“Robert is a master manipulator,” the R&B singer Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards says in the second episode of Lifetime’s new docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly. “Everybody knows it now. They didn’t know it back then.” Her voice is resigned in this sequence, a precursor to forthcoming scenes in which Edwards tearily expresses remorse for introducing the singer to her then 12-year-old niece, the alleged victim at the center of Kelly’s 2002 child pornography case.
Executive-produced by the writer and filmmaker dream hampton, Surviving R. Kelly painstakingly details the now widely known allegations that have thus far not hindered the 51-year-old megastar’s nearly three-decade career. The musician and his representatives declined to comment for the series. Kelly has largely denied the many accusations against him over the years; even his startling 19-minute July confessional track, “I Admit,” shirked accountability in favor of self-aggrandizement.
Lifetime’s rendering of Kelly’s story does not excavate unreported rumors with an eye trained uncritically toward salacious gossip. Rather, the documentary brings together the previously reported but nonetheless disturbing accounts of his accusers—and indicts the many people who have enabled his alleged abuses with their silence. Through its attention to overlapping patterns in the women’s accusations and in the social systems that fail young black girls and women, Surviving R. Kelly repeatedly makes an almost impossibly simple observation: The singer’s alleged history of systematized predation could not have occurred without a ready network of support.
In six hour-long episodes being aired over the course of three nights, the Lifetime series documents the life and alleged abuses of the singer, producer, and songwriter through interviews with almost 50 people. The first night’s installments, which premiered Thursday, explore Kelly’s experience of being sexually abused as a child, as well as the musician’s clandestine relationship with the late singer Aaliyah; the third and fourth episodes detail the infamous child pornography case and sex tape; and the final evening’s portions trace recent allegations that Kelly has been holding young women captive in his Atlanta and Chicago homes. With much of its runtime dedicated to detailed testimonies from Kelly’s accusers, Surviving R. Kelly renders the years of reporting on his alleged misdeeds far more immediate, and unequivocally human. It is a staggering, stomach-churning narrative work—especially for those who have experienced similar traumas.
Allegations that R. Kelly serially preyed on women, many of them underage, were first reported in December 2000 by the Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis and his colleague Abdon Pallasch, who appears in the documentary. But rumors of Kelly’s predilections had existed for years: In 1994, at 27, the singer married the 15-year-old Aaliyah; on the pair’s falsified marriage certificate, which Vibe magazine first reported, she is listed as 18 years old. The marriage was annulled two months later, shortly after the release of Aaliyah’s queasily titled debut album, the Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. By the end of 1996, Kelly had married Andrea Lee (now Kelly), a dancer on his tour, and been sued for emotional distress by Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins, an aspiring singer who, according to the suit, said they began having sex when she was 15. (The case was settled in 1998, with the condition that Hawkins not speak publicly about it.) In January 2001, a month after the Chicago Sun-Times published its first landmark investigation, a video depicting a man who appeared to be Kelly engaging in sexual acts with someone who appeared to be a minor was sent to the publication. Throughout this period, and well after, Kelly continued to accrue astronomical commercial success and critical acclaim for his overtly sexual, narrative-driven hits.