December 4, 2018 was an emotional evening for the accusers of singer R. Kelly. That night, Me Too movement founder Tarana Burke was in attendance with nine of Kelly’s accusers at a private media and influencer screening in New York City of Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, in which many people shared their allegations of Kelly’s sexual and predatory abuse against themselves or their family members. In an interview with Shadow And Act on Wednesday, Burke said she noticed early on during the screening that the survivors were having “an emotional reaction” to seeing themselves on screen for the first time.
“I can only imagine what it must feel like to watch a documentary about the life of your rapist or your abuser,” Burke told Shadow and Act. So when the lights came on in the venue minutes into the screening, Burke wasn’t surprised. “We thought it was because the survivors were so emotional,” that the screening had been abruptly stopped. In fact, the venue had received threats that there would be a shooting at the event if the screening wasn’t stopped. Lifetime then decided to end the screening for the safety of the survivors, media and influencers in attendance.
“People were really emotional and shaken up,” Burke told Shadow and Act of the mood as people filed out of the venue to hear announcements from Lifetime executives. “[They were] everywhere from panicked to really angry. I felt bad, mostly for the women who are already being brave in the face of somebody who they spent a long time fearing.”
Shadow and Act spoke with April Reign shortly after she was evacuated from the venue: “There is no question in my mind that this was a deliberate attempt to intimidate R. Kelly survivors and their supporters,” she said.
Lifetime and R. Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly have since come out and named him as the person responsible.
“This was an intimidation tactic from R. Kelly to further silence these women,” Lifetime said in a statement to People magazine.
Burke, who also appears in the docuseries, deferred to Andrea Kelly’s statement. “She was married to the man. She knows him probably in ways that a lot of us don’t. So, I respect her opinion, but it’s definitely suspicious. I saw what she said. And of all nights, of all places, of all premieres. Why this one? And so this is no question that this is suspicious circumstances, you know, surrounding him,” she said.
These circumstances are just the latest ways that Kelly’s accusers are being threatened and their healing interrupted.
“Last night was really hard [for them] before this even happened,” Burke shared. “It was really difficult for them, being around so many people. It was really difficult for them to sort of prepare to be asked deeply personal questions,” at the Q&A that was supposed to follow the screening.
“I’m not a therapist, but just from being a survivor and my work with survivors, I think that it’s really hard to get into a consistent healing process when there is always the threat of being re-traumatized. And so that’s the worry I have is that people who are trying to put it behind them, trying to move ahead get railroaded in ways like this, you know, it’s just detrimental.”
But while these threats may have shaken these women, Burke hopes that they also know how much they are loved and supported. “At least if they didn’t feel safe in that space [last night], I hope they at least felt the people around them, those of us who support them. And that’s our biggest role is just trying to help them find safety and support and to know that this one person does not have control of your life,” she said.
Burke has spoken to one of the women in the aftermath today who said she’s “doing okay,” and is ready to return home–many of the survivors and family members still live in Chicago and traveled to NYC to attend the event. Lifetime, Burke said, ensured the crowd that the docuseries would still air on the network in full in January, as planned.
“I think it is very brave for Lifetime,” Burke said of their support for these women and the docuseries as a whole. “They have made a commitment to create content that takes a look at violence against women and how to prevent it,” and Surviving R. Kelly does just that. Considering that Burke’s #MeToo movement took off into the mainstream last year in Hollywood, it’s fitting that the television industry would provide a platform for survivors of sexual abuse to tell their stories. Her Me Too organization will be working with many different industries, including Hollywood to help create content and influence content around survivors.
“The reckoning is not just in taking down individual bad apples, but it’s also in changing the narrative, shifting what we see in the kind of content that comes out of Hollywood that creates the people who behave [in abusive ways],” she said. “[It’s about changing] a culture that says that those kind of behaviors are okay. So, part of the work that we have to do is getting into Hollywood and a web of spaces where content is being created that may influence the culture. That’s a really, really important aspect of this work as well.”
Besides influencing the culture, Burke aims to dissect what “representation” really means on screen. “When we talk about representation [in Hollywood], a lot of times it’s racial, which is very important, or gender. But there’s also survivors who need to be represented, real stories, the reality of what it looks like, the reality of what it feels like to be represented and also to expand the vision of what a survivor is,” she said. “When people think and hear about it, they don’t think about little Black girls in the projects, they don’t think about boys or they don’t think about queer people or native folks. There’s so many different people in the margins who get left out of the narrative of what being a survivor is. So that’s another reason why it’s just important for us to have a connection and influence to the people who control pop culture.”
As far as what it will take to #MuteRKelly for good or for hip hop itself to have a similar reckoning that Hollywood seems to be having, Burke said,
“I wish I knew! It just feels like a conundrum. I just don’t know. I’ve had really sad conversations with people inside the industry about this. I think part of the problem is that it’s so [male] dominated. The women in hip hop are largely women of color and they don’t have the same road back. Look what happened with Russell Simmons. He had like 18 credible accusations against him and nobody’s calling him the ‘next Harvey Weinstein.’ Nobody’s labeled him a predator. He’s not losing money. I mean he stepped down voluntarily. But, and if you’re watching that, you know, there’s a person inside of the industry I can imagine who feels like, ‘Well what’s the point?’ So I just don’t know. I wish I could answer that question.”
Still, she has hope in the work that she and so many other advocates are doing to support survivors and change the culture.
“We could see the pendulum swing in the other directions,” she said. “I don’t expect everything to change overnight. I don’t expect one hashtag in one year to change like decades and decades of this deeply rooted, insidious culture,” she said.
“It might come in due time, we gotta just keep doing the work.”
Surviving R. Kelly airs on Lifetime January 3-5, 2019.