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The Long-Overdue Outrage of ‘Surviving R. Kelly’

The six-part Lifetime documentary, which retraced enduring reports of the R&B singer’s manipulation of underage girls and sexual misconduct, is an uncomfortable, necessary watch that makes justice seem both inarguable and impossible

R. Kelly Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2015, Alice and Angelo Clary took their daughter Azriel to an R. Kelly concert in Orlando, to celebrate Angelo’s birthday. Azriel was 17, with, her mother says, a bubbly personality and dreams of being a famous singer; during the show, Kelly, who has long self-identified as “the Pied Piper of R&B,” pulled Azriel and several other young girls onstage. Her parents knew enough to be alarmed, but not yet enough to be horrified.

“Everybody knew R. Kelly’s background with females,” Angelo says. “You know, you kinda suppressed the thought.”

“He’s never been found guilty on any of the charges,” Alice adds, referring chiefly to Kelly’s acquittal on 14 charges of child pornography in 2008. “So, I mean, if you look at it from a legal standpoint, you think, ‘OK, maybe it wasn’t any truth or validity to it.’ ’Cause people make accusations on people all the time. It doesn’t mean it’s actually true.”

“I felt as though, you know, yeah, I knew his background,” Angelo continues. “But my daughter gon’ be different. I’m right there with her. Her mom right there with her. So me, being a father—a protective father—I’m OK with it. ’Cause I don’t think none of this could happen to me.”

Backstage, Kelly asked to hear Azriel sing, offered to help with her career, and gave her his phone number. They kept in touch for weeks, unbeknownst to her parents, and soon met again at a hotel in nearby Kissimmee. “She was auditioning, was the word that was used,” Alice recalls with a bitter smile; she and her husband rushed to the hotel, made a scene, and managed for a time to set ground rules about parental supervision as Kelly settled into his role as Azriel’s mentor.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it was a good fit,” Alice says. “I didn’t want to have any part of it.” But Azriel insisted.

This story is recounted four hours and change into Surviving R. Kelly, the six-part primal scream of a Lifetime documentary that aired in two-part blocks over Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and is streaming in full on Lifetime’s website now. It is interspersed, in the fifth episode, with queasy footage of another distraught mother, Michelle Kramer, sobbing in another hotel lobby in Beverly Hills, desperately searching for her own long-estranged daughter, Dominique Gardner, who was herself 17 when she first met the Pied Piper.

“There’s three drugs out there,” Kramer says. “Crack, heroin, and R. Kelly.”

Kramer will succeed, eventually, where the Clarys, to date, have failed. When Azriel turned 18, her mother says, “All hell broke loose.” Soon, Azriel and Kelly grew inseparable; Alice and Angelo haven’t seen their daughter since her high school graduation, in 2016. In Surviving R. Kelly’s final episode, we see Mom and Dad outside a Chicago recording studio, throwing pebbles at the windows, trying to reason with the shadowy figure they glimpsed behind the curtains. “It makes me feel, as a father, less than a man, if that makes sense,” Angelo says. “A piece of me seemed to die off. I don’t know anything about the Azriel that’s 20 now.” The cops show up but can’t just bust down the door. She’s a consenting adult.

“This is a bad place for any parent to be,” Angelo says. “Outside of a building that your child may be in or may not be in. This might as well be a prison.”

Surviving R. Kelly is furious, punishing, and necessary, and its fury derives from how unnecessary it should be here in 2019, given “the 25 years of receipts we have against this person,” as Oronike Odeleye, a cofounder of the recently flourishing #MuteRKelly campaign, puts it. It is brutal and unyielding in depicting the pain Kelly has caused, and many of the 50-plus people interviewed on-camera—especially those who describe themselves as survivors, with the most personal and heartbreaking stories to tell—break down in tears, radiating a shattering intensity that for some critics has seemed exploitive.

But the clear purpose is to shock the American listening public out of our complacence, our complicity. How could this happen? is a common theme. Where was the outrage? Where is our outrage now? Executive-produced by, among others, hip-hop journalist and filmmaker dream hampton, the series tracks Kelly’s career from young, troubled Chicago wunderkind to global superstar, his artistic highlights—from “I Believe I Can Fly” to “Ignition (Remix)”— undeniable, his innumerable personal demons and the mortifying accounts of his criminal transgressions common knowledge but too often denied, or at least diminished.

“The story of sexual predation as an inconvenience in popular music is so old it’s been going on for decades, centuries,” says critic and journalist Ann Powers in Surviving R. Kelly. “Nobody wants to give up the music they love. And nobody wants to think badly of the artists they love. And I think that happened with R. Kelly.”

“It’s not like he’s hidden,” adds fellow writer Nelson George later. “But we have been afraid to look.”

The first episode covers a then-27-year-old Kelly’s quickly annulled 1994 marriage to fellow R&B superstar Aaliyah, the paperwork forged, former Kelly tour manager and assistant Demetrius Smith admits, to make Aaliyah’s age 18 instead of 15. The fourth episode largely concerns Kelly’s 2008 trial and acquittal after a widely distributed videotape that reportedly depicted him urinating on a 14-year-old girl. From there, the documentary focuses on the ongoing accounts, first reported by longtime tireless journalist Jim DeRogatis in a 2017 BuzzFeed piece, that Kelly is holding several young girls against their will in a cult-like environment, regulating how they eat, sleep, and act. (DeRogatis, whose hard-boiled reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times and others has been and continues to be crucial in at least attempting to speak truth to Kelly’s power, is briefly mentioned—including the fact that he was anonymously mailed the videotape in question—but he did not sit for an interview, as he’s developing his own Kelly project. But he’s voiced his support for Surviving R. Kelly, and hampton has described his reporting as “foundational.”)

Many of the 50-plus interviewees here are cultural critics, other dogged Chicago Sun-Times reporters, or experts in the fields of clinical psychology and criminology, offering valuable insight into both Kelly and the women in his life, not to mention his millions of still-undaunted fans. (In a 2012 interview with Tavis Smiley, Kelly said that he’d been molested himself as a child, which “woke up my hormones a lot earlier than they were supposed to be awakened.”)

Much of the press around Surviving R. Kelly has noted that with the exception of John Legend, virtually none of these talking heads are themselves part of the pop-star echelon that has stood beside Kelly for decades, from Jay-Z to Lady Gaga. But even those public figures who do appear are often themselves, to some extent, compromised. Radio star Charlamagne Tha God makes a late appearance and forcefully states a core thesis:

The most disrespected woman in America, historically, has always been the black woman. You know, I always say, if you want to get away with murder, kill a black rapper. If you want to get away with sexual assault, assault a young black girl. If R. Kelly had been doing this to white women? Oh my God. The fact that it’s mostly young black girls that he preys on? Simply, nobody cares.

But as of Sunday morning, in light of a 2001 criminal sexual conduct charge made against Charlamagne (which was dismissed, and a South Carolina court declined to reopen it) and confronted with some of Charlamagne’s old tweets joking about R. Kelly, hampton took to Twitter to say she wished he’d been excluded.

Bruce, whom hampton references, is Robert Kelly’s older brother, interviewed from prison, whose full-throated defense of Robert is one of the documentary’s more nauseating moments: “Robert likes younger women. You have people who have fantasies about different things. I like older women. Go figure. You know? But that’s just a preference. It’s a preference. Everyone has preferences. So what is the big deal? What is the big issue with my brother?” Surviving R. Kelly digs into the ugliest and darkest of gray areas, and very few people, from Kelly’s industry cohorts to even his most skeptical critics to his die-hard fans, can claim total absolution. We all, to some degree, ignored this situation at worst, or sorely underestimated it at best. You are not meant to emerge from this six-hour excoriation feeling comfortable. Nor are you meant to feel clean.

Another nauseating moment in Surviving R. Kelly involves Chance the Rapper, who did not sit for a new interview, but in May 2018 told Cassius reporter Jamilah Lemieux that he regretted collaborating with Kelly, both onstage at Lollapalooza in 2014 and subsequently on the track “Somewhere in Paradise.” His words, as replayed in the documentary, are shockingly blunt: “Making a song with R. Kelly was a mistake. … I didn’t value the accusers’ stories, like, because they were black women. ... I made a mistake.”

Lemieux, an important voice throughout Surviving R. Kelly, herself spent time on Twitter Sunday lamenting that Chance’s remarks have often not been given more context, and his harsh honesty not given more credit.

The aftermath of this project will only get messier—Kelly is a moving target. In the past year, he’s faced increased music-industry pressure, inspired by the #MuteRKelly movement, in the form of even more canceled shows and well-meaning but logistically dicey campaigns to limit his music’s reach, as exemplified by Spotify’s awkward decision in May to pull his songs from its playlists. (Kelly’s streams on Spotify have reportedly risen 16 percent since Surviving R. Kelly premiered Thursday night.) But there appears to be little chance of any sort of legal reckoning, despite the documentary’s grim roll call of women who each describe, in excruciating detail, their ongoing struggle as his survivors.

These women include Jovante Cunningham, a singer and backup dancer who first met Kelly when she was 14 and both witnessed and suffered all manner of degradation and underage assault in the studio and on tour buses, some of it involving Aaliyah. (“He destroyed a lot of people,” Cunningham says now. “He destroyed a lot of people. A lot of people who loved and adored him. And I can’t stress to you enough how people are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago.”) There is Andrea Kelly, Robert’s ex-wife and the mother of his three children, still incredulous at the sheer volume of the carnage he’s wrought, involving her and so many others. (“I’m thinking to myself, when did you have time?” Andrea says. “Are there more? Do you have a doppelgänger around here that I don’t know about? Like, when do you have time to go to the studio, play basketball, come abuse me, be a dad—when you wanted to—and then go destroy other people’s lives?”)

There is Jerhonda Pace, who was 14 when she first met Kelly outside the courthouse at his 2008 child-pornography trial, where she showed up every day as a show of support. (“I didn’t believe he was guilty, and I didn’t want to believe that he was guilty,” she says. “He was old for me to like him, but I fell in love with his music.”) One of the prosecution’s 14 witnesses in that trial was Stephanie Edwards, a.k.a. Sparkle, a singer, former Kelly protégé, and the aunt of the girl allegedly in the video. Edwards rues the day she introduced Kelly to her then-12-year-old niece.

That young woman herself denied it was her on that tape, as did her parents, and their refusal to participate in the trial was most likely the deciding factor in Kelly’s acquittal, along with the jury’s disregard for all those who did testify. “I just didn’t believe them, the womans,” says John Petrean, the one juror to appear on camera. “I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act, I didn’t like them. I disregarded all what they said.”

The ugliness keeps multiplying, keeps finding sordid new dimensions. Late in the series, we meet Asante McGee, who first met Kelly as a 35-year-old superfan, and on camera returns to an abandoned Atlanta house where she says she and several other women lived with him, forced to call him “Daddy” and ask permission even to eat or use the bathroom. She breaks down at the sight of one area identified as the Black Room:

I just really feel like this room right here, besides my bedroom, was like the most degrading thing ever. Things that happened in here that you wouldn’t even think that would happen, but you had to pretty much agree to it, no matter how demeaning it felt or seemed. You always had to just play along with it. And it was just like, you had Rob pretty much, like, making you do the unthinkable, and I just feel like I never thought that I would come back to this house and especially this room. I never realized how much this room hurts me. But actually coming in here, I don’t want to ever revisit this room again.

There are many others; there is much more. There is always more. Late in Surviving R. Kelly, the focus shifts to mortified parents like those of Azriel Clary and Joycelyn Savage. Dominique Gardner’s mother’s tireless crusade to hunt down her daughter provides the fifth episode’s backbone and is the closest the show comes to a happy ending, though that hotel-lobby-breakdown saga is teased out over multiple commercial breaks: This show wants to be a thorough and righteous and sober indictment, but it struggles with the need to also be good TV.

The contentious presence of Charlamagne aside, the documentary’s larger point about Kelly often skating by via the universal disrespect and disregard for black women is reiterated by countless others, from Hoodfeminism cofounder Mikki Kendall to #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. And Kelly’s support system, from his label to his support staff, is furiously indicted as well, as when an anonymous former employee, their body blurred and voice electronically altered, breaks down in tears while recounting life at one of Kelly’s houses with some of his various women.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” this person cries, suddenly inconsolable.

“What are you thinking?” the offscreen interviewer asks. “Now, what are you remembering?”

“Because when you talk about it, you realize how sick and twisted it really was,” the voice says.

And when I first met those girls—when I first met those girls, I judged them, not him. My first response to myself was, “These bitches are crazy.” Because I saw them jump up and kiss him, one behind the other. And I knew what was goin’ on behind closed doors as far as them not being able to eat when they wanted to, not bein’ able to move around, until I started to not just look at the situation, but I started to also listen to what he would say. To make them act that way.

The impulse, still, to judge them and not him is not the darkest part of Surviving R. Kelly, but it’s the part that’s poisoned the most people, including many of those watching now with ever-heightened shock and revulsion. The documentary’s conclusion—justice will be done, somehow, someday, because it must—seems both inarguable and impossible. Why has this taken so long? Why is even this not enough? You want to hold out hope, but then you think of, for example, Lisa Van Allen, who says she met R. Kelly at 17 during a video shoot, and by age 20 was pregnant with his child. She had an abortion, she says, in part because she worried the baby might be a girl.