When an unnamed Chicago-area man threatened to shoot up a New York City screening of the explosive docuseries ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ last month, filmmaker dream hampton, an executive producer on the series, was not surprised.
“When I said I’m at war with R. Kelly, this is what I meant. I don’t ever want to underestimate him,” hampton told Shadow and Act. “This is a man who has built systems around his abuse, which is something that you’ll see in the docuseries.”
The six-episode Lifetime series tells the story of the R&B singer through the experiences of his accusers, including his ex-wife Andrea Kelly, who shared allegations of pedophilia and physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by the singer that span decades. “We have evidence of him raping underage girls, which is what sex with underage girls always is,” hampton said of what’s presented in the docuseries.
In addition to Andrea Kelly, survivors Asante McGee, Jerhonda Pace, Kitti Jones, Lisa Van Allen and Lizette Martinez share their stories of surviving abuse. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke also appears in the series, along with R&B singer Sparkle, R. Kelly’s brothers, and other people from Kelly’s inner circle, who also speak out about the systems hampton refers to that fostered his abuse and shielded him from accountability.
“There are whole systems in place: housing, runners, rules,” hampton said. “There are women decades apart testifying to the kind of rules that they were subjected to living with this man, dealing with this man; there are hundreds, probably thousands of tapes made of them [by R. Kelly] without their permission. He’s also deeply manipulative; these are women who didn’t know each other, 20 years apart, and they’d be talking about being made to sign false confessions and he’d say, ‘This is my insurance that you don’t hurt me the way these other women have hurt me.’ So, I knew we were dealing with someone that we may not want to dismiss. He’s dangerous,” hampton said.
Still, hampton knew she wanted to be a part of helping these women tell their stories.
“R. Kelly is someone that we, my generation, should have dealt with a long time ago,” hampton said. “I remember when Ferguson was happening and this young protester tweeted out to me or someone from Generation X, and they were like, ‘Why didn’t y’all stop this?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s not how it works.’ It’s not like there weren’t attempts. At one point in the film, someone asked, ‘Where was the outrage [at the height of his fame, in the ’90s]?’ and that’s just because a lot of this [outrage] was pre-digital, but it did exist. We did push back in the moment, but we didn’t organize to shut him down, so there was this feeling of responsibility.”
Surviving R. Kelly is just the latest in the filmmaker’s decades-long activism for social justice. Her activism through filmmaking is evident in her documentaries on slain trans woman Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard (Treasure: From Tragedy to Transjustice) and the Black August movement (Black August Hip Hop Project), as well as her short films with Color of Change, Justice for Renisha McBride and The Truth About the Cash Bail Industry with John Legend. She also produced a short film with long-time collaborator Jay-Z for the New York Times, The War On Drugs Is An Epic Fail.
But when hampton asked longtime collaborators and friends to speak on-camera for the docuseries, many of these highly influential people declined.
“John Legend was the only one,” who participated, hampton said. “I asked Jay-Z, I asked Mary J. Blige, I asked Lil Kim, Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle…” But they all said no. “I mean, most people just don’t want to touch it. I remember Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] was like, ‘I would do anything for you but I can’t do this.’ It’s not because they support him, it’s because it’s so messy and muddy. It’s that turning away that has allowed this to go on.”
It’s not just celebrities who have turned away from publicly calling for Kelly’s accountability; his diehard fans are still unwilling to let go of him or his music. hampton offered an example from the docuseries to explain why that might be:
“In the docuseries, [journalist and filmmaker] Nelson George talks about why it’s so difficult for us to turn away from someone like R. Kelly because we don’t necessarily associate the songs with him, we associate them with things in our life. So it’s not when we hear ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ we’re thinking about him, we’re thinking about our niece’s 8th grade graduation, or hear ‘Step in the Name of Love,’ it’s our cousin’s wedding,” she said.
But the many financial settlements R. Kelly has made with women who have alleged sexual abuse happen because of the fortune he’s amassed from fans buying and streaming those beloved songs and paying for concert tickets to his shows.
Thanks to more recent campaigns like #MuteRKelly, and Color of Change’s campaign to name the corporate partners at his label, public perception is continuing to shift. hampton is a board member of Color of Change, and with public pressure intensifying thanks to the docuseries, it could be the final nail in the coffin for Kelly’s career. hampton believes that’s what is making Kelly “desperate.”
“That 19-minute song [that R. Kelly released in 2018, ‘I Admit It’] came out after our docuseries was announced. He knows that it’s going to be different to see these testimonies than to read them in Rolling Stone. They’re going to have a different impact,” hampton said.
It’s that same desperation she thinks prompted the shooting threat made against the theater screening ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ in December 2018. His ex-wife Andrea Kelly, who was present at the evacuated screening, said that she believes R. Kelly was behind the threat and hampton agreed.
“[When R. Kelly] was found not guilty [of 14 child pornography charges in 2008], I remember Jay [Z] talking about being contractually obligated to finish that tour, Best of Both Worlds [with Kelly], and R. Kelly melted down, ran off stage in the middle of a song, saying someone had a gun in the audience, and so we get this phone call about someone having a gun in the audience [of the ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ screening]. I’m with Andrea Kelly.”
As for why this public reckoning is just happening now, after decades of his documented abuse and push back against his abuse, hampton said:
“What happened after this tape came out of him abusing this child was that he then dropped the best album of his career, Chocolate Factory. So it would’ve been as if we found out about Woody Allen and then he dropped his classics. Now he’s a 51-year-old man chasing sounds that are quite frankly ridiculous. He’s not leading in the industry, he’s chasing Ty Dolla $ign or Future. So, in some ways, it’s the fate of a 51-year-old R&B singer to become irrelevant. But he deserves something else.”
What that “something else” entails is a difficult question for hampton.
“I’m still figuring it out; I want to be someone who identifies as [a prison] abolitionist, and then gender violence and sexual violence happens and then that gives me pause. I haven’t seen a good community response to that. I’ve seen people try to model it; [Black Youth Project] BYP100 is a young organization where there was a member who admitted to raping another member and they had a public restorative justice process, but I don’t know. This man [R. Kelly] is sadistic,” hampton said.
The survivors of R. Kelly shared in the docuseries what their idea of ‘justice’ looks like:
“That was the question we posed to the survivors, his brothers, people who knew him at 19, 20—100% of them said that they want him to get help. I’m not surprised by that. Tom Joyner in the documentary said that we are a forgiving people (he referenced Black folks and church). That’s not justice for me, and I can’t say what justice looks like. These are all women who thought they loved him and obviously family who probably still love him and without fail they all want him to get help and I think by that they want him to take responsibility and they want him to stop hurting people.”
So far, that’s not something R. Kelly has been willing to do.
“What we know is [in his song] ‘I Admit It’, that he didn’t admit anything. He’s not willing to take responsibility,” hampton said.
“At this point, the three sets of parents that we dealt with in this docuseries, they’re all younger than R. Kelly. Five different parents, two married couples, one single mother, all younger than R. Kelly. At this point, he’s victimizing girls whose parents are a good 10 years younger than him. It just has to stop.”
“What R. Kelly will argue is that he’s having consensual sex with near-adults, that he’s freaky and the rest of us are lame and we just don’t get it. But that’s not true. That’s what he will float as a defense. That’s not what’s happening. He’s abusing these women in ways that destroyed these women’s lives, that destroy their family’s lives and leave them with trauma that they have to live with for decades.”
As for what she hopes will come of this documentary, hampton said:
“I think that social death is a real thing and a possible, just thing. So my hope is that we truly turn away from him. My wish was that it would’ve been 15 years ago.”
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act
‘Surviving R. Kelly’ premieres on Lifetime on January 3.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images