The documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime in the first week of January, has prompted new interest in the R&B singer’s alleged sexual misconduct with minors. Focusing on stories about his illicit behavior that have circulated for decades, the docuseries raises questions about the limited actions in response to these women’s stories, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, charges filed against Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby’s guilty verdict.
The six-part series, executive produced by the filmmaker dream hampton, features interviews with survivors and parents of girls who they say have been taken captive by Kelly, along with accounts of him coercing women into sex with underage girls and preying on teenagers.
Surviving R. Kelly has spurred several responses, including from high profile figures in the music industry and from law enforcement officials, who have asked any other alleged victims to step forward in order to start an official investigation. Kelly was acquitted in 2008 on child pornography charges and has repeatedly denied allegations of sexual misconduct. A representative for Kelly did not return TIME’s request for comment.
hampton — who says she didn’t expect the wave of responses from investigators, celebrities and viewers — talked to TIME about who she interviewed for Surviving R. Kelly, where the #MeToo movement will go from here and how the public at large can help stop predatory behavior.
Surviving R. Kelly has prompted a number of high-profile responses, from Chance the Rapper to radio stations that have stopped playing his music. How did you feel about Lady Gaga’s statement apologizing for working with R. Kelly?
I thought there was a lot of nuance in it. It’s reflective to me of what people expect from victims of trauma, especially those that speak up, like Lady Gaga, to be perfect, in a way. I was very sorry that she didn’t speak [in the series]. It could have been valuable for people on camera to reckon with the fact that they had continued to collaborate with him, and if they could have said if they have regrets.
Along with those responses, lawyers and investigators have asked any other victims to come forward, indicating they might be looking into R. Kelly in the wake of the series. Has that given you any hope on justice eventually being served?
I don’t have hope in the criminal justice system. I would love a social death for R. Kelly. It’s valuable for black people to be loved by other black people because we’re not loved by the rest of society. I would like for people to know who it is they think they love, and make their decision based on that.
You asked a number of well-known people, from Jay-Z to Erykah Badu to Mary J. Blige, about participating in the series and did not get much of a response from anyone other than John Legend. Who would you like to see speak out?
I wanted Erykah Badu to explain what she meant when she was quoted as saying R. Kelly has “done more for the blacks than anyone”. But I’m not interested in celebrities. I wanted people who worked with Kelly every day on his label, like Barry Weiss [former head of RCA/Jive Records] and other people, like Ann Carli, who worked with him at Jive Records.
[Representatives for Carli and RCA Records did not immediately respond to TIME’s requests for comment. A representative for Weiss declined to comment.]
The New York Times had an op-ed about how Surviving R. Kelly brought the focus of the #MeToo movement back to black girls. The documentary touches on how R. Kelly has avoided consequences in part because people broadly have not cared about the stories of black girls and women. Do you see this as a new starting point to center these voices going forward?
The kind of work we’ve been doing, we’ve always been doing. These movements, for racial justice and gender justice, always overlap with black women. The #MeToo movement and the generation that will fight for gender justice safety is absolutely not being led by celebrities. We know about Gwyneth Paltrow and Mira Sorvino’s stories — we’re aware of that. You’re not always aware of what we’re doing, and what we’re always doing is organizing. When Rick Ross had a lyric about drugging a woman’s glass of champagne and raping her, [women’s activist group] UltraViolet targeted Reebok to cancel his endorsement. That was years ago. We are always doing the work.
On Twitter, people have asked you questions like, “What about Harvey Weinstein?” or about not making a “Surviving Catholic Priests,” or another kind of documentary that wasn’t about a black man. Why do you think people are obsessed with this idea that Kelly is the wrong subject?
When people ask on Twitter, “Why isn’t this about Harvey Weinstein,” they’re really asking “Why is this not about Gwyneth Paltrow or Mira Sorvino?” It’s not about them, not because I don’t think they are women who are deserving of processing pain and getting justice for their trauma. I care about these black girls, black girls in general, and women. And I made a film about a man from my generation. I don’t know any other cis men who don’t benefit from patriarchy. It’s not that R. Kelly is offensive or a creep, or because he has a predilection for young girls, but because he has been a predator for almost three decades and he’s ruined the lives of countless girls and their families.
How can people watching this series at home support survivors?
These are everyday women. They may have come across a predator who happens to be world famous, but we can all look out for predatory behavior. We can stop using euphemisms for this. I always hope something like this [series] can be used as a tool for organizing. #MuteRKelly protests were in front of his studio the other day. Donations to A Long Walk Home, which works to save victims of domestic violence, have increased. We’ve seen calls at domestic centers increase. I could never have anticipated these things.
- What a Photographer Saw in the West Bank
- Accenture’s Chief AI Officer on Why This Is a Defining Moment
- Inside COP28's Big 'Experiment'
- U.S. Doctors Can't Be Silent About Gaza: Column
- The Movie Wives Would Like a Word
- The 100 Must-Read Books of 2023
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time