'Surviving R. Kelly,' Part 1: How Fame Shielded Him From Accountability Early In His Career
Readers note: This recap may be triggering to those who have experienced sexual assault.
New unsettling details about R. Kelly’s alleged sexual abuse of black girls were unveiled in Lifetime’s latest documentary ‘Surviving R. Kelly.’ The first two installments of the six-part series, produced by writer dream hampton, premiered Thursday night. So far, it is an eye-opening exposé of the Pied Piper who’s been under mainstream criticism since Buzzfeed’s 2017 report on his “alleged cult” and the rise of the #MuteRKelly movement. Activists say the allegations mirror classic sex trafficking tactics. But Kelly has consistently denied numerous accusations since the 1990s.
Part one of Surviving R Kelly dives into Kelly’s troubled childhood and how the singer began using his circle to assist in his schemes to prey on teen girls, including late singer Aaliyah and survivor Lizzette Martinez.
While growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Robert Kelly was a timid child, ashamed of his illiteracy, according to his brothers Carey and Bruce Kelly. But he was also musically gifted. “It took his mind away from reality,” Carey said, as there was also a dark side to their childhood. As children, both Carey Kelly and R. Kelly were molested. The singer told journalist Tavis Smiley in a 2012 interview, he was abused by “people in my family” from ages seven to 13. “Child sexual abuse confuses power and control with sex,” clinical psychologist, Candice Norcott said in the film. As child victims become adults, they may exhibit abusive behaviors too, Norcott added.
“No he didn’t talk about that, but you knew about it, because it came out in the music,” said Dr. Lena McLin, Kelly’s former music teacher at Kenwood Academy. McLin noticed Kelly was “aggressive in some of his sexual language” when writing songs. But after Kelly ascended to superstardom, his issues with sex and power exacerbated, those around him claim.
One witness to this was Javonte Cunningham, a former background singer, who met R. Kelly in 1990 when she was 14 years old. She recalled seeing Kelly performing a sexual act with a teen girl in the studio while he was recording the Public Announcement song “Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ).” Music producer Craig Williams said he heard Kelly was picking up girls at Kenwood Academy high school and middle school. It wasn’t a mystery why adults didn’t intervene, said writer Mikki Kendall, who was a girl when she saw Kelly talking to students at the school. ”No one cared ‘cause we were black girls.”
Mikki Kendall, a culture critic, said by the early 1990s, Kelly would have been sublime to teen girls. He had been the lead singer of the R&B group Public Announcement. In 1993, Kelly went solo with his debut album 12 Play, which featured his lusty chart-topper “Bump N’ Grind.”
His success allowed him the privilege to develop other artists. One was his manager’s niece, 12-year-old newcomer Aaliyah. Kelly produced her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothin but A Number, a title that many speculated was a nod to a relationship between a young girl and an adult man. In the documentary, Cunningham made the shocking claim that she saw Kelly having sex with Aaliyah on a tour bus during that period, which the singer’s mother Diane Haughton called “lies and fabrications” in a statement Wednesday.
A marriage certificate (reported by MTV, and by VIBE), revealed the truth. On the document, Aaliyah’s age was printed as 18, when she was really 15. Kelly's tour manager Demetrius Smith, who was present at the ceremony in Maywood, Illinois, said he had papers forged for them. “Aaliyah looked worried. Scared,” Smith described. “I failed both of them.”
As outlined by the documentary, R. Kelly paid Aaliyah $100 to agree not to pursue legal action and her parents had the marriage annulled in two months.
“Where was the outrage? Where was Essence? Where was Ebony? Where was the local news?" asked writer Jamilah Lemieux, who criticized the media for not holding Kelly accountable for marrying a child. “Why didn't the culture say ‘something is wrong’?”
Journalist Ann Powers pointed to the history of famous men who dated and married underage girls, as Kelly wouldn’t be the first. For instance, rock musician Jerry Lewis married his 13-year-old third cousin Myra, in 1957. Elvis Presley was 10 years older than Priscilla Presley, and they met when she was 14. He courted her until they married when she was 21 in 1967.
After his relationship with Aaliyah, Kelly reportedly groomed non-famous girls while touring and ordered his entourage to recruit them at malls, Carey Kelly said. One victim was Lizzette Martinez, who met Kelly at a mall in Miami when she was 17 in 1995. His bodyguard gave Martinez Kelly’s phone number and he invited her out to dinner. Martinez, who wanted to pursue a singing career, saw this as her big break. But one night, while she was in the studio with him, he forcefully kissed her. In part two, Martinez and other women go deeper and recount similar abusive experiences with Kelly that haunt them until this day.