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Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly and its explosive reception, explained

“People can’t say they haven’t heard”: how the docuseries changed the R. Kelly conversation.

A woman at a protest in front of R. Kelly’s Chicago studio holds a sign reading “#MuteRKelly.”
Outside Kelly’s Chicago studio, demonstrators call for a boycott of his music on January 9, 2019.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

R. Kelly has spent 25 years apparently made of Teflon. He’s been accused of some of the worst things imaginable and he has still managed to survive and thrive as one of the biggest stars in music. Now a Lifetime documentary series may have changed all that.

Kelly withstood the revelation that he married 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994, when he was 27. He withstood multiple lawsuits by young women alleging that he initiated sexual relationships with them when they were underage. He withstood his 2008 trial on charges of child pornography. He withstood reports that surfaced in 2017 that he was holding multiple young women against their will in what witnesses called an abusive and “cult-like” atmosphere.

Mere months after those 2017 reports surfaced, the #MeToo movement burst into its most public phase and saw dozens of men pushed out of public life after they were accused of sexual harassment and assault. But R. Kelly continued on.

Some of Kelly’s staff left him after the cult story came out. Activists organized the #MuteRKelly campaign to call on the music industry to stop working with him, and the Women of Color of Time’s Up committee threw its weight behind the effort. Spotify briefly stopped promoting his music, then reversed the policy. There were protests at some of his concerts, and a couple of the concerts were canceled.

But by and large, Kelly’s life didn’t appear to change all that much. He strongly denied all the accusations against him, maintaining that the women he lived with were all with him of their own free will. (Kelly did not respond to a request for comment for this article.) He did a concert tour. His music stayed on the radio.

Then in January 2019, Lifetime premiered Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries that detailed the allegations against Kelly. It featured accounts from multiple women who say they escaped Kelly’s “cult” and interviews with members of Kelly’s inner circle. John Legend appeared in the series to denounce Kelly, as did Chance the Rapper.

In the wake of the series, multiple radio stations have announced that they are boycotting Kelly. Lady Gaga apologized for collaborating with him. His record label reportedly dropped him, and authorities reportedly opened a new criminal investigation against him.

“I think people know that where there’s smoke there’s fire,” #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told Vox over the phone. “After 25 years of hearing growing grumblings, growing accusations, it’s reached a crescendo with the documentary.”

Have 25 years of accusations finally caught up with R. Kelly? Is his life about to change? And was a Lifetime docuseries what it took to bring him down?

Accusations against R. Kelly date back to 1994

The accusations against Kelly have tended to follow the same basic pattern. Over and over again for the past 25 years, he’s been accused of finding a target — a woman or girl, usually very young, usually black — and grooming her with attention and praise. Often he is said to suggest that he’ll help her launch a music career and then use that pretext as an excuse to get permission from the girl’s parents to spend time with her alone. Then he is said to isolate her from friends and family, gradually instituting more and more rules that she must follow until he is in complete control of her life.

Kelly met R&B star Aaliyah when she was 12 years old and became her mentor. He wrote and produced her debut album, tellingly titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, and records show that when Aaliyah was 15 years old, in 1994, he married her. Kelly was 27 at the time, and in Surviving R. Kelly, his assistant said that he forged documents at Kelly’s request so that Aaliyah’s age could be listed as 18 on the marriage certificate. The marriage was annulled months later and went public when Vibe magazine published the marriage certificate in its December 1994/January 1995 issue.

“I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that,” Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who broke the story of the R. Kelly sex abuse allegations, told the Village Voice in 2013.

In December 2000, DeRogatis had published a story in the Chicago Sun-Times reporting that Kelly had been sued by a young woman who said that he initiated a sexual relationship with her when she was 15, and that Kelly had pushed her into participating in group sex with other young girls. That story would be followed by others; between 2000 and 2003, more lawsuits piled up accusing Kelly of sex with underage girls, with most of the lawsuits also alleging that Kelly was controlling and abusive. In every case, Kelly denied everything and settled the suit out of court.

In 2002, the Sun-Times received a tape that appeared to show Kelly having sex with and urinating on a very young girl. A relative of the girl on the tape identified her and confirmed that she was 14 years old when the tape was made, and the Sun-Times gave the tape to police. Kelly was arrested and charged with 21 counts of creating child pornography.

Kelly’s lawyers delayed the trial for six years and knocked out seven of the 21 charges against him, so that by the time he had his day in court in 2008, he faced only 14 counts of child pornography. The girl on the tape and her immediate family declined to appear in court, and while the prosecution had testimony from her friends, teachers, and members of her extended family confirming her age and identity, the jury eventually concluded that they could not determine the girl’s identity beyond a reasonable doubt. They found Kelly not guilty.

For the next 10 years, Kelly largely avoided scandal — until 2017, when DeRogatis published a new report in BuzzFeed News alleging that Kelly is holding a group of young women against their will in his home and recording studio, where he maintains a “cult-like” atmosphere. According to DeRogatis’s reporting, these women are required to call Kelly “Daddy” and ask for his permission before doing anything, including eating or going to the bathroom. The 2017 story also says that Kelly has confiscated their cellphones and given them new ones that they can use only with his permission, so that they can’t contact their friends or family. The story says he forces them into group sex — which he films — and beats them and deprives them of food when they displease him.

BuzzFeed’s report prompted multiple women who said they had survived abuse by Kelly to come forward with their own stories, confirming DeRogatis’s reporting. (Kelly has repeatedly denied all accusations against him.) One of them was Kelly’s ex-wife Drea Kelly, née Andrea Lee, who in December 2018 said that Kelly emotionally, physically, and sexually abused her, and that when they were married, she thought he might kill her. (The two divorced in 2009.) Most of the women DeRogatis identified as being in Kelly’s “cult,” however, appear to still be living with him, and there’s no indication that much has changed in their lives since 2017.

The 2017 stories were explosive, but it seemed that there was little the police could do about them. Kelly allegedly targeted some of the women living with him when they were underage, but all of them were over 18 by the time the story came out. And whenever the police contacted the women for a welfare check, they consistently said that they were happy and were living with Kelly of their own free will.

The fact that the women have denied everything “is absolutely to be expected,” said domestic violence expert Julie Owens. In a phone call to Vox, Owens said that reports of the case read like “textbook abuse in the form of sex trafficking,” and that if the stories are true, it makes perfect sense that the women who are currently living with Kelly would deny that he is abusing them.

“The person who is being threatened, abused, or held against their will, because they are so isolated and cut off from other people who can give them a different perspective or insight or help, they bond to the abuser. [In the victim’s mind,] the abuser is also in some ironic way their protector,” Owens explains. “Because the abuser is the person who is a threat, they’re also the one who can keep the victim safe by not hurting them. The victim works to keep the abuser happy so that things don’t escalate. It’s as if they trade their escape skill for coping skills, if you can think of it that way.”

So it’s consistent with what we know of domestic violence and trauma that the women who currently live with Kelly would deny the reports of what he’s allegedly doing to them, but it also means that as far as the law is concerned, it appears as though everyone involved is a consenting adult.

That means that while Kelly has faced a certain amount of blowback for the cult story over the past two years, there have been no legal consequences — which, in turn, has given the music industry cover to continue on with business as usual.

R. Kelly faced some consequences after the cult story, but his music career continued on track

There were some repercussions for Kelly in the aftermath of the cult story. At least five members of Kelly’s inner circle quit his employment, and while most of them declined to comment on their departure, longtime musical accompanist DJ Phantom said that he left because of what he had learned about Kelly. “He’s a shitbag,” Phantom said.

The activist group #MuteRKelly emerged in the summer of 2017, not long after BuzzFeed published the story in July, calling on the music industry to stop working with and promoting Kelly. The campaign began, co-founder Oronike Odeleye said during a phone call with Vox, “to get the black community to divest financially from R. Kelly. If we can’t get him in a court of law, we can collectively say as a community, we’re not going to support you, we’re not going to go to your concerts, we’re not going to play you on the radio, we’re not going to stream your music. We’re going to shun you for the things you’ve done, and you can feel the consequences of your actions in that way.”

A few months after the cult story broke, the New York Times and the New Yorker published exposés about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and decades’ worth of sexual misconduct and abuse accusations brought against him by dozens of women. And in their wake, the #MeToo movement developed a new force. The advocacy group Time’s Up was founded. Now there was a new infrastructure and a new vocabulary in place to talk about famous predatory men — but even with those tools at their disposal, activists faced an uphill battle every time they turned their attention to R. Kelly.

In the spring of 2018, the Women of Color committee within Time’s Up threw its weight behind the #MuteRKelly campaign, calling for anyone currently profiting from Kelly and his music to drop him, including Spotify, Ticketmaster, and Kelly’s record label, RCA. Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, and John Legend tweeted their support of the campaign. In an apparent response, Spotify briefly announced that it would keep Kelly’s music in its archives but stop promoting him — and then three weeks later, it reversed the policy.

Occasionally, music stars spoke out against Kelly. At Coachella in 2018, rapper Vince Staples repeatedly referred to Kelly as a “child molester” in an interview with Complex, insisting, “He pees on people.” His interviewer tried to cut him off. “We can’t ever talk about this guy,” she protested. “You’re about to get me fired from Coachella. It’s my first time here.” Later, Staples tweeted that “R. Kelly people is looking for me.”

Meanwhile, Kelly continued to perform. In 2017, he finished an arena tour. There were a few cancellations. In 2018, he toured with singer Charlie Wilson. There were some protests. But R. Kelly kept touring and his fans kept buying tickets. His career might have been disrupted, but not enough to bring it to a halt.

Surviving R. Kelly seems to have generated a new sense of outrage against Kelly

The reaction to Surviving R. Kelly has been of a noticeably different tenor than the reaction to previous R. Kelly scandals.

Surviving R. Kelly by and large reiterates the stories that were already on the public record, but it does so with plentiful and horrifying details, and it makes the girls Kelly has allegedly abused inescapable. You see the mother of one of the missing girls actually succeed in pulling her daughter out of a hotel room — where Kelly was allegedly keeping her — and taking her home. (A post-credits sequence informs us that the girl in question went back to Kelly three days later, before eventually returning home for good.) You see the aunt of the girl believed to be the one on the infamous tape that Kelly was charged with child pornography over — Kelly’s former backup singer, who says she introduced her niece to Kelly in the hope that he would help the girl’s rapping career — dissolve into tears and say over and over again, “How dare you? How dare you?”

The series was highly watched, with each of the six episodes averaging 2.1 million viewers. And in its wake, Kelly’s peers in the music industry have begun to disavow him. The series itself featured interviews with John Legend (“Time’s up for R. Kelly,” Legend says in one episode) and Chance the Rapper (“Making a song with R. Kelly was a mistake,” Chance declares in another). After the series aired, Lady Gaga apologized for collaborating with Kelly in 2013 and removed their song from streaming and iTunes.

Two Dallas radio stations announced that they would no longer support Kelly’s music. “If the courts won’t take care of [Kelly] in terms of punishing him, then we’ll stop playing his music as punishment,” said radio host DeDe McGuire. Additionally, Kelly’s record label, RCA, appears to have dropped him, although early reports suggest that RCA doesn’t plan to confirm that decision anytime soon. (RCA did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.) Even Spotify quietly introduced a “don’t play this artist” feature that, while it hasn’t been billed as Kelly-specific or even officially announced by Spotify, appears to be a post-docuseries response to ongoing requests from Odeleye and the #MuteRKelly campaign.

And law enforcement appears to have taken notice. The celebrity and entertainment site the Blast reports that the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia is actively investigating Kelly and exploring the possibility of charging him with false imprisonment. While officials have made no public statements about the reported investigation, a lawyer for the family of one of the girls who is currently with Kelly confirmed to CNN that he was contacted by the Fulton County district attorney shortly after Surviving R. Kelly aired. (A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office declined to comment to Vox.)

In Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has asked any of Kelly’s potential victims to come forward. “There’s nothing that can be done to investigate these allegations without cooperation between victims and witnesses,” Foxx said. “We cannot do this without you.” A spokesperson for the state attorney’s office confirmed to Vox via email that they have received multiple phone calls about Kelly, saying, “We are in the process of reviewing and following up on these calls and have no additional information to provide at this time.”

Little by little, R. Kelly appears to be coming closer to experiencing real consequences for his alleged actions.

#MeToo set the stage for Surviving R. Kelly

So how did R. Kelly manage to withstand these stories for so long, and what’s changed now?

It seems increasingly clear that part of the reason the accusations against Kelly were ignored for decades is that his victims were primarily black women and girls, not white women, and our culture by and large did not care enough to protect them.

“They were girls that some people would consider to be the throwaways or not worthy of advocating for, because a lot of folks saw them as complicit in their own abuse,” said #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. “There’s a failure to protect the innocence of black girls. Some people feel really comfortable being like, ‘Okay, they should have known better, or their parents should have known better.’”

Burke argues that the success of the #MeToo movement over the past year has set the stage for a reevaluation of R. Kelly in light of Lifetime’s docuseries. “It’s come out in this moment where there is an intense focus on sexual violence in this country because of #MeToo, so there’s a space for people to hear it,” she said. “That’s not to say that people didn’t hear these accusations before, or didn’t know about these accusations before. What the #MeToo movement has done has helped people hear them. We have created a framework for people to hear these accusations and look at them differently. We’re in a climate where survivors are being believed, listened to, their accusations are investigated in a way that they weren’t before.”

Surviving R. Kelly executive producer Jesse Daniels agrees. “Even if we’d tried to tell the story five years ago we might not have been able to. The rise of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement opened up doors,” he said. “They created more of an opportunity for our survivors to tell their stories and to have people on the other end receiving and talking. The time right now was perfect for us.”

“We’re in a different point with this society now,” said #MuteRKelly founder Oronike Odeleye. “We put blame where it should be placed: on the abuser, not on the victim.”

#MeToo set the stage for outrage against Kelly, but plenty of stories about him came out post-Weinstein that didn’t have the same effect that the documentary did. There seems to have been something uniquely unsettling about watching survivors and their loved ones recount their experiences rather than reading about them, about seeing a lineup of women quietly weep as they try to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Jonathan Kahana, a professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, argues that a documentary is the perfect medium for heightening outrage against Kelly, especially now. “Authenticity, sincerity, and trust are in short supply in public life these days,” Kahana said in an email to Vox. “Any signs we can grab hold of that these qualities still exist, and still matter, tends to be taken as a revelation, treated more seriously, than they were just a few years ago.” And documentaries, particularly documentaries built out of first-person interviews, strongly signal authenticity to their audience.

“There are two things about the voice that it’s hard for humans to ignore: it’s the most affecting instrument; it has the greatest power of any instrument to make us feel emotions so strong that we believe they’re real and true,” Kahana said. “This is even more the case when a documentary relies on interviews, as the R. Kelly series does, where people say things in their own voices and their own words, sometimes with so much feeling that they break down and lose the power of speech (like when they start crying, and there’s a lot of crying in even what little I’ve seen of the series). At these moments, you feel like you’re being let in on a public secret, which is what you could say the widespread, frequently whispered accusations of Kelly have been for a long time.”

Whatever happens next, it’s unlikely that we’ll return to the status quo

While law enforcement may be pursuing new investigations against Kelly, experts think he’ll be difficult to prosecute, especially on charges of false imprisonment. The issue, says victims’ advocate Maureen Curtis, is that Kelly is said to rely on psychological coercion to control his victims, not on physical restraints. He is accused of controlling his victims by isolating them, depriving them of access to food, clothing, transportation, and electronics, and repeatedly demeaning them — not by locking them up.

“When you have intimate partner violence or sexual violence between people who are intimate or known to one another, there are different ways of threatening coercion with that person that may not happen with a stranger who’s being physically assaulted or threatened with a gun, but which are just as threatening as a gun or a physical assault,” Curtis said. “But it’s very hard for others to really understand that if they don’t understand the dynamics of coercive control in an intimate relationship.”

Juries tend to need evidence of physical restraints — locks on a door, guards holding someone at gunpoint — to convict someone for false imprisonment. Otherwise, says Curtis, “You hear often, ‘Well, why didn’t you just leave?’ It’s hard to understand that so much more goes on that can really keep a person there.”

Domestic violence expert Julie Owens emphasizes the idea that while Kelly’s alleged abuse may be primarily psychological, it is both real and harmful. “It only takes 21 days to brainwash someone,” she said. “You hear [threats and demeaning comments] over and over again, you believe it.”

While Kelly may or may not be prosecuted, Owens says the effects of his alleged abuse will linger for survivors. “A person who’s been abused severely is never going to be the same again, biologically or psychologically,” she said. “It’s not to say they can’t heal, but it changes the body’s chemistry. It changes the brain. We know this from research. As Oprah says, ‘You’ll never be the same, but you’ll be a new you.’”

If Kelly does not end up facing criminal charges for the abuse he’s been accused of, there’s still a chance his career might suffer. His label has dropped him, and some radio stations are beginning to boycott him.

Yet there’s also a chance that the increased attention to his past might end up being a boon to Kelly. After Surviving R. Kelly premiered, Spotify reported a 16 percent increase in streams of Kelly’s music.

But activists are confident that the Spotify spike is a momentary glitch. “Whenever someone’s name is in the news, it sparks curiosity. A lot of young people who are leading the change and the conversation, a lot of millennials, they didn’t grow up with him the way I did. A lot of people are looking him up: Who is this guy, why is he so famous, what is that song people were talking about? People are curious,” said Odeleye. “The real litmus test will be three months when the brouhaha has died down, if the streaming is still as strong. And I don’t think it will be.” (Spotify did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.)

Regardless of what comes next for Kelly, Tarana Burke says she considers the reception of Surviving R. Kelly to be a victory. “What will definitely happen is that these accusations will be in popular consciousness forever. That goes without question. It’s out there,” she said. “People can’t say they haven’t heard.”

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