The biggest moments from Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly season 2
One year after Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly helped unleash a new wave of scrutiny against the titular R&B superstar, culminating in his arrest and charges at both federal and state levels, the network kicked off 2020 with a follow-up installment. Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning grapples with everything that’s happened since the original series, checking in on various women and families who were previously featured while also introducing viewers to alleged abuse victims who hadn’t been heard from yet.
Kelly, who was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, has now been indicted on 21 charges of sexual abuse and assault at the state level in Illinois and a 13-count sex crime indictment at the federal level in New York, but he has not yet gone to trial, so it’s important to keep in mind the disclaimer that Surviving R. Kelly displays several times per episode: “R. Kelly has denied all claims related to sexual assault, domestic violence/abuse, and sexual misconduct with minors. Kelly’s lawyer claims that Kelly has witness statements and evidence showing his innocence, but cannot release them due to the active court cases against him. His lawyer also alleged that Kelly ‘is the subject of a smear campaign’ and that ‘the accusers have not acted like victims at all’ because ‘they have used their accusations to promote contemporaneous books, albums, and speaking tours.’”
Here are five of the most notable developments we learned about from The Reckoning.
Kelly’s alleged abuse growing up
The Reckoning features interviews with Kelly’s two half-brothers, Carey Kelly and Bruce Kelly. The first episode of the new series, “It Hasn’t Stopped,” begins with Carey and Bruce talking about how they and Robert were sexually harassed by a man in their neighborhood. They say he invited the boys over to his house and exposed himself to them. The three boys scrambled home, but their mother never pressed charges — because, Bruce believes, he bribed their mother with $5,000.
That’s not the only instance of alleged abuse in Kelly’s childhood. On his 2018 track “I Admit,” Kelly sings, “I admit a family member touched me — from a child to the age 14.” He expressed a similar sentiment in a 2012 interview with Tavis Smiley. In Surviving R. Kelly, Carey says he suffered similar abuse from the same person, who was not much older than them. The alleged abuser goes unnamed in the docuseries, but in Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, journalist Jim DeRogatis (who is featured in The Reckoning) writes that “in an interview with me, his half-brother Carey named their half-sister, Theresa, as both his own and Robert’s abuser,” but that Theresa, “a devout Christian and mother now living in another state under a completely different name… has never spoken publicly about her half-brothers, and I failed in many attempts to reach her for comment.”
Surviving R. Kelly contextualizes these accounts with expert analysis. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jody Adewale says, “Someone who struggled with that type of trauma at an early age would be really confused about what sex is, what the rules around sex are, and how should I live a sexual life?” But another clinical psychologist, Dr. Candice Norcott, says the link between being a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence “can be overstated at times. There are many people that don’t go on to perpetuate sexual violence that have experiences of child sexual abuse.”
The “first girl” speaks
The first person to sue Kelly for sexual assault was Tiffany Hawkins in 1996. Since she signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of her settlement with Kelly — the first but not the last settlement arranged by the office of lawyer Susan Loggans, in what DeRogatis calls a “settlement factory,” inspiring the title of the season’s second episode — Hawkins had never spoken publicly about her experience with Kelly. But she agreed to speak with DeRogatis for Soulless, and gave her first televised interview for season 2 of Surviving R. Kelly.
“I was the first girl, and nobody believed me,” Hawkins says at the beginning of The Reckoning.
Her relationship with Kelly was complicated. She told DeRogatis that he called her “the cable girl” because she would connect him to six other friends of hers — all of whom she says in The Reckoning were 14-16 years old and had sex with Kelly. Hawkins became friends with Kelly’s protégée and infamous first wife, Aaliyah, and sang backup vocals on her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. She says in the series, “When I found out Robert and Aaliyah had gotten married, I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me, because if someone else was sleeping with him, that was great because it meant I didn’t have to.”
Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001, so her side of the story has never been heard. DeRogatis believes “Aaliyah is the key to everything,” but that her story “isn’t mine to tell. I wish that Aaliyah’s family would speak.”
An alleged suicide pact
A common defense from Kelly, especially when parents accuse him of assaulting or kidnapping their daughters, is to accuse the parents of blackmailing him. During a televised interview with Gayle King last March, Kelly’s current girlfriends Azriel Clay and Joycelyn Savage even accused their own parents of doing so. But according to Kelly’s former girlfriend Jerhonda Pace, the singer took even more extreme measures to shield himself. In episodes 3 and 4 of The Reckoning, Pace says she went so far as to enter a suicide pact under pressure from Kelly.
“I was part of a suicide pact with him,” Pace says. “And if anything was to happen to him, if he was to go to jail or if someone was to harm him, I was supposed to kill myself.”
Pace ended her relationship with Kelly in 2010, and publicly came forward with her allegations (breaking an NDA) for an interview with DeRogatis in 2017.
Reached for comment Monday, Steve Greenberg, R. Kelly’s attorney, said in an email to EW, “The idea that [Pace and Kelly] would have some kind of suicide pact is laughable.”
Dominique Gardner’s post-escape life
When Pace finally went on the record with DeRogatis, she says it was out of concern for her friend Dominique Gardner, whom she knew was still with Kelly. One of the most shocking moments in the original Surviving R. Kelly is the daring rescue of Gardner by her mother, Michelle Kramer, who is accompanied by cameras to bring her daughter home from where she has been staying with Kelly. The new season catches up with Gardner and her family to see how they’ve been living since the rescue.
Gardner says it has taken time to adjust to not abiding by the stringent rules Kelly laid down for her, such as not speaking to or looking at other men.
“I still had that thought process of following his rules,” Gardner says. “If there was a guy and I didn’t talk to him or look at him, my mom was just like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s normal to talk to a guy, it’s okay to look at them.’ It was a scary feeling, like, ‘Oh crap, I just broke one of his rules.’ But then I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m not with him anymore, so what’s to fear?’”
Kramer, who describes the experience of rescuing her daughter as feeling “like Harriet Tubman, like I was freeing a slave,” has also had to adjust to her daughter’s new appearance. “She was 98 pounds,” she says. “Looking like a f—ing boy. She was f—ed up.”
Gardner says her hair was cut short after Kelly yanked chunks out of it because he felt she disrespected him at a party. After bringing Gardner home, Kramer decided to show solidarity with her daughter: “When she came home, I didn’t want her to feel inadequate,” she says. “So I cut my hair to be with her. I am my daughter’s keeper. So I love my new style. We’re like twins.”
Two failed rescues
The families of Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary say they both attempted to rescue their daughters from Kelly the way Kramer did, but with less success.
Savage’s parents and sister say they showed up to Trump Tower Chicago in July 2019, where Kelly was living at the time, and called the police for a welfare check on their daughter. But apparently Savage wasn’t there at the time, so it came to nothing. According to the series’ epilogue, she still lives at Trump Tower, though her parents “are still hoping to be reunited with their daughter.”
The Clary family, meanwhile, showed up at an R. Kelly concert in Tampa in 2018 and tried to take Azriel with them. Clary’s mother even managed to make it to the stage and grab her, but was taken away by security. According to the epilogue, as of December 2019, Clary has moved back with her family, though she continues to support Kelly as he prepares for his trial for federal charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice in April. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to those charges.