The truth behind R. Kelly

Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual assault 

Surviving R. Kelly unveils the web of deceit that allowed R. Kelly to maintain his R&B empire for decades while taking advantage of vulnerable girls behind closed doors. Surviving R. Kelly originally aired last year but has recently been uploaded to Netflix, taking a spot in the Top Ten shows in Canada. 

The docuseries opens with R. Kelly’s siblings, Bruce and Carey Kelly, explaining their difficult upbringing with a single mom in the Chicago projects. The Kelly brothers reveal that R. Kelly had immense trouble reading and writing as a child, a struggle that would haunt him in the decades coming.

The R&B superstar grew up shy and uncertain of himself. He was obsessed with music as his creative outlet. As the pieces come together, a bombshell revelation occurs when R. Kelly admits he was molested from ages seven until his early teens. From this admittance, the docuseries begins to organize R. Kelly’s life like a puzzle, exploring the missing pieces that had been swept under the carpet.

The women who testify and share their stories involving R. Kelly are the stars of this gut-wrenching series. Their bravery is unwavering as they relive the horrors of sexual exploitation and rape at the hands of one of music’s biggest names. Jovante Cunningham opens the series with her story as a 14-year-old girl who was pulled into Kelly’s twisted world. Cunningham recounts R. Kelly’s infamous and illegitimate marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah, while Kelly was 27.

Throughout Surviving R. Kelly it becomes evident that this marriage to an underage girl was not an anomaly, but simply the most public occurrence of his predatory behaviour. The women who have courageously shared their experiences with R. Kelly fit the same mould Aaliyah did: young, vulnerable and looking for their big break in the music industry. Story after story reveals the sickening pattern R. Kelly would follow; he would take girls under his wing, nurture them, then force himself upon them. Many of the women say they were fans and felt they had no right to say “no” to such a successful artist. 

The series grows darker as the women reveal the strange tendencies of R. Kelly behind closed doors. His girlfriends would have to ask to eat, to go to the washroom and to speak. They would be punished by starvation, physical abuse or rape. The details of R. Kelly’s sex life were sickening. For years puns in comedy sketches have been made about R. Kelly urinating on women, but Surviving R. Kelly leaves no room for humour. This docuseries takes the air out of the room, proving to be a reality to check for those who made R. Kelly jokes and for those who passively laughed along for decades. 

From a production standpoint, Surviving R. Kelly is extremely well executed. Merit is one thing this docuseries locks down via consistent input from clinical psychologists and experts in the music industry. Although justice in the legal system failed many young black girls over and over again with the multiple cases against R. Kelly, this series offers a sliver of hope. Hope that Surviving R. Kelly will continue the conversation surrounding the abuse and exploitation of young girls of colour in America.

Surviving R. Kelly does an outstanding job of including as many interviews from survivors as possible. The interviews are raw and emotional, finally giving the young black girls who had been TMZ’s money-grab fuel for decades a proper, dignified voice. At the end of the series, the producers give the women a chance to speak directly to R. Kelly. Their words were goosebump-inducing. With confidence the women plea for R. Kelly to stop abusing young girls. 

Towards the conclusion of the series, Surviving R. Kelly puts the individual stories into a racial framework that points to exactly why series like this are important. Angelo Clary, the father of Azreil Clary who fell victim to R. Kelly’s manipulation, notes that if it were young, white women being consistently exploited and abused, R. Kelly would’ve been locked up decades ago. 

This ongoing narrative of young girls of colour being systematically abused and silenced takes this docuseries to the next level. “If you want to get away with murder, kill a black rapper. If you want to get away with sexual assault, assault a young black girl. […] The fact that it is mostly young black girls he preys on, simply nobody cares” says radio host, Charlemagne Tha God.

Surviving R. Kelly is a sobering reminder of the injustices perpetrated against young black women in America. When the chains, sunglasses, fur coats and star power are stripped from this R&B giant what is left is the cold, disgusting reality of R. Kelly’s pedophilia. 

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