The Six Most Startling Takeaways From Lifetime's 'Surviving R. Kelly'
The Lifetime docuseries is the most comprehensive look at the sexual assault allegations made against the singer over the past two decades. Here's what we learned.
Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images
Last week, Lifetime premiered Surviving R. Kelly, a three-night docuseries detailing the sexual abuse allegations that have surrounded the singer since the 90s. Across six hours, the docuseries chronicles his ascent to R&B stardom, his 2002 indictment on child pornography charges, and the story behind a 2017 BuzzFeed exposé alleging that R. Kelly was running an abusive sex “cult” out of his Chicago and Atlanta homes, accusations he has vigorously denied. As reported by TMZ, a Facebook page titled “Surviving Lies” was created to discredit the victims. The page has since been removed. Yesterday, Chicago’s Cook County State Attorney’s office asked for more victims to come forward for a chance at a formal investigation. It’s been a few days since Surviving R. Kelly aired, but the docuseries is still fresh in our minds. Now available on streaming services, Surviving R. Kelly puts all the allegations against the singer in one place. Here are six startling takeaways from the series.
R. Kelly was hiding in plain sight.
R. Kelly built his career in the image of sex. His 1993 sophomore album, 12 Play, was a riff on the concept of foreplay, establishing him as a purveyor of some of the 90s’ most raunchy R&B songs. Onstage he simulated sex, satisfying a fantasy for many of his fans.
In 2001, when a sextape circulated around Chicago featuring what appeared to be the singer and a young woman, it didn’t seem to hurt his reputation. In the same way an arrest can boost the street cred of a gangsta rapper, the explicit tape only fueled the persona he was already establishing. Because he had branded himself as overtly sexual, the docuseries suggests, the accusations that have surrounded him have arguably carried less shock value for the average person.
“One of the things about R. Kelly, not unlike Woody Allen, is that he’s hiding in plain sight,” dream hampton, executive producer of Surviving R. Kelly, said in an interview with Noisey. “‘It Seems Like You’re Ready,’ and ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’ is him flaunting his predatory behavior in his lyrics.”
In 1994, R. Kelly was quite literally hiding in plain sight when he stood in the blurred background for the artwork of Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, the debut album by his protege, collaborator, and then-wife Aaliyah. In the early 2000s, facing 21 counts of child pornography after a second video had surfaced—this time allegedly featuring R. Kelly performing sex acts with and urinating on a minor—the singer adopted the alias “The Pied Piper of R&B,” after the folktale of a musician who lures children from their town.
The child pornography charges did little to deter the trajectory of his career. “Ignition (Remix)” was released 2003, shortly after his indictment, securing his upcoming album, The Chocolate Factory, the top spot on The Billboard Top 200. The Chocolate Factory came out in February 2003, less than a month after he received an additional 12 charges of child pornography in a January 2003 arrest. He went on to sell 532,000 copies, beating out 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in its opening week.
R. Kelly’s alleged abuse of young, impressionable black and brown girls followed a pattern.
After dropping out of Kenwood Academy High School during his senior year, R. Kelly allegedly continued frequenting the campus while visiting his old music teacher, Dr. Lena McLin. Using his immediate circle to recruit young teenage girls who were aspiring vocalists was the beginning of a pattern in which he allegedly preyed on the dreams of young women from Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.
The alleged victims, some of whom were involved with Kelly as early as the 90s, detail a process of control and isolation. Lizzette Martinez, one of those women, claims in the docuseries that in 1994, when she was 17, R. Kelly confined her to a hotel room and required her to obtain permission to complete simple daily tasks, like eating or using the bathroom. Martinez appears in a 2018 BuzzFeed News piece, and her account of his behavior in the docuseries is consistent with the testimony of three women in the first article.
In the original BuzzFeed News piece, Jim Derogatis reported on an alleged “cult” the singer was running out of his Chicago and Atlanta homes: “Three former members of Kelly’s inner circle—Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee—provided details supporting the parents’ worst fears,” he wrote. “They said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.” The women in question ranged in age from 18 to 31.
Jerhonda Pace, who met R. Kelly outside the courthouse during his 2008 child pornography trial, says she became sexually involved with the singer when she was 16. Pace came forward in a separate 2017 BuzzFeed story and shares a similar account of controlling behavior in the docuseries. In 2009, Pace says, she introduced the singer to 17-year-old Dominique Gardener, another fan she met online. Pace says the two teens began living in Kelly’s Chicago home, and though they managed to communicate with each other in stealth, using their phones—a violation of the house “rules,” according to Pace—she was never able to interact with Gardener in the house. (Pace, who broke the terms of the non-disclosure agreement and settlement she signed in 2010, left six months after moving into Kelly’s home. The details of that settlement were detailed by BuzzFeed News. Gardener doesn’t offer her testimony in the documentary, but her escape last May from a hotel room in Beverly Hills, initiated by her mother Michelle Kramer, was captured on during the filming of Surviving R. Kelly. Kramer says Gardener was living with Kelly for nine years.)
“When you disobey him or question him, that’s considered breaking the rules,” claims Pace in the docuseries. “The No-Eat list is somebody who ‘disobeys Daddy.’ That’s when he decides to starve you.” One anonymous former employee quoted in the docuseries corroborates Pace’s account of mistreatment, saying that once a young woman was confined to a room, she would often go two to three days without food. “I started to notice the system of how the girls were handled in the house,” they said. The initial BuzzFeed report details behavior that is consistent with the accounts described in Surviving R. Kelly.
R. Kelly’s alleged use of isolation as a form of manipulation was not always obvious. In 2015, when she was 17, Azriel Clary was invited onstage at an R. Kelly concert she attended with her parents in Orlando. Her parents, Alice and Angelo Clary, say she was ushered through a back exit to the green room, where the 48-year-old singer claimed he could help Azriel’s singing career. Following this initial encounter, Azriel continued meeting with him and eventually began living in his home. The Clarys say they haven’t seen their daughter in almost three years; the last time they heard from her, they say, was on her 18th birthday. Her story is an example of the subtle ways R. Kelly was allegedly able to use his environment—in this case, an arena—to his advantage. Because Azriel was obliged to travel backstage alone, her parents note in the doc, she was able to interact with the singer unsupervised.
A number of factors in the child pornography trial contributed to R. Kelly’s acquittal.
In February of 2002, Jim Derogatis, then a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, received the second anonymous videotape in the mail and turned it over to the police. In June of that year, the singer was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography and arrested in Davenport, Florida; he spent one night in jail before being released on $750,000 bond. Seven months later, he was arrested again, this time in Miami, after Florida police discovered an additional camera containing 12 nude images of underaged girls. A Florida judge dismissed the Miami charges due to an illegal search and seizure. According to Chicago Sun-Times legal journalist Abdon Pallasch, who appears in Surviving R. Kelly, child pornography charges, unlike statutory rape charges, are difficult to prove if the tapes aren’t dated—and they weren’t. His life and career continued as normal.
Six years passed before R. Kelly would face his day in a Chicago court for the 2002 charges. “No one can think of a case where it’s gone by year after year like this,” says Pallasch. “It’s in R. Kelly’s interest to delay this as long as possible.You much rather have a 21-year-old girl on the stand than a 14-year-old on the stand.” The young woman prosecutors believed had appeared in the original sextape refused to testify in the case—even after a dozen people identified her as the child on the tape.
When the trial began, it was rumored that R. Kelly’s legal team tried to pin Carey Kelly, his younger brother, as the man on the tape. “He never said it out of his mouth, but his legal team did,” Carey says in the docuseries.
After Carey called the singer a “pedophile” on a radio show, he says, the singer and his team offered him money to recant his statement—an account corroborated by Bruce Kelly, the eldest Kelly brother. "And [R. Kelly] said, ‘If you do this deposition with my attorneys, I will give you [Carey] $100,000 and a one-record contract deal,’” Bruce recalls in Surviving R. Kelly. Carey says he declined the deal. R. Kelly’s team denies offering a payoff. After a seven-and-a-half hour deliberation, the singer was acquitted of all charges because without the testimony of the girl in question, the jurors weren’t sure if it was the same girl on the tape. "But nobody could agree if it was her,” John Petrean, a juror told the Chicago Tribune following the trial in 2008.
“We had seen photos of her at other times and she seemed like a young girl. It seemed like the girl on the tape was much more developed,"
Carey isn’t the only person to allege that the singer offered him money. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins, who met Kelly when she was 15-years-old, sued the singer for “suffering personal injuries and emotional harm” as stated in the initial reporting by Derogatis in 2000. According to the suit, Hawkins alleges she had sex with Kelly and other teenage girls. She eventually settled out of court. The same is true of Tracy Sampson’s civil suit, which states Kelly had an “indecent sexual relationship” she says became controlling after they had sex when she was 17. Sampson’s case was settled out of court in 2002.
Men in R. Kelly’s inner circle were aware of his alleged behavior.
Throughout the six-hour docuseries, we’re introduced to the men who were a part of R. Kelly’s inner circle: former personal assistant Demetrius Smith, former bodyguard Gem Pratts, music producer Craig Williams, and brothers Carey and Bruce Kelly. Both Pratts and Williams recall seeing R. Kelly linger around places frequented by teenagers like Kenwood Academy, McDonald's, and malls. Williams describes Kelly’s studio as having a bizarre atmosphere, where some young women would be relegated to a lounge area, while another would be in the bed in the middle of the studio. “I didn’t check I.D.s or ask for I.D.s, but you could clearly see these were babies,’" Williams said, recalling a time he saw Kelly fondling what appeared to be a young girl in his studio.
Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s former personal assistant, admitted he was a witness to the 1994 wedding ceremony between 15-year-old Aaliyah and 27-year-old Kelly. “He married Aaliyah. I was in the room when they got married,” Smith tells the docuseries. In Surviving R. Kelly, Smith and former background singer Jovante Cunningham, who met Kelly when she was 14, shared their accounts of what happened between the two singers over two decades ago.
“We were all laying in our bunks and the curtains are open, everybody’s communicating, laughing,” Cunningham says, remembering a moment on the road with the singers. Cunningham describes the close quarters of the tour bus and emphasizes the lack of privacy. “When the door flew open on the bus, Robert was having sex with Aaliyah.”
Smith alleges while they were on tour, Kelly came to him in a panic at a Miami tour stop. “Robert mentioned to me that ‘I think she’s pregnant.’ That broke my heart right there because I really believed him when he said that he wasn’t messing with Aaliyah […] Once he told me that, I was at a loss for words.” With this knowledge, Smith admits to Surviving R. Kelly he forged documents stating Aaliyah was 18-years-old for the couple’s makeshift wedding, which took place in a hotel room in Illinois.
“I’m not proud of that—I had papers forged for them because Aaliyah was underage,” Smith recalls as he shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Aaliyah looked worried and scared,” he said. “I wanted so much to grab Aaliyah and talk to her. I wanted so much to talk to her because she gave me a look like she wanted me to talk to her.” According to the docuseries, Aaliyah was paid $100 to prevent legal action, although Aaliyah’s estate denies this claim, among others made in the film. R. Kelly has neither denied or confirmed the wedding certificate between him and the late singer. “Well, because of Aaliyah's passing, as I've always said, out of respect for her mother who's sick and her father who's passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone,” he told GQ in 2016.
The allegations didn’t just come from underaged women.
Surviving R. Kelly is an overwhelming look at R. Kelly’s world, but as the series progresses, it becomes more clear that he wasn’t just targeting young women. Both Kitti Jones (who came forward to Rolling Stone in 2017 and BBC’s R. Kelly: Sex, Girls, & Videotapes last year) and Asante McGee, two women interviewed in the doc, dated the singer in their 30s, and eventually moved into his homes. Both Jones and McGee make claims of mental and physical abuse, mirroring the testimony of R. Kelly’s ex-wife from the series’ second episode, Andrea Kelly, regarding her own experiences with the singer; the two women also reference being “trained” and groomed by him sexually. In the documentary, McGee revisits the Atlanta home where she lived with him in 2016 before he was evicted early last year, and gives a tour of what she calls The Black Room—a place that she considers one of the most sexually degrading rooms of the house.
The allegations surrounding R. Kelly aren’t singular.
When Aaliyah and R. Kelly appeared on a 1994 episode of BET’s Video Soul wearing matching Mickey Mouse outfits, Leslie “Big Lez” Segar, one of the show’s host, cut straight to the chase. “Everybody seems to think y’all are either girlfriend or boyfriend, or cousins. Let’s just set the record straight.” The singers laughed off the inquiry. “Well no, we’re not related,” said Aaliyah. “We’re just very close. This is my best friend.”
The fact that Segar was asking a 27-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl if they were dating on national television should have raised more red flags. Later that year, VIBE published the couple’s forged marriage certificate, and the world carried on. By that time, the trope of older male musicians and their underaged muses had already been normalized for decades.
It’s a story that cuts across lines of genre and race. Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley may have been rock and roll sex symbols in the 50s, but were dating teenage girls in their personal lives. At one point Surviving R. Kelly shows the black and white photos that romanticized those unions, as Ann Powers wrote in 2015 for NPR. Lewis wed his 13-year-old cousin at 22 years old in 1958. A year later, Chuck Berry was arrested for unlawfully traveling with a 14-year-old when he was 33 while Elvis Presley began dating a 14-year-old (Priscilla Beaulieu), although he was ten years her senior.
“We have all these examples of grown-ass men messing with teenagers,” executive producer dream hampton told Noisey. “What we have with R. Kelly—and we learned this shortly after the marriage—was all these lawsuits that started coming out after the annulment. We quickly learned this wasn’t ‘I fell in love with my teenage muse this one time.’”
R. Kelly vehemently denies the claims presented in Surviving R. Kelly. Noisey reached out to the artist’s team for further comment and we’ll update this piece if we receive a response. Lifetime has also said that they stand by the documentary. “'Surviving R. Kelly' is a six-part documentary series exploring R. Kelly’s personal and professional history, showcasing the survivors who are emerging from the shadows to unite their voices and share their allegations of abuse,” says Kannie Yu LaPack, a representative for the network in a statement provided to USA TODAY. “The documentary also tells the stories of families who are currently still trying to get their girls home.” According to LaPack, the details of the documentary have been “legally vetted and corroborated.”
Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have exposed the sexual misconduct cases in the music industry which would otherwise go unreported. Often times, victims don’t come forward with their stories of sexual assault as a result of the stigma of shame. According to a 2005-2010 report from the Justice Department, 64 percent of sexual assault victims in the US didn’t report their incidents out of fear of retaliation. For over two decades, no one believed the young black girls speaking out against R. Kelly. Still, for a certain generation of R. Kelly fans, the story the docuseries unravels feels incredibly personal. His genre-spanning music is tied to a series of life events within the black community and pop culture at large. Graduations from preschool to college have been sung to the tune of “I Believe I Can Fly.”
“If an individual is providing something to the society, as music, we’re more likely to compartmentalize the negative behavior and minimize it as a way of accepting what they are contributing,” Dr. Jody Adewale notes during the docuseries. The larger question is, with all of the accusations laid out in front of us, what do we do now?