Adrian Horton, The Guardian, January 7, 2020
If the world worked as it should, there would never have been a Surviving R Kelly, the documentary series detailing nearly three decades of alleged sexual abuse – much of it against minors, and almost entirely against young African American women – by the R&B musician. By the time the series, produced by the activist dream hampton, aired on Lifetime last January, the allegations against R Kelly had long been public, and mounting. But it took a six-hour television event to do what multiple public lawsuits, highly publicized child sexual abuse images and a trial, a widely circulated tape involving sexual acts with a 14-year-old, a bombshell BuzzFeed News article by the reporter Jim DeRogatis, and the #MuteRKelly movement were not able to do: heat simmering public discomfort – or, worse, willful blindness – over the singer’s conduct into a full boil.
As documented in Surviving R Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, the follow-up that aired on Lifetime this weekend, the first series landed in a #MeToo media environment with a bang, producing a long-overdue blast of attention on Kelly with legal repercussions. Celebrities from Christina Aguilera to Lady Gaga publicly commended the series, while calls for finally muting Kelly’s music skyrocketed; his label, RCA, dropped him, cutting off crucial revenue. Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney for Kelly’s hometown of Chicago, made a public plea for victims to come forward with information to aid a prosecutorial effort; six weeks after the series aired, Kelly was indicted for 10 counts of sexual abuse. Eighteen federal charges, including for kidnapping, forced labor and sending child sexual abuse images across state lines, followed in August.
All these developments could make it seem as though the long-running case against Kelly achieved, forthcoming trials aside, some sort of resolution. But Surviving R Kelly Part II illustrates with, as in the first series, haunting and minimally staged interviews that compiling stories of Kelly’s abuse on camera was hardly the end. In fact, it’s only the beginning of a different struggle: of moving on, or finding justice, or weathering vicious backlash. The five-hour series, again aided by numerous cultural commentators, activists, psychological experts and music industry professionals, builds on the questions that have been asked in post-#MeToo discourse in 2019, now two years removed from the reporting on Harvey Weinstein that launched an outpouring of public stories of abuse: was it worth it? Was coming forward worth the social media harassment, the public scrutiny? Especially against a public figure, especially as black women coming against a celebrity as big as Kelly? What culture of complicity allowed this to go on so long? And now that Kelly is in custody, what does justice look like?
The first two episodes deal with the series in its own media context: a viral hit which inspired a serious reckoning but also furious doubt and resistance. The dozens of women who came forward in the first series, or told their stories on television, in their own words, for the first time, “have continuously been put on trial themselves”, says the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham. The vitriol online has followed, as the series describes, a typical script of victim-blaming: what were they wearing? Why put themselves in that situation? What were their parents thinking?
Part II reveals some of the toll this backlash had on Kelly’s accusers, and how the resources and fear tactics of a celebrity at his level go into hyperdrive as one’s visibility rises. There’s shocking footage of the first series’s premiere in New York, which was evacuated over a threat of violence; in the chaos afterwards at the hotel, a representative from Kelly’s team allegedly threatened one participant in the show, Faith Rodgers, with posting nude photos online as punishment for speaking publicly. It ultimately didn’t matter; after the show aired, vigilante pages supporting Kelly popped up – one particularly vile one endeavored to discredit the women one by one with public shaming, mugshots and leaked photos, including ones of Rodgers.
The pressure since the show aired has been relentless, according to many who spoke in the first series. Another accuser, Asante McGee, says that in 2019, she just wanted to sleep everything away. Kelly may have been arrested, but after the air date, “I felt like nothing,” Rodgers says. “I wasn’t known as Faith anymore. I’m known as the girl who slept with R Kelly.”
“This is not about women finding our voices – we have always had our voices,” says Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, in the series. “This is about people’s ability to hear. We’ve just finally found a frequency that people can hear us.”
Women have been using their voices to speak up against Kelly for over two decades – though, as Part II points out, the legal system has frequently made it difficult to do so. As with Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said, two recent books dissecting the Weinstein reporting, Part II examines how settlements and their attendant non-disclosure agreements became essential tools in protecting abusers.
Two women, Tiffany Hawkins and Lanita Carter, illustrate the pain of enforced silence in heartbreaking detail. Hawkins, the first woman to accuse Kelly of sexual abuse in a lawsuit, in 1996, met Kelly as a latchkey 15-year-old in 1991; she quickly became what he called his “cable girl” – she hooked him up with several of her 15-year-old friends before Kelly turned their relationship sexual. Carter was his hair braider in the early 2000s and, like Hawkins, felt close to Kelly as his anointed “little sister”. When he assaulted her, she called the police, seeking criminal charges.
Both women’s stories and eventual lawsuits were, they remember, largely ignored by authorities at the time; both ended up settling and signing non-disclosure agreements with a Chicago-based lawyer who, according to DeRogatis, brokered probably a dozen NDA-laced settlements for Kelly, amounting to what he called a “settlement factory”.
There’s the factory of silence, but also an unwillingness to listen, or to threaten the cash cow of Kelly’s stardom by confronting his behavior – not after Hawkins’s lawsuit, or Kelly’s marriage to his then 15-year-old protege Aaliyah, or when a tape showing Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl resulted in charges for child sexual abuse images. One former sound engineer who worked with Kelly as he awaited trial for his case, in which he was acquitted in 2008, remembers delivering a 21st birthday cake to the girl in the tape, who was still living in Kelly’s garage at the time. He was aware of girls living in the house but “we weren’t supposed to talk to them, they weren’t supposed to talk to us”, he recalled, though the mood around recording music was unchanged.
The final two episodes focus on moving forward after the endpoint of the first series – what happened to the girls still under Kelly’s control at the time the first series aired, and what does justice look like for a cast of victims numbering, according to DeRogatis, at least 48 women? Part II checks in with Dominique Gardner, whose mother whisked her from Kelly’s orbit in 2018, and on the families of Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary, two aspiring singers who both met Kelly when they were 17 and who defended the singer in his interview with Gayle King last March. In devastating detail, the Savage and Clary families rebut the stereotypes and hate thrown at them for years by Kelly’s defenders and explain how the singer manipulated their daughters against them. Both families, at the time of filming in 2019, hadn’t seen their daughters in three or four years.
Their testimony demonstrates the consequences of an unchecked, well-resourced Kelly. Even as the documentary aired last year, Kelly’s tactics of manipulation – turning the women against their parents, cutting off communication, controlling their whereabouts – continued to wreak havoc on their families. Clary, according to the epilogue, left Kelly’s circle in December but is still supporting him as he prepares for trial. Savage, as of the show’s air date, remained isolated from her family.
Kelly awaits his first trial in April, but for viewers the question of justice, and the continuing negotiation over whether to separate the art from the artist, are immediate. As with the fallout from HBO’s Finding Neverland’s claims of abuse by Michael Jackson, there’s an urgency over how to listen when people say, according to DeRogatis, to “be aware of the context. Be aware of what he’s really saying in that canon of music. Be aware of the pain he caused to people.”
“After the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, we could’ve said, ‘No more.’ But then there was the sixth, the seventh, the eighth – we could’ve stopped it then,” says Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly movement. “Then there’s the ninth, the 10th, the 11th. This has been going on for close to 30 years now because of silence.” Surviving R Kelly Part II: The Reckoning argues that there’s still more story to tell, and still an obligation to listen – though hopefully we can finally say: no more.