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On Thursday, Lifetime will air the first episodes of the six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. The show features in-depth interviews with a number of women who accuse the singer of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and controlling behavior over the past three decades.
The very first screening of Surviving R. Kelly, for invited special guests, happened in early December at New York City’s NeueHouse Madison Square, but it ended early when the theater received a threatening phone call and evacuated the building. Despite the threats, the series is airing as planned.
Complex spoke with showrunner and executive producer dream hampton to find out what to expect from the series, and to see what it took to bring Kelly’s alleged misdeeds to light. hampton is a writer, film-maker, and organizer who has done everything from writing now-classic articles for Village Voice, Vibe, and Spin to making award-winning documentaries to collaborating on Decoded with her longtime friend JAY-Z. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.
Can you give a brief description of the docuseries?
It is a six part deep dive that profiles the survivors—women who survived R. Kelly, some of them since they’ve been young girls. We spend a lot of time looking at how this has happened, and how it’s gone on for so long.
I wanted to hone in for a second on the word “survivors,” which you used very consciously throughout the series and while talking about it. Why is that word so important for you?
It’s a self-identification thing for the women who chose not to be just a victim. So I'm respecting the way that most of them are self-identifying. I'm not saying that the women who've not come forward to tell their stories aren't survivors—R. Kelly's been doing this for at least three decades, so he literally has dozens, if not hundreds, of survivors. I think women who decided to put themselves out here for this, for no paycheck, to be ridiculed, doxxed, disbelieved, trolled, absolutely self-identify as survivors.
When they're in his world, he literally keeps them cordoned off. They're not allowed to speak to one another.
I assume if you had more time, you could have gotten more women to agree to participate. How did you know when the project was done?
Well, we kept being pushed, quite frankly, by Brie Bryant [SVP, Unscripted Development & Programming] at Lifetime, which I don't know that I appreciated in the moment, but I appreciate it now. She was definitely always pushing us to find more corroboration, with more women. And sometimes that meant talking to dozens of women who did not want to come on camera. And not just women. I mean, there are all kinds of people in his ecosystem—runners, people who have witnessed this decades-long systemic abuse—because he has made systems around how he operates. So Brie Bryant definitely pushed us for more corroboration. We know how easy it is to disbelieve and dismiss, not just black women, but people who were once, say, fans of a musician. We have a whole word for that. So it'd be too easy to call them groupies, it'd be too easy to throw off all kinds of accusations and insults at them. What she pushed us to do was to keep finding more and more witnesses and victims and survivors.
When did we know we were done? I mean, we probably could have kept going. I didn't like the salaciousness of stacking up all of these people who survived him, but I got the corroboration part. Legal needed it, and again, a lot of these people didn't come on camera. And these aren't just victims that didn't want to come on camera. These are police officers, prosecutors, attorneys, people who were at his label, that didn't want to come on camera, but that would corroborate things. So we just needed corroboration. We had to be ironclad.
How did the idea for this first come about?
Well it definitely wasn't my idea. I wasn't sitting around, thinking about spending a year in the dark world of R. Kelly. Tamara Simmons, who's also an executive producer on this project, and Jesse Daniels from Bunim/Murray have been holding the relationship, and holding space for these women, for at least six months before I was invited to come on as the showrunner and executive producer. They had been managing relationships with people who were deeply traumatized, which was an enormous amount of work. Particularly Tamara Simmons, who would get calls at 2 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m. She was handling and had the relationships with, not just the women and girls who survived R. Kelly, but also the families. We had three families who were trying to get their daughters back. So she in particular, she and Jesse, had been caring for those relationships. And then I came on as showrunner and made it a show.
Terms like “executive producer” and “showrunner” can be unclear to people not in television. What specifically was your role in the series?
Yeah, they weren't clear to me, either, those terms. I'm an independent filmmaker who directed two not very widely seen independent docs, which were features. I went to NYU film school. I've worked in television as a producer, but never been a showrunner.
It's basically a director, but at the same time, with network TV, you're getting a lot of notes from the network. So in that way, it's different from being a director. When you're a director, your producer is basically doing everything to execute your vision. In TV, producers have the power. You don't even have a director title.
What makes me depressed was something I've known all of my adult life: how systemic and how common the abuse of girls and women is in our world.
How did you and your team locate women to interview? You said that your team had some of the relationships already going, but how did you find others?
Well, I really want to be clear in naming them. Tamara Simmons had a lot of the holding and caring for the relationships. What would happen is, these girls, and they're all different ages and from different periods in his life, have created an informal network where they're talking to one another once they learn about each other.
When they're in his world, he literally keeps them cordoned off. They're not allowed to speak to one another, even if there are other women in the house, even women that they are forced to engage in sex acts with. They aren't allowed to have conversation with those women. These are women who lived in his house and studio for years, and have the same story about being forbidden to talk. So once those women become free of those barriers, they're looking to connect with each other, to know that they weren't the only ones.
You have women from different parts of his life. I mean, Lisa Van Allen met him in the late ‘90s, when she was 16, on a video set. Another 16-year-old was at his trial in 2007, when she was an 11th-grader skipping school to go to his trial. And he started having sex with a 16-year-old while he was on trial for having underage sex. Those women are from different decades.
So that's what I mean by corroboration. Find women from different decades, who had near-identical stories of being denied food, denied movement in the house, denied conversation with other human beings. Physical abuse, again and again.
During the making of this documentary, some stuff about R. Kelly popped in the news again—reports about him leading a cult, and keeping women hidden against their wishes and their family’s wishes. How did that affect things?
We were already in production when those stories broke. We knew about them, we were dealing with those families. What did break is the Dallas woman who came out and accused him of giving her herpes. But there was very little that we didn't know by the time we started production.
During the initial screening in New York City, there was a threat of violence that stopped the event. You weren't there, right?
No, I was in Johannesburg.
How did you find out that that was happening?
I got a call at 1 a.m. Johannesburg time from Brie Bryant at Lifetime, who told me what was happening.
What happened then? What was that immediate period like for you?
Well the first thing we had to do was take care of the women. We had brought them up from wherever they lived in the country, and they've been experiencing this kind of behavior from him. Some of them just recently escaped him and they were re-traumatized. So that was actually the first priority. Then it was about making statements.
I mean, the NYPD, according to TMZ, tracked this call back to an imbecile with a Chicago 773 number. We didn't want whoever it was in Chicago who made that call to think that they had the power to shut this project down. So that's why we made the statement.
Now that you've had a couple weeks since the incident, any more thoughts or information about who might have been responsible? Have your feelings about it shifted at all?
No, no. Not for me. I tweeted out that I remember the stunt that he pulled on the Best of Both Worlds Tour—that he saw someone in the audience with a gun and ran off stage. And the other part that I didn't [remember] about that was that he tried to then come back on stage in the middle of JAY-Z's set, and Ty Ty maced him.
You wrote a profile of R. Kelly for Vibe in 2000 where you had to spend a bunch of time with him in Chicago, mostly in the studio and on the basketball court.
Yeah. That really was kind of a really rigid, repetitive schedule, where he'd do the exact same thing every day.
Other than his Michael Jackson impression, what do you remember most about spending time with him for that story?
Well, what I regret is having missed the whole story. I know now how he operates: about all of the closed doors, and people being cordoned off. I'm sure I must have seen something, but at that point the sex tape wasn't out. You knew about Aaliyah, and I asked him about Aaliyah, and he became upset when I asked him about Aaliyah. But there was no tape of him abusing a 14-year-old. That came out much later. So there are parts of me that wish that I had shown up to the studio four months later, or that I had opened some of those doors.
Have you had any other in-person experiences with him in the time since that story?
No. He called me when the story came out, to complain about me mentioning Aaliyah.
For a solid year, you lived with the horrific stuff that he did and the ways that he treated people, and you talked to a lot of survivors. Did that process have any kind of lasting effect on you?
Well, I don't want to make it about me, but yeah. I'm in therapy again. It was dark. Nothing compared to what they had to go through, but just receiving their stories and holding them for as long as you did is a dark thing.
You mentioned on Twitter that there were a bunch of things you could not include in the series, for legal reasons. Is this a story you can see yourself revisiting at some point in the future?
You also mentioned that you saw similarities in the Jeffrey Epstein case and R. Kelly’s situation. Can you expand on that? What has it been like for you to see echoes of your story in today's headlines, just with a different face?
Well, what was similar about Epstein's story was again the kind of system that he built up around his use of young girls. Also the sheer volume. I don't like to throw around psychological terms, but that kind of sex addiction and the sheer appetite for the number of girls in a day or week was very similar to R. Kelly's. Also, the idea that the staff was in on it, and helped facilitate it; all of that was incredibly similar to R. Kelly.
But what makes me depressed was something I've known all of my adult life: how systemic and how common the abuse of girls and women is in our world. And by “our world,” I mean the planet Earth. Not the world of entertainment, not America, not black people, but on this planet. We'll launch whole invasions of countries with one of the stated reasons being, look at this horror of child brides or whatever, as if we're really there to help Afghanistan women, for instance. But we're a country that looks away from the abuse of girls all the time. And of course it's amplified when it's the abuse of black girls. Just regular, non-famous, young black girls, from places like Chicago and New Orleans and Atlanta.
I hope that women watch it in groups and take care of themselves. It's gonna be as triggering as triggering can be, and I hope that it stimulates conversation.
You have been publicly very critical of the criminal justice system, particularly in recent years. Given that, have you thought about what you might want R. Kelly facing justice to look like?
I mean, yeah. I've been tweeting on it for the decade I've been on Twitter, but obviously it's an issue that I've worked on before there was Twitter. I like to think of myself as an abolitionist, and I always get caught up on the question of gender violence and sexual violence, because we don't have restorative justice practices as widely in use around that. There was a tweet that I retweeted, where this woman said, “Me: I'm an abolitionist. Also me: R. Kelly needs to go to jail.”
I can tell you that the men in his life are very keen to explain themselves going on camera by saying that they hope that he gets help. And I bet that would be the extent of it for them. That's not good enough for me. I mean, he's 51 years old, and he is definitely, from my reporting, a survivor of abuse himself. At 51, this kind of predatory behavior has only escalated. And he was incredibly manipulative during his trial. This is a deeply manipulative man.
In fact, if he had applied some of those skills that he's applied to controlling the lives of these girls and women to, I don't know, building out an actual record label, making something real out of Rockland [Records], or helping other Chicago artists, he would have been a force to be reckoned with, even at 51. Now he's facing the fate of every 51-year-old R&B singer, and facing money problems. He could have fucking done something. And he could have stopped making music.
The art and artist question is one I've been thinking about a lot lately. It's an age-old question. R. Kelly is someone who’s made music about his predatory behavior. Songs like “It Seems Like You’re Ready” and “Your Body’s Callin” and “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” are songs that he wrote as an open secret about his predatory behavior.
I'm not sure what justice would look like for him. To be very specific, Azriel Clary is a girl that he took out of the state of Florida, and she was 17. He began dealing with her then, and that is illegal. It’s child rape. And if there were a case to be made against him, it would be that case.
Now that we're less than a week out from the docuseries actually airing, how are you feeling, and what are your hopes for the series when it airs?
Well, since we've referred to Twitter several times throughout the interview, my bio is “worker.” I'm working on my docuseries that comes out after [her upcoming HBO documentary] It's a Hard Truth, Ain't It. It’s a project that’ll be on BET called Finding Justice, where we look at different injustices and do deep dives into them for an hour. The Rock, fucking Dwayne Johnson, is actually an EP on it. I'm an executive producer on it also. Because I have another six-part docuseries that I'm editing, I probably won't even see [Surviving R. Kelly] when it comes out. I've never actually watched Lifetime before...well, I did. After I got hired, I was in a hotel room somewhere, and I ended up watching something about Harry and Meghan or whatever.
I do think Lifetime is probably the right place for it. I saw someone kind of try to drag me about why isn't this on something more premium like Netflix. But this to me is the perfect place for it. I know that women watch Lifetime, and that black women make up the majority of those viewers. I hope that women watch it in groups and take care of themselves. It's gonna be as triggering as triggering can be, and I hope that it stimulates conversation, because there's all kinds of things in there. There's personal stuff in there, in terms of what the women have gone through. But then there's two episodes, episodes three and four, that are about the trial. We have to see how the system fails survivors every day. Not just in celebrity cases, but it’s obviously amplified when you have the money to mount a defense that can last for six, seven years—and you're famous, and you're in the city where you're the second biggest celebrity to come out of that city in the last 50 years, after Michael Jordan. All of those things are in there, so I hope people are able to use it as a tool to do all kinds of organizing. I've been an organizer since I was about 11 years old, so that's important to me, too.
Anything else you want people to know?
Just, believe black women. You wouldn't fucking be in this problem with Russian profiles if you would just listen to black women on Twitter, who were telling you. [Laughs]. And I was one of those people who were telling folks a long time ago how systemically we were being targeted. We tend to be the canary in the coal mine on a lot of these issues. It's no coincidence that #MeToo was founded by a black woman. Just listen to black women. That would be the last thing I want to say.