I’m tired. We’re tired.
On the evening of January 3, 2019, I bundled up my anxiety and turned to Lifetime to watch what I knew would be one of the most noteworthy moments of media history.
Executive produced by dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg and Jesse Daniels, Surviving R. Kelly is a 6-hour, three consecutive night event on Lifetime chronicling the cycle of abuse surrounding one of the most celebrated R&B stars of our time, R. Kelly, straight from the words of the survivors themselves.
Thursday night’s premiere was only one-third of the total and complete piece. After sitting in complete silence for a moment after the final frame of that installment, I realized I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep for a while, despite being utterly exhausted.
While live-tweeting the documentary with others, I warred with timing. Should I wait until seeing the complete work to offer my thoughts on the documentary? Or recap it on-the-go?
Eventually, I came to my conclusion: I have immediate thoughts that lend to a larger conversation. And they need to be documented while the scatterbrain is hot.
Please note, this isn’t even a definitive or complete list of my thoughts. I’ll have more, especially as more content is revealed.
There’s a Valid Reason Why We Start at the Very Beginning
As soon as flashbacks of R. Kelly’s troubled upbringing flickered across the screen, many viewers queried an understandable point: Why should we give a fuck about what R. Kelly went through at the expense of the girls he hurt? Why are they humanizing a predator?
No, his trauma does not excuse nor negate the very real damage the survivors in this documentary recalled. Detailing R. Kelly’s background simply serves as a buildup to a larger thesis. Additionally, framing the series’ genesis around his musical impact is what makes this story more acute. It is that very musical influence that shapes the weightiness of this narrative.
This documentary took years to come to fruition. The 30-odd years of silence lends credence to telling this complete story. Any true documentarian knows the importance of showcasing the entire story, as a means of providing sufficient context. The truth is, you can’t tell the story of R. Kelly without starting at the very beginning. He’s been described countless times as a “master manipulator.” Well, where exactly do you think he learned that from? See? Context.
The Media Machine Behind the Sexualization of Children Is Sickeningly Powerful
The found footage from R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s public appearance together on Video Soul Gold (wearing matching outfits, no less!) made me sick to my stomach. In the episode, the host asked the pair two direct questions: Are you a couple? How old is Aaliyah?
After assuring everyone R. Kelly was simply her “best friend,” Aaliyah shyly and strategically let out a “shhhh!” in reference to her age. And thus, the marketing game began. It was an answer meant to intrigue, entice and, worse yet, romanticize their toxic relationship.
Commentary on Aaliyah’s prepubescence adding a “certain sexuality” to her mystique exposed the entire culture surrounding society’s obsession with the Lolita image. It was not fucking okay—in any sense of the word.
Chicago Knew. Been Knew.
I’m from Chicago and grew up there within the pivotal time frame of this documentary’s first section: the 1990s. I and everyone I know has a story involving R. Kelly posted up at Kenwood Academy or Rock ‘n Roll McDonald’s in the hopes of luring teenaged girls. Of course, at the time, many of us were a bunch of preteens and teens giddy about the prospect of getting close to the famous R&B singer, which is, of course the perfect recipe for a fucking predator to bank on. (Editor’s note: Also a Chicago girl living in the surrounding area during that era, and yes.)
Reports of R. Kelly frequenting shopping malls under the guise of meeting excited fans only to have one of his flunkies double back and drop his number for a more private and personal meeting made me vomit. The amount of calculated grooming on his part (and complicity on theirs) was masterfully grotesque.
In that same vein, I cringed with heartbreak as Jovante Cunningham referred to herself and her teen peers as “stupid” in connection with R. Kelly, continuing to blame herself with that language. It was her truth and she is allowed to speak it. Still, I can’t let it sit there and rot away into the abyss without noting one thing: It was certainly not her fault. It was not their fault. It is not your fault.
He was a full-ass adult during these alleged incidents and the responsibility rests solely on him.
Even If You Believe in Separating Art from the Artist, It Most Certainly Isn’t Applicable Here
I have to be honest here: I have an internal battle with the concept of “separating the art from the artist” all the time. On one hand, I figure my past love for someone’s art doesn’t magically disappear once I find out about their transgressions; I can’t deny how that art has shaped and influenced me as a person and by extension, my own art. On the other hand, so much of art is an expression of oneself, so how can you completely separate the two, anyway?
In R. Kelly’s specific case, though? There is no battle. R. Kelly’s songs are rife with hyper-sexuality. You can’t possibly separate his art when his art is fully ensconced in the very perversion he’s accused of.
Second, in the midst of R. Kelly’s sexual abuse allegations, I distinctly remember a lot of people ceremoniously vowing to trash his music. I’ve asked friends in private conversations if they were also willing to give up R. Kelly’s written material, which is what he mainly benefits from financially. He has written for a lot of our faves. A whole damn lot.
The reveal behind Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” in connection with Lizette Martinez’s teenage miscarriage placed that question on front street like a motherfucker.
Are you also willing to give up all the songs he’s written for other people?
This Culture Protected a Predator
Following hampton’s interview, in which she listed several celebrities who declined to participate in this documentary, she and Questlove took to Twitter to exchange words about the intent behind the refusal. Though that particular (now-deleted) war of words pales in comparison to the significance behind survivors finally getting their much-deserved platform, it does lead to a larger conversation around enabling within the industry and by large, the culture.
Not to mention the men around him that either turned a blind eye to everything or participated in it (WTF, Demetrius Smith?!) Fear of halting the money train is a large part of it, I presume, but this same code of silence exists in our regular-degular neighborhoods, as well. People are, after all, more inclined to cape for those they identify with on some level.
John Legend, who did choose to participate in the documentary, immediately shut down any implications of bravery in regards to his decision. To him, there was no risk. It simply needed to be done. “Easy decision,” he tweeted.
Why protect a predator unless you’re afraid the exposition will also reveal you as a man behind the predatory curtain?
Protect Your Peace
The images, dialogue and beyond included in this documentary were all extremely triggering. I made a deliberate decision to watch this documentary; not only out of obligation to my job, but because I sincerely wanted to. That said, there were many, many anecdotes that triggered me. Thus, I understand those who cannot watch. This documentary’s existence is enough, in and of itself. I implore those who cannot bring themselves to watch to not feel pressured in re-traumatizing yourself. Solidarity isn’t singular.
By the way, this suggestion does not apply to the rape apologist assholes who want to avoid or delay the inevitable to protect their fave. Fuck you very much, kthxbyyyyye.
We Have a Lot More Shit to Unpack in This Industry
R. Kelly doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Others have already mentioned it on social media, but it bears repeating that similar dynamics have played out elsewhere: Jay-Z and Beyoncé (and to some extent, Foxy Brown). Russell Simmons and Kimora Lee Simmons.
When R. Kelly asked Touré during that now infamous 2008 interview, “When you say teenage, how young we talking?” it should’ve been the end of him. There is only one definition of teenager and his inclination to shuffle around the facts should’ve been enough.
But, it wasn’t, was it? And the ultimate reason behind it is sobering, to say the least. It’s because R. Kelly isn’t a solitary or even isolated incident. He’s a reflection of a larger culture continuing to thrive at the expense of our girls.
The first third of Surviving R. Kelly left me feeling indescribably nauseous and anxious, but one truth remains above it all: black girls deserve better.
The subsequent parts of the Surviving R. Kelly documentary series will debut on Friday, January 4 at 9 p.m. ET and Saturday, January 5 at 9 p.m. ET.