Filmmaker and cultural critic dream hampton has seen R. Kelly evade both criminal prosecution and what she calls “social death” for allegations of serial sexual abuse against Black girls and women throughout his career. In an interview published today (January 3), the former hip hop journalist tells Shadow and Act that she hopes “Surviving R. Kelly,” the Lifetime docuseries she executive produced, can finally force public accountability.
“I think that social death is a real thing and a possible, just thing,” she explains. “So my hope is that we truly turn away from him. My wish was that it would’ve been 15 years ago.”
She adds that “Surviving R. Kelly,” which premieres tonight, aims to clarify the narrative about the singer’s alleged crimes—and the previous attempts to hold him accountable:
“R. Kelly is someone that we, my generation, should have dealt with a long time ago,” hampton said. “I remember when Ferguson was happening and this young protester tweeted out to me or someone from Generation X, and they were like, ‘Why didn’t y’all stop this?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s not how it works.’ It’s not like there weren’t attempts. At one point in the film, someone asked, ‘Where was the outrage [at the height of his fame, in the ’90s]?’ and that’s just because a lot of this [outrage] was pre-digital, but it did exist. We did push back in the moment, but we didn’t organize to shut him down, so there was this feeling of responsibility.”
As part of this mission, the docuseries features commentary from several survivors of Kelly’s abuse, members of his inner circle, #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke and others who speak to the structures that protect the singer from answering for his actions. “This is a man who has built systems around his abuse, which is something that you’ll see in the docuseries,” hampton says.
These systems include the cultural significance of his work and career, which hampton says prompted many famous artists she approached to refuse to speak on camera:
“John Legend was the only one,” who participated, hampton said. “I asked Jay-Z, I asked Mary J. Blige, I asked Lil Kim, Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle…” But they all said no. “I mean, most people just don’t want to touch it. I remember Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] was like, ‘I would do anything for you but I can’t do this.’ It’s not because they support him, it’s because it’s so messy and muddy. It’s that turning away that has allowed this to go on.”
It’s not just celebrities who have turned away from publicly calling for Kelly’s accountability; his diehard fans are still unwilling to let go of him or music. hampton offered an example from the docuseries to explain why that might be:
“In the docuseries, [journalist and filmmaker] Nelson George talks about why it’s so difficult for us to turn away from someone like R. Kelly because we don’t necessarily associate the songs with him, we associate them with things in our life. So it’s not when we hear ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ we’re thinking about, him, we’re thinking about our niece’s eighth grade graduation, or hear ‘Step in the Name of Love,’ it’s our cousin’s wedding,” she said.
That said, hampton believes that Kelly’s actions came back around to hurt him. Attendees of a recent screening, including several of the survivors who appear in the docuseries, were forced to evacuate after someone called in a threat of gun violence. hampton agrees with Andrea Kelly’s assertion that her ex-husband was behind the threats:
“[When R. Kelly] was found not guilty [of 14 child pornography charges in 2008], I remember Jay [Z] talking about being contractually obligated to finish that tour, Best of Both Worlds [with Kelly], and R. Kelly melted down, ran off stage in the middle of a song, saying someone had a gun in the audience, and so we get this phone call about someone having a gun in the audience [of the ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ screening]. I’m with Andrea Kelly.”
Learn more when “Surviving R. Kelly” airs tonight at 9 p.m. EST. Additional episodes air tomorrow (January 4) and Saturday (January 5).