TURNING A BLIND EYE
The Hollywood Celebs Complicit in R. Kelly’s Reign of Terror
‘Soulless,’ an eye-opening new book by Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who exposed R. Kelly’s predation, calls out a number of A-listers who lifted up the R&B singer.
Filmmaker dream hampton reached out to a number of celebrities for her game-changing documentary Surviving R. Kelly. Stars like Lady Gaga, Erykah Badu, Celine Dion, Jay-Z, and Dave Chappelle all reportedly declined to participate in the series, which dug deep into the numerous allegations of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse against the R&B singer. John Legend was ultimately one of the only A-listers who agreed to participate. “It was incredibly difficult to get people who had collaborated (artistically) with Kelly to come forward,” Hampton told The Detroit Free Press. It’s impossible to walk away from Surviving R. Kelly and not feel deeply disappointed in the many artists who continued to work with Kelly for years, in light of child pornography charges and nearly two decades of damning lawsuits and well-reported allegations.
Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, the upcoming book from reporter Jim DeRogatis, who effectively broke the R. Kelly story in 2000 and has been covering it ever since, aims to hold these stars accountable.
As this definitive work lays out the timeline of allegations, from Tiffany Hawkins’ 1996 lawsuit against R. Kelly to 2017 claims that the singer was abusing women in his own “cult,” it also makes sure to include the myriad instances of music industry complicity. Artists who may have purposefully looked away from DeRogatis’ careful reporting could not believably claim ignorance in the wake of R. Kelly’s 2002 child pornography indictment. And yet, the lead-up to Kelly’s 2008 trial, DeRogatis writes in Soulless, marked “the most successful and lucrative period of Kelly’s long career.” For six years, artists co-signed a man who had been charged with making child pornography, while an avid fan base and forgiving critics and cultural commentators normalized Kelly’s continued success. It’s downright painful to look back on the many years in which powerful stars actively contributed to the singer’s outsized influence, allowing the dangerous predator to feel invincible.
Near the end of his definitive “case against R. Kelly,” DeRogatis estimates the number of “witnesses” to Kelly’s predation and abuse “in the thousands,” among them “the artists he produced, wrote for, and recorded with.”
In a post-Surviving R. Kelly world, it’s difficult to imagine celebrities willingly affiliating with the singer. But as recently as 2016, Kelly was plugging his album 12 Nights of Christmas, which would prove to be his last with RCA/Sony Music, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. DeRogatis describes the December 23, 2016, appearance, in which Kelly “garner[ed] a bro hug from the host who also tussled Donald Trump’s hair.” Kelly also performed “a medley of hits” on The Tonight Show in November 2015, which received glowing write-ups from much of the music press.
As The Daily Beast reported this week, Fallon’s late-night show has recently fallen on hard times. According to Page Six intel, he’s “scrambling to keep his show afloat after his ratings have been plummeting and he struggled to recover from the infamous 2016 softball interview with Donald Trump.”
Fallon seems to have been one of the last A-listers to publicly endorse R. Kelly’s discography, marking the near-end of a disturbingly long era. As DeRogatis recalls, The Best of Both Worlds collaboration between R. Kelly and Jay-Z was released the same year Kelly was indicted. “Although he didn’t comment on the video story, Jay-Z distanced himself from Kelly, cancelling the planned tour supporting the album,” DeRogatis reports. However, just two years later, Jay-Z emerged from pseudo-retirement to resurrect the once-cancelled tour. Damon Dash, Aaliyah’s boyfriend at the time of her fatal plane crash, reportedly “stopped talking to Jay-Z because he thought the rapper should have publicly condemned Kelly instead of heading out with him on the Best of Both Worlds tour.”
It wasn’t hard to guess the rapper’s reasons for teaming up with an artist who he appeared to find odious. As DeRogatis reveals, “One press rep bragged to any reporter who’d listen that the first two Chicago shows alone would gross $1.6 million.” The tour eventually unraveled, seemingly due to tensions between the two headliners. Eventually, Jay-Z “kicked [Kelly] off the tour,” and “rebranded it as Jay-Z and friends.” DeRogatis concludes, “Jay-Z never has spoken publicly about Kelly since.”
During this particularly prolific period, DeRogatis writes, Kelly counted artists like Ludacris, LL Cool J, Lil Wayne, Ciara, and Missy Elliott among his musical collaborators. Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Usher, T.I., T-Pain, Chamillionaire, Kid Rock, Swizz Beatz, and Keyshia Cole all made guest appearances on his 2007 album Double Up. In the wake of his June 2008 acquittal, R. Kelly continued to rack up industry associates like Jhené Aiko, Kelly Rowland, Jordin Sparks, Chris Brown, Young Jeezy, Migos, Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Robin Thicke and Justin Bieber, DeRogatis explains. “Hardest to fathom, Lady Gaga scored a Top Ten hit with Kelly on ‘Do What U Want’ in October 2013.” The song’s lyrics plead, “Do what you want / What you want with my body”; the two performed sexually charged versions of the song on Saturday Night Live and at the 2013 American Music Awards, with the two satirizing the Clinton/Lewinsky affair during the latter; and the ultimately unreleased music video was shot by disgraced photog Terry Richardson.
DeRogatis also calls out the many comics who incorporated jokes about Kelly’s alleged sex crimes and fetishes in their acts. When discussing R. Kelly’s 2013 headlining performance at Pitchfork Music Festival, the journalist hypothesizes that young concertgoers might be most familiar with the artist through “a then-current bit by comedian Aziz Ansari.” In his 2010 album Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, Ansari describes Kelly as a “brilliant R&B singer/crazy person,” and describes himself as a “huge fan” who “hopes he really is innocent of those terrible things he’s accused of.” He goes on to do an enthusiastic impersonation of Kelly, and recall some highlights from seeing him in concert (“R. Kelly is the best showman.”) DeRogatis identifies this bit as yet another example of comics “masking a pattern of predation by making us laugh.”
In the aftermath of Surviving R. Kelly DeRogatis, who published a story about R. Kelly’s alleged “cult” in 2017, saw stars who had ignored his numerous requests for comment start to publicly denounce the singer. “Artists such as Lady Gaga, Phoenix, Chance the Rapper, Céline Dion, Ciara, Nick Cannon, and Syleena Johnson released statements criticizing Kelly,” he writes. “Some also pulled their collaborations with him from streaming services, the iTunes Store, and Amazon.”
In a lengthy Twitter statement Lady Gaga wrote, in part, “What I am hearing about the allegations against R. Kelly is absolutely horrifying and indefensible... I’m sorry, both for my poor judgment when I was young, and for not speaking out sooner.”