Surviving R. Kelly

A searing documentary makes the case that all those who kept playing his music were contributing to his abuse.

R. Kelly abuse survivors, from the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Lifetime.

Over the three days that I watched Surviving R. Kelly, a six-episode Lifetime documentary about the decades of sexual abuse R. Kelly has perpetrated against black girls and women with both the active and passive help of large swaths of American society, I had Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” looping through my head. Surviving R. Kelly persuasively argues—proves, really— that, societally speaking, we have made an unforgivable pact with Kelly, a musical genius who was able to hide his evil behavior in plain sight for decades because he committed his crimes against black girls. We chose to ignore his deeds, downplay them, or remain willfully ignorant of them so we could go on enjoying his music. We prioritized our enjoyment, our ease, our playlists over the gargantuan pain and suffering, some still ongoing, of scores of naïve, hopeful teenagers. We made a deal with the devil on the cheap—let us keep this song!—and had 16-year-old girls pay the exorbitant price.

Those girls, now women, are the focus of Surviving R. Kelly, an extremely effective piece of entertainment journalism—though it may be more accurate to think of it as an extremely effective piece of activist entertainment journalism. The series is comprehensively damning and powerfully disturbing—while also being riveting, a slightly queasy combination that makes perfect sense on Lifetime, a channel whose specialty has long been wringing thrills and warnings from stories about endangered women. As with all true crime, there is a fine line between getting the truth out and getting it out salaciously. If Surviving R. Kelly occasionally steps over that line—it can be a little too slick, particularly in the last two episodes when it seems like it wants to make news, instead of document it—it does so to make an undeniable and sickening case against Kelly.

The series features numerous extended interviews with Kelly’s victims, “survivors” in the show’s terminology: women—most of whom were underage when they first met Kelly—who share in harrowing detail their experiences with their abuser. Andrea Lee, Kelly’s ex-wife; Lizette Martinez, a high school student whom he met at a mall; Lisa Van Allen, the youngest girl at a music video shoot; Jerhonda Pace, who was 15 when she met him at his child pornography trial. They, and others, relay similar accounts of meeting a man they adored who was sweet and charming, who promised to help them in their careers, and who then became a monster. Kelly isolated them, punished them, required them to ask permission to eat and use the bathroom, told them not to make eye contact or speak with anyone else, and beat them, all while sexually debasing them and videotaping the process. The details of each of their stories are harrowing, but the overall effect is one of powerful accumulation: slight variations on an experience that becomes more and more horrifying and unassailable each time it’s told.

These interviews are intercut with commentary from colleagues, associates, family members, music industry insiders and journalists, and trauma experts, who collectively provide a chronological narration that follows Kelly from his childhood into the present. Over that time, he professionalized his abuse operation, moving from casing girls outside his old high school to bringing them up on stage at his concerts and passing off his number to, essentially, keeping girls prisoner at his house.

Like so many #MeToo monsters, R. Kelly is someone “we all knew about,” but his case makes clear what a gross euphemism that is. Saying “we all knew” makes it so easy to gloss over what we “knew”—that he was sexually, psychologically, and physically abusing underage girls. Kelly has been preying on girls for decades, and it has been a long time since it was only being disseminated through a whisper network. Some of his crimes have been extremely public, like his sexual relationship and marriage to his protégée Aaliyah when she was just 15, to say nothing of the video that showed him urinating in a 14-year-old girl’s mouth and that was long metabolized into the culture as a punchline. And yet it’s only recently that all of this has congealed into something more substantial and damning than “rumor.”

What Surviving R. Kelly does extremely well (and nonconfrontationally) is to demonstrate, through slow accumulation rather than gotcha questions, all of the compromises, selfish decisions, and apathy that went into protecting R. Kelly and perpetuating his crimes. Only a few people interviewed are directly complicit in Kelly’s operation: an assistant who would go with Kelly to malls to find girls; an anonymous employee who works at Kelly’s house; his older brother, who is the only person interviewed who outspokenly wonders what the problem with Kelly’s behavior is. But there are dozens of people, to say nothing of organizations and industries, that aided and abetted him, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes otherwise. As you watch Surviving R. Kelly, what you see is producers who knew Kelly was up to something gross but didn’t do anything about it; employees who did what was asked of them because it was their job; family members who let their daughters “work” with R. Kelly because they thought it would help their careers, and who permitted themselves to believe—following the lead of the music industry, other celebrities, even the black church and law enforcement—that he wasn’t all that bad. (What you don’t see are many of those celebrities who worked with R. Kelly in the recent past, though they may already regret not participating.) When it was inconvenient to see the truth, to do what was right, people chose not to. They just kept playing his song.

As did I, for many years. I would think that for most viewers, Surviving R. Kelly will make it much harder to do so—to keep listening to his songs, if it wasn’t already. It will not, however, make it impossible: Over the weekend, plays of Kelly’s songs were reportedly up 16 percent on Spotify, because of the documentary. I like to imagine that the people listening were trying to do what I was trying to do, when I couldn’t get “Ignition (Remix)” out of my head: fusing the song to the horror stories I had just heard. As the documentary’s experts point out, people associate R. Kelly’s music with memorable times in their own lives—graduations, parties, anniversaries—and they don’t want to tarnish those memories with his deeds. But watching Surviving R. Kelly will tarnish them for you. Play it in your head until it makes you sick.