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The impact of a documentary phenomenon

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WhenSurviving R. Kelly hit screens in 2019, it touched the screaming nerve of the #metoo-era. Now, a year on, the follow-up documentary series is here:Surviving R. Kelly: The Reckoning, which chronicles the equally tumultuous events that have taken place since then, covering media sensations like R. Kelly’s dramatic, tearful interview with reporter Gayle King and the bringing of damning charges against the one-time R&B icon.

The first series ofSurviving R. Kelly was more than a summation of the allegations and rumours that have long swirled around R. Kelly. It was also an analysis of power in the age of mass media, the near-untouchability that was for so long bestowed upon men by fame and money, and the Kafkaesque impossibility of bringing abusers to account, even when the evidence seemed to be right there for all to see.

In the case of R. Kelly, the trail goes back decades. One of the earliest scandals in the timeline of alleged transgressions was his secret marriage to the late singerAaliyah when she was underage – a story that was discussed in depth inSurviving R. Kelly, with Kelly’s former manager remembering how ‘worried and scared’ the teenage Aaliyah looked. (Kelly is now facing charges of bribing a government official to get Aaliyah a fake ID stating she was over 18.)

Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant Demetrius Smith (who admits to forging documents alleging that Aaliyah was 18 when she wed Kelly) says, ‘That’s the way it was. We worked for him. This is what he wanted and so this is what we were supposed to give him.’

But the Aaliyah allegations are only part of a much larger and uglier picture. Stories abound of his disturbing fixation with teenage girls at the height of his fame in the 1990s – witnesses have described seeing him grooming and abusing girls even in his recording studios, while a woman named Tiffany Hawkins sued him for emotional damage after an alleged sexual relationship when she was underage. (Tiffany Hawkins speaks out in detail in Surviving R. Kelly: The Reckoning.)

At the end of the year 2000, an article was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on his alleged relationships with underage teenagers, but Kelly’s sparkling career carried on, unabated. Then – in 2002 – came the shock of the notorious ‘pee tape’: a video allegedly showing the singer having sex with and urinating on an apparently underage girl. Kelly was hauled into court on child pornography charges but was eventually found not guilty.

A ‘master at mind control’ and a ‘puppet master’.

In 2017, Buzzfeed published a seismic article detailing how R. Kelly’s dominance over his victims had allegedly developed into an all-out ‘sex cult’. As the article put it, ‘members of Kelly’s inner circle… said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.’

One witness quoted in the article – Kelly’s former personal assistant no less – described the superstar as a ‘master at mind control’ and a ‘puppet master’.

After so many years of allegations, courtroom dramas and legal settlements with alleged victims, the public perception of Kelly at last began to shift at around this time, with the rise of the #MuteRKelly movement, which sought to have his concerts cancelled and his music boycotted. The airing ofSurviving R. Kelly fully turned the glare of media attention to the history of allegations against the singer, alerting millions of people worldwide to what had been going on behind the scenes for so long.

More survivors came forward in the wake of the documentary, with one alleging inappropriate conduct by Kelly going right back as far as the 1980s. Lady Gaga issued a statement apologising for working with Kelly in the past, saying ‘I stand behind these women 1000%’. RCA Records dropped Kelly, while Kelly’s daughter, Buku Abi, also reacted to the earthquake of the documentary, saying ‘The same monster you all confronting me about is my father. I am well aware of who and what he is. I grew up in that house.’

Kelly was charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse in February 2019. Released on bail, he then had the now-iconic TV interview with CBS reporter Gayle King, in which Kelly erupted in fury and indignation, denying the allegations, beating his chest and yelling ‘Are you all trying to kill me?’ A photo of the interview, with Kelly standing and furiously pontificating while Gayle King stared coolly ahead, went viral as an emblematic image – not just of the Kelly case, but of the #metoo era and of the particular predicament of black women confronting power in America.

He has since been charged with many more offences, including child pornography and sex trafficking, and is currently behind bars awaiting the reckoning in court. In the meantime, the new series of Surviving R. Kelly is bound to throw up more horrifying allegations and uncomfortable questions – not just about the singer, but about the complicity of those in power, and how the world of music and entertainment must change to stop other monsters in their midst.