’s investigative reporting, much of it with his Sun-Times colleague Abdon Pallasch. Unfortunately, DeRogatis’s utilitarian prose loses use value as he rushes to a close. But his book remains gripping, alarming, and revealing on both themes.

Soulless soon establishes that Kelly isn’t simply a hebephile or ephebophile, terms more precise than pedophile for an adult sexually attracted to adolescents. A lifelong mocker of pointy-headed distinctions that get in his way, DeRogatis scoffs at these niceties. But he makes clear that in addition to exploiting showbiz-crazy young teenagers with the help of yes-men procurers and equally vile lawyers I’d like to see in the slammer themselves, Kelly was a Charlie Manson with actual musical talent and too much cash—a gifted spousal abuser skilled at “training” small harems of women to abase themselves before him voluntarily even after they’d passed the age of consent. Having myself ducked the critical complexities by boycotting Kelly’s music once I was convinced he was everything his accusers claimed, which didn’t take long, I do wish DeRogatis had steeled himself to assess the music Kelly continued to fabricate and RCA continued to sell, thus contextualizing, for instance, Lady Gaga’s disquieting 2013 collaboration and Pitchfork’s shameful decision to have him headline its music festival that year—for which both have retrospectively apologized, Gaga more convincingly than Pitchfork. Maybe after Kelly is put away, a more acute musical thinker will expand on the interrelation between his insinuating artistic gift, which was real, and his insinuating brand of evil, which was realer.