'Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact' Addresses Victim Backlash, #MuteRKelly, Trauma Awareness
The new special features journalists, activists, criminal justice attorneys and mental health professionals tracking the conversations about abuse that have surfaced since the show aired.
In the wake of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, which brought to light new allegations that singer R. Kelly had physically and emotionally abused young girls, a follow-up special examines the cultural reaction to the latest claims, along with the reaction from the music industry at large.
Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact features journalists, activists, attorneys and mental health professionals taking a look into the conversations about abuse that have taken place since the docuseries aired. It begins with the host, journalist Soledad O'Brien, calling Surviving R. Kelly the most talked-about documentary of the year — it was seen by over 26 million people.
Several clips from the prior documentary are shown, with one woman declaring, "The breaking point was when he slapped me and choked me until I blacked out." As the women speak about being humiliated and abused, Kelly is described as a "monster."
Kelly, who was acquitted on child pornography charges in 2008, was indicted before a Cook County grand jury in February 2019 and charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four victims, three of whom were minors when the alleged incidents occurred. Each charge carries a potential prison sentence of three to seven years.
Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact examines how Kelly was viewed as a "hero" early on in his musical career. Journalist Shani Nixon describes him as a "phenomenon" who defined a time period and meant a great deal to many in the Chicago community.
NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos discusses sexual assault cases by noting that in the absence of scientific evidence and rape kits, these particular cases often come down to "oath against oath — the victim's testimony against the defendant's testimony." He goes on to say, "It becomes a credibility determination. That can work in favor of the defendant."
The special looks at how the allegations against Kelly "exploded" in the middle of the #MeToo and Time's Up movement, with O'Brien noting that "a fuse was lit" among those active on social media. Hashtags emerged suggesting Kelly be "muted" from all major streaming services and protests occurred outside Sony Records where people demanded Kelly be dropped from his music deals.
"Because Kelly has not been convicted of any crime, that kind of blanket reaction represents what some industry insiders say is a very slippery slope," says host O'Brien. She talks about how Spotify introduced a mute button where users could opt to remove an artist from their own personalized preferences, but also notes that according to Nielsen Music, Kelly's own streaming numbers nearly doubled after the original doc aired.
When interviewed in the Lifetime special, Surviving R. Kelly exec producer Tamra Simmons says, "I personally think they spiked because people want to go back and hear the lyrics. Some people didn't know who Kelly was; they had never heard his music."
Fellow producer Jesse Daniels recognizes that conversations are happening all over the world now because of this: "To me, that doesn't mean there are way more [R. Kelly] supporters out there — [people] are just curious."
Kelly was dropped from Sony and its subsidiary RCA in mid-January, an event that The Impact views as a necessary step and natural follow-up to the #MuteRKelly movement.
The special goes on to reference footage of Kelly's victims, one who claimed she was not allowed to use the bathroom when being held by Kelly. Kelly's attorney, longtime criminal defense lawyer Steve Greenberg, asks on NBC's Dateline, "Did any of these women ever complain about this at the time? The allegation is absurd. So you can't go to the bathroom? What do they do, pee on themselves? I mean, these people are not captive in a house. They go to concerts, they're backstage, they're not locked in a cage or kept in a dungeon."
In reference to the lack of scientific evidence in Kelly's case, Greenberg says, "If you're going to make these kinds of allegations, then let's test them and see if they're true. We're going to find out they're not true." He continues to deny the legitimacy of the allegations against his client, emphasizing that he's unaware of Kelly ever having sex with an underage girl.
Asked by Dateline's Andrea Canning if he believes the women are lying, Greenberg says, "Yes, every one of them." He adds that they "participated in the documentary out of a desire for fame."
Continuing that idea, The Impact examines the way in which Cook County attorney Kim Foxx, who is herself a victim of child sexual abuse, held a press conference three days after the airing of Surviving R. Kelly encouraging victims to come forward. This move was heavily criticized by Greenberg, who notes that it isn't normal procedure.
Attorney Michael Avenatti submitted recovered video evidence in Kelly's case in February that allegedly show Kelly engaging in sexual activity with underage girls — this furthered the investigation with Foxx's office.
The Impact also considers Kelly's former wife Andrea Lee, who has spoken publicly about abuse at the hands of Kelly, and recruits clinical psychologist Candice Norcott to list some of the reasons people stay in violent and abusive situations for too long. She mentions economic isolation and the many ways that it becomes too overwhelming and difficult to leave.
"I started to believe that I was nothing without Rob," recalls one of Kelly's victims. "I started to believe that he was everything. And he became everything for me."
The parents of Kelly's girlfriends Jocelyn Savage and Azriel Clary, who defended the singer in a CBS interview with Gayle King, attributed their daughters' continued association with Kelly to psychological manipulation. Considering how victims stay with abusers long after they should, Farah Tanis, executive director of Black Woman's Blueprint, says "With no one to call on for help, that person becomes completely dependent on their abuser."
O'Brien concludes that Surviving R. Kelly has initiated necessary national conversations about "recognizing and breaking free from abusive relationships" and raised awareness about sexual trauma.
The Lifetime special premieres on Saturday, May 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.