Monsters can be tricky. Sure, we know they’re scary and cruel and that we should avoid them at all costs. But what do we do when the most terrifying ones are wearing masks? What about the connivers who drip with charm, are slick with their words and know exactly how to make us confuse their pain with love? And what if, God forbid, the monster just happens to be rich and powerful?
Many of the women featured in Surviving R. Kelly — Lifetime’s gut-wrenching, six-part documentary series, premiering tonight, that explores the sexual abuse allegations piling up around the disgraced R&B singer — are grappling with those very questions. Their monster is Robert Kelly, the singer-songwriter who rose to superstardom in 1993 with the release of his solo debut, 12 Play. Smash songs like “Bump n’ Grind,” “Your Body’s Calling” and “Sex Me” merged hip-hop’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude with seductive R&B, while feel-good power ballads like “I Believe I Can Fly” tapped earnest gospel sensibilities.
As his celebrity status ballooned and legends like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Jay-Z embraced him, there was also a darkness brewing behind the scenes: Kelly’s secret, as explained in Surviving R. Kelly, is his predilection for sexual relationships with young girls, and his addiction to filming his abhorrent encounters with them is what ultimately brought his sickness to the light. But long before the 2002 release of the infamous “pee tape”— in which he allegedly urinates on a girl believed to be 14 years old — Kelly began honing the behaviors that became ever more sinister and grotesque, the documentary posits. More than a year in the making and featuring more than 50 interviews, Surviving R. Kelly unearths the making of a monster.
While Kelly and his representatives declined to cooperate with the producers of the series (and he continues to deny all allegations against him), no shortage of people from the ranks of his innermost circle appear onscreen, from his brothers to a longtime personal assistant, a former head of security, his backup singers, his ex-wife and numerous ex-girlfriends who count themselves among the survivors of his abuse. Producers also consulted psychologists, law enforcement officials, the journalists who’ve reported on him and music industry professionals (including luminaries such as John Legend) who either came up with Kelly or were inspired by his artistry. The sum total of their testimony is a deeply contextualized account of his behavior as well as a startling picture of how predators are shaped, how they operate and how they are enabled — especially when they’re famous.
Early on, the doc revisits Kelly’s childhood in the projects of Chicago’s South Side, where he was a shy child who had trouble reading but showed a talent for singing and songwriting that his family and schoolteachers encouraged. Life at home, however, was troubled. In his autobiography, as well as a 2012 interview Kelly gave to Tavis Smiley excerpted in the documentary, Kelly says a female family member molested him from age seven to around age 13. Kelly’s brother, Carey Kelly, says he believes his famous sibling, because he claims he was also molested as a child.
When Kelly buried the pain, it seems, it metastasized. As his career took off in his twenties, Kelly still hung around local high schools in Chicago, scoping out and chatting up girls when classes ended. Members of his entourage talk of recruiting teenagers — often aspiring singers themselves — to come to Kelly’s studio, which eventually became a den of depravity. Jovante Cunningham, Kelly’s longtime backup singer, started her career when she was just a teen herself. She recalls the first time she witnessed Kelly sexually violating one of her young friends in the studio: “[It] was during the recording of ‘Slow Dance’ the remix. He had one of my teenage friends in the booth with him, bent over. And we were all right there … None of us were of age.”
Later, she sobs as she recalls her close friendship with Aaliyah, the budding R&B superstar who died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22 — and who married a 27-year-old Kelly when she was 15 years old. One evening on the tour bus, Cunningham says she remembers seeing Aaliyah and Kelly, who had denied publicly and privately that he was anything but a mentor to the young singer, having sex. Through tears, she says, “I feel protective of Aaliyah even right now … [Robert] destroyed a lot of people. People are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago.”
The harrowing accounts of alleged victims in Surviving R. Kelly establish patterns in his conduct. What emerges is a textbook picture of an abuser. According to these women, the singer — whose nickname, “The Pied Piper of R&B,” takes on sickening relevance in light of their testimony — became adept at systemically identifying vulnerable targets and gradually breaking them down through controlling behavior. Lizzette Martinez says she lost her virginity to Kelly at age 17 after he got her intoxicated for the first time. It wasn’t long before the grooming and intimidation began. “I have my boys following you and know everything you’re doing,” she says Kelly warned her. He gave her rules to follow, echoed by other women in the documentary: They had to call him “daddy.” They had to ask permission to use the restroom. If they were hungry, they had to ask if they could eat. “It was like he owned me,” Martinez says. Martinez’s accusations mirror what Kelly’s ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones (who also appears in the series) told Rolling Stone in a 2017 feature.
His wife of nearly 10 years, Drea Kelly, was no exception. She met the singer when she was 19 and auditioned to be one of his backup dancers. Soon, she says, he instructed her not to talk to anyone else on his tour. They wed in a surprise ceremony arranged entirely by him, and within a few years, witnesses say, he was keeping her locked up in their home. As she details years of torture at the hands of her ex-husband, and explains how she dramatically escaped his grip with nothing but the three children they share, Drea ponders how things could have gotten so bad. And then, she says, it hit her: “Because he has people helping him.”
Here, arguably, is the most profound revelation of Surviving R. Kelly. Kelly has allegedly been able to perpetrate sex crimes against minors for decades because the people around him — some of whom are interviewed in this documentary yet still don’t seem to fully grasp their culpability — allowed it to happen. They were there. They saw the underage girls and the beds he placed in every room of his studio. They booked hotel rooms for trysts and looked the other way. They helped pay off families. They made sure he didn’t get caught. Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant Demetrius Smith (who admits to forging documents alleging that Aaliyah was 18 when she wed Kelly) says, “That’s the way it was. We worked for him. This is what he wanted and so this is what we were supposed to give him.” As Cunningham puts it, “If you’re an adult who is around him and you’re not saying anything, you’re just as sick as he is.”
The lingering question Surviving R. Kelly leaves is: How guilty are the rest of us? What about the fans who heard the stories, maybe watched the tape and still kept rocking with Kelly? Part of the reason he has been able to continue his predatory behavior is because his fans have allowed him to keep making money. And as long as he’s bringing in cash, record executives and radio stations are happy to keep him in play.
I was the music editor at Vibe magazine when the R. Kelly cover story titled “Sex, Lies and Videotapes,” which appears in the documentary on several occasions, was published in May 2002. Back then, we were shocked by the infamous video. But we also had a lot of questions. There were so many rumors and uncertainties. Was the girl in the tape really 14, or was she actually 18? Was she forced to participate or was she willing? Then there’s the fact that she refused to testify against Kelly when he was tried on 21 counts of child pornography offenses in 2008. In retrospect, it’s clear we were making excuses, but at that point, we decided as music journalists to focus on the music and to let crime reporters and police officers handle the rest. It was a scary, confusing time, but Kelly’s not-guilty verdict seemed to give us permission to forget the ugliness and get back on the dance floor.
But those days are over. Comprehensive and unflinching, Surviving R. Kelly forces us to finally hold Kelly — and ourselves — accountable once and for all. It would be no small feat of filmmaking from any outlet, but from Lifetime in particular — a network that for decades served up salacious melodramas such as Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, conceived as guilty pleasures for its predominantly female audience — it feels especially notable. Here is a long-overdue effort to pull these survivors out of the shadows, to give women of color a platform where their stories can be heard and treated with the gravity they so sorely deserve.
In fact, the biggest tragedy on display throughout the series is our culture’s blatant disregard for black girls, their safety and their lives. One can’t help but wonder if Kelly would be in jail now if his alleged victims had been white and therefore viewed as valuable. Juror John Petrean doesn’t mince words in the documentary when asked why he voted in Kelly’s favor at the singer’s child pornography trial years ago. “I just didn’t believe the women,” he explains. “The way they dressed, the way they acted; I didn’t like them. I voted against them.”
Surviving R. Kelly airs on Lifetime Thursday, January 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT; Friday, January 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT; and Saturday, January 5, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.