“I would definitely consider myself a survivor,” says one of the women in Surviving R. Kelly. And that use of the word in both the documentary’s title and her interview is central to the programme’s incendiary, urgent power.
R. Kelly is one of the most successful R&B singers of all time, his hits, ranging from Ignition to I Believe I Can Fly, providing the soundtrack to many momentous life events and prized memories. But his apparently unstoppable career has been increasingly plagued by accusations of sexual misconduct with minors and other unsavoury acts. While he has continued unscathed throughout these allegations, Surviving R. Kelly provides unavoidable accounts from a host of women who emerge from the shadows – a platform for voices that cannot be ignored any longer.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this review or Surviving R. Kelly, or if you need assistance or support, you can visit The Survivor’s Trust, or National Domestic Violence Helpline.
The six-part series proved a sensation when it aired in the USA last month on Lifetime, as over 50 interviews piece together a portrait of a man whose alleged abuse of underage girls is enough to make any viewer, fan of his music or not, bristle with rage. Yet the show succeeds, judging by its gripping opening episode, because it maintains its composure at all times; even as the most disturbing events are recounted and remembered, the series remains calm and collected, only ever providing a space for these poised participants to speak.
They do so directly to camera, like a court deposition, and the effect is highly damning, made even more so by the judiciously edited footage of Kelly’s often raunchy music videos or other clips sourced from Facebook live-streams and other places.
Crucially, members of Kelly’s inner circle also play their part; as well as ex-wife Andrea Kelly and ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones, his brothers, Carey and Bruce Kelly, make appearances. They give us a surprising insight into Kelly’s childhood as a shy kid, who spent his days indoors with his keyboard, before he appeared on talent show Big Break in 1989 and his career took off. But they also talk about abuse within the Kelly household, and the presence of Kelly family members early on in the programme adds weight to every new witness who joins them on screen.
Jovante Cunningham, a former backup singer, also talks of his much rumoured secret marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah, as we simultaneously watch the media dance around the topic of his partner’s age in awkwardly polite interviews – an unsettling display of the power fame can bring. Surviving R. Kelly takes that spotlight and shines it on those who deserve the chance to control the flow of conversation for the first time. And with five more episodes to go, these survivors are only just getting started.
Surviving R. Kelly airs on Crime + Investigation on Tuesdays at 10pm. Crime + Investigation is available on Sky (156), Virgin Media (275), BT TV (328) and TalkTalk (328). Don’t have pay-TV? You can also watch it online legally live with streaming service TVPlayer Premium, which offer channels such as Syfy, Comedy Central and National Geographic, as part of a £6.99 TVPlayer Premium Pack – with no monthly contract. TVPlayer Premium also allows you to record channels to catch up on-demand.