I was born in 1990, so the first time I heard of R. Kelly, I was very young. It was his uplifting Space Jam anthem “I Believe I Can Fly.” I remember later discovering he had disgustingly married Aaliyah, one of my childhood idols, and I remember the vague allegations of pedophilia against him, and I, of course, remember the peeing incident.
What I don’t remember about R. Kelly are the specifics of absolutely anything related to his predatory behavior, his blatant and grotesque sexual abuse of young women in his hometown of Chicago. Until now. Recently, the excellent Chicago-based music journalist Jessica Hopper paired up with the equally excellent Chicago music critic and reporter Jim DeRogatis to discuss at-length the 15 years of work he spent exposing R. Kelly for his paper the Chicago Sun-Times. That Q&A was published yesterday in the Village Voice and it’s one of the most important pieces of music journalism of 2013.
But beyond being a piece that completely dismantles your understanding of R. Kelly’s “monster,” it’s a unique and free lesson for young journalists that teaches the fundamentals of our profession and how this profession let down dozens of young girls in failing to correctly report on R. Kelly and is continuing the tradition to this day. I want to point out a particular passage from the Q&A:
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!
I came up through a hybrid of both. I’ve been reading blogs and small-name sites since probably around the time I first gained access to a computer, which was around age nine or maybe younger. I blog for a living now, and I blog for fun here. But I also went to J-school. I took an excruciating difficult reporting class my fall semester of grad school that forced me to engage with public records like certain court documents in my stories and use databases like LexisNexus for research. So I understand both sides of the story here. But I also understand not every young journalist has had my privilege.
There are dozens of young kids working in media that have zero media credentials, background, experience, whatever. I once interned with someone at a media company who was studying engineering in college but knew how to write well. That skill, knowing how to write well, has increasingly become the No. 1 requirement for journalism these days, along with knowing how to make the company money via original, smart ideas. But acquiring skills like editorial judgment and reporting come either on the job or in school, and there’s really no way to disguise the lack of those skills with simply knowing how to write. The point DeRogatis makes about understanding what you can and can’t legally print won’t usually be picked up via blogging—except for maybe copyright issues concerning photos and music—because it’s a complicated safe spot.
A large portion of this piece deals with journalists’ accountability and taking responsibility for not covering R. Kelly the way he should have been covered at the height of his popularity and even today now that he’s back in the headlines with a new album and a Lady Gaga feature. It talks about fears as a journalist, the fear of being that guy when everyone’s celebrating R. Kelly’s career and legacy while you’re in the corner publishing think pieces or actual reported articles that remind the world of his deplorabale crimes. And I think this piece is especially relevant for music journalists who dabble in criticism because our work so often forces us to conflict the artist with the art. It’s like when I write a positive review of a Chris Brown track then have to second-guess myself when I go to write a piece on domestic abuse using his crimes against Rihanna as a statistical reference point. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, especially when you love music the way I do, yet feel so strongly about social justice and violence against women.
But the reason I encourage young journalists to read this piece is because it offers an honest conversation about the nature of the beast and, in a way, it also adds transparency to journalism. You get to see how DeRogatis and his team at the Sun-Times operated in handling this story in detail. So if you couldn’t learn that process in school, there’s another chance. And if you’re interested in learning more about DeRogatis’ work involving R. Kelly, read this.