According to his victims, R. Kelly was a brazen manipulator who used his fame to lure young women into his orbit and ensnare them in a complicated web of isolation and helplessness. The second of three two-hour installments of dream hampton’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly aired Friday night on Lifetime and focused on how the Pied Piper of R&B hid his crimes in plain sight even as he stood trial on child pornography charges.
One of the things that Surviving R. Kelly makes abundantly clear is that R. Kelly’s music and his predation are inextricably linked. Over the years, he has used his musical talents to help destigmatize his outrageous sexual behavior, and also to enable his continued abuse of young women. His success in the industry came him institutional cover, and the money his chart-topping hits generated for the executives around him insulated him from responsibility. As a hit-making factory unto himself, R. Kelly was too valuable an asset to be lost.
dream hampton’s interviews with R. Kelly survivor Lisa Van Allen depict a woman who is calm, measured and determined as she recounts her horror at discovering that not only had she been having sex with an underage girl at Kelly’s behest but that he had tapes that showed the three of them together. Through tears, Van Allen details how it was her own attempts at self-preservation that led to the leak of the infamous “pee tape.” The copied tape was distributed all over Chicago and eventually the entire country as the salaciousness of an R. Kelly “sex tape” drew curious eyes to the rape of an underage girl. It was yet another way in which Kelly inadvertently made his victims participate in each other’s abuse and exploitation.
But even when R. Kelly was charged with 12 counts of possession of child pornography, he was able to manipulate the press and the public to his advantage. As the trial dragged on for years, R. Kelly used the intervening time to drop some of the biggest hits of his career including Step In The Name of Love and Ignition (Remix) from his #1 album Chocolate Factory, cementing himself as a superstar and giving him time to rebuild his reputation and relationships damaged by the allegations. The plausible deniability of the unfinished trial created an air of danger and intrigue that drew more fans to him, even as the damning contents of the tape became pop culture fodder. The trial’s delay had the additional benefit of undermining his victims through the simple passage of time; as the young women got older, they ceased to look like the popular conception of “innocent young girls,” a designation that was already being stripped of them because of their Blackness. As writer and critic Jamilah Lemieux put it, R. Kelly’s ability to make music was more important than protecting the lives of Black girls.
R. Kelly’s trial and subsequent acquittal demonstrated that his adoring public was also complicit in his abuses. As journalist and culture critic Nelson George stated, his audience supported him despite the wide circulation of the tape that evidenced his crimes, allowing him to generate millions for people who then became invested in protecting him. R. Kelly was free to continue abusing women and girls because the gatekeepers who should have acted as a check on his behavior, chose instead to look the other way in service of their bottom line. Every dollar spent on an R. Kelly record was money that was funneled towards maintaining the stranglehold he had on the young girls unlucky enough to become involved with him.
Cate Young is a freelance writer based in Trinidad and Tobago and the creator of BattyMamzelle; a feminist pop culture blog focused on film, television, music and critical commentary on media representation. Come back each day for her comments on “Surviving R. Kelly.”