Contemporary R&B fans need no primer on the Chicago-bred singer’s sordid history with young girls, which by now stretches back decades. Many mainstream fans first discovered his sickness when the Chicago Sun-Times ran its first story alleging Chicago’s native son urinated on an underage girl in a sex tape back in 2002. The story published just after Kelly’s Winter Olympics performance of “I Believe I Can Fly” in Salt Lake City. But black radio, writers like me and day-one fans learned of the tape months prior to the Olympics. Much like racially charged police killings, the video obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times was merely confirmation of sins we already knew about.
In fact, the first signs of trouble surfaced over two decades ago after Kelly released his sexually charged November 1993 album, “12 Play,” which launched his eventual reign as one of the kings of R&B.
And in interview after interview, “Surviving R. Kelly” documents how this kingdom enabled Kelly to declare war on young girls. (In total, the series includes around 50 interviews.) Lisette Martinez details meeting Kelly at the mall when she was 17 and having a long-term relationship that included a miscarriage. Jerhonda Pace, who has also spoken about Kelly on “The Real” and alleges he recruited her for his sex cult, speaks about first meeting Kelly during his child pornography trial.
Sparkle (real name Stephanie Edwards), a singer who recorded the single “Be Careful” with Kelly in 1998, says she chose to participate in the series because her niece is the 14-year-old girl in the 2002 sex tape. Today, Edwards says she regrets ever introducing Kelly to her relative.
Kelly’s rumored relationship with Aaliyah is also extensively explored. Self-identified Kelly entourage member Jovante Cunningham shockingly reveals that she and others witnessed Kelly having sex with Aaliyah on their tour bus. Despite Aaliyah’s mom Diane Haughton’s statement labeling Cunningham a liar who never knew her daughter, viewers will most likely conclude otherwise. Cunningham, like so many of these women, comes across as credible. Remember that the lead single off Aaliyah’s debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number,” revolved around a young girl normalizing sex with an older man.
At the time, Aaliyah's album sparked plenty of speculation about Kelly’s actions with the Detroit singer. Using archival footage and more interviews, “Surviving R. Kelly” makes a convincing case that the relationship was indeed inappropriate.
One BET video shows the two dressed alike, dodging a direct question about the nature of their relationship. Kelly’s one-time tour manager and personal assistant Demetrius Smith claims he was there when the two married and helped forged the marriage license. Touré, the writer and pop culture personality who found the marriage license fraudulently claiming Aaliyah’s age as 18, is also interviewed.
But the series isn’t simply a look back through music history. The showrunners, which include dream hampton, who also wrote about urban pop culture in the early 1990s, are careful to contextualize the events and behavior described. Activists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux address how young girls of color are often left unprotected. Clearly, Kelly’s survival was a team effort. Kelly’s critically acclaimed, platinum-selling 2003 album “The Chocolate Factory” was released a year after he was charged with multiple counts of child pornography. He has thrived because for years everyone — from his personal staff and record label handlers to radio personalities and music fans — looked the other way.
He has thrived because for years everyone — from his personal staff and record label handlers to radio personalities and music fans — looked the other way.
Each episode begins with a disclaimer that the “Surviving R. Kelly” team asked Kelly for comment multiple times and received no response. In his place, the series interviews Kelly’s youngest brother Carey and older brother Bruce, who is incarcerated. Both detail their family’s troubled childhood in the projects and their mother and brother’s talent. They also claim that their brother was bullied for his reading skills and sexually abused. (Kelly himself spoke about his abuse in an interview with Tavis Smiley, a clip of which is included in the series.)
Throughout, a handful of psychologists dissect the singer’s tactics and explain why it can take women so long to leave abusive men. This adds more impartial voices to the decidedly personal interviews. Music journalist Ann Powers is another expert who works to put Kelly’s behavior in perspective, comparing him to historic music icons like Elvis Presley who was nearing his mid-20s when he met his wife Priscilla at age 14. Celebrated urban music critic Nelson George also confirms this. Male artists sexually exploiting young girls is neither unprecedented nor surprising. And that’s the problem.
With so much material to get through, Kelly’s alleged sex cult — the subject of that Buzzfeed story — isn’t really touched on until the final episodes. Kelly, who apparently insisted on being called “daddy,” is described by some survivors and other witnesses as being so controlling that he separated his women into various rooms and dictated their eating as well as bathroom schedules. One survivor, a rare consenting adult, takes viewers on a harrowing tour of one of Kelly’s houses in Atlanta. Showrunners also interview the parents of young women who claim their children are still under Kelly’s control, and film some of their attempts to rescue them.
“Surviving R. Kelly” intentionally connects Kelly’s heinous acts to some of his most popular songs — a disarming strategy. But over the six hours of footage, hampton and company work hard to ensure any and all objections or justifications for Kelly’s behavior are shot down. We understand why Chance the Rapper, who is shown in the docuseries, says he regrets recording with Kelly, and why radio legend Tom Joyner now refuses to play his music. After watching “Surviving R. Kelly,” it should be impossible to separate the artist from the music. Going forward, if R. Kelly sells another concert ticket or record, we are all to blame.
Ronda Racha Penrice
Atlanta-based writer Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of "African American History For Dummies."