AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Allegations of sexual abuse have followed Robert Kelly, better known as R. Kelly, for years, but he's remained one of the most powerful and popular figures in R&B music. After the "Surviving R. Kelly" docuseries aired on Lifetime this weekend, things may be changing. A prosecutor in Chicago is asking victims to come forward. Music stars are distancing themselves from Kelly.
Journalist Jim DeRogatis has spent nearly two decades investigating allegations against R. Kelly. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.
JIM DEROGATIS: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: And as we start this discussion, we should say some content here is - may be disturbing to some people. We want to let you know at the start.
Now, R. Kelly has been accused of a number of instances of abuse, especially for very young women. Can you describe the biggest allegations?
DEROGATIS: You know, Audie, the very first story I published in the Chicago Sun-Times in December of 2000, I think that the nut graph of that story on Day One has been true now for 18 years. R. Kelly has consistently abused his position of wealth and fame to pursue illegal sexual relationships with underage girls.
CORNISH: And throughout this time and now especially with the docuseries, R. Kelly has denied these allegations. One thing that the documentary revealed were the number of people around who helped bring young women into his inner circle. Can you talk about what you encountered in your reporting along these lines?
DEROGATIS: There are any number of enablers around Kelly, everybody from studio tape operators to managers and the record industry - he's still signed, as of today, to RCA Records, Sony Music - the concert industry, the radio industry, publicists, lawyers. I mean, it's been an incredible gravy train that has enabled a pattern of predation that I think is rivaled only in pop culture by the allegations against Bill Cosby. And what's more horrifying in this case is there are 14, 15, 16-year-old girls.
CORNISH: Now, our colleagues on weekend ALL THINGS CONSIDERED spoke with "Surviving R. Kelly" executive producer Dream Hampton over the past weekend. She shared her thoughts on why people have been so slow to care about these allegations.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DREAM HAMPTON: He chooses girls that a lot of his fans dismiss and disbelieve and, for all kinds of complicated and historical reasons, we don't believe. We don't necessarily believe that, you know, black girls - we don't afford them innocence in the same way we don't afford black boys innocence.
CORNISH: Can you talk about some of the victims that you have met, what they said about what happened when they tried to tell people what was going on?
DEROGATIS: You know, look, the one quote that crystallized it for me in November 2000, which seems like my entire life ago, was an associate of Kelly's who had walked away because he could no longer live with seeing the behavior he was seeing - said, night after night after night, there are 20 beautiful young women in the green room backstage. And 19 of them are 21 years old. And night after night after night, Robert goes after the little teenage girl with acne staring at her shoes in the corner, too shy to talk to anyone. And those girls were not going to be believed.
CORNISH: Now, Dream Hampton has also said that she asked a number of celebrities for interviews, including Jay-Z and Dave Chappelle, that they turned those interviews down. In the end, only one major musician agreed to speak. It was John Legend. Why is it so hard for people in the music industry to speak up?
DEROGATIS: Because he has generated a quarter of a billion dollars of income with his record sales. You know, the list is extraordinary. I mean, it runs from Celine Dion, who recorded with him, to Lady Gaga, who only came out this morning to say she regretted having done a song called "Do What U Want With My Body" (ph) with R. Kelly. She said that today, in the midst of her campaign for an Oscar for "A Star Is Born." I had called, you know, six times since July of 2017 to ask her for a comment. She said it today. You know, one of the reasons he was such a lucrative star is he not only sold 100 million copies of his own records, but he sold tens of millions of copies for the artists he produced.
CORNISH: You've seen a few cycles now of people turning against Kelly and then kind of forgetting about the allegations. Does this time feel different?
DEROGATIS: I wish I could say this time feels different, Audie. You know, he's at a different point. You know, he's a 51-year-old aging R&B star, and no one's buying his records anymore. And the Mute R. Kelly movement of activist black women has effectively shut down his ability to perform in concert. But I don't know - if law enforcement finally acts, and the courts bring Kelly to justice, I honestly don't know.
It's - you know, I'm a student of popular music. (Laughter) And I don't think any story in the history of popular music compares to this. And I well know the history, from Chuck Berry to Jimmy Page. But we're talking here, Audie - you know, I think I'm being conservative - but the women I've spoken to on the record and the women who've talked to me off the record, I believe 60 women over 30 years. And I'm probably being conservative.
CORNISH: Jim DeRogatis is host of the public radio show "Sound Opinions." He has reported extensively on the allegations against R. Kelly. Thank you for speaking with us.
DEROGATIS: Oh, you're most welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.