Is time finally up for R. Kelly? "Surviving" series shows why he's been protected for so long

The women accusing R. Kelly of abuse have largely been faceless. This series centers their pain. Will that matter?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 5, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

Sparkle in "Surviving R. Kelly" (Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime)
Sparkle in "Surviving R. Kelly" (Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime)

A vital takeaway from “Surviving R. Kelly,” the emotionally provocative docuseries currently airing on Lifetime, is that people need to see the faces of the women and men Robert Kelly has allegedly wronged.

Part of this observation is based on history; one of the main reasons he was acquitted of multiple counts of making child pornography, involving intercourse, oral sex, urination, and other sexual acts involving a 14-year-old victim, is that she refused to testify.

One of the girl's male relatives took the stand and told the court that the person shown with Kelly on the tape was not her. Kelly himself denied that it was him on the tape even though, as music journalist Touré points out on the series, people could be heard calling his name from other rooms.

Multiple witnesses including Lisa Van Allen, who alleges Kelly coerced her into having sex with the girl, contradicted this testimony. Graphic videotaped evidence appeared to back up their account.

The jury was not convinced.

This is another ugly and painful truth that “Surviving R. Kelly” displays in plain view, for all the world to see: Even after millions do bear witness to the pain these women and their families suffered and continue to endure — even after watching scenes in which post-traumatic stress renders some subjects speechless, to the point at which the camera can only capture them silently crying — it might not be enough.

If there remains any doubt as to why that would be the case, filmmaker dream hampton delivers the answer in the form of an admission from John Petrean, one of the jurors who acquitted Kelly. “I just didn’t believe them, the womans [sic]” he said. “I know it sounds ridiculous — the way they dress, the way they act. I didn’t like them. . . . I disregarded all what they said.”

Aside from a close school friend of the still-unnamed victim, most of the women Petrean, a white man, refers to are black.

This admission is beyond telling. It explains in a nutshell why Kelly has been able to get away with convincing young women and girls, many of them teenagers, to leave their families and then remain in relationships with him — relationships which those who have escaped categorize as psychologically, sexually and physically abusive.

It’s only part of the story. An even more potent statement is visual: the sight of Kelly’s older brother Bruce defending his sibling Robert and referring to his hunting and manipulation of young girls as “a preference.” Bruce says this smugly from his perch in prison, where he is serving two to four years for charges related to a burglary. In “Surviving R. Kelly,” Bruce is unabashedly Robert’s biggest fan.

But he’s far from the only one, which is not only depressing but illustrative of how the insistent support of the musician’s fans has essentially served as a green light to the industry to turn a mostly blind eye to the many allegations against him for 25 years.

Prior to the first two hours debuting Thursday night, Kelly threatened to sue Lifetime if it went ahead with “Surviving R. Kelly.” But not only is the network proceeding undeterred, debuting episodes 3 and 4 on Friday, with the concluding installments premiering Saturday at 9 p.m., it will repeat each previously aired chapter several times throughout the weekend. Full episodes are available to be streamed on the channel's official site following their broadcast premiere.

A person can binge the entire series in order on Saturday, but be warned — it is sickening. While the first two parts aired, multiple organizations serving survivors of sexual abuse circulated information about resources on social media, and for good reason: much of the live-tweeting during the telecast amounted to reporting on internal processing and utter shock.

The opening pair of episodes explore Kelly’s early years, including accounts of his childhood from his brothers and Kelly marrying the late R&B star Aaliyah in 1994. She was 15 years old at the time, and he was 27. In an episode that debuted Thursday night, a member of Kelly’s entourage admits he forged documents so that the wedding certificate listed her age as 18. They were reportedly engaged in a sexual relationship before this, too.

Back-up singer Jovante Cunningham, interviewed for the series, wept at the memory of accidentally witnessing the two of them engaged in sex when a door to Kelly’s bedroom unexpectedly opened. To her and any reasonable person, a teenage girl is still a child. (Aaliyah's mother, Diane Haughton, released a statement refuting Cunningham's account on the grounds that "[m]y husband and I were always on tour with her and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career.")

Aaliyah was famous in life and remains so in death, hence her alleged underage relationship with Kelly — he has denied marrying her — has long been seen as a scandal. But there’s no such romanticizing afforded to Lizzette Martinez, who says Kelly drugged her prior to what was her first sexual experience at 17 years old.  “I didn’t think it would be that way,” she says. “Sex with him was not natural.”

The controlling relationship that Martinez alleges followed ended after she was impregnated, got an abortion, then contracted mononucleosis which triggered Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological autoimmune disorder. Her illness left her paralyzed and in intensive care. For her troubles, she recalls, Kelly sent her mother $1,000.

Forget cocaine — fame is the real hell of a drug. And this is especially true as it pertains to successful and famous black men. Fame allowed Bill Cosby to get away with drugging and sexually assaulting women for decades, abetted by an industry that saw him as too powerful and valuable to curtail until he was old, legally blind and on his way out the door.

Even after his conviction numerous black folks doubt his victims, shaking their heads at what they see as an example of mainstream culture taking down a longstanding hero.

Kelly never aspired to be on the same morality level as Cosby, but he never needed to be. Like Cosby, he used the influence of a massive, wide-reaching entertainment medium to gain the unquestioning loyalty of the public. His first major mainstream hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” became a staple selection of church choirs. His raunchier hits served as the soundtrack for who knows how many consensual romantic encounters.

Music is an artform that fuels and is fueled by nostalgia. And as several subjects point out, admitting the man who made that music may have engaged in deviant, harmful behavior would taint who knows how many memories. The same reluctance to believe the women who accused America’s Dad enabled Cosby to escape justice for 50 years — even after 35 women came forward in 2015, poignantly immortalized in New York Magazine’s famous “empty chair” photo

A number of Cosby’s accusers are white women, some of them well-connected within the entertainment industry — although for decades, that did not matter. Kelly allegedly hunted young black girls, a segment of the population long considered to be disposable and seen as less innocent and less in need of protection than their white peers.

A 2017 report from Georgetown University law school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality puts data behind this, but it’s nothing black women haven’t always known. In fact, one of the most depressing elements of Kelly’s various trials, from when he was first charged in 2002 to more recent reactions to the #MuteRKelly campaign, has been the reactions on camera from black female fans urging the public to dismiss victims’ claims.

“You have the powerful love of the black community, then you have a victim that nobody cares about,” #MuteRKelly co-founder Oronike Odeleye says in a later episode. And, in addition to this, Kelly also has enjoyed unquestioning protection from the music industry and the support of enablers who have booked flights to shuttle women from place to place, reserved hotel rooms and monitored the spaces in his own recording studio where he kept them as if they were a harem — often against their will, according to those who appear in the series — turning a blind eye to the abuses the women say they endured. Now they are speaking.

One cannot downplay the power in this. More than 50 people were interviewed for series, including people who worked with Kelly, journalists, academics, mental health professionals and the women identified as survivors. And it should be noted that the vast majority of the subjects here are black women — not just Kelly’s accusers, but the featured experts.

What “Surviving R. Kelly” does magnificently and somewhat extraordinarily is to center the experience of the women whose lives have been torn apart. Not just women — black women and women of color. Until now the face most associated with Kelly’s behavior has been Aaliyah’s; the face of the 14-year-old who refused to testify against him in the 2002 case, whose identity has never been made public, has always been a blur.

But here, we see Martinez. We receive testimony from Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly, ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones, his brothers Bruce and Carey, whom Kelly said was on the tape at the center of his child pornography charge. We bear witness to Jerhonda Pace, who alleges Kelly lured her and abused her when she was a minor.

And we spend time with Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, a singer whose career dried up not long after the infamous urinating tape came to light. Edwards, who goes by "Sparkle,” is one of the women who testified that the girl in the tape was underage at the time. She knows this because the girl is Sparkle’s niece.

This is the latest aggressive salvo of coverage of abuse allegations surrounding Kelly that has extended back 25 years, most of it exhaustively reported and consistently updated by music journalist Jim DeRogatis. He originally wrote about Kelly’s alleged pattern of predatory behavior targeting underage girls when he was a music reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, basing his stories on public record accounts of lawsuits that were settled out of court. (DeRogatis does not appear in "Surviving R. Kelly." But his reports for BuzzFeed, in which three sets of parents allege the artist is holding their daughters against their will and abusing them as part of a "sex cult,"  is being expanded into a documentary the news outlet is co-developing with Hulu.)

DeRogatis received a tape of Kelly appearing to have sex with an underage girl from an anonymous source in February 2002, which in turn became the centerpiece of a Sun-Times story and a police investigation.

DeRogatis has doggedly pursued this case ever since, despite Kelly’s acquittal and the music industry’s promotion of Kelly’s image and career over the allegations of multiple women who have come forward in the years following his acquittal.

In the meantime, hampton, her fellow executive producers and Lifetime are aggressively pushing the story to a tipping point. The #MuteRKelly campaign has succeeded in getting Kelly banished from commercial radio line-ups and somewhat penalized by Spotify (with mixed results). Tour dates have been canceled. But although Kelly’s image may be poisoned,  he still wields enough sway in the industry for a number of musicians, including Questlove, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z, to refuse to participate in the documentary for fear of being associated with a “messy” case.

John Legend, however, had no problem giving his point of view, with clarity, that it’s time for Kelly to go. After all, it took 25 more women — 60 in all — and a few more years for the public to finally hold Cosby accountable. And that would not have happened if not for a video clip of a male comedian, Hannibal Burress, calling out Cosby’s crime and the industry’s cover-up.

But even the opinion of an EGOT winner with a squeaky clean image like Legend may not be enough to bring Kelly to justice. Legend’s opinion is powerful, but in case we forget, there’s also footage of an interview with Chance the Rapper in which he admits, “making a song with R. Kelly was a mistake,” referring to their 2015 collaboration “Somewhere in Paradise.”

As to why he did it, Chance says point blank, “I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women. That was a mistake.”

Now, we’re finally looking a number of those women in eye.

Whether that makes any difference this time will be telling.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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