Yeah. Coaches, best friend’s parents, pastor, half the family, grandmother, aunt — but the mother and father never testified, the girl never testified. When we wrote our story about the tape, the girl and mother and father took a six-month vacation to the south of France. We’d been to the house several times. We’d rung the doorbell. This was an aluminum-siding, lower-middle-class house on the South Side, with a station wagon which is 13 years old — you know what I mean? And now they’re in the south of France. And one time the dad got a credit as a bass player on an R. Kelly album. He didn’t play bass.
The situations are incredibly complicated, and sometimes there is an element of, “We’re gonna exploit this situation for our favor.” That doesn’t mean that it’s legal or it’s right or that girl wasn’t harmed. It tore that family apart.
How many people do you think you’ve interviewed? How many people came forward?
I think in the end there were two dozen women with various level of details. Obviously the women who were part of the hundreds of pages of lawsuits — hell of a lot of details. There were girls who just told one simple story, and there were a lot of girls who told stories that lasted hours which still make me sick to my stomach. It never was one girl on one tape. Or one girl and Aaliyah.
The other thing, the thing that people seem to not know: She was fresh out of eighth grade in this tape.
Fourteen or 15. That puts a perspective on it. She’s not sophisticated enough to know what her kinks are.
Let’s talk about what it is, aside from not just having reportorial chops, that might hold somebody back. I feel that a lot of younger journalists came up through blogs, not journalism school. They are fearful to write about it because they don’t know what they can say, what language they can use, if they can be sued for even acknowledging charges.
You may not know how to report, but you should know how to read. The Sun-Times was never sued for the hundreds of thousands of words that it wrote about R. Kelly. You cannot be sued for repeating anything that is in a lawsuit. You cannot be sued for repeating anything that was said during the six- or seven-week trial. It’s in his record, and then there’s Kelly’s own words. Then read [Kelly’s biography] Soulacoaster. It was not a pleasant experience for me to read Soulacoaster! But read it, and read what he says in his own book! Do your goddamn homework!
What are the other factors?
Here’s the most sinister. This deeply troubles me: There’s a very — I don’t know what the percentage is — some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know. And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.
Songs like “Sexasaurus” kind of makes it novel. The ironic, jokey Trapped in the Closet series airs on the Independent Film Channel and features Will Oldham — that has these other hallmarks of “art” that read to a white, hipster, indie-rock audience, then, because we are not taking certain things seriously, we can choose not to take the lives of these young black women seriously.
It puts it in the realm of camp or kitsch. If you have an emotional reaction to a work of art and you use all your skills as a critic to back it up with evidence and context. That’s all we can ask of anybody. We’re all viewing art differently. The joy is in the conversation. Pitchfork is the premier critical organ in the United States for smart discussion of music, books, and artists, but it doesn’t have this discussion. The site reviews his records but doesn’t have the conversation about, “What does it say for us to like his music?”
I think, again, everybody has to individually answer. I can still listen to Led Zeppelin and take joy in Led Zeppelin or James Brown. I condemn the things they did. I’m not reminded constantly in the art, because the art is not about it. But if you’re listening to “I want to marry you, pussy,” and not realizing that he said that to Aaliyah, who was 14, and making an album he named Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that. That’s not an experience you’ve had. I’m not expecting you to feel the same way I do. But you can look at this body of evidence. “You” meaning everybody who cares.
You told me about the night after your critical review of R. Kelly’s performance at Pitchfork ran, one of these women called you at 2 a.m.
This happens a lot. If you are a good reporter, you are accessible to people and you cannot turn a story off. And that sucks! The number of times since I began this R. Kelly story that I was called in the middle of the night, was talking to someone on Christmas Eve or on New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving. … Yeah, I got a call from one of the women after the Pitchfork festival review. “I know we haven’t spoken in a long time,” and said thank you for still caring and thank you for writing this story, because nobody gives a shit.
It was a horrible day and a horrible couple of weeks when he was acquitted. The women I heard from who I’d interviewed, women I’d never interviewed who said, “I didn’t come forward, I never spoke to you before, I wish I had now that son of a bitch got off.” Jesus Christ. Rape-victim advocates — I don’t believe in God — they do God’s work. These young women who volunteer to be in the emergency room and sit with a woman throughout the horrible process, I don’t do that. I’m not saying I’m even in the same universe. But somebody calls you up and says I want to talk about this, or thank you about writing this, or, “I can’t sleep because I’m haunted, can you hear what I want to tell you?” We do that as a human being. I would like to forget about this story. I’m not saying I’m super reporter. I’m saying this was a huge story. Where was everybody else?
There is a disregard for your ongoing concern about this. “Let this go, Jim. Get over it, Jim. He was acquitted.” You have never dropped this, and your peers are pissed because it puts the rest of us over a barrel. I can speak to this, too. It’s often uncool to be the person who gives a shit.
“You’re jealous of R. Kelly, you’re trying to make your name off his career.”
Because you would love nothing more than to have to report and carry these stories of rape.
Rapes, plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen. So stop hedging your words, and when you tell me what a brilliant ode to pussy Black Panties is, then realize that the next sentence should say: “This, from a man who has committed numerous rapes.” The guy was a monster! Just say it! We do have a justice system and he was acquitted. OK, fine. And these other women took the civil lawsuit route. He was tried on very narrow grounds. He was tried on a 29-minute, 36-second videotape. He was tried on trading child pornography. He was not tried for rape. He was acquitted of making child pornography. He’s never been tried in court for rape, but look at the statistics. The numbers of rapes that happened, the numbers of rapes that were reported, the numbers of rapes that make it to court and then the conviction rate. I mean, it comes down to something minuscule. He’s never had his day in court as a rapist. It’s 15 years in the past now, but this record exists. You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. And you and I have spent our entire lives with that conviction. This is not just entertainment, this is our lifeblood. This matters.