From the moment I began seeing lengthy investigations into R. Kelly’s history as a alleged sexual predator, I knew, that as a black woman, this wasn’t something I could ignore. Over the next year and half, creating the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” was a major part of my life. These women were telling their stories, and no one in authority was listening. Nothing was happening.
Thankfully, it appears that “Surviving R. Kelly” is not the end of the story. On Friday, he was arrested and charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and there are calls once again for streaming services to remove his music.
This is a long time coming. As we began talking about creating this documentary, my friend Jesse Daniels and I decided to reach out to one of the families warning us about R. Kelly, the Savages, just to learn more. Once I met with them, I was blown away by the extent to which their daughter was caught in R. Kelly’s web.
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From there, we talked to another family, then one survivor, then another, and another. Eventually, our showrunner and executive producer, dream hampton, came aboard and we found Lifetime was the right home to help us tell the story of these women and families.
Decades worth of alleged victims
According to Chicago police, Friday’s indictment lists four victims and alleged sexual assaults dating back to 1998. Three of the victims were between the ages of 13 and 17, and at the time of the alleged crimes, R. Kelly was at least five years older than the girls. But we know his alleged crimes extend far beyond this one indictment.
In “Surviving R. Kelly,” we had seven survivors telling their truths that could no longer be ignored and over 50 participants contributing to the documentary. We never anticipated we would have so much content and context for people to see and digest.
In the process, I forged close bonds with some of the survivors and their families. They aren’t just people I interviewed for a TV show. I know the pain they carry with them that people don’t see. Hearing each woman’s story showcased clear patterns that R. Kelly was truly hiding in plain sight. People just weren’t looking. He called himself the “Pied Piper of R&B,” evoking the fabled character who lured children away from their homes. He was doing exactly that, and telling us about it himself.
The intent of “Surviving R. Kelly” has always been to provide the survivors and their families a platform and a megaphone for their voices to be heard.
I’ve been repeatedly asked the question, “Heard by whom, exactly?” This is my answer, now and always: Everyone. Fans of his music, the general public, current alleged victims of his crimes, past survivors and unknown survivors. They all need to see these women, hear their stories, see their parents and learn how, over decades, one individual mesmerized music fans while, off the stage, he manipulated young girls — many of them apparently underage or just at the cusp of consent, without the social wherewithal to know better.
Black and brown girls are too often ignored
In my long discussions and interviews with the survivors and their families, the stories of not being believed, being victim-shamed and the judgments levied against the families have been extremely disheartening. When the documentary premiered in January, many people heard for themselves what these survivors have been saying for years. Among those who finally listened were authorities in Georgia and Illinois, leading to his arrest by Chicago police. I hope this indictment gives the survivors and families further opportunities to have their voices heard, and their physical and emotional scars seen, so they can begin to truly heal.
“Surviving R. Kelly” also shed light on the lack of attention to young girls and women of color who have been sexually abused. These tales of assault have followed R. Kelly for decades. Yet we are just now seeing a real effort to hold abusers accountable in the eyes of justice.
It is worth us all asking ourselves, if the children he allegedly preyed on hadn’t been young black and brown girls, would it have taken this long to begin the process of bringing him to justice? R. Kelly’s star power played a role as well. We all, including people of color, conveniently looked the other way and disbelieved that an individual so talented, with a true rags to riches story, who looked just like us, was capable of such acts.
The public at large is culpable in this behavior persisting. Our world, our nation, our society and our community valued someone who was a bright shining star over the many rising stars who had the potential to shine just as brightly, but instead, were apparently dimmed by a predator who took away their shine.
Tamra Simmons is the executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly” and CEO of The Tamra Simmons Brand Agency. She is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and previously worked as a producer for “Growing Up Hip Hop” and “Mary Mary.” Follow her on Twitter @thetamrasimmons.