It doesn’t take long for the first tears to fall. Backing singer Jovante Cunningham, one of several people featured in new docuseries Surviving R Kelly, is remembering what it was like to work for the R&B star and to witness the abuse and manipulation he allegedly wrought on dozens of young women and girls. “We went through a lot. We experienced a lot. We saw a lot.” She’s crying, somehow keeping her voice level. Later, she goes on: “He destroyed a lot of people. I can’t stress to you enough how people are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago.”
She has just recalled seeing R Kelly and late singer Aaliyah entangled on a tour bus. Her words are “having sex”, but given Aaliyah’s age at the time, per the series, sexual intercourse of any kind would have constituted statutory rape in Illinois (Aaliyah’s mother has since dismissed Cunningham’s account). Like so many interviews from the six-part Lifetime show, Cunningham’s verbal unloading oozes pain, self-examination and the lightest touch of euphemism rooted in wincing away from horrible memories. The show, helmed by critic and film-maker dream hampton, plants its place in an 18-year line of reporting on Kelly’s offstage treatment of women and girls. The allegations themselves – ranging from Kelly soliciting teenage girls for sexual relationships at malls to allegedly running an “abusive cult” – actually date back to 1994. At the time of writing, Kelly is still signed to his record label and denies all the allegations levelled against him.
Lifetime has made an impactful series, if at times heavy-handed in its use of sound and visual effects. It twists Kelly’s story and your stomach in knots. Most of the information expressed in Surviving R Kelly has already been made public, largely led by the tireless reporting of Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis. And so, even when you have turned it off, the docuseries lingers with the stench of unresolved questions: what will happen to the women still believed to be living with Kelly, estranged from their families? What would it take for Kelly’s label, RCA Records, to address the overwhelming testimony made so far? And, finally, where can a viewer direct their rage, when Kelly has proved himself above scrutiny?
I’ll be honest: you’ll wait a long while for easy answers to those questions. New information gleaned during the show’s production rarely leaves you feeling satisfied, or as though Kelly has been held fully accountable for the claims about his behaviour. You learn that Kelly used the abortion of survivor Lizzette Martinez, who met him aged 17, as creative fodder to write Michael Jackson’s hit You Are Not Alone. You hear from Demetrius Smith, the simpering former personal assistant who squirms through his memories of watching Kelly, at 27, marry 15-year-old Aaliyah; he never explicitly says who forged the documents to state her age as 18.
And so the vague edges of knowledge once considered rumour are redrawn firmly, to drive home how the testimony of mostly young black women has been ignored and derided. Those who read Kelly’s 2012 memoir Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me will already know that he has said he was sexually abused as a child by an older woman for several years (“I remember it feeling weird. I remember feeling ashamed.”) You’ll have seen the fans who backed Kelly during his much delayed child abuse images case in 2008. But hearing directly from former fan Jerhonda Pace flips that perspective anew. She met Kelly outside the courthouse aged 14, and says he later emotionally abused her in his Atlanta home, slapping, choking and spitting on her. Essentially, Surviving R Kelly brings to life the women whose voices DeRogatis quoted in print for years – most recently and vividly with his 2017 BuzzFeed investigation about the “sex cult” that women allege Kelly runs.
If you have followed the social media response to the show, you will have noticed several of the 40-plus people interviewed – cultural commentators, activists, psychologists, survivors – deal with a blend of victim-blaming and whataboutery, from those who think Kelly has being wrongfully singled out as a black man. Those people fail to see that Kelly isn’t being paraded around as some sort of bogeyman, while white abusers avoid scrutiny. Instead, women such as his ex-wife Andrea Kelly, who met him at 19 while auditioning as a dancer, and Kitti Jones, introduced to him aged 33, are finally granted the chance to look down a lens and tell their stories so that you can see them.
Hampton saw the whataboutery coming. “I knew that essentially what we had from the survivors was incredibly compelling, honest evidence,” she said to ThinkProgress. “It needed context. It needed to live in the larger world we all live in: of racism, sexism, capitalism. We needed to talk about the record industry who considered this man a cash cow, and who will always look away.” About that. RCA Records are yet to respond to the fallout from the film, though may be playing it legally safe to avoid being sued by Kelly. Let this be clear: Surviving R Kelly has no solutions to magically fix the problem of the music industry and black American community averting their eyes from the allegations against Kelly. But it is giving a mainstream voice to black and brown women who’ve lacked one.
So the show arrives at a confusing, and confused, time. Collectively, we don’t really understand how to deal with abusers who manage to avoid further scrutiny and career censure. Sceptics are quick to shout “Did you call the police?” when women share stories of sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment. But what happens when video evidence and verbal testimony aren’t enough to incriminate? Kelly’s a prime example: he was never tried on rape charges, and a jury instead acquitted him in 2008 on all 14 child abuse images charges, even after viewing the so-called “sex tape” that prompted his arrest in 2002.
It’s more than a year since black activist and Surviving contributor Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement (often wrongfully credited to Alyssa Milano) came to be seen by many as a 2017 invention linked to the Harvey Weinstein revelations. And still, we flounder and argue when faced with the men who make art and money and connections, yet allegedly hurt women. This is really about trauma, falling in a grey area more nuanced than current legal terms. We need an understanding deeper than the confines of rape and consent laws developed hundreds of years ago by men. In the meantime, you get to decide whether to turn away from, or listen to, the voices that accompany the tears.