‘Surviving R. Kelly’ executive producer on R. Kelly sentence, #MeToo ‘blowback’


R&B icon R. Kelly on Wednesday was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a U.S. district judge for racketeering and sex trafficking, 26 years after the first accusation of sex with an underage girl was brought against the singer.

The 2019 Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” explored decades’ worth of sexual, physical and mental abuse claims by girls and women against a megastar who operated with hubris and the protection of handlers, managers, bodyguards and more. The series featured first-hand testimony from survivors, many of whom had never come forward publicly before the documentary, and drew renewed attention to Kelly’s predatory patterns. Shortly after it ran, Kelly was charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse and other crimes.

Co-executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly” dream hampton spoke with The Times about her reaction to this week’s sentencing, what it means for Kelly’s survivors and whether it’s changed the way we consider claims of violence against women.

R. Kelly skirted the law for decades. What’s your reaction today to his sentencing?

We opened “Surviving R. Kelly” with his Facebook post where he said he was in a bar with a cigar. And he was saying, “It’s too late. If you’re all wanting to take me down, you should have done it 30 years ago.” I was thinking about this 30-year sentence he just got. While I hope this feels like a kind of justice to the survivors, it’s really painful when your abuser lacks contrition.

Many people believe that “Surviving R. Kelly” was critical to Kelly’s comeuppance. Do you think that’s true?

I do. I’m so grateful for the reporting that was done throughout the years, from Jim [DeRogatis] and other folks. But I knew that the public needed to see these women.

The docuseries put a face to the abuse Kelly inflicted when the women came forward and told their stories on camera. It made all the difference hearing from them directly.

I can’t say that I knew it would. We were making a documentary about a 50-year-old singer who hadn’t had a hit in a decade, who had already been acquitted in a [previous] trial … and whose behavior had egregiously escalated — whose universe knew no bounds. His defense attorney brought forward in sentencing that [Kelly] himself was the victim of abuse, which we included in the documentary because it’s important. But what we also know is how highly manipulative and how much strategy was involved in his predation. In the first trial, it was a strategy to delay for something like six years. So when [singer] Sparkle’s niece [testified against Kelly], a small eighth-grader wouldn’t be taking the stand.

Have you spoken with the survivors who participated in your documentary about Wednesday’s sentencing?

No. I’ve had my head down and I’m working. I’m not trained to handle… Well, let me just stop here. I’m a filmmaker.

It’s hard to draw those lines, even as a journalist, especially when the subject matter is as painful and personal as it was with “Surviving R. Kelly.”

There were lines that had to be created to get this on air. It was fraught. It had to stand up against a lot … and people’s memories are short in pop culture. This stuff is so far away. For instance, his abuse and rape of Sparkle’s niece is a couple of decades old and people had just forgotten. When Jim [DeRogatis] did those articles in Buzzfeed and in the New Yorker about how egregious his behavior had escalated, it just felt like it was time to remind people who were still supporting him that they were basically funding this large enterprise he built to control girls’ and women’s lives. The hope was to make folks aware.

R. Kelly in 2019.

(Associated Press )

Kelly’s behavior was an open secret. The music industry, and his fame, protected him in many ways. How were you able to pull the documentary together in such a culture of fear and apathy.

We were able to pull it together largely because of the relationship [executive producer] Tamra Simmons had with the girls. We brought light to their stories and kind of drilled that in. There were so many. And the resistance was still there. No one from Jive [Kelly’s record label] would talk. I was asked why John Legend was one of the only artists who talked… he wasn’t the only one I asked. I didn’t want them to have a gotcha moment. I just wondered if they had any reflection, looking back on the decisions they made two decades ago.

I wanted to know, “How could you still be in business with him?” I thought boycotting R. Kelly was so important because it was using a tactic that we’ve learned from decades of global organizing, which is boycott, divest and sanction. You know, Gandhi. King. South Africa used it. The Palestinians. It’s a nonviolent way of targeting and hitting them in their pocket.

He couldn’t have procured all the women he did, like he did, without the money to protect himself.

Yes. Just to be specific about what happened today, it ties in directly with the racketeering charges and the Mann Act, and with what’s to come in this next federal trial in Illinois. I hope they focus more on the racketeering because it literally was an operation, from [his attorney] Susan Loggans, who was basically a clearing house for settlements. His attorney [at the sentencing] talked about how generous R. Kelly was. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. You mean all the settlements he was paying out? A big part of the state of his finances now has to do with how expensive this operation was. How expensive it is to exercise total control over multiple young women’s lives.

His popularity as a performer was also a sort of currency.

Encouraging people to divest is a different kind of currency, which is the love that Black people in particular have for him. He’s a genre artist, R&B done really well at a high level for my whole adult life. He’s the soundtrack of a lot of Black people’s lives. That love that he had from Black people was something that the Mute R. Kelly organizers were encouraging folks to divest from… That money is a direct result of people going to the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, where we filmed outside that concert. One of the most direct ways you put money in an artist’s pocket is to go see them in concert.

On the other side are the groups that staunchly defend him.

Today, one of those sites talked about Sparkle’s niece’s finances. They were listing that she owed Neiman Marcus and [that] she had filed for bankruptcy. So they got a hold of something, must have been from court, that listed all her outstanding debts. They were like, “R. Kelly has been put away.” But he got acquitted in 2008 because she never showed up for trial. Jim DeRogatis’ reporting [said] that she and her family were being paid. [Kelly] paid for her silence.

The power of “Surviving R. Kelly” was also putting all the women’s stories together to paint a picture.

What we learned from the survivors, from different eras, is that they all were forced to write these false confessions. He was always baking in these defenses. He coerced these survivors into writing false confessions about how they stole money from him or blackmailed him, or their parents made them say [it], or they lied about their age. All of these different strategies.

Which makes me wonder how many more women were manipulated or scared into silence.

There’s dozens who didn’t come on camera. We just needed them to corroborate, but they’d moved on. They have families, they were eighth-grade teachers. They’re in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit. They’re firefighters, hair-braiders. And they didn’t want to come on camera. None of the sisters who sat for my camera were treated as heroes. They were doxxed. Azriel [Clary] had her car set on fire. People acted like she was stunting, like she may have done that herself. And what happens a couple months later? His manager gets charged with arson.

Do you think Kelly’s downfall has raised awareness about sexual abuse outside of his particular case?

I don’t. Even if we were just to keep it to the music industry — which I don’t think it’s unique to the music industry — there’s rampant abuse happening there at the moment. What we’re seeing now with the reversal of Cosby’s sentencing … I would even say what just happened with Amber Heard . We’re absolutely in the blowback phase of #MeToo. People have decided that they’re sick of hearing these stories of the suffering.

Kelly still faces an Aug. 15 trial in Chicago on federal charges for allegedly producing child pornography and luring minors into sex acts. “Surviving R. Kelly” had something to do with bringing him to justice.

I wish that I felt like culture has been transformed. Culture could have been transformed if R. Kelly came out and said exactly who he is and what he’s been doing. If he had sat down with Gayle King, for instance, and truly told his story and said, “I’m going to seek the help I need” … as opposed to fortifying and making more sophisticated his operation of predation.

Do you think that’s ever going to happen?

I have no idea. I don’t think prison is a place of rehabilitation. I think it’s a site of abuse. Of more abuse. I just think it’s a tragedy on a lot of levels. He could have made this culture shifting. He could have owned his abuse and the harm he caused. And he could have really started a restorative process out loud, and in public, and it would have literally changed culture.





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