Accusations of predatory behavior by R. Kelly have been public for some time, given the widely circulated 2002 tape which some said showed the R&B singer urinating on an underage girl. Both Kelly and the girl disputed that the video showed them, and although Kelly was charged with possession of child pornography relating to the 2002 video, a jury found him not guilty. Nevertheless, he has continued to sell millions of records and amass devoted fans in the years since. The new Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly (airing over three nights, Jan. 3-5) states the case against the singer, built on dozens of interviews with women who claim to have been abused by him.
“We wanted irrefutable evidence,” executive producer dream hampton tells EW. “Without leading any of these women, they all had the exact same stories, even if their interactions with R. Kelly were 15 years apart. All of them have stories about being physically abused, being videotaped without consent, being denied food or bathroom privileges as a punishment. All of them have stories about rules that were established early on.”
Kelly’s representatives did not respond to EW’s request for comment on this story, and the singer did not participate in Surviving R. Kelly. TMZ reported Thursday that Kelly has threatened to sue Lifetime if it went forward with airing the series, but in a statement to EW the network said, “Lifetime has always been a brand that champions women’s stories. The documentary will air as scheduled, starting tonight at 9pm ET/PT.”
Though not all of the women interviewed for the documentary were underage when they first met Kelly, many of them say they (or their daughters/nieces) suffered sexual abuse at his hands. Surviving R. Kelly also includes interviews with multiple clinical psychologists about the mentality of abuse, music journalists and musician John Legend about the relationship of Kelly’s music to his alleged sex crimes and pop music history, Kelly’s brothers and longtime male friends about what they saw in his inner circle, and more.
Even before Kelly’s threats of a lawsuit, the documentary was making headlines. In the first episode, airing Thursday on Lifetime, former backup singer Jovante Cunningham says she saw firsthand Kelly having sex with his underage protégée Aaliyah Haughton (who died in a plane crash in 2011 when she was 22) on a tour bus sometime in the ’90s. After PEOPLE published the allegation, Aaliyah’s mother Diane Haughton issued a public statement strongly denying Cunningham’s claim (saying, among other things, “my husband and I were always on tour with [Aaliyah] and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career. Whoever this woman is, I have never seen her before anywhere on planet earth, until now”), though Cunningham has stood by it.
Kelly did produce Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, a title which raised eyebrows at the time — even more so after news outlets published a marriage certificate between Aaliyah and Kelly in which Aaliyah was listed as 18 years old even though she was just 15 at the time.
The most infamous allegation of sexual abuse against Kelly arrived in 2002, when he was indicted on — and ultimately cleared of — 21 counts of child pornography related to a sex tape that showed a man urinating on an underage girl. The sex tape arrived on the heels of multiple Chicago Sun-Times stories about Kelly settling lawsuits out of court, and was originally delivered to the paper’s music reporter Jim DeRogatis.
“There was the marriage certificate to Aaliyah, which was gross. It wasn’t unprecedented in music and rock, but it was gross, as it always is. Then came the stories after that, the lawsuits he was settling with these other young girls. When those stories started breaking around the time that the sex tape was released, it became clear that unlike maybe Elvis he didn’t just fall in love with some teenager once, that he was a predator with a pattern,” hampton says. “We talk about this ‘sex tape.’ When you think about Kim Kardashian and Ray J, they seem to be in a relationship that has play and sex.”
hampton concludes: “The tape with R. Kelly was about abuse. It was about commanding what looked like a preteen to do sexual acts at her. It was clear that he was an abuser from the time that tape came out. Why did he get away with it? Because in ‘01 he released the best album of his career, Chocolate Factory, which had ‘Step in the Name of Love’ on it. There’s this way that his music has been his cover and the music industry has collectively looked away.”
Kelly was indicted in 2002, but after the case finally went to trial in 2008, he was found not guilty of all charges. Kelly denied the man in the tape was him. The girl in the video refused to testify.
In addition to that public court proceeding, DeRogatis has also followed up over the years with more stories about Kelly — including a 2017 investigation for BuzzFeed News that alleged Kelly was holding women against their will as part of a “cult” in his Chicago and Atlanta homes. Kelly and his lawyer strongly denied the claims at the time.
After years of stories and allegations, hampton hopes that Surviving R. Kelly will stick in people’s minds.
“We wanted to build the case,” she says. “Jim DeRogatis is a hero and had already done that, but we’re living in a post-text world. I think Jim is doing this heroic work of keeping this story alive, he’s been on R. Kelly forever, but I think seeing these women on camera is gonna make a difference. When you ask the average American about presidential history, they know the most about JFK — not because they’ve read a dozen books about JFK, but because there are 7-12 movies about him. We are people that need to see sh—. We don’t really read.”
The three-night Surviving R. Kelly event airs Jan. 3-5 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.