On January 3, Lifetime premiered the first two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries that unpacks the sexual-abuse allegations that, for over 25 years, have not managed to stick to singer R. Kelly. Led by filmmaker Dream Hampton, the series examines Kelly’s own life; talks to the women and girls, many of them black, who survived years of grooming, manipulation, and abuse; and holds both those surrounding Kelly and the music industry at large responsible for the culture they enabled and did little to stop. It also takes a hard look at the culture of “separating art from artist,” and questions why Kelly’s fans allowed him continued success even after many of the allegations against him were made public.
The series also features commentary from #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, psychologists, sexual-abuse experts, and the parents of the girls and women who are allegedly being held by R. Kelly in a “cult.” (A number of people, including past musical collaborators, reportedly declined to be involved; John Legend was one of the few industry peers who contributed.) The testimonies are harrowing and difficult to watch, and they should be; so many people turned a blind eye to these victims, and it’s time to take a good look at the system that, in ignoring them, considered them expendable.
The series is set up in six parts, each of which examines a different facet of the system of abuse.
The first two episodes dig into [Kelly’s] childhood, in which he both was recognized as a musical prodigy and sexually abused himself and his unstoppable rise to stardom, and his relationship to Aaliyah, whom he met when she was just 12 years old. The third and fourth episodes detail the circumstances of the so-called “pee tape,” which allegedly showed Kelly having sex with and urinating on a 14 year-old girl, and the subsequent child pornography case that ended in a surprise acquittal. The final two episodes highlight the reports from the last several years that Kelly has isolated and groomed women and girls into a sex cult for his own pleasure.
Lifetime is airing two episodes at a time over the course of a three-night block; already the first two episodes sparked major conversation on social media, including from those who tried to hold Kelly accountable for his actions toward Aaliyah while she was still alive.
Showrunner and executive producer Dream Hampton worked with Lifetime to bring the series to light.
Hampton told Complex that the network had already been talking to survivors prior to hiring her for the series; she joined the project about six months later, she recalls.
She had previously interviewed Kelly for a 2000 profile in Vibe magazine, which ran before journalist Jim DeRogatis and the Chicago Sun-Times published allegations in December 2000 that Kelly had sexually abused teenage girls. “What I regret is having missed the whole story,” she says now about her piece. “I know now how he operates: about all of the closed doors, and people being cordoned off.” She also remembered Kelly calling her after the story was published, upset that she included information about Aaliyah in the piece. (Vibe first published Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage certificate in 1995.)
A number of people opted out of participating in the project.
In an interview with Shadow & Act, Hampton explained that she asked “Jay-Z, I asked Mary J. Blige, I asked Lil Kim, Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle …” to participate. “I mean, most people just don’t want to touch it. I remember Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] was like, ‘I would do anything for you but I can’t do this.’ It’s not because they support him, it’s because it’s so messy and muddy. It’s that turning away that has allowed this to go on.”
She also told the Detroit Free Press, “When it comes to celebrities, It was incredibly difficult to get people who had collaborated (artistically) with Kelly to come forward,” and cited people like Lady Gaga and Celine Dion, who reportedly also declined involvement.
The docuseries features testimony from Kelly’s ex-wife, Andrea Kelly; ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones; and Carey and Bruce Kelly, his brothers. It also highlights survivors Asante McGee, Jerhonda Pace, Faith Rodgers, Lisa Van Allen, Lizzette Martinez, and the singer Sparkle, who believed Kelly would mentor her singing career. Alice and Angelo Clary, the parents of Azriel Clary, whom Kelly allegedly began grooming when she was 17 years old, are also interviewed.
Hampton has repeatedly placed the emphasis on the survivors, and doubled down on the fact that the survivors would have had more screen time even if buzzy names had agreed to appear. “I hope the absence of celebrities really isn’t the takeaway today. Even if they’d said yes, the non celebrities would’ve been featured more than them,” she explained on Twitter.
After the first episodes aired, John Legend addressed his involvement on Twitter. He also highlighted the work of the A Long Walk Home foundation, which works with young women and girls of color who are affected by sexual violence.
A number of threats have been levied against the series.
On December 5, 2018, a Surviving R. Kelly screening in New York City was evacuated following “several anonymous threats,” CNN reported. A NYPD spokesperson said that someone warned that if the screening began, someone in the audience would begin shooting. NeueHouse Madison Square, where the screening was set to take place, later called the threat non-credible.
In a statement, Lifetime said, “As a precaution, the network chose to evacuate the building. The safety and security of our panel, guests, and staff is of paramount importance to Lifetime.”
On January 3, the day the first installment was set to air, TMZ reported that Kelly’s lawyer filed a legal letter threatening to sue the network if they broadcast the series. Kelly has also refuted the testimonies made by survivors in the series; he also claims to have audio that shows “some of the girls are lying, but that the budget was too high to turn back now.”
The second two installments of Surviving R. Kelly are set to air on Lifetime at 9 p.m. on Friday, January 4. The last two episodes will air at 9 p.m. on Saturday, January 5. Episodes are also available on Lifetime’s website through a cable provider.