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Review: Soulless, The Case Against R. Kelly

I swear I have no idea what this guy's music sounds like.

I swear I have no idea what this guy sounds like.

Soulless, The Case Against R. Kelly, Jim DeRogatis, Abrams Press, 307 pp.

I’m mostly familiar with the author from his biography of Lester Bangs (my favorite rock critic in Creem back in the ’70’s) and other writing about rock’n’roll. Let me confess that, old, white fossil that I am, I don’t know anything about R. Kelly’s music. DeRogatis covered him, however, as part of his beat as the music critic on a Chicago newspaper. Hometown boy Kelly was a prominent part of DeRogatis’s coverage, a talented young man with a rough, downright dysfunctional upbringing who overcame that and other handicaps to become a huge, hitmaking machine in R&B music. Possessed of a knack for pop hits, Kelly blazed the charts for a phenomenal stretch of time (don’t ask me to recite any of the titles). All the while, despite the success and the constant media attention, ugly rumors dogged Kelly, stories about his predilection for underage women and bizarre menages in his luxurious homes.

DeRogatis may be nominally a music critic, but he considers himself first and foremost to be a journalist, dedicated in the best tradition of his craft to doggedly unearthing the truth no matter what the consequences. In direct, workmanlike prose that doesn’t distract from the story, DeRogatis tells the grim tale of his persistent, decades long effort to bring out the truth about R. Kelly and to see that he and  his victims were done justice.

Backed by his newspaper and ably supported by other journalists, DeRogatis hunted down witness after witness, most of them reluctant and unwilling at first to talk, who finally broke down and recounted grim stories of their miserable experiences with R. Kelly, a degenerate, abusive pervert if ever there was one. And all of this in the face of legal harassment on the part of Kelly’s  counsel, threats, subtle and otherwise, by Kelly’s minions, and having his door shot out one night in an obvious attempt at raw intimidation. Not one to be daunted despite his cherubic appearance, DeRogatis stuck to his guns and had the ultimate satisfaction of seeing R. Kelly’s elaborate fantasy world collapse and the Pied Piper (as Kelly liked to style himself) finally brought to justice.  As I write this review, Kelly is already enmeshed in serious criminal charges with more likely pending.

The recent exposure of Providence only knows how many prominent men as despicable sex pigs (Weinstein, Epstein, Louis C.K., Cosby, the list is really long) is dismaying, but predictable. Give a man power and wealth and it frequently goes directly to his crotch instead of to his head. I don’t mean this as a knock against pop stars, but more against rich people in general. I seriously think that any guy with a net worth of more than $10 million should be followed constantly by a police officer just to make sure he behaves himself and keeps it in his pants. You might call that socialism; I call it a necessary measure for a better society.

This book is tough to read in many respects since it features accounts by victims of the miserable things that Kelly did to them, to include his need to control their every movement as if they were his toy dolls, and the damage and trauma he inflicted upon them. If you have the stomach for it, I recommend it as an excellent example of the good that journalism can still do, even in our current, miserably degraded circumstances. Thanks to DeRogatis and many others, R. Kelly isn’t able to ruin any more young women’s lives.

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