Ten questions with Jessica Hopper regarding the R. Kelly rape allegations
We thought the story bore further investigation, so we fired a series of questions off to Hopper.
TheVine: What was the trigger that made you decide you were going to interview Jim DeRogatis for your Village Voice column?
Jessica Hopper: [It was] when we started talking offline after our Pitchfork-spawned "debate" about whether enjoying R. Kelly’s music is being complicit if you have known what he has been accused of and still listen and enjoy. Jim started jogging my memory about just how much I had forgotten when the story broke in 2000. He also told me casual details that really put some flesh, so to speak, on victims who were just ages, essentially—since all of the women who brought civil suits settled—quite a few before they'd even filed their suit.
I realised there were things that Jim could say because he'd seen these girls, their families, their circumstances, and that if I had forgotten some of these details—and I am someone who was paying attention—then everyone else could be moved by them too. I had faith that if people could hear about women calling [Jim] at 2am after his review of R. Kelly's Pitchfork set saying "thank you for still caring because no one else ever stood up for us" it might change the conversation a bit. Also, we needed to talk about the factors within music journalism that were contributing to these allegations being under-reported for so long.
What was your motivation? Were you aware that it was going to create the furore it did? Is that what you were looking for?
Jim very wisely put this on my plate. Because he knew if I knew more, I would get mad and do something, and that people were tired of hearing it from him. I had no clue anyone would even be interested in it. If I had known millions of people would read it and R. Kelly would be asked, sheepishly, to comment the same day -- I would have made it longer and I would have gone to the courthouse and gotten every document we could get our hands on and have posted it.
All I wanted, really and truly, was to be a signal boost. He treated these women like trash, and we, as music journalists covering R. Kelly, we failed in our duty to report the story -- which just enforced the idea that young black women and their bodies and lives do not matter. We failed in that regard, collectively.
What I was looking for is for the journalists I know and respect and look up to, especially the young ones in positions of power, to reconsider what a pass they were giving R. Kelly. That was a big chunk of it. I didn't have any thought beyond [that]. I thought maybe a few thousand people would read it because it felt a little Inside Baseball to me in a way. I saw it as a conversation about journalism and about the many, many social and institutional factors that conspired in covert and overt ways to keep this story tamped down.
With the release of Black Panties, did you and/or Village Voice time it deliberately for maximum exposure, or was it more the culmination of a gradual erosion of your disbelief that came via personal communication with Jim?
The funny thing was I had pitched this in August. The pitch went to my Village Voice editor's SPAM box and then last week I got up in his email box about a line in a very flip Black Panties review that they ran online. [The editor] said "you know I would take anything you have to say about RK". And I was like "what about interviewing Jim? I can have it to you in two days". He'd never seen the pitch in the first place and said of course and I got to work. And that was it.
I would have probably just have put it on my blog - because really, I thought no one cared. And I got that idea from how everyone—and I do mean everyone—was covering the release of Black Panties that week.
Why were you initially “flip” about Jim’s judgment regarding the allegations surrounding R. Kelly? What was it about the tone of his ‘campaign’ that made you distrust it? What about earlier this year when he tried to revive it, to tie in with the Pitchfork festival that R. Kelly was headlining -- did you feel then he was pursuing a personal vendetta against Pitchfork?
I thought he was kind of axe-grinding about Pitchfork. A lot of people make a lot of money [in] different ways [off] performers of his magnitude. Pitchfork is not particularly special in that regard. Also, Jim and I had had arguments—real ones—over the years and I sometimes thought of him as a real scold. So I was being flip about how was I supposed to reconcile liking those five songs? Part of it was just my past with him.
Do you believe Jim when he says “there’s nobody that matters less to our society than young black woman”? Or, as Mark Anthony Neal says, “one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different”.
In America, there is an incredible racism and racist mythology about black women, their bodies and their sexuality. My dad, who has prosecuted rape cases for the last 30 years as a country prosecutor (he runs a DNA/rape cold case specialty bureau) has told me it's much hard to prosecute and get convictions for black female victims [than white] because of the idea that teenage black girls are fast or loose or gold diggers, trying to get pregnant for support etc.
If Kelly had known white victims and [they'd] been middle class or beyond -- there would have been different outrage. It would have perhaps motivated white people with power or clout to care. It would have been seen as a more universal story rather than written off as some poor girls from the southside looking for a payout.
Do you think it’s part of R. Kelly’s appeal – that folk somewhat know of his ‘controversial’ past, and it feeds into their appreciation of his music? That it helps add a layer of authenticity to his music, because the audience knows that he’s experienced much of what he sings about? That somehow it makes him sexier, knowing he has a dark side?
I think for some people they see something like peeing on a 14-year-old girl as wacky rather than depraved and especially if he is writing songs like ‘Sexasaurus’ it seem like a put on. The excuse you hear most is "but his songs are too good". I don't know if the legitimacy of his creepiness makes him more authentic, but then again we know that the idea of authenticity is incredibly important for pretty much every pop star in existence. That they are who they have lead us to believe.
Rock’n’roll and hip-hop are all about the glamour of the ‘rebel’, the outsider, the other - Some might view this ‘new’ information as titillating. And what about the folk who’ll argue that all R. Kelly was doing was indulging women’s – and girls’ – various kinks? As Jim said in your interview: “This deeply troubles me: There's a very -- I don't know what the percentage is -- some percentage of fans are liking Kelly's music because they know. And that's really troublesome to me. There is some sort of -- and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism -- there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it's not just a character.”
Dozens of 14 and 15 and 16 year old girls in Chicago all had the same story. It would have been uncanny for him to magically locate all these girls at the same school, the same McDonalds, the same malls who were all into the freaky and illegal shit he was into. In the civil suits and testimony, girls talked about being pressured into things, having sex with other girls against their will, trying to kill themselves, saying their lives were ruined by this man. Doesn't sound like much of a kink does it?
Why do you think people have paid attention to your interview, and not to any of Jim’s numerous writings about it in the past? (Or to black feminists and writers, as you mention on your Twitter feed.) What do you think is the crucial difference?
I think timing was a huge part. There had been some thought-provoking pieces on The Root and Colorlines, Mikki Kendall had just done #fasttailgirls, there was a Jezebel piece that just got people’s ire up -- because Black Panties was doing a lot to creep out the people that never forgot what he'd been accused of. The wheels were greased.
The other thing is I think is that the interview itself humanised these girls, it evidences predation and it put the story in a way that you cannot argue with. If you are 15 years old, this story went wide when you were nine years old -- it just wasn’t on the radar and maybe if you really cared you did your homework by googling -- but the major stories—GQ, SPIN and Sun Times initial reporting—none of it is online really. So, for a lot of people it was effectively new information and so it's shocking.
The other part is that I am a known, white feminist and I had a bigger megaphone. And that piece of it sucks because there have been black academics and WOC who cover pop and culture and feminism who never, ever dropped this -- who never stopped putting forward the real, critical questions about R Kelly.
Has anything struck you particularly about the deluge of reporting and commentary that has appeared on the Internet since your blog?
The honesty of the self-reflection and the realness of the outrage has touched me deeply.