Will 2019 be the year that R. Kelly is finally canceled? Despite comprehensive reporting on R. Kelly’s alleged sexual abuse and psychological manipulation of young women and underage girls, a trial for child pornography charges in 2008 (for which he was eventually acquitted, to the surprise of many who thought he was a condemned man), and a viral campaign in the past year or so to #MuteRKelly, he has yet to see legal or career repercussions related to the allegations. Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime’s six-part docuseries isn’t billed as bulletproof evidence that will undoubtedly bring him to justice, but it is a significant (if flawed) effort to render fans and apologists “unable to loudly declare their defense of R. Kelly,” after watching it, according to executive producer Dream Hampton. Below are five takeaways from Surviving R. Kelly that aren’t necessarily total revelations, but uniquely shaped our understanding of Robert Sylvester Kelly and the unimaginable trauma he has reportedly inflicted on black and brown women.
Extensive support systems would have enabled systemic sex crimes.
While watching Surviving R. Kelly, you start to wonder how he had the time to go on tour, record in the studio, shoot music videos, support a family, play basketball with Michael Jordan, and maintain a reputed “sex cult” (ex-girlfriend Faith Rodgers says on camera he told her it was a “family”) spread throughout houses, apartments, and hotel rooms across the country. Ex-wife Andrea Kelly articulates the dawning realization in all of us: He had a lot of help. According to former employees interviewed for the documentary, a small army of assistants, managers, studio runners, and bodyguards would book flights and hotel rooms for girls visiting R. Kelly at tour stops, recruit new girls at local teenage watering holes like the mall, and pick up girls from the airport and drive them to one of Kelly’s rentals, among other things. “We worked for him,” says former personal assistant and tour manager Demetrius Smith. “This is what he wanted and you were supposed to give it to him.”
R. Kelly’s patterns of alleged sexual abuse began in childhood.
It wasn’t until his 2012 autobiography Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me that Kelly publicly opened up about the molestation he suffered at the hands of a female family member when he was 13. Clinical psychologists featured in the documentary attest there is a direct link between that experience and his behavior as an adult. “Child sexual abuse confuses power and control with sex, so children may want to say, ‘I want to be the one that’s in that power position,’” says Dr. Candice Norcott. “I never want to be the victim again.” It’s also a textbook case of generational trauma. Toxic stresses in childhood, like an addicted or abusive parent, are shown to have profound and lingering adverse effects into adulthood. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how this pattern might have played out with alleged victims like Jerhonda Pace, who says she was sexually abused when she was 4, 6, and 8 years old, and whom Kelly recruited after bonding with her over their shared traumatic experience.
What reportedly happened inside R. Kelly’s homes and studio is repugnant.
Though we know much of the sexual-assault allegations against R. Kelly from Jim DeRogatis’s tireless reporting on the subject, their power to horrify has not diminished with age or repetition, and they are especially affecting coming from the mouths of alleged survivors onscreen. One unidentified former employee who gives testimony throughout the documentary is the closest thing to a fly on the impenetrable walls of Kelly’s mansions. Girls were reportedly forbidden to leave their rooms even to use the bathrooms without permission from Kelly; instead, they were forced to relieve themselves in a bucket in the corner of the room, emptying them only when they were told. After Kelly is evicted from his two Atlanta properties for owing $30,000 in unpaid rent, ex-girlfriend Asante McGee revisits the site with the camera crew. Coming upon the so-called Black Room — formerly painted and carpeted black with heavy light-blocking curtains — she begins to unravel. “The worst thing he asked you to do, you did it,” she says. Viewers are given an idea about what such scenarios might have looked like from Lisa Van Allen, whom he forced to perform oral sex on a 14-year-old girl in a Space Jam–themed setup in his Chicago studio, and filmed it without their consent.
R. Kelly asked for help to stop videotaping himself.
Kelly never owned up to any wrongdoing until his 19-minute-long confessional “I Admit” arrived earlier this year, a perplexing non-apology that exonerates him to exactly no one except for maybe the die-hardest fans. And yet, privately, he acknowledged that there was a problem, even if he was still only concerned about himself. His mea culpa came shortly before the infamous “pee tape” — the VHS recording of Kelly urinating in the mouth of a then-14-year-old girl — Smith recalls they were playing a show in Detroit when Kelly asked for help, and said they needed to pray, because he couldn’t stop taping and knew the habit was eventually “going to destroy” him. Though Dr. Norcott says abusers often collect trophies from their acts, it seems that Kelly was aware, at least at one point in time, that the risk wasn’t worth the gratification.
His team made death threats.
When Pace’s relationship with Kelly first came to light in 2017, we learned that the singer employed intimidation tactics, forcing his alleged victims to sign “false statements,” incriminating them with either unproven allegations that they had stolen from Kelly, or by threatening to release sex tapes of them. As revealed in Surviving R. Kelly, in some cases he escalated his scare tactics. When Van Allen recounts that she confiscated the “pee tape” from Kelly’s personal stash, she tearfully reveals that there were plans to have her killed before the recording was released publicly. When a young woman named A’Iceis Clary tried to rescue her sister Azriel from Kelly’s Chicago studio, she was abruptly removed from the premises, dumped in an alleyway, and told that if she mentioned anything to anyone, neither her sister nor her family would “make it out alive.”