How the Media Helped R. Kelly

For decades, journalists ignored allegations of abuse

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

Evidence has been accumulating against R. Kelly for decades. Jim DeRogatis, a music journalist and critic, first reported in 2000 on allegations that Kelly was sexually abusing minors. In 2002, DeRogatis broke the story of a now-infamous sex tape that Kelly made with a 15-year-old girl (it led to 14 child pornography charges; Kelly was acquitted of all), and in a 2017 story for BuzzFeed, he reported on teen girls being held by Kelly at a house in Atlanta as part of an alleged “sex cult.” 

All the while, Kelly has enjoyed a lucrative, charmed career. He performed at the opening ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The same year, The Best of Both Worlds, a joint album he released with Jay-Z, was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. He received wide critical acclaim, and would go on to release another nine albums; six of them went platinum.

In January, filmmaker dream hampton released Surviving R. Kelly, a documentary that included new accounts from women who said they had been victims of the singer’s abuse. The film prompted a wave of negative attention on Kelly, and he was arrested a month later on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, to which he pleaded not guilty; he will likely stand trial in Cook County, Illinois, next year. In July, Kelly was federally indicted in Chicago and Brooklyn, on thirteen and five counts, respectively; the charges range from production and transportation of child pornography across state lines to sexual abuse and bribing witnesses. He remains in federal custody in Illinois.

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Press coverage of Kelly has now taken an appropriately scathing and confrontational tone. In March, CBS’s Gayle King interviewed Kelly, pressing him to explain why, despite decades of allegations of abuse of underage girls that he vehemently denies, he would continue to surround himself with teenagers and young women. At one point, Kelly began to yell and cry, swinging his arms as he stood over King, who did not flinch. This journalistic tenacity represents a new normal; until hampton’s film, the press was largely content to assume a passive role, giving Kelly magazine covers, features, and positive music reviews, despite the accusations swirling around him. In 1994, shortly after the singer married Aaliyah, then 15 years old, Vibe ran a cover story, titled “Superfreak,” on Kelly; the piece included a photo of the marriage license but otherwise treated the matter like an unconfirmed rumor. (The author writes that she wants to question Kelly about his relationship with a teenager, but she never does.) As recently as 2016, GQ ran a cover story on Kelly that addressed allegations that he had pursued minors—but also included entertaining gimmicks alongside, such as a video in which Kelly, clad in a red leather jacket and sunglasses, sings the story of his life.

Now the press is being criticized for its history of generous treatment. In January, Bill Wyman, an arts writer, took The New York Times to task for its role in setting an industry norm of soft coverage that either glossed over Kelly’s history of abuse or ignored it outright. Keith Murphy, a music journalist who wrote the liner notes for Kelly’s greatest-hits album, apologized for his complicity in a piece for BET. “Like many others in a business that overlooked such problematic issues, as long as the product was bringing in flush monetary rewards and the media stayed indifferent, I knowingly cashed the check,” Murphy wrote. “My lauding, flowery words (‘R. Kelly stands today a man triumphant. . .’) were used to elevate a gifted yet clearly troubled artist who long ago should have faced repercussions for his destructive, monstrous behavior.” 

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As journalists, we often deceive ourselves into believing that it is not our place to make moral judgments, that we merely let the public decide how to feel. This tends to be particularly true of critics, who have historically seen their role as offering critiques of the art, not appraisals of the human beings behind it. But our editorial decisions—whose album gets attention, whose face appears on the cover—not only reflect but also form public opinion. 

To understand how Kelly’s story was handled by journalists at the time, and the particular challenges it posed for the Black press, I spoke with Dart Adams, a longtime music writer, podcast host, and author of the now defunct hip-hop blog Poisonous Paragraphs; Naima Cochrane, a music writer and former marketing and management executive at Bad Boy, Arista, Columbia, and Epic (Columbia and Epic fall under Sony Music Entertainment, as does Jive, Kelly’s longtime label; he was recently dropped); and David Dennis Jr., a music writer and adjunct professor of journalism at Morehouse College. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

 

 

Were you surprised when the stories about R. Kelly first came out?

NAIMA COCHRANE: Jim DeRogatis’s stuff was still very local when the news first broke, but I remember how much information people were ignoring. I have to side-eye anybody who acts like they’re shocked, because it was an open secret. It was something we talked about. There was gossip. Some people called him “Dirty Rob.” There are always girls around the studio. My sister went to high school in Chicago, so I would hear stories about the McDonald’s. It was a known thing. [Kelly was known to hang out at a McDonald’s in Chicago near his former high school, where he allegedly used to pick up underage girls.

DART ADAMS: In the music industry, we hear stories or rumblings but it takes years before it gets out. With R. Kelly, between 1996 and 1999, I was hearing that he wasn’t the guy everybody thinks he is. So when the tape finally came out, it wasn’t as shocking for me as it was for the general public. I was like, “Oh, he’s definitely guilty—and even worse things are on the horizon.” 

DAVID DENNIS JR.: I think that after DeRogatis broke the initial story, there were a lot of Black women journalists who were beating the drum of, like, “Let’s really discuss this R. Kelly situation.” But it’s about who we listen to as journalists. In 2001, if a Black woman had gathered evidence about R. Kelly, would we have paid attention to it? If a Black woman goes after R. Kelly, how is this story different? I think it’s about who we’re listening to. A Black woman might be immediately dismissed for not sticking with her people. For digging through dirt on a Black man to bring him down.

 

What do you remember about the tone of the press coverage during Kelly’s trial in 2008?

ADAMS: The way it was covered was: He’s going to face charges. It wasn’t necessarily that we were riding with him. But there wasn’t anybody, except for a few people here and there, speaking against him. The writing was just covering the facts. After he didn’t get locked up, everybody had to say, “Well, it looks like we’re just gonna have to ride with R. Kelly because people love R. Kelly.”

I don’t think people ever felt like we needed to keep R. Kelly around or preserve his name. But journalism is a business. Are you going to take a stand and not cover him? You’re going to chance a backlash or lose revenue. The people who went out there on that limb would do an op-ed piece or something. In a field where you have to get work from all different places to survive, nobody is well-off enough to say whatever they want about anything.

DENNIS: The trial was farcical. I don’t think that there was enough nuanced discussion about what was really going on. In popular culture at the time, there was a lot of comedy around it. There was the Chappelle’s Show skits. There was the Boondocks skits. Similar to the O.J. Simpson trial, there was a lot of satire about the case. The low-hanging fruit of the comedy of urination. That was the overlying discussion. And there were conversations about what makes a child—not necessarily within journalism spaces, but definitely within cultural spaces. The Boondocks episode touched on that: Why can’t a 15- or 16-year-old girl get herself out of that situation? We didn’t have enough discussion about the manipulation, about the actual fact that this is rape and sexual assault, that these are minors, about how we look at Black girls as grown even when they’re in their teens. 

 

Were people talking about boycotting Kelly’s music? 

COCHRANE: When the Aaliyah facts came out—I’m not going to call them allegations—it was scandalized and salacious, but it wasn’t like we were canceling him. There really wasn’t such a thing yet, right? The only person Black people had ever full-out canceled by the mid-nineties, remember, was O.J. Simpson, and even that wasn’t complete.

I can’t think of a time it’s happened before the last decade. I can’t remember a time that it’s been a conversation. I can’t remember a time that there was a moral outcry about supporting an artist financially because of their personal decisions. There were too many instances of artists having personal lives that conflicted with the music that we loved about them. I think R. Kelly is actually the first time that we really had to have this conversation. We kind of did it with Michael Jackson, but it wasn’t really a decision. His music was falling off as the scandal got bigger, so it was very easy to say, “Mike’s too weird—we’re not dealing with him anymore.”

ADAMS: Nobody talked about boycotting Kelly except for a few people here and there. They were mostly women in the Chicago area who’d had an idea of what he’d been doing for years.

You couldn’t be super vocal or critical of R. Kelly early on because so many publications really relied on covering him. Because he was not only a hitmaker but also a producer for people that made hits. And on top of that, you want their record labels to continue to buy ad space in your magazine. This was the era where the money dried up from the auto and fashion industries that would actually buy ad pages, so you had to rely on labels and weren’t going to cut off your nose to spite your face and lose access to anybody who you could put on the cover.

DENNIS: The more famous or popular you are, the more you’re able to get away with. The lower on the social ladder your victim is, the more you’re able to get away with. So you have somebody like R. Kelly who is a huge star, and he’s also doing this to Black women. So he can get away with more. People are less likely to really reckon with the problems of people who they’re fans of.

 

What challenges did the Black press encounter when covering Kelly?

ADAMS: Black publications have covered Black artists who are in trouble with the law or facing charges differently, for the most part, because they know that the mainstream media is going to treat those artists like they’re already guilty: when Snoop Dogg had his charges back in the day, when Puff was charged, when James Brown kept going to jail, when Rick James was on trial. Generally, Black media has treated artists who have been charged with something more forgivingly because they feel they have to, because they’re the only people that are going to do it.

COCHRANE: I don’t know if Black media has ever been truly critical of Black artists. Part of what is happening is that we’re trying to course-correct from feeling like we had to be a safe space for these artists, for their music to get love, and for them to have their project elevated and not relegated to a little blurb buried deep inside the magazine. If you read articles on R. Kelly from back then, even if they were stating the facts about the case, or writing about his marriage to Aaliyah, they wouldn’t fully condemn. The article would give Kelly a chance to voice his opinion. It was still him on the cover, and publicity for him, rather than an indictment.

The trick with Black media is that once Black artists become really huge, we’re fighting to hold access to them, because they start going to mainstream outlets. They get teams that don’t take Black media as seriously. So it’s challenging to be critical of an important artist, because you need that access.

Whenever a Black figure who has gone mainstream is in trouble, they come back to the Black community. They come back to Black media, they come back to the Black church, they come back because they want to go someplace that’s safe. That’s our fault. It’s what is great about us, but it’s also our fault. The thought is that even if the world condemns me, you guys are gonna show me love.

 

The medium of blogging took off as Kelly was awaiting trial. How did that change reporting on Kelly?

COCHRANE: When Black media first became a thing, there were publications that were specifically focused on Black entertainers. There was Right On and Word Up, and then Vibe came along. When these publications started, they were specifically for Black entertainers. Their role was to, I think, reflect the taste, and reflect it broadly so that there was a destination for Black people to go to to find their artists. 

Music journalism, period, is at a bit of a crossroads right now because blogs have a lower bar of entry into writing. Music journalism isn’t necessarily professionally trained. It’s becoming all about access, and not about proper reporting.

ADAMS: Things changed when we got to the blog era, around 2005, 2006. If you wrote for a publication, your magazine would come out once a month, while other writers were posting and commenting as soon as the music comes out. So everybody who worked at a major publication was reading blogs: Nah Right, 2DopeBoyz. They’re on XXL blogs because they have to be.

In terms of being a tastemaker, mainstream publications kind of lost that. But in terms of journalism, the people that you look to for integrity in reporting are those at the mainstream publications, especially the Black mainstream publications.

The only place opinion could shift was smaller publications. You couldn’t be super vocal or super critical of R. Kelly early on because so many publications relied on covering him. He’s not only a hitmaker but also a producer for people that make hits. On top of that, you want the record label to continue to buy ads in your magazine. It’s a recipe for everything staying the status quo. That man generated a whole lot of money for a lot of people. Nobody wanted to be like, “I’m not fucking with R. Kelly.”

 

What does the press have to apologize for?

ADAMS: There’s only one way out. The truth sets you free. Come out and say, We’re sorry for what we did. This is why we did it. We did this for these reasons; we were wrong; we apologize. We’re not going to continue with this behavior anymore. We’re going to look at how we view journalism and how we cover artists. We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re afraid to talk about issues or what somebody did for fear that the label or the management is going to try to pull all of the other artists off. We are journalists. 

DENNIS: As a society we were in a different place. I think there is a fear that if people come forward and talk about how they covered R. Kelly, then they are afraid of being “canceled.” But I would be interested in hearing about how you justified that. I think introspection is especially necessary with R. Kelly. A lot of the defenses of R. Kelly that we get from people now are echoing ideas that were put out in those old articles. It’s endangering folks now. 

 

What do journalists need to do differently to make sure we are never again complicit in the way we have been with R. Kelly?

COCHRANE: We need to remove ourselves as fans from the equation. Depending on what kind of journalist you are, there has to be some amount of objectivity. If you write a review, that’s opinion, but if you’re writing about allegations made against somebody, that’s actual reporting. If you’re going to do that, you have to give it the weight it deserves, your own opinion notwithstanding. I think that people’s own voice and color often came through a little too much with R. Kelly stories. I’ll add that R. Kelly didn’t make it easy, because he stopped doing interviews after the Touré interview where he was asked if he likes teenage girls.

DENNIS: There was a belief that as objective journalists, we needed to cover the art separate from the artist. But as we’ve come to learn, you cannot separate the art and the artist. R. Kelly had underage girls in the studio with him as his “muses” while he was making these songs. R. Kelly is writing about his relationship with these girls. You have him ghostwriting lyrics for a 15-year-old girl whom he married. So the belief that we are separating the art from the artist was a cop-out. It’s an archaic way of thinking that allowed journalists to get their views or sell their copies of the magazine without having to deal with the issues at hand. When you write about Kanye West and his music, you write about the other stuff that’s going on. If you review an album, you’re going to talk about his marriage to Kim Kardashian, you’re going to talk about his children, talk about the Trump stuff, and you’re going to use that to frame the music. So I don’t understand how R. Kelly’s trial was not allowed to frame the writing about his music. That’s the defining characteristic of him and thus the defining characteristic of the music.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred inaccurately to the Chicago location of a McDonald’s Kelly frequented. 

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.