R. Kelly Is Threatening to Sue Lifetime Over a 6-Part Docuseries Focusing on Allegations of Abuse
With allegations of statutory rape, abuse, and violence against women spanning more than 25 years, singer R. Kelly has gone from superstar to cautionary tale — yet still, somehow, maintained a career. A new series, Surviving R. Kelly, which premiers Thursday, January 3, on Lifetime and will air over three consecutive nights, is set to detail the allegations against the singer. It may be the most exhaustive and thorough investigation into the singer’s life, allegations of abuse, and his rise and falls from grace in the music industry.
While the series producers worked to incorporate the voices of alleged survivors, advocates, experts, musicians, reporters, and cultural critics, as well as friends and family of the 51-year-old singer, the musician himself is so unhappy with the series that he’s threatened to sue the network.
Kelly’s lawyer reportedly warned Lifetime that the documentary makes false claims, and that he will file a federal lawsuit unless the network cancels the premiere. Lifetime told TMZ that, in spite of Kelly’s legal threats, the network will air the series as planned.
Featuring interviews with some 50 people, the docuseries presents as an in-depth reference to examine how Kelly (born Robert Sylvester Kelly) went from a shy kid in the Chicago projects to a superstar singer and songwriter, even as allegations followed him since the mid-1990s.
One of the women in the series, Lisa Van Allen — who first met Kelly when she was 17 years old — claims that during her relationship with Kelly, she was instructed not to speak to many other people, and that the singer allegedly restricted where she went and what she did. She also accuses the singer of filming sex acts between them without her consent, and alleges that he would manipulate her by telling her that if she truly loved him, she would never question him. Van Allen was one of the first women to publicly come forward against the singer in 2008.
Radio DJ Kitti Jones also weighs in on the alleged abuse she says she suffered at the hands of the singer (a story whose details are echoed in the allegations of many of the women interviewed, including Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly). Jones describes being allegedly made to ask Kelly’s permission to use the bathroom, as well as allegedly not being allowed to watch television, and even allegedly being restricted by Kelly in what and when she could eat.
Central to the docuseries are insights into the allegations that an adult Kelly has a history of sexually engaging with minors, including the incident depicted in a now infamous tape that was the subject of a 2008 child pornography trial in which Kelly would ultimately be acquitted. Before that, rumors swirled that the singer, at the age of 27, married then-15-year-old Aaliyah Haughton with falsified documents that said the teen was 18. The marriage was reportedly annulled; Kelly denies the marriage altogether.
Kelly has persistently denied allegations of sexual predation of minors and abuse, most recently in a 19-minute 2018 song called “I Admit.”
Haughton’s mother, Diane Haughton, says that she’s angry that her daughter, who died in a plane crash in 2001, keeps being discussed in relation to the singer. Haughton also takes umbrage at some of the specific allegations detailed by Kelly’s former staff in the series, which involve her late daughter.
“My daughter only wanted to realize her dream of sharing her talent with the world, and give her all performing on stage, and in front of the camera for the fans she adored so much,” Haughton said in a statement. “She realized that dream thanks to those true fans who still love and support her legacy unconditionally to this day. Shame on all those involved in this project who thought it kosher to drag Aaliyah’s name into a situation that has nothing to do with her today.”
Allegations against the singer have continued to pile up. As Kelly’s critics have often pointed out, particularly in recent years, all of the singers alleged victims have been young Black women: a demographic that is not only underserved by policing, but one less likely to be believed in instances of domestic abuse.
In fact, in an ongoing study by New York-based human rights organization Black Women’s Blueprint, researchers found that 60 percent of Black girls and women reported having experienced what is described as coercive sexual contact before turning 18. Centuries of misogynistic and racist stereotyping of Black women as hypersexual have also played a role in the systemic downplaying of their experiences of sexual abuse.
Yet, despite a record of victim statements against Kelly, the singer still has a strong fan base. Fans often victim-blame his accusers or their parents, or insist they can separate the art from the artist. But things are changing for the musician, and Surviving R. Kelly might mark a turning point.
Last year, several Black women members of the Time’s Up initiative joined the hashtag #MuteRKelly in an attempt to get Kelly’s music out of rotation on mainstream radio stations and streaming services. Within a few days, Kelly’s music was removed from curated playlists on Spotify (if only briefly). Whether the revelations from Lifetime’s new docuseries will succeed in a more long-term erosion of his dominance as an industry powerhouse is anyone’s guess. But, hopefully, it will bring healing to those who need it.
(Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images)