'Surviving R. Kelly' Producer on Giving Voice to Sexual Abuse Survivors

R. Kelly Nokia Theater LA - H 2012
Kyleen James

R. Kelly Nokia Theater LA - H 2012

Starting Thursday, Lifetime began airing its three-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which highlights a myriad of allegations made against the mercurial singer dating back to the early '90s. 

From his secret marriage to Aaliyah and his 2008 child pornography case (for which he was acquitted) to his rumored sex cult, R. Kelly's skeletons and muddy past are brought to light by a bevy of women who graphically detail their alleged past relationships with him. Following the broadcast, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Meek Mill, Ne-Yo, John Legend and more have lambasted Kelly for his alleged behavior with minors and black women and urged fans to boycott the singer entirely.

Surviving R. Kelly broke records for Lifetime with its debut episode, garnering 1.9 million viewers. For Brie Miranda Bryant, Lifetime's senior vp original programming and the documentary's executive producer, watching the docuseries spark a national conversation about how to help abused women is a huge victory for her and her staff.

"What I think is moving about it is that it's not something that just lived within the hours [it aired]; it's something that became larger than that and sort of embedded itself into creating a national conversation," Bryant tells Billboard. "So, for us as a team, it's been an unbelievable privilege to have created content that impacts culture and says something after the hour is over. And I think as a nation we're now recognizing that the impact that content can have on culture is extremely powerful and/or healing. I think where we are right now, it feels refreshing."

Billboard spoke to Bryant about the creation of Surviving R. Kelly, whether the docuseries will oust the singer from R&B glory, updates on some of the alleged victims and why the process of healing abused black women is finally becoming a conversation.

The first-night numbers for Surviving R. Kelly were close to 2 million viewers. Tell me about the reaction you guys had after its three-night showing.

We were excited. Those ratings were really for the first night, so I think we only got better from there, which is exciting, but the feedback has been remarkable. On Friday, I actually got a call that there were flyers being passed out for a huge watch Twitter party down in Atlanta for the finale. At the time, when I got the news, I stopped by a watch party in Brooklyn that one of our advocacy groups did, and there were more than 50 women that were in the room having a conversation around it. So what I think is moving about it is that it's not something that just lived within the hours [it aired]; it's something that became larger than that and sort of embedded itself into creating a national conversation. So, for us as a team, it's been an unbelievable privilege to have created content that impacts culture and says something after the hour is over. And I think as a nation we're now recognizing that the impact that content can have on culture is extremely powerful and/or healing. I think where are right now, it feels refreshing. 

Stars like Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ne-Yo and Meek Mill spoke out during the airing of the docuseries against R. Kelly. How important is it for them and for us as a community to turn that anger into a form of action?

I mean, I honestly feel that when putting together the doc as creators, and for me — as we sort of decided what this looked like —what I realized is that so many of the survivors in the past and over the last few decades have been screaming to the winds, and no one had heard them. So doing the timeline doc was really important, to bring it back to like 1970 and keep it going from there. So the more we put together the research and the more people that we talked to and the more voices that we added into the project —originally, we started out with two to three survivors, and we ended up with 54 participants — I literally thought it was going to be a 60- to 90-minute doc, if we were lucky. To go from that to go to a six-hour documentary that was as powerful as it was is amazing.

And I say that to also say that there's power in numbers, right? So, the more voices that were in this documentary, the more believable it became for people at home; the more you just had to listen. Fifty-four people are saying literally the same thing, but just are speaking about their own experiences. It's hard not to hear them. So having voices like John Legend, Chance the Rapper, Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union and Tarana Burke champion these survivors and say that it's okay to be hurt, that's phenomenal. That's the stuff that we need. Whether people did it before or after, I don't care. What I am excited about is the conversation now. 

As not only a woman but as a woman of color, how much of a role and moral obligation did you feel weighed on your shoulders when creating this series? 

I think even more invested. You know, the #MeToo movement happened, and it definitely felt like it wasn't as inclusive as it needed to be. So I saw this as an opportunity to sort of fill that hole, and I'm grateful that it did in some way become a catalyst for more conversations.

Were you surprised to hear R. Kelly saw a spike in his streaming numbers following the premiere of the docuseries? 

Unfortunately, because of all of the research we've done along the way, I wasn't as surprised. What I was happily surprised about — that I think is actually remarkable — is that the sex abuse hotline surged. So people watched this documentary and they were looking to get help, and they were looking to be heard and they were looking to indulge in self-care, which they should. And s, my preference is to concentrate on the positive of this. 

When news of R. Kelly threatening to sue Lifetime came out just before the airing of the documentary, were there any talks at all to pause the show, or were you guys adamant about making this come out no matter what?

There's always conversations, but we were adamant. What was reported on wasn't necessarily what was communicated to Lifetime. So for us always being a platform for women — and we told many stories like this, from Flint to Elizabeth Smart — it's what Lifetime does. It's a network. We do have this advocacy tenet. So there were no questions internally whether or not we had to move forward with it; we knew we did. 

Do you think that the airing of the doc will help bring new charges against R. Kelly, and if not, what do you think it'll take for the culture to permanently cancel him?

That's a good question. I honestly don't think I have the answer to that. I don't know what'll happen. I think social media has shown us that there's some [people] upset and that there's an amazing demand for accountability that needs to be addressed. And I think just outside of R. Kelly, it's transcended that. We're asking for more than that. We're asking for justice for women in general and people in general when it comes to sexual abuse. So is there something else that happens with education reform? You know, there's other ways to impact, but that's my answer to that. 

Because of the success of Surviving R. Kelly, have you already thought about keeping the show intact and maybe replacing it with another artist or individual with allegations of abuse?

We have had conversations. We're always having conversations on sort of how to build, but there's nothing as of yet. I mean, this part for Lifetime, in general, is justice for women, period. And that looks like a lot of things and is in a lot of different areas. So, quite frankly, our development is broad. 

While many expressed outrage in regard to R. Kelly's alleged transgressions, there were also fans still championing him. Were you at all surprised by this kind of behavior?

What Jada Pinkett said, I think she said it best and was probably way more articulate. It's just a question of what does it take to make black girls matter? What does it really take? And I think it's honestly outside of just black girls; it's humanity, really. It sort of transcends that. I was asked a question like, "How do other people identify with this documentary outside of African-Americans?" and I think it's a story about women telling their truths and in believing them and hearing them. That's just being human. That's being human, and I think that's the conversation we have to start having. 

One positive outcome that came from the documentary was when you guys found one of the survivors, Dominique Gardner, and reunited her with her mother, Michelle. Talk about that process and how much of an emotional toll that was for everyone involved. 

[R. Kelly's] former assistant mentioned Dominique's name and I think had also mentioned that there was pressure after TMZ and whatever else was covered with Joycelyn Savage. So by chance — it was literally by chance — we found Michelle through participant sources, and we just wanted to interview her to say, "You're a mother looking for her daughter. We'd love to tell your story." We knew that we didn't have access to Dominique, and we also knew that she didn't have access to Dominique.

When Michelle was coming to L.A. — around that time that the TMZ thing broke where they found Joycelyn in the streets saying, "Hey, I'm having a vacation" — that whole thing happened, and who happened to be on the screen next to her was Dominique. Michelle, her mother, saw that and was like, "I'm not going to do an interview with you. My daughter is in L.A. I'm going to find my daughter," and we said, "Can we follow you doing that?" And that was it. That's how it happened. It was such an organic process. It was such a mystery. We didn't know what was going to happen, and it ended up being a huge blessing for that family. We were just grateful to be a part of it. 

With Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary — the two girls that remain separated from their families at the conclusion of the show — are there any updates you can provide as far as their whereabouts?

Unfortunately, we haven't heard anything yet, but I will say what has been helpful — and we know this from the first screening that we did — is for people to keep saying their names. I think the more we talk about them, the more they have the chance of hearing it, and that's what our psychiatrists have said. I think it was Dr. Candice Norcott that had said, "The more you say their names and they hear from their parents and they hear that they're loved and someone wants to hear their voice, the more it'll be likely to happen." So we can only hope, you know? 

Did any of the women who participated in the docuseries receive payment for their involvement? 

No, and with documentaries, there's fees for some materials like pictures or videos, coverage for travel, like you actually have to fly them in, but they're not paid like actors and actresses. That doesn't happen. 

Fellow executive producer Dream Hampton previously spoke on the number of celebrities who refused to take part in the show, like Jay-Z and Dave Chappelle. Do you feel the lack of star power hindered the show's true potential?

I don't. I think it was a real, well-made documentary that was based in these participants' truths, and that's what we leaned into. I think that's what everyone is responding to, and I think all of the participants and all of the crew and producers in this network are just thankful for the support in whatever way we got it. So it's exciting to have that now. 

TMZ is reporting that R. Kelly and his team are creating a website titled SurvivingLies.com in response to some of the allegations pinned against him from the documentary. What are your thoughts on that? 

I literally just got a text while I was on the phone with you, and I haven't read it. So I don't really know what it is. For us, we just want to commend the survivors for their courage and telling those stories. It was hard for them to do that and just as a community and a nation — as everyone has been doing — we can still extend our arms around them. I think it's important. I think that's what you do for survivors. 

What would you say individually was your biggest win in creating this documentary? 

This one has been the biggest privileges of my career, for sure, but I think as creators, you only hope that you can impact culture with your content, and we did it. That's all you can ask for.

A version of this story first appeared on Billboard.com.