As seen in the series, the black community formed a force field around Kelly, especially during his six-year child-pornography case, which eventually resulted in an acquittal in 2008. Kelly’s ardent supporters within the community seemed to completely dismiss his marriage to the then-15-year-old R&B star Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001. Their marriage was treated as salacious gossip, not abuse.
One of the more uncomfortable moments in Surviving is when footage is shown of Kelly and Aaliyah appearing together on BET’s Video Soul Gold, ironically to promote her 1994 smash debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which was produced by Kelly and Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson. As soon as the two singers are seated, the host, Leslie “Big Lez” Segar, says with a big smile: “Let’s clear something up, because you know I’ve been getting the rundown on the street. Everybody seems to think that y’all are either girlfriend or boyfriend, or cousins, or friends. Let’s just get the record straight.”
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There is laughter, and the mood is jovial. No one seems to be thinking, We’re asking a 27-year-old grown man and a 15-year-old child about being in a relationship together. After more uncomfortable laughter, Aaliyah responds nervously: “No, we’re not related. … He’s my best friend … in the whole wide world.”
Kelly has denied the accusations against him for years, and even when there was a video that appeared to show the singer urinating in the mouth of an underage girl, the tape—referred to throughout the docuseries as the “pee tape”—became little more than a punch line. One of the most popular bits ever done on Dave Chappelle’s television show was the Kelly-inspired spoof “Piss on You.” The rapper Macklemore, in his single “Thrift Shop,” raps that he should have washed his mink because it “smells like R. Kelly’s sheets.”
The docuseries shows an army of Kelly’s supporters outside the courtroom during the child-pornography trial in 2008—many of them black girls and women—insisting that he was being unfairly punished. One woman even yelled directly into a camera that they—and you can guess who “they” is—only singled Kelly out because he was black and successful. Even black girls were willingly dismissing the trauma of other black girls.
Kelly, for his part, positioned himself as a victim even in the face of damning and disgusting evidence. Master manipulator that he is, Kelly always seemed to use the fact that African Americans generally remain distrustful of the criminal-justice system to trigger racial resentment as a way to provide cover for his alleged misdeeds.
In 2000, when the Chicago Sun-Times became the first outlet to report on accusations that Kelly was having inappropriate relationships with underage girls, Kelly collaborated with Jay-Z on the song “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” Jay-Z was also embroiled in his own legal mess at the time, having been accused of stabbing the music executive Lance “Un” Rivera. Kelly boldly sang on the chorus, “Jigga, Kelly, not guilty. Try to charge me but I’m not guilty. I got, all, my mamis.”