Decades of investigative reporting couldn’t touch R. Kelly. It took a Lifetime TV series and a hashtag

R. Kelly leaves jail in Chicago after posting bond. He faces 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What took so long?

Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan

By Margaret Sullivan, Media columnist

The Chicago Sun-Times reported on him — for many years. Later, so did BuzzFeed News. And The Washington Post.

But R&B superstar R. Kelly seemed immune to the explosive charges that he had sexually abused teenage girls, keeping them like sex slaves in a cultlike setting where they had to ask permission to use the bathroom, often trapped by nondisclosure agreements.

Then came last month’s six-part documentary series on Lifetime, “Surviving R. Kelly.” Woman after woman faced the camera to tell her harrowing story.

And suddenly, the walls surrounding the superstar began to tumble down, as a nation of disgusted viewers turned on him, using the hashtag #MuteRKelly — which had originated in 2017 but now found a whole new life.

Last year, the streaming music service Spotify had stopped featuring his music. But now, after the Lifetime series, something much bigger happened: His record label, RCA, dropped him.

And Monday, stunningly, the Grammy-winning singer wore an orange prison jumpsuit for a hearing in a Chicago courtroom after spending the weekend in custody. He had been arrested Friday on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. Of the four alleged victims, three were minors.

Kelly, who has denied the charges, called the accusers liars and even (last year, through his management ) referred to the “attempted lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

But there seems to be no going back now to his long-protected career.

“I honestly feel zero satisfaction,” said Jim DeRogatis, 54, the former music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times who first wrote about Kelly-as-predator in late 2000 and has been doggedly pursuing the story ever since.

DeRogatis told me by phone Monday that, despite his 18 years of reporting on Kelly, even he was late to it, since he believes Kelly’s abuses date back almost three decades.

“All of the systems failed — journalism failed, the police failed, the courts failed, the music industry failed, parents failed,” he said.

So, why did it take so long? And why did a Lifetime docuseries break through when traditional investigative journalism couldn’t?

There’s no simple answer. Part of it is that, after the #MeToo movement swept through the media and entertainment industries in 2017, time ran out for Kelly.

In 2017, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye founded the #MuteRKelly movement, pressuring the music industry to stop giving Kelly the star treatment that had shielded him.

“It’s his money, it’s his wealth, it’s his notoriety, it’s all the connections that he has in the entertainment industry that make it hard for victims to successfully prosecute him,” Odeleye told NPR last year.

If the money dries up, their thinking went, he becomes more susceptible to justice.

Because of #MeToo, women are more likely to be believed, even the young black women who so often and so tragically are doubted, discounted and discarded as unimportant.
They are, more and more, understood to be the victims of “rape culture” — the disgusting but pervasive notion that sexual violence is something to be normalized and trivialized.

But some of what has happened was simply the power of how the story was told in the TV series, and whom it reached — a younger, more diverse audience than that of traditional journalism, told in text, whether on newsprint or online.

“The series was like a six-hour version of the New York magazine cover on Bill Cosby,” DeRogatis told me. “It had that kind of impact.”

He gives executive producer, dream hampton, much of the credit for that, and she in turn has credited his reporting. (Rogatis’s book, “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly,” will be published in June; he has been reporting, most recently, for the New Yorker magazine.)

Because of the simple power of the storytelling, he said, “the women were the stars — they showed their pain.”

As the series aired, the outrage was visceral. But even for hampton, seeing Kelly charged was beyond her imagining.

“I quite honestly didn’t think we’d be here,” she said Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

Kelly, who was brought up in the Chicago projects and who illegally married the 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994, has prevailed in court before.

In 2002, he was charged with child pornography after prosecutors charged that a videotape showed him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. But he was acquitted six years later when she declined to testify.

Much has changed since then.

But, as DeRogatis points out, that will be small comfort for the vast number of Kelly’s alleged victims

“Whatever happens now,” he said, “it’s too little, too late for these women to regain their lives.”

That’s true. And it’s beyond sad.

But, thanks to a powerful TV series and the bravery of women willing to tell their truths, it’s far more likely now that some kind of justice will be done.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.