Why I've Made Two Films About the R. Kelly Sexual Misconduct Allegations

We spoke to Ben Zand, the filmmaker and journalist behind two BBC docs that explore the claims made against R. Kelly.
Lauren O'Neill
as told to Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
Image courtesy of BBC Three

Following the slew of abuse allegations made against R. Kelly, filmmaker and journalist Ben Zand made a documentary for BBC 3 called R Kelly: Sex, Girls & Videotapes, which aired in March. Since then, the story has unraveled further, with more women coming forward, a Twitter campaign called #MuteRKelly gaining traction, and Kelly’s music being pulled from Spotify’s curated playlists (though Spotify have since decided to review bans on other artists, Kelly's will still stand; after his music was taken from Spotify playlists, Kelly's streaming numbers actually rose). Ben felt as though there was still more to say, and so made a second film, R Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues, which aired on BBC 3 on Saturday.


He told me about the motivation and process behind the two films, and the effects he hopes that R Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues will have:

"I was motivated to make the films from the beginning by the idea that someone like R. Kelly could actually be running a harem/sex cult, and allegedly abusing women. I think when I made the first film, R. Kelly: Sex, Girls & Videotapes, I didn’t think that it would really have an impact, because these allegations have been coming out for a while. A couple of articles would be written now and then, maybe a few, but then it would die down again. But after we made this film, there seems have been a turning point in the sense that everyone seems to be talking about R. Kelly now, and he’s actually responding to the allegations now for the first time.

After the first film, the overwhelming response has been shock. People are alarmed to hear firsthand accounts from people who are so close to R. Kelly—in the film we spoke to his managers and his brothers. I don’t think people necessarily realized the extent to which these allegations have been made, and for how long. I think that most people had heard fragments of information but they hadn’t actually had it all put together, and once they saw it for themselves, with all the allegations side by side, it did make for shocking viewing.

One of the major differences between my first film and the second, R. Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues, is that in the first, I didn’t get to speak to many of the women who were there at the time, or who’d been recently affected by him, other than Kitti Jones. I think that was because they were scared, they’d signed NDAs, or some of them were signed up to documentaries with other production companies. But after I made the first film I started getting a lot of messages—it became clear that people who didn’t want to talk before were now more than happy to speak, and I had to take the opportunity to get to the bottom of the story.


Kitti Jones, courtesy of BBC Three

I also think I had a responsibility to give these women a chance to talk: R. Kelly is an unbelievably powerful man, especially in the eyes of these women. He has quite a lot of money, and he’s successful, and he’s just completely abusing his position if these stories are true. It’s just so reflective of the #MeToo campaign: these women have really just been ignored for a long time. A lot of people would argue that’s due to their position in regards to race within American society, which I think is a valid point. So when they got in touch, I really did want to give them an opportunity to speak.

One of the most striking things about talking to more of the women involved for the second film was that overwhelmingly, most women I spoke to discussed very similar situations. They’ll claim that they were at a concert or a party, and somebody from R. Kelly’s inner circle came to find them, and asked them to come and meet ‘Rob.’ R. Kelly would hand them his phone number, and he’d start to call and text them, and tell them he loved them very early on, before flying them out to where he was. From there, they said he would very quickly initiate sex, but the sex was not exactly necessarily what they wanted, in ways that they didn’t necessarily want to do it. After sex, they’d allege that he’d say to them “I’m going to teach you how to be a woman, and please a man. If you stay with me I’ll teach you all these things because at the moment you’re not good enough.” Eventually, according to the women I interviewed, he’d explain to them that he had other girlfriends, and he’d bring them into the fold. So many of the accounts are so similar.


One area of disappointment is that I don’t like making films where I don’t get to talk to the person at the centre of the film, and that’s what happened here, unfortunately: we couldn’t get access to R. Kelly. With this second film, however, we did get much closer to speaking to him. We had the number for his manager, James Mason, and tried to set up some form of interview, and then it came out that Kelly had said he didn’t want to speak to me because he believed I was biased against him: all I wanted was to give him a place to speak and have his say. My main question is “What are you so afraid of?” I’d been spending time with the Savage family, whose daughter Joycelyn is currently with R. Kelly, and there are numerous other families and parents that I spoke to, and you have to ask the question: if absolutely nothing is wrong here, why are these girls and women unable to call their parents? They can’t even make contact. It’s a very unusual situation.

Jonjelyn and Tim Savage, with Lisa Van Allen, who testified against R Kelly during his 2008 court case, courtesy of BBC Three

As if to demonstrate that, there’s a rather incredible bit in R. Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues where the Savage family are trying to arrange it so that Joycelyn can attend their younger daughter’s high school graduation. And James Mason seems to be saying, “If you want to see your daughter, you can’t talk to her about R. Kelly.” They were negotiating to see their child. From the stories I’ve heard, R. Kelly doesn’t say to these women, “You can’t ring your parents”—it’s more like, “Why would you want to ring your parents?” It’s this idea that they don’t need anybody else because they have him. My feeling is that he just lacks major self worth, and seeks constant attention and constant gratification from these women.


In terms of the part I play here, I don’t want to make it seem like I am central to any of this, though I was intrigued from a personal perspective. As I said, I was a fan of R. Kelly, and I wanted to know whether these things were true about a guy I used to admire. I hate the idea that people think that they’re so powerful that they’re free from any comeback—though on the flipside I want to give R. Kelly an opportunity to talk, and to explain himself. It just makes me think that he must be hiding something, because it’s increasingly strange now: it’s way past the point of keeping quiet.

I think that’s made clear by one of the interviews in the second film, which was one of the hardest moments when shooting. I spoke with Faith Rodgers, who alleges that R. Kelly infected her with herpes. The interview gives you a sense of how people are affected for life by this, in a physical sense. When I was interviewing her about R. Kelly, she didn’t flinch at all, but as soon as I mentioned herpes, every time she immediately started crying. She’s been left for life with a chronic illness that she to tell every single boyfriend about, and in her eyes, it’s a piece of R. Kelly that’ll literally never leave her, and that she’s going to be reminded of forever. That’s a very clear physical sense of how difficult this can get, and how much it can be a part of someone’s life. I hope my second film can show that, and have a little bit more of an effect on this story."


R Kelly's last public statement on this matter came via a representative in April, specifically in response to the #MuteRKelly campaign, but also addressing accusations made against him:

Kelly supports the pro-women goals of the Time’s Up movement. We understand criticising a famous artist is a good way to draw attention to those goals—and in this case, it is unjust and off-target.

We fully support the rights of women to be empowered to make their own choices. Time’s Up has neglected to speak with any of the women who welcome R. Kelly’s support, and it has rushed to judgment without the facts. Soon it will become clear Mr. Kelly is the target of a greedy, conscious and malicious conspiracy to demean him, his family and the women with whom he spends his time.

Kelly’s music is a part of American and African-American culture that should never—and will never—be silenced. Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it. We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.

Thanks for listening. R. Kelly management.

R. Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues debuted on BBC 3 on Saturday, May 26, and is now available to watch on iPlayer here.

Noisey has reached out to R. Kelly's team for comment on the allegations made in the film, and will update this story with any response.

You can find Ben on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.