Few documentaries have triggered a real-world impact on the order of Surviving R. Kelly.
Before the six-part series aired on Lifetime, the titular R&B singer-songwriter had managed to avoid significant harm to his recording career, despite allegations going back decades that he had sexually abused numerous teenage girls, some of them minors. But since the show’s broadcast, Kelly’s life and career have utterly imploded.
Perhaps just as importantly, record company executives and law enforcement officials could no longer look the other way either. Within weeks of Surviving R. Kelly’s debut last January, the artist’s label, RCA Records, cut ties with him. In February prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois filed multiple charges against Kelly, accusing him of aggravated sexual abuse against four women, three of whom were underage.
Then over the summer Kelly was indicted in both New York and Illinois on federal charges, ranging from sex trafficking to producing child pornography and obstruction of justice. And earlier this month prosecutors in Minnesota accused him of engaging in sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old girl in a case that dates back to 2001. The alleged victim, now in her 30s, reported the incident to a tip line set up after the airing of Surviving R. Kelly.
“To the world, those that believe the survivors and everything, he’s a monster,” Simmons declares. “And his money can’t cover it, it can’t take care of it, it can’t make it go away.”
The docuseries, nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special, depicts the Grammy winner as a serial sexual predator going back to the 1990s. Episode 1 details his relationship with an early protege, the singer Aaliyah, whom he married when she was 15 (the marriage was later annulled; Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22).
Multiple women appear on camera in the six episodes of Surviving R. Kelly, alleging they were groomed for sex by Kelly as teenagers. Lizzette Martinez recalls she was 17 when the R&B star approached her at a mall in Miami. When she told him she hoped to become a singer, she says Kelly offered career advice, but the mentorship quickly turned sexual. She claims he became increasingly controlling over her, dictating when she could eat or use the bathroom, a pattern described by other alleged victims.
“It was like he owned me,” she states in the documentary.
“He preyed upon certain types of women,” especially those seeking entertainment careers, Simmons asserts. “He knew exactly who to pick and his money, power, influence allowed them to be able to fall into his arms. It’s like you’re falling into this devil’s arms that you think is God or an angel that has came to save you.”
In 2008 Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges in Illinois, and another case in Florida around the same time was dropped for lack of evidence. Many of the allegations detailed in Surviving R. Kelly were not new in and of themselves, but the sheer volume of them and graphic nature of the accounts galvanized opinion against the music hitmaker and re-energized a “Mute R. Kelly” movement.
“We just were blown away at the stories that the [alleged victims] had,” Simmons recounts. “I just felt so bad for them. A lot of them had held it in for a few years, some of them had held it in for like 10 years…And then the survivors, they were talking to other survivors that we didn’t know about and they would text me and say, ‘Hey, I have this person. Can you call them? She also was with R. Kelly.’ And then that person would say, ‘Hey I have this person.’ So it was just like a domino effect.”
Kelly has vigorously denied all allegations against him. And in a court filing in the federal case in New York, Kelly’s attorney Douglas Anton described accusers as “disgruntled groupies.”
They “sought out [R. Kelly’s] attention, even fought each other for it,” Anton wrote, “voluntarily contacted him, came to his shows, pined to be with him.”
More viewers will get the chance to see Surviving R. Kelly when the series begins streaming on Netflix next month. And Lifetime, spurred by the success of the show, has ordered a four-part followup, to be called Surviving R. Kelly: The Aftermath. Simmons says she will be involved in the sequel, along with fellow executive producer Dream Hampton, and Joel Karsberg and Jesse Daniels of Kreativ Inc., Maria Pepin of Bunim/Murray Productions and Lifetime’s Brie Miranda Bryant. All are Emmy-nominated this year for Surviving R. Kelly, as is co-EP Jessica Everleth.
Simmons describes herself as “honored” by the Emmy recognition. It comes in a category that includes a bewilderingly wide array of programs from Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.
“When it fell in the Informational [Series or Special category], I was like, ‘Wow!’ I mean it really has been an informative documentary and it shed light on dark places,” Simmons observes. “And it helped so many people. I have DMs and emails, it’s just so overwhelming that people are like, ‘Thank you so much for informing us that this was going on, like we kind of knew that it was but we didn’t know the extent of it. Thank you for helping black women. Thank you for helping women overall.’”