The reporter met R. Kelly in the summer of 2000. At the time, the musician was 32 years old and already the man who wrote anthems to inspire you on Saturday night (“Bump N’ Grind”) and to absolve you on Sunday morning (“I Believe I Can Fly”). He had already sold more than 20 million records, and won three Grammys. And already, people were talking about him and Aaliyah. About how, when he was 27 and she was 15 and she was his protégée and his muse, she was also — secretly and briefly — his wife.
Vibe had published their marriage license back in 1994 and the whole thing was annulled faster than you could say “the age of consent in Illinois is 17.” But it was out there just the same, and the reporter, dream hampton, asked Kelly if he’d speak about the details of his relationship with Aaliyah. He said no. So she dropped it.
Her profile of Kelly ran in Vibe‘s November issue. On December 21, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a story that began: “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.”
hampton is now a filmmaker and showrunner/executive producer of the six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, the first two hours of which premiered on Lifetime Thursday night. She thinks about that Vibe story now. She thinks about all the doors she didn’t open, all the things she didn’t see. As she put it in an interview with ThinkProgress, “It’s like being at Jeffrey Dahmer’s house and being like, fuck, I should’ve opened this fridge!”
Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges and, in a case that took six years to come to trial, was eventually acquitted after the victim and her parents chose not to testify. But in the litany of credible allegations against him, child pornography is just one chilling bullet point. He has reportedly been sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally abusing women and girls as young as 15 for decades; silencing his alleged victims with intimidation, blackmail, payouts, and non-disclosure agreements for the duration of his career; and, according to a BuzzFeed investigation published this July, is currently keeping several young women in cult-like conditions against their will at his homes, women whose parents have been trying for years to see or even just contact their daughters, to no avail.
Surviving R. Kelly arrives at a contradictory moment. It premieres in the era of the almighty hashtag, of #MeToo and #TimesUp and #MuteRKelly. Of movements gaining momentum. And R. Kelly is not the hitmaker he used to be. It’s been 17 years since “Ignition (Remix).” His brand is arguably as damaged as its ever been. Surely no one has much to lose by losing him.
But ask, as hampton did, a battery of boldfaced names who’ve worked with Kelly in recent years — Lady Gaga and Jay Z and Questlove — to go on camera and talk about Kelly, and watch them all decline to be interviewed. Ask the Recording Academy, as ThinkProgress did, what exactly R. Kelly’s membership status is, as his official Grammys artist page makes no mention of the lawsuits or allegations against him and does not appear to have been updated since 2014, and hear nothing in return. And ask the Clarys or the Savages, whose daughters, Azriel and Joycelyn, are living with Kelly still, when was the last time they could see or speak to their children? And they will tell you it’s been years.
The day Surviving R. Kelly premiered, hampton spoke with ThinkProgress about the story behind the series.
How are you feeling right now? I just read that R. Kelly threatened to sue Lifetime, which I’m sure is delightful news for you.
I just read that, too. I think he’s desperate to just like, what happened at the screening, I think he is trying to do whatever he can to not have these women heard. Because I think when you actually hear and see them, it’s so much different from reading it. And I think it’s going to be a sea shift, for him. I hope so.
I imagine that being in this material, talking to these women, that in some ways it’s very heartening. But it can also make you feel like, if it hasn’t happened now, will it ever? Where are you at, on that optimism/pessimism spectrum?
There’s so much to complain about with millennials, right? But I’m so encouraged by millennials and the generation after them, which would include my daughter. They’re insistent on gender and sexual violence being a part of the larger conversation around black liberation. I’m so encouraged and really kind of rewired by [that]. How, in the movement spaces I’m in, talking about self care and self-healing as being a part of the “work.” That it is, itself, part of the work.
I’m not saying young black feminists are the first ones to do this. We come from a long legacy of black feminists. And I don’t want to be too delusional about this. You’re in these movement spaces, which I am, or you’re with like-minded people, and you think, oh, this is the world! And then you check R. Kelly’s comments. He apparently tweeted out that he has a new song coming and got thousands of comments saying, “we love you!” So nothing is everyone.
But there is, evidenced by the new generation, absolutely a willingness to — the phrase “hold people accountable” can be overused and misused. But there is this idea that there will be a reckoning, and we’ll deal with it.
I said this in another interview but it’s true: I really do feel like R. Kelly is my generation’s problem to reckon with, in that, we should have done it a long time ago. So I’m happy to take on that labor while they take on all the other labor.
If I’m remembering this correctly, you first met R. Kelly to profile him almost 20 years ago now.
Yeah. This is 2019, and it was in 2000.
Do I have this timeline right: It was after Aaliyah, but before the tape? So I imagine it’s this nebulous time, as somebody who was writing about culture, how to bring that up. Did you feel like there was more there that you couldn’t write about or ask about at the time?
You know, I wonder that. I ask myself that a lot. I’m actually writing about that now. I’m working it out in this piece that I’m doing. Yeah, I definitely have scoured my mind. Was there something I missed? Because now I know how he operates, about all the closed doors in the studios. Mostly, it’s a series of closed doors. So I wonder — I wish I had opened a door.
I’m very not proud of that article. And that happened almost immediately, that I became not proud of it. Because, if I wrote it in August, it was a November cover, that means it would’ve hit the streets in October — this is back when there were magazines and all that lead time — so, Jim DeRogatis’ reporting came out that December. So not only did I immediately realize, wow, I missed the whole story. It’s like being at Jeffrey Dahmer’s house and being like, fuck, I should’ve opened this fridge!
But Danyel Smith, who was the editor at Vibe, also realized that she had made a mistake. And Lola Ogunnaike was sent out to correct that, to do another piece, right away.
It wasn’t like our generation didn’t try to reckon with him. There just wasn’t movement. I think about that with police violence, too. Me and my friends were doing Copwatch in the ‘90s when cameras weighed 18 pounds. But there really does have to be a movement to make it a movement. There does have to be a mass awakening, and mass consciousness around something. And again, these things come in cycles. It’s not the first time that we’ve had a mass consciousness around police terror or gender violence. But for all the reasons we all know, like social media, there’s a way to organize more people and quicker.
Tell me a bit about your process of deciding who to include and then getting that participation from — obviously it’s incredible that so many survivors were willing to appear on camera, but all these people who were part of the apparatus that allowed R. Kelly to do what he did for so long.
I really am probably responsible for every culture critic that’s in there, for sure. I really knew what I wanted. I can do the shortcut with people because they’ve been my colleagues for 20 years. I knew what I wanted from Nelson George. I needed him to do what he does, which is, to unpack what R&B is, and its social significance, what that lineage is. I needed a black man to do that. I really needed Ann Powers, who is one of my favorite music journalists, who used to edit me back when I was a teenager, as a white woman, to be the one to talk about Elvis and Jerry Lewis and Jimmy Page and Aerosmith.
It’s deep now, because you can also anticipate tweets. You can anticipate the kind of criticism that you’re going to get, which I think is a great thing. It kind of closes the dialectic; it becomes a conversation. That happens in real time. So I knew that was something that was going to be demanded of this piece. The whataboutisms. I can absolutely ignore a lot of whataboutisms, but I knew that it was actually important to talk about the history of, as a cultural phenomenon and as lyrical, as text, this history of rock and roll talking about the teenage girl as seducer and therefore, she can’t be the victim, this can’t be rape.
So Ann Powers was able to talk about “Walk This Way” as being about a teenager seducing men, to talk about Priscilla Presley being 14 and Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin being 13. Not to let R. Kelly off the hook in any way, but to not make that particular function of patriarchy — which is the desire to have dominion and to dominate mind, body, and soul, of fems — not to make that this one-off that R. Kelly somehow invented.
So I was really conscious of that kind of stuff, that framing. I knew that essentially what we had from the survivors was incredibly compelling, honest evidence. And that what it needed was proscenium arches. 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… Rock and roll, which of course starts off as R&B, being this place where that is considered play and fun.
And I was also very conscious in processing what it is to be sex-positive. Not to be making a piece about respectability. This isn’t a piece that’s like, “group sex is bad, filming sex is bad, S&M is bad.” I remember talking to at least a dozen subs, friends of mine, who were in that world, and they kind of let me off the hook. They were like, “No, a sub has so much control. What the fuck you’re describing is the opposite of being a submissive.”
What about these people who were a part of his world who — honestly, I was amazed that some of these men were like, “Yeah, in hindsight, I knew about that.” Or, “Yeah, I gave his phone number out to children. I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway.” What were those interviews like?
I was the one who [everyone said], “dream will do all the women but not the men.” I did the women and the families. Because I didn’t like them. They were waffling on any remorse they might have had. And I know that true contrition is rare. It rarely comes without caveats.
In the end though, while I couldn’t stand him while he was in front of the camera, there was one man who is well into his fifties and was trying to flirt with my 20-something year old assistant, on the set. I really couldn’t stand him.
But when I look back — sometimes the camera, that’s why it’s such an important kind of equipment. It takes up some of the imperceptible things… When I watched this video of this man, Demetrius Smith, and he had helped get the forged birth certificate of Aaliyah. He has this testimony about Aaliyah being pregnant, that it was a shotgun wedding, that he was a witness at. That is his testimony about that. My skin was crawling when he was actually talking. But when I went back to look at the video, I was able to see him struggling with the story. And then I had compassion for him.
And always in the back of my mind, I had my own Vibe article in my head. About the ways that maybe I had been complicit. That I had written this fucking profile that mentioned Aaliyah. That I hadn’t — so any judgment I had for them, I just needed a quick look in the mirror.
Of course, I didn’t help forge a birth certificate for a 15-year-old.
I was also amazed at some people you didn’t get, but I’m sure you tried to, and how they justified their absence to you. Like, what did Dave Chappelle say about not wanting to be in this? What did Lady Gaga [who collaborated with R. Kelly on a song they performed together at the 2013 American Music Awards] say about not wanting to be in this?
They don’t have to say anything but no, right? They had people between them and my producer. I had one producer who I hired specifically because she has relationships with a lot of people. And even she, who can get these people to do almost anything, this was the one thing they wouldn’t talk about. So I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to speak for them. On one hand, Gaga is so recent.
I know. And she’s a very outspoken advocate for–
Yeah, against domestic violence. So I really wanted to give her a chance. But what we didn’t do is go do a deep dive into all these partnerships. It wasn’t to protect the record industry; it was because we had other work to do in the six hours. But they were all invited. I had questions. Some of them were older. Dave Chappelle was years ago. I tried to get Aaron McGruder, who did Boondocks, who did that wonderful sendup. Erykah Badu was recent when she said that no one has contributed more to black people than R. Kelly [while introducing him at the 2015 Soul Train Awards].
I’m also curious how you feel about this airing on Lifetime. Are you concerned at all about it not reaching as wide an audience as a platform that is not as gendered, or that’s more kind of culture-snobby “prestigious”?
I’m not. I don’t think that’s how we watch TV anymore. I helped my friend, Stanley Nelson a filmmaker, help promote his Black Panthers documentary, which this generation even of activists aren’t interested in the black panthers necessarily. And Beyonce, the week before, performed at the Super Bowl wearing what the press is calling a Black Panther outfit. And then we did this great Twitter lesson — I got people to tweet out facts about the Black Panther party — and it ended up being the highest-rated PBS doc ever. More than Ken Burns! So this idea that, “Oh, I just watch PBS,” which I don’t think people do! And I watched the Kalief Browder documentary on Spike, a network I never watch.
But even if it were just LIfetime’s audience, I’d be fine with that. I’m definitely not into considering things “premium” or not. And I know how Netflix treats its writers, for instance. Not to mention its on-screen talent. So my definition of premium isn’t maybe what other people’s is. This isn’t a defense of Lifetime; it’s just saying, I don’t think any of these networks are premium. They’re all just platforms that you can use in whatever way you can.
I have something coming out on HBO in February, but I don’t know that it’ll get more eyes than this. And I know that Twitter, black Twitter in particular, is an important space, and a real space, a living space, that can make or break, not only a Black Panthers documentary, but Scandal. And I don’t think people were just sitting around watching ABC. I think that people just tweeted about Scandal. So I don’t know that any of those rules are real anymore.
I’m guessing then that you feel similarly about the production company, which I think most people associate first with Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Real World?
I’ve never seen Keeping up with the Kardashians, but I know that they did The Real World. I remember that show. Yeah, I remember when my agent they asked me to talk to them and I was like, for what? I don’t do reality TV. When they said it was an R. Kelly doc, and and when they said Lifetime, I thought it was going to be this reenactment bullshit, and I was like, no way. Ew!
What’s your sense of R. Kelly’s place in a conversation about separating the artist from the art? Honestly I find the whole artist/art thing to be a limiting way to talk about these issues, but with R. Kelly, there are these songs that feel so removed from his behavior (like “I Believe I Can Fly”), I can see how people struggle with the idea of letting that music go, or with insisting it is inextricably linked to R. Kelly’s violence. But also, I don’t know that it’s possible to listen to that music and not think about these women. So I’m curious where you come down on that, if it’s something you wrestle with at all.
Unlike a lot of the music journalists in the series, I am here for a really raunchy, a literal song about sex. I grew up loving Willie Jackson, and I learned about sex way too young from Prince’s first three albums, where he was talking about fucking incest, and had a whole song called “Head.” And they were very literal. He’s a better songwriter than R. Kelly would ever be, but those are really literal songs.
But what is quite literal and nauseating and makes it easy to turn away from him, in my opinion, is this idea that his songs are about, again and again, seducing young girls. And Ann Powers points out in the series, so were the Beatles’, so were Chuck Berry’s. And when they weren’t writing songs about it, like Jimmy Page, they were living with 15 year olds. But that’s the art/artist thing for me.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Picasso, whose work is so blatantly misogynist, and it turns out that he was incredibly abusive of women. So there’s no separation. When he’s not ripping off ancient African work, he was painting about his misogyny. It’s a question I think we’ll revisit forever, of art versus artist and what can be discarded.
As you were doing all this research, particularly during interviews with the clinical psychologists who talk about domestic abuse and psychological manipulation, what part of that information was new to you? What surprised you?
I did a whole lot of work of studying a malignant narcissistic, whatever personality type I might have guessed R. Kelly was. The professionals we had came in confirmed that. Of course, when you’re having what you want confirmed, you have to look at it again, so that’s why we had three different folks and talked to even more than that.
My other note about that is: I wanted to make sure they were black. I wanted black professionals, and I wanted at least one cis man, which we got with Dr. Jody, because we live in this world where we can kind of anticipate tweets. I knew what black men were going to say. Cis-het black men.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the R. Kelly story? What misconceptions are out there that seem the most insidious to you?
Kind of what we let his brother articulate in the series, which is, that this is a preference. That his only crime is that he preyed on young girls. He’s also guilty of severely abusing them. Again and again, girls talk about having been made to sign false confessions saying that their parents tried to blackmail him.
The degree to which he has thought through his abuse. He has found ways to protect himself from the legal aspects. He’s found a way to pre-emptively mount a legal defense, and that would be, in a trial, what we’d call premeditation 101. I see a lot of people, “When are you going to do this person” and “Jay Z dated so-and-so.” If R. Kelly were just a creep, this wouldn’t be a piece. It definitely wouldn’t be six episodes. I don’t think that we made a docuseries about a creep. I think we made a docuseries about a predator.
I think I’ve come to the age, sadly, where I’m the bitter cis-het woman in her forties who might believe all men are trash! (laughs) So this idea, “so-and-so has a twelve year age difference,” we’re not talking about his age difference. We’re talking about him being a predator and severely abusing women and ruining their lives and their families’ lives and doing it in plain sight.