Review: ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ Gives Women a Voice, But All the Other People Complicit Alongside R. Kelly Need to Be Held Accountable
My day job is in a Baltimore office with about 30 other women. On Friday morning, two coworkers and I met in my office to talk about the first two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly, which premiered the night before. (Two episodes aired on Lifetime Thursday, Jan. 3, two on Friday, Jan. 4, and two on Saturday, Jan. 5.) One coworker, who is 25 years old, said she had never heard these rumors about R. Kelly before; the other coworker, who is 37 years old, said she knew he was “freaky,” but thought he was just “kind of a perv.”
And here’s what I had to say: That my understanding of Robert Sylvester Kelly, the R&B superstar known as R. Kelly, has always been that his public persona is tied to him being a pedophile. That’s how I’ve viewed him as a pop culture figure for years, and yet, the cognitive dissonance of that—I think of how many times I’ve heard “Ignition (Remix)” at parties or weddings, or how often R. Kelly urinating is the butt of a joke (Chappelle’s Show, of course). I’m not saying this to make it seem like my coworkers were ignorant or something (I’m 31 years old, so I’m right in the middle of their age range), but that this array of opinions reflects exactly what Surviving R. Kelly is exploring. We failed these women by thinking R. Kelly was just an envelope-pushing artist of vulgarity when he is in fact an unrepentant abuser, most often of children. Surviving R. Kelly doesn’t let us forget it.
The series from executive producers dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg, and Jesse Daniels features interviews from more than 50 individuals. Many people get the opportunity to speak, including survivors of R. Kelly’s abuse, parents and family members of women who are still living with/being held by Kelly, clinical psychologists, Chicago-based journalists, music producers and executives, and a few people you’ll recognize, such as #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, John Legend, R. Kelly’s onetime protégé Sparkle, talk-show host Wendy Williams, radio DJ Charlamagne tha God, and Chance the Rapper.
Noticeably, the documentary does not feature a number of other artists who have worked with R. Kelly over the years; dream hampton mentioned in an interview with the Detroit Free Press who passed:
When it comes to celebrities, It was incredibly difficult to get people who had collaborated (artistically) with Kelly to come forward. We asked Lady Gaga. We asked Erykah Badu. We asked Celine Dion. We asked Jay-Z. We asked Dave Chappelle. (They’re) people who have been critical of him. That makes John Legend even more of a hero for me.
Also not interviewed is Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has been reporting on R. Kelly’s behavior for decades and who has his own Hulu documentary about R. Kelly in the works. Still, screengrabs of his recent work for BuzzFeed and The New Yorker are featured, and he has been tweeting in support of the series.
Almost universally, everyone interviewed in Surviving R. Kelly describes R. Kelly as a monster, a manipulator, an abuser who has for decades preyed on young girls. And they acknowledge that they know certain people will never believe or admit this, perhaps because they’ve been paid off. Sparkle, who claims that her niece was the underage girl featured in R. Kelly’s sex tape (which in reality is child pornography), is understandably embittered that neither her niece nor her sister and brother-in-law would take her side about who the girl on the video was—and in fact, the girl’s father kept playing guitar on R. Kelly’s records. Sparkle hasn’t spoken to them in a decade.
And there’s Aaliyah’s mother, who issued a statement after Surviving R. Kelly aired that her daughter never had a sexual relationship with R. Kelly. This is in response to Jovante Cunningham, a former backup singer of R. Kelly’s, who says she saw them having sex on a tour bus, and Demetrius Smith, R. Kelly’s former bodyguard and personal assistant, who admits to forging the documentation so that 15-year-old Aaliyah could marry R. Kelly when he was 27.
Smith is only one of the many people in this documentary series who repeats over and over again that Kelly is a genius (descriptors like “incredible,” “legend,” and “amazing” come up a lot), but admits that something for years seemed off about his behavior. R. Kelly’s brothers, younger brother Carey and older brother Bruce, measure their concerns with aggressive skepticism; Bruce, in particular, insists that he himself likes older women, so what’s wrong with Robert liking younger women? And then there are people like music producer Craig Williams, who wonders why R. Kelly was often outside middle and high schools (“I always wondered, ‘What the heck is he doing hanging around the high school?’”) but who comes off like a man painstakingly choosing each word.
Williams talks about the young-looking girls he saw around Kelly, but then notes that he never asked to see their IDs. OK, but really? Did you need to verify drivers’ licenses to prove to yourself that something was wrong? Why couldn’t you trust your instincts? The justifications for Williams’ inaction (the same with Smith; the same with a former employee of R. Kelly’s who is shown only in silhouette and with a modified voice) are unbelievably frustrating to listen to, and honestly, what is frustrating about Surviving R. Kelly overall is that the documentary sometimes seems to step away from holding people like Williams accountable.
In some way, I understand this: The series is titled “Surviving,” after all, and often during interview segments you’ll hear the producers ask the women onscreen (some of whom dated R. Kelly when they were of age, more of whom weren’t) if they consider themselves survivors. They consistently answer yes, and they absolutely are—the trauma and abuse they describe at the hands of Kelly is sickening and infuriating, and the parents featured who haven’t talked to their daughters in years—women who refuse to leave R. Kelly—will smash your heart apart.
But what about everyone else? R. Kelly was put on trial, but no prosecutors are interviewed here, no one from the police jurisdictions that pressed or dropped charges, none of his criminal defense attorneys. Specific high schools are named as places where R. Kelly would hang out; no teachers or administrators knew this was going on? Malls and stores are mentioned, too; what about their proprietors? No one from his record label is interviewed, no tour promoters, no executives from various music streaming services. (Oh, and R. Kelly’s streaming numbers have bumped upward since the series aired, which, what the actual fuck, people?)
On the one hand, I commend the producers for giving so many women the opportunity to tell their stories. These women deserve for their voices to be heard. But on the other hand, there were entire communities of enablers around R. Kelly who allowed for this to happen, over and over again, and I think the documentary would have been stronger for focusing more specifically on them. On Twitter, dream hampton mentions a few people who refused to be interviewed, but I wish the documentary itself had included acknowledgments to viewers that these attempts were made.
People I wanted to come on camera waaaay more than any celeb, but refused: Barry Weiss, former head of RCA/Jive, Ann Carli of Jive Records, BET Executives who greenlit his appearance on award shows, including Debra Lee and Stephen Hill, his biographer, David Ritz.— dream hampton (@dreamhampton) January 4, 2019
R. Kelly was able to continue this pattern of behavior because countless people in his personal circle chose to look the other way. It wasn’t just his fans from afar who propped him up (a point the documentary makes often is that the black community was divided in its reactions to him), but people who worked with him and worked for him. That is how abusers continue abusing. R. Kelly is a man who was supported, mostly by other men, in victimizing girls over decades. Other men, other people, do this every depressingly often. By demystifying this behavior with other interviews, Surviving R. Kelly could have also sent a very significant message: Examine your own life. Look at the people around you. Who has the capability to be a monster? What can you do to stop them? Will you?
It is disgusting what John Petrean, one juror who voted to acquit R. Kelly of child pornography charges in his Chicago trial, says about the young black women—the children—who were his accusers: “The way they dress, the way they act. I didn’t like them. I voted against. I disregarded all what they said.” But he’s one man in a system built of predators and abusers who are able to use racism, sexism, indifference, and disinterest to their own benefit every single day. (Think of Bill Cosby, Les Moonves, Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bryan Singer, and the countless true-crime documentaries about serial killers and sexual predators we binge on Netflix.) Surviving R. Kelly allows the women trapped in this nightmare to share their stories, but I wish it had asked different, and more, questions of the people who stood by while those women were forced into victimhood, and then through their own power transformed into survivors. Maybe the answers wouldn’t change much for the women R. Kelly abused. But for people watching, who may be inspired to reexamine their own actions and those of people they know, seeing this demand for accountability may be the nudge needed to save someone’s life.
And finally, some thoughts from Twitter.
Chance the Rapper clarifies his comments from the documentary about R. Kelly’s accusers not being believed because they are black:
John Legend makes clear that he’s not a hero:
To everyone telling me how courageous I am for appearing in the doc, it didn't feel risky at all. I believe these women and don't give a fuck about protecting a serial child rapist. Easy decision.— John Legend (@johnlegend) January 4, 2019
And although Charlamagne tha God quotes Malcolm X in the documentary in his support of black women (“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman”), maybe he shouldn’t have been making R. Kelly jokes for years before now?
And dream hampton’s response to Charlamagne tha God’s tweets, plus the accusations of rape against him that surfaced last July:
I’m just seeing Charlamagne’s 2010 tweet tonight. I interviewed him before the story abt him broke but should have cut him altogether, rather than limit his appearance. It was a huge mistake. I prob spent more time arguing to cut Bruce. Again, mistake. #SurvivingRKelly— dream hampton (@dreamhampton) January 6, 2019
All six episodes of Surviving R. Kelly are available On Demand or through streaming at Lifetime’s website.
Image sources (in order of posting): MyLifetime.com, MyLifetime.com