R. Kelly’s Victims Were Ignored for 30 Years. It Has ‘Everything to Do With the Fact That They Are Black Women.’

Photo credit: Lifetime
Photo credit: Lifetime


For nearly three decades R. Kelly’s alleged abuse of young Black women has gone largely ignored-by the legal system that has ruled in his favor; by the media that either sensationalized or diminished these allegations; by Kelly facilitators, who aided and abetted criminal and immoral behavior; and by the Black community which has protected this villain and devalued its girls.

Today, the Lifetime network will air the third chapter of Surviving R. Kelly, a docu-series that centers Kelly survivors and their journey from victimhood. The six-hour series aims to pivot the narrative around the sexual abuse experienced by Kelly’s wife and several of his victims, exposing just how methodical Kelly’s predation is.

Stories of R. Kelly’s predatory behavior date back to 1994 when he secretly-and illegally-wed songstress and protégé Aaliyah. (In 1995, VIBE magazine published a marriage certificate that falsified the budding singer’s age, listing her as 18, when in fact was only 15 years old.) The union was later annulled but rumors of Kelly’s predation of underage women continued to circulate. Though these headlines wouldn’t make national news yet, in the late ‘90s several Chicago-area women (Kelly is from Chicago), accused the celebrity of sexual coercion when they were minors. At least one of these cases was settled for $250,000. Then, at the height of his career in 2002, a video leaked of R. Kelly engaging in sex with teenage girls, and urinating on an apparent minor, presumed to be 14 years of age. Kelly was indicted with 21 counts of child pornography, and after a strategically delayed trial that stretched over eight years, the recording artist was cleared of all charges.

It would seem that such tangible evidence would convince his legions of fans and a jury of 12, tasked with serving justice, that Robert Sylvester Kelly was a sexual predator. It did not. R. Kelly's acquittal concretized a message that Black girls are disposable. In July 2017, Buzzfeed reported that several women were part of sex cult with Kelly at its helm. Since then, multiple women have come forward with harrowing accounts of sexual assault and violence at the hands of Kelly, all of which the artist vehemently denies.

Is the world finally ready to hear and believe Kelly’s victims? Can the public separate the man from the art? Should they? Executive producer and showrunner dream hampton and her team interviewed over 50 people for the groundbreaking doc with a singular focus: telling the stories of Black women. ‘Black women are important,’ she says. ‘This is about them.’

Here, she talks about how the doc got made (especially since she had no love for Lifetime), and what she hopes it achieves.

Were you the responsible in getting Lifetime on board?

dream hampton: No, Peter Murray [from Bunim/Murray poductions] had a relationship with Lifetime. I was like ‘Why would I meet with the people that do the Kardashians and the people that did the horrible Aaliyah Movie?’ I never watch Lifetime…. I was late to the Skype call, I had on my sunglasses and was eating my sushi, and I was like ‘What do you guys want? Do you want to do a reenactment?’ And they told me they wanted to do a serious documentary. They were in touch and had been holding space for the relationships with the survivors and that kind of piqued my interest and I was like ‘OK, this is going to be special, if y’all do it right, if we don't mess it up.’

That leads to my next question ….how did you receive the project?

I thought this was an opportunity to finally deal with R. Kelly.

Do you think race has affected how the media has reported on R. Kelly?

Yes, absolutely.

It seems that whole parts of the story have been suppressed.

First of all, R. Kelly is a Black artist he makes Black music and he hasn’t really crossed over. What crossed over more than “I Believe I Can Fly,” is folks thinking “Trapped In the Closet” was the most hilarious shit they had ever seen, in the same way they would watch a blaxploitation movie. So he is not a crossover artist. He is our problem, he has preyed on Black girls and Black women specifically.

Photo credit: David Corio - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Corio - Getty Images

He targets girls who are vulnerable to being impressed by wealth and fame, and girls who have talent themselves and think that, like Aaliyah, he will produce them. Sadly, there is a lesson implicit in Aaliyah. Fame makes people not be that logical. [In the doc, several Kelly survivors confirm they fell prey to his sexual manipulation and abuse and felt they could not say ‘no’ to his advances because they were afraid; he was violent; doing so might jeopardize a career opportunity; he was R. Kelly.]

The fact his victims have been dismissed has everything to do with the fact they are Black girls. We have a history in this country of not believing black girls and women, that we have no agency over our bodies. [In a discussion with Melissa Harris-Perry] bell hooks talks about how sometimes we complain about Oh another slavery movie, but we haven’t even begun to unpack the ways in which we are still dealing with the legacy of slavery. And that’s the direct legacy of slavery: to believe that we cannot rape women's bodies because they are there to be abused. Now do I believe that the sexual violence and abuse is confined to Black women? No. I believe it’s a global problem. But when you focus on R. Kelly of course they didn’t get that kind of attention. Even now in my Twitter mentions people are doing the “What about it” type thing, “When are you gonna mention Harvey Weinstein.” I care about Black girls.

How difficult was it for you to find these women, get them on board and hear these stories?

It's incredibly difficult to hear the stories, being on the receiving end of the trauma, often unprocessed trauma, untreated trauma. It's not like these women have been to therapy.

Photo credit: Lifetime
Photo credit: Lifetime
Photo credit: Lifetime
Photo credit: Lifetime

As far as getting them on board, this was a project of Tamara Simmons, another executive producer. I came on as showrunner and executive producer, and she, Jesse Daniels and Peter Murray had been holding space for these relationships. They had relationships with a good seven or eight of the women and the families who were trying to get their children back. We actually talked to more women than we have on camera.

What do you want audiences to take away from Surviving R Kelly?

I would like for people to resolve whatever tension they might be holding around the question of art and an artist when it comes to R. Kelly. I understand that's an age old question-ancient even. If we knew how the people we loved behaved we wouldn’t be fans of them. The last person I was a huge fan of was Michael Jackson, so I don't believe in the concept of being a fan of someone. I've known artists my whole life. I'm an artist so I don’t believe artists are exceptional people who people should have fantasies about.

But at the same time, R. Kelly’s music is exactly about what he's been doing. There's a direct line between his art and his predatory behavior, between calling himself the Pied Piper and Age Ain't Nothing but a Number.” He is incredibly direct and it's absolutely what it is: “It Seems Like You're Ready.” This isn’t some complex thing you have to unspool and unravel to get to the bottom of it like Richard Wright, who was basic in his misogyny, but who had literary skills. This is why his simplicity appeals to us. I get that, I'm from Detroit. I like simple wisdom and plain spoken Black people. I'm not looking for people to dazzle me, but he has been incredibly straightforward about who he is and he's a predator.

Why is this story important at this time?

It's important because Black girls and Black women are important and it’s about them.

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