Surviving R Kelly, a six-part docu-series, aired on Lifetime forcing the world to face the horrific realities of decades of predatory behavior. The portrait of R. Kelly painted by survivors exists as a painful reminder that without the dismantling of systems, public condemnation and cultural awakening, the predatory singer will remain at large.
The series was executive produced by dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg and Jesse Daniels for Kreativ Inc., through a production deal with Bunim/Murray Productions (BMP) and Brie Miranda Bryant of Lifetime. Surviving R. Kelly began its three-night broadcast Jan. 3, 2019.
Born Robert Kelly, the Chicago native remains relatively unpunished and unbothered, after allegations of a sex cult, trafficking ring and decades of physical and mental abuse. Kelly continues to adamantly dismiss any claims as simple rumors. As R. Kelly’s fate remains in limbo, many hope Surviving R. Kelly adds fuel to fire and turns the remnants of a once thriving R&B career to ashes.
The wounds carried by survivors are more than scars as this triggering experience takes center stage.
Surviving R. Kelly introduces survivors, witnesses and accomplices describing the traumatic experiences faced at the hands of R. Kelly. The three-night airing morphed into an expose, where few hands remained clean. Surviving R. Kelly shows how the self-proclaimed ‘Pied Piper’ became enabled to exist as a monster of the worst nightmares, as well as the complicit behavior of the music industry, the justice system and the firm grip rape culture has on urban communities.
R. Kelly’s Teflon vest, designed and produced by the systems upheld by misogynistic systems, propelled him to dangerous levels of fame and power. Beginning with Aaliyah, Kelly’s transgressions against minors were never private. Though many were aware of R. Kelly’s relationship with Aaliyah; which involved forged documents, an illegal marriage and $100 settlement, neither career took a blow.
With ample opportunity to end R.Kelly then, the exact opposite transpired and in Kelly’s favor, he began to live the life of his dreams. His existence as a beloved R&B star outranked his disturbing behavior due to his “musical genius.” For decades, stories published, broadcasted interviews, leaked videotapes and phone calls, a not guilty verdict and blatant boasting through song; R. Kelly became a super-predator with the empowerment of the music industry and fans, the criminal justice system and twisted cultural norms.
“I’m here for the music and nothing else!” – R. Kelly concert-goer says, documented by Surviving R. Kelly.
The grassroots movement #MuteRKelly, began summer 2017 after news of alleged sex cults and prisoners broke the internet. #MuteRKelly founder, Oronike Odeleye, began in Atlanta and worked with local organizers holding seven protests in multiple cities, resulting in canceled R. Kelly shows and less “Bump N Grind” on airwaves. Despite backlash and live demonstrations, on top of decades of documented explicit behavior, many fans and fellow artists willingly back the musician.
Multimedia journalist Toure was one of the first journalists to confront R. Kelly head-on about the pedophilia accusations. Toure pressed R. Kelly during an infamous recorded interview for BET. A smooth-talking R. Kelly, despite interjections from his crisis manager, responded to questions surrounding his attraction to barely legal women.
When asked if he liked teenage girls, R. Kelly did not respond no.
“When you say teenage, how old are we talking?” with a visible shocked response from Toure.
Reflecting on the 2008 interview, Toure details the moments captured on camera forever for The Daily Beast.
“I was dumbfounded. I thought of that as pretty much an admission. He was so unable to just say no that he truly did not know what to say and responded by asking me a dumb question. I thought, ‘Don’t let him see on your face how dumb that was.’ I failed. I basically did like a spit-take.”
Following the interview, R. Kelly’s camp threatened to sue BET. Despite the honest journalistic intent, BET complied and shelved the interview.
The day after BET aired my R Kelly interview, his people called BET and threatened to sue if they aired it again. On what grounds? I have no idea. But BET quickly capitulated and put the tape on the shelf, never to air again. #SurvivingRKelly
— Touré (@Toure) January 4, 2019
Recently, music streaming platforms, most notably Spotify, announced R. Kelly’s music would not be included in editorial content. In May 2018, Spotify’s new policy aimed to reduce promoting content created by those whose values did not align with those upheld on the Spotify stage. The singer’s work was removed from promoted playlists, yet remained available for those who sought out R.Kelly’s albums.
An official statement, reported by Billboard, shares Spotify’s new policy enforcing the decision not to highlight R. Kelly’s work.
“We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly. His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
Despite backlash, Spotify’s curated content remains free of R. Kelly’s music. Although the platform made efforts to eradicate support of abuse and violence against women since the airing of Surviving R. Kelly, streams of his music have multiplied.
The complicit support from R. Kelly’s fan-base cannot be ignored. Devout fans claim to remove the art from the artist, however, it simply cannot be separated. Through Surviving R. Kelly, viewers learn the inspiration behind many of R. Kelly’s biggest hits is perverse behavior. Fans and collaborators alike bear the badge of guilt when continuing to support R. Kelly.
The lack of artist participation in Surviving R. Kelly speaks volumes. Besides Sparkle, long-time backup singer for R. Kelly, Dream Hampton allegedly reached out to notable musicians only to have a solo John Legend participate in the docu-series. Hampton claims Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Lil’ Kim, and others declined the opportunity. Questlove responded to allegations claiming he was asked to comment on R. Kelly’s brilliance and not brutality in a now-deleted tweet. Other artists mentioned have yet to respond.
As Surviving R. Kelly aired each night, the record-breaking audience watched a twisted tale of torment and tribulation at each survivors expense. While shining light on important issues and allowing the victims to finally be heard, Surviving R. Kelly missed a few marks.
The documentary, although not viewed in vain, oftentimes over-exposed victims. Setting an awkward tone by airing the controversial 2014 Lifetime produced biopic Aaliyah: Princess Of R&B beforehand, watching Surviving R. Kelly made me uncomfortable and not only for R. Kelly’s gross acts. My discomfort did not stem from shyness of necessary conversations, but the feeling of intrusion. My head turned and I eventually turned off my stream as Dominique and her mother Michelle Gardner simultaneously escaped the hotel and the Lifetime camera crew.
Pieces of the child pornography casually referred to as “The Pee Tape” even made the final cut of Surviving R. Kelly, for the world to see again.
At every turn, the victims were forced to relive their worst experiences on camera for shock value, while those called to speak on R. Kelly did not receive similar treatment. Many former employees of Kelly spoke on being disappointed and faced their own internal regrets. Sharing of witnessing his criminal behavior and even helping him at times. Not once were the teachers, bodyguards nor associates grilled on turning their eyes.
Furthermore, Charlamagne Tha God poised as the purveyor of Black women’s rights almost eradicates the message behind Surviving R. Kelly. Defended by Dream Hampton via Twitter as “someone clear and vocal with his criticism and condemnation of R. Kelly,” the presence of Ebro and Joe Budden’s also undermine Surviving R. Kelly. Both Charlemagne and Joe Budden have violent allegations of their own while Hot 97’s Ebro continuously flip-flops, playing devil’s advocate surrounding R. Kelly’s music.
Can you separate art from the person? It’s hard but I can. https://t.co/GrvRLiv7XN
— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) January 4, 2019
In hindsight, Surviving R. Kelly sparked what could [hopefully] be the final push to R. Kelly’s well overdue reckoning resulting in accountability, legal action and justice for all who did and did not survive R. Kelly and other monsters alike.