In early December, Lifetime evacuated a screening of the new docuseries Surviving R. Kelly after “several anonymous threats were called in,” according to the network. The documentaries were aired in an effort to draw attention to the various sexual abuse offences the R&B singer had gotten away with over the years.
An NYPD spokesperson told CNN that an anonymous call was made, threatening to start shooting inside the theatre unless the screening was called off. Andrea Kelly, R. Kelly’s ex-wife and a participant in the docuseries, responded to the threats. She told Rolling Stone, “It makes me smile because that lets me know we’re on the right track. We’re causing people to listen.”
On Thursday, Lifetime is premiering the first batch of episodes, and they are every bit as revelatory and explosive as one might expect.
While a number of journalists and activists have worked diligently to unmask R. Kellyand to keep his many alleged crimes in conversation, Surviving R. Kelly is a singular and exhaustive project.
It incorporates the voices of survivors, advocates, experts, musicians, reporters and cultural critics, as well as friends and family of R. Kelly. It begins with his childhood, meticulously charting Kelly’s career while never losing sight of the young women and girls he systematically and continuously abused.
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Kelly’s behaviour is illuminated and analyzed, placed within a larger industry and culture-wide conversation, but never excused. Here, finally, is a humane accounting of an abusive celebrity’s life that does not treat their crimes as an asterisk or an afterthought. Instead, we see how R. Kelly the Predator and R. Kelly the Artist evolved alongside one another—the music and influence that helped him to lure young, often underage girls, and the pattern of predation and abuse that was clear to everyone around him.
As the series goes on, it becomes quite clear who R. Kelly is, and what he has done. The only question left for the various interviewees to reckon with is one of complicity. Why did we allow this to go on for so long? And can understanding our collective culpability help to ensure that it never happens again?
Near the beginning of the series, an infamous clip plays from a 2018 Facebook Live session. In it, Kelly addresses the latest wave of backlash against him, shouting out his supporters and blowing off his critics. Surrounded by boisterous supporters, he gloats, “It’s too late, they should’ve did this shit 30 years ago.”
While the series opens on survivors, it quickly steps back to start the story someplace else—Chicago, in the 1970s. The docuseries features interviews with Kelly’s brothers, Carey and Bruce, who describe him as a shy kid with an obvious musical talent. They both recall being raised around music, by a mother who was the lead singer in their church choir. Kelly struggled with reading and writing, which the kids at school teased him for. When he was a high school student, Kenwood music teacher Lena McLin acted as Kelly’s surrogate mother. “He was musically genius material,” McLin remembers.
In an August 2012 interview, Kelly spoke about being molested by “people in my family” from the age of 7 until he was 13 or 14. A visibly emotional Carey Kelly explains that, “I don’t think that he’s lying, because it happened to me.” A clinical psychologist speaks broadly to the impact that molestation might have on a child—“Children might want to say, I want to be the one who’s in that power position. I never want to be a victim again.”
“There’s really no more powerful position in a sexual relationship than to be the abuser to the child.
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