In early December, Lifetime evacuated a screening of the new docuseries Surviving R. Kelly after “several anonymous threats were called in,” according to the network. An NYPD spokesperson told CNN that an anonymous call was made, threatening to start shooting inside the theater unless the screening was called off. Andrea Kelly, R. Kelly’s ex-wife and a participant in the docuseries, responded to the threats. She told Rolling Stone, “It makes me smile because that lets me know we’re on the right track. We’re causing people to listen.”
On Thursday, Lifetime is premiering the first batch of episodes, and they are every bit as revelatory and explosive as one might expect.
While a number of journalists and activists have worked diligently to unmask R. Kelly and to keep his many alleged crimes in conversation, Surviving R. Kelly is a singular and exhaustive project. It incorporates the voices of survivors, advocates, experts, musicians, reporters and cultural critics, as well as friends and family of R. Kelly. It begins with his childhood, meticulously charting Kelly’s career while never losing sight of the young women and girls he systematically and continuously abused. Kelly’s behavior is illuminated and analyzed, placed within a larger industry and culture-wide conversation, but never excused. Here, finally, is a humane accounting of an abusive celebrity’s life that does not treat their crimes as an asterisk or an afterthought. Instead, we see how R. Kelly the Predator and R. Kelly the Artist evolved alongside one another—the music and influence that helped him to lure young, often underage girls, and the pattern of predation and abuse that was clear to everyone around him.
As the series goes on, it becomes quite clear who R. Kelly is, and what he has done. The only question left for the various interviewees to reckon with is one of complicity. Why did we allow this to go on for so long? And can understanding our collective culpability help to ensure that it never happens again?
Near the beginning of the series, an infamous clip plays from a 2018 Facebook Live session. In it, Kelly addresses the latest wave of backlash against him, shouting out his supporters and blowing off his critics. Surrounded by boisterous supporters, he gloats, “It’s too late, they should’ve did this shit 30 years ago.”
While the series opens on survivors, it quickly steps back to start the story someplace else—Chicago, in the 1970s. The docuseries features interviews with Kelly’s brothers, Carey and Bruce, who describe him as a shy kid with an obvious musical talent. They both recall being raised around music, by a mother who was the lead singer in their church choir. Kelly struggled with reading and writing, which the kids at school teased him for. When he was a high school student, Kenwood music teacher Lena McLin acted as Kelly’s surrogate mother. “He was musically genius material,” McLin remembers.
In an August 2012 interview, Kelly spoke about being molested by “people in my family” from the age of 7 until he was 13 or 14. A visibly emotional Carey Kelly explains that, “I don’t think that he’s lying, because it happened to me.” A clinical psychologist speaks broadly to the impact that molestation might have on a child—“Children might want to say, I want to be the one who’s in that power position. I never want to be a victim again.”
“There’s really no more powerful position in a sexual relationship than to be the abuser to the child.”
McLin, Kelly’s music teacher, recalls that Kelly “was very aggressive in some of his sexual language.” Kelly went on to drop out of school his senior year; his music career soon took off. Surviving R. Kelly paints a picture of a serial predator whose power over and access to victims only increased as his fame grew. The series also takes pains to emphasize that Kelly targeted young black women—Kenwood high schoolers and kids who hung out at a Hyde Park McDonalds. The writer Mikki Kendall remembers seeing Kelly at the fast food chain. He would come alone and pick up high school girls. “People will say, well why didn’t anyone notice? The answer is that we all noticed. No one cared because we were black girls.”
Producer Craig Williams adds that he “heard that [Kelly] was picking up a lot of kids from the school.” He thought, “What the hell is he doing hanging around the high school?”
One of the series’ strengths is the various levels of trauma it considers—the ripples of Kelly’s abuse, and how it continues to affect the people he harmed and those around him. Jovante Cunningham is first introduced as a backup singer and dancer. She met Kelly through a friend in 1991, when she was 14 years old. She started doing background vocals for him in the studio. Cunningham recalls the first time she witnessed a sexual act in the studio, between Kelly and one of her teenage friends. “We were all right there,” she emphasizes. “None of us were of age. None of us.”
As the series goes on, we come to learn that Cunningham was incredibly close to many of Kelly’s underage victims, including Aaliyah. As a young woman herself, Cunningham witnessed Kelly commit statutory rape. At one point, Cunningham starts crying. “We were just trying to make it,” she explains. “We had big dreams, and we thought we were gonna be somebody.”
R. Kelly met Aaliyah when she was 12 years old. Cunningham describes her as angelic, and explains how R. Kelly molded her visually and artistically. He infamously produced her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. The title track, written by R.Kelly, includes the lyrics, “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number… Boy, be brave, don’t be afraid / ‘Cause tonight we’re gonna go all the way.” Aaliyah was 14 when she recorded the song. Journalist Kathy Chaney comments, “‘Age Ain’t Nothin but a Number’ is definitely a perfect song for hiding in plain sight.” Demetrius Smith, R. Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant, recalls asking his boss if he was sleeping with Aaliyah. Kelly denied it.
In one of the more shocking moments in the series, Jovante Cunningham shares that she saw Robert “having sex with Aaliyah” on their tour bus. Aaliyah was 15 at that time, making this alleged encounter statutory rape. Asked to elaborate on what she saw, Cunningham replies, “Things that an adult should not be doing with a child.”
R. Kelly came to Demetrius Smith and told him that Aaliyah was pregnant. Smith describes being “so disappointed in him,” insisting that he had believed Kelly’s earlier denial. Smith was in the room when Aaliyah and Kelly got married; he had papers forged for them. On the marriage certificate, the then 15-year-old Aaliyah is listed as 18. Within two months, the marriage was annulled.
With the help of cultural critics, music journalists and fellow artists, Surviving R. Kelly attempts to explicate how R. Kelly’s career was able to survive his predatory relationship with Aaliyah. One interesting thread is the theme of underage women in popular music, a recurring lyrical fascination with young girls, and a history of predatory sexual relationships between rock stars and teenagers. The consensus seems to be that fans of R. Kelly’s, as well as the mainstream media, were able to compartmentalize him and Aaliyah as an exceptional situation—a special connection between artists, a bond between a mentor and his student. Of course, everyone who was close to Kelly knew that Aaliyah was symptomatic of a pattern: that Kelly surrounded himself with young women, and actively sought them out.
“We’d go to the mall in every city,” Demetrius Smith explains. It was during one of these mall outings that Kelly met Lizzette Martinez. After she approached the star, he sent a bodyguard to give her his phone number. Kelly subsequently invited Martinez to dinner. Martinez, who had dreams of singing professionally, thought it was her “big break.” She was 17. When Kelly leaned over to kiss her after dinner, she “didn’t know how to say no.”
“I wanted the dream so bad, but I knew it was going to be something else.”
Kelly was allegedly physically abusive to Martinez; she recalls him smacking her for looking at someone “that I shouldn’t have been looking at,” saying, “you’re only supposed to be looking at me.”
“He told me to perform sexual acts while his friends were in the backseat,” Martinez continues. “It was like he owned me.” Kelly controlled who Martinez talked to and when she ate; he ordered people to follow her around. “It was just sex and mental and physical abuse,” she concludes. “He stole my life from me.”
Oronike Odeleye, the co-founder of #MuteRKelly, explained that everyone had heard the rumors about the R&B sensation. But Kelly was charming and kind in person—and what teenage girl wouldn’t want to believe that a famous singer was going to make her a star? Producer Craig Williams remembers walking into Kelly’s studio and seeing teenage girl after teenage girl. “When I went to another room there was a girl in that room with the lights out, waiting—there was another girl in this lounge over there… What the hell is going on?” Later, Williams confirms, “Around Rob’s camp, everyone knew.”
Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, notes that, “This is really about an adult man who is using the power of his fame and wealth to systematically degrade little black girls.”
Martinez says that Kelly never told her he was married.
R. Kelly met Andrea Lee when she was 19, after she landed a job as his backup dancer. “It was actually beautiful in the beginning,” Andrea Kelly narrates. “I didn’t know about the storm on the horizon.” In 1996, Kelly asked her to marry him. “My wedding was a surprise wedding,” Kelly explains. “I did not know I was getting married.”
As their relationship progressed, Kelly exerted more and more control over his wife; she alludes to some of his abusive behavior towards her, but says that there are certain things she’s not willing to talk about, because of “the darkness of it.” Crying, she wordlessly confirms the rumors that Kelly would lock her up. She explains how he mercilessly criticized her and undermined her confidence. “If I can just get him back to the good guy…” she remembers thinking. “How do I get back the guy who asked me to help him read?”
The R&B singer Sparkle, another protégée of Kelly’s, corroborates that he was a control freak and a “master manipulator.” Sparkle eventually introduced Kelly to her 12-year-old niece, who was an aspiring rapper. “I wanted him to do what he was doing for me, for her,” she explains. Later on, Sparkle would come to the studio and see her niece there by herself. She remembers thinking, “Something ain’t right.”
At this point in his career, Kelly was more untouchable than ever. “I Believe I Can Fly” wasn’t just a massive hit—“It was a moment of redemption in some people’s eyes,” music journalist Ann Powers explains. Musician John Legend adds that, “It was just massive.” Kelly’s hit song played at graduations and church services. How could the man behind that inspirational track be a serial predator?
Lisa Van Allen met R. Kelly when she was 17 and he was 31. After learning how old she was, Kelly immediately asked if her mom would let her come to Chicago. “I didn’t assume that he liked younger girls,” Van Allen recalls. “At that moment, I just thought that he liked me.” After a number of visits, Van Allen ended up staying in Chicago. Kelly controlled who she talked to, and limited her interactions. He ordered her to address him as “Daddy” at all times. “He would say things like, if you love me you won’t try to change me,” Van Allen explains. “You’ll do these things for me.”
She describes one incident in which he ordered her to have a threesome with him and a 16-year-old girl, which he then proceeded to film without her consent. Van Allen started crying. “I can’t watch this with you on here crying,” she remembers Kelly saying. Van Allen says she went on to have sex with that young woman multiple times, at Kelly’s direction. Van Allen later learned that Kelly had lied to her, and that these sexual encounters had occurred when the girl was just 14.
Van Allen ultimately went through some of Kelly’s tapes and found a recording of her, Kelly, and the young girl. There were other scenes with just Kelly and the young girl. Van Allen stole the tape, and eventually gave it to another individual. When the tape was later anonymously sent to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, Sparkle identified the young victim as her 14-year-old niece.
In 2000, the Chicago Sun-Times ran their first story on the allegations against R. Kelly, uncovering a number of lawsuits and settlements that Kelly had reached with girls as young as 15. Sun-Times reporters say that they immediately started getting calls from other accusers. In 2002, the infamous video was anonymously given to DeRogatis. Sparkle recalls being contacted by the newspaper, and recognizing her niece in the tape: “That was her, for sure. And that was him.” R. Kelly denied everything.
Andrea Kelly describes learning about the many allegations against her husband, as well as the lawsuits and settlements. She recalls wondering how Kelly had the time to make music, go on tour, abuse her “and ruin other people’s lives,” eventually concluding that there had to be a huge network of people helping Kelly pull this off. Sparkle remembers a meeting in which an exec said that he didn’t care if it was Kelly in the leaked tape “because we can’t afford to lose him.” Jovante Cunningham adds a note for these adult enablers: “If you’re aware and you’re not doing anything, you’re just as sick.”