Filmmaker dream hampton has made it her mission to tell the stories no one else wanted to touch. For decades, hampton documented rap culture and its intersections, pivoting from a career in music journalism to directing chilling documentaries like Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story. Last year hampton was helmed as an executive producer on Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, a six-hour docuseries chronicling the sexual assault allegations surrounding the Chicago singer. Premiering January 3, the three-night docuseries grabbed 1.9 million viewers in its first night, a record-breaking number for the women’s network. hampton, who stylizes her name in all lowercase as an ode to bell hooks, chatted with me over the phone for nearly 45 minutes before the holiday rush to talk about the allegations the public ignored and what it would look like to cancel the singer.
Noisey: You said Surviving R. Kelly took a year and a half to make, which dates back to BuzzFeed’s reporting about an alleged sex cult. Is that reporting what made you dig deeper on his allegations?
dream hampton: At first, I too had reservations about this. I felt like Jim [Derogatis] had been writing about this for all of these years. I didn’t know that the BBC doc was coming out but when I saw it, it felt different from our approach. You don’t see me on camera. It’s not a journey through my eyes. We definitely center the girls in a way that the BBC doc didn’t.
This was a piece where I was like if people didn’t turn away from R. Kelly after that tape came out, people are never going to turn away from him. I originally thought he was a predator and if I were being generous I would say, he had a predilection for young girls. But it’s so much more than that. He has built systems of abuse against these girls.
When I started interviewing the girls, the new information was overwhelming. I didn’t know he was physically abusive until I started getting into the work. I didn’t know the degree to which he controlled them when he was with them. Seeing things for most people, with their eyes and hearing with their ears is more powerful than reading it. By getting to see these women from different eras, one by one give their testimonies. They didn’t know each other. Lisa Van Allen is 20 years before some of the other girls. Twenty years can come between these women and they still have the same story of being severely abused by R. Kelly.
The first screening was shut down because of an anonymous gun threat from Chicago. Last year on Man Repeller’s podcast you said “There’s nothing you’re too afraid to fight.” What makes you still have a fire to tell this story?
R. Kelly needs to know that there are women who aren’t afraid of him, who aren’t charmed by him, and who don’t want anything from him except for him to face the consequences and experience some justice. That justice can look like a lot of things. It can also look like a social death.
In the screening you drew the parallel between Bill Cosby’s case and the allegations around R. Kelly. What sort of impact are you hoping the documentary will have?
When you do this kind of work, you do it in good faith. I’m hoping that there are activists and organizers concerned with taking the next steps because people might be triggered watching this.
There have been a couple reports about black girls and the high rates of abuse, we’re silently suffering. I would absolutely like to see some community action for this issue. Not unlike we’ve seen for Black Lives Matter, not unlike we’ve seen with racial violence and racial terror. We’re absolutely talking about systemic and gendered problems that have been unspoken about forever.
I can remember various times when we [the black community] have tried to talk about it. Times like The Color Purple, both the book and the film. Times like Ntozoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The blowback was enormous. Those women Ntozoke and Alice suffered a social death themselves, rather than us taking on what this looks like in our community. It’s my lifetime dream and desire that we take on this issue of what we’re doing to black girls and women.
In the docuseries you have appearances from John Legend, Sparkle, and Wendy Williams. How difficult was it to wrangle up people to use their celebrity to speak out publicly against R. Kelly?
It was very difficult. John Legend is the only musician in this piece besides Sparkle. Believe me, we asked everyone. We asked Dave Chappelle. We asked JAY-Z. We asked Erykah Badu. All of these people were approached. There were more no’s than yes. John Legend was incredibly brave. I know John and R. Kelly play incredibly different roles in our community in terms of what we’re listening to. John is far more mainstream and more crossover, but John is a black boy from the midwest, just like R. Kelly, whose mother had a crack problem when he was growing up. It’s not like he doesn’t know who R. Kelly is in terms of that kind of predator in our community.
There’s a claim in Surviving R. Kelly that Aaliyah and R. Kelly had sex, which resulted in a pregnancy. What did Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle who introduced the two, say when you reached out to him?
He was not happy to hear from us and told us to stop calling him, which I understand. One of the things I learned making this documentary is he’s not only destroying young girls lives but their families too.
In “Audacity,” your introduction to Rebecca Walker’s book [ Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness ] you mention that your brother and his friend let a group of boys in the house who later tried to sexually assault you. This docuseries shows a number of men who witnessed R. Kelly’s behavior, and there are even moments when parents introduced their children to him. How do we challenge complicity?
I’ve had a lifetime of challenging the men in my life. Whether they’re in my family or are famous rappers who people know I’m friends with. Whether they have a platform or not I’ve been that person even at the risk of personal relationships. You have to understand when you say something to someone about their behavior, you may find yourself at the outside of a friendship circle for a while.
I remember Jay playing me the advance to “Supa Ugly” and telling him Carmen [Bryan] isn’t fair game. That whole line about “rubbers on the backseat” is ridiculous. I remember telling Big about the line about snatching pregnant women’s jewelry [“Gimme the Loot”]. You’re crossing a line. Me and Biggie were close back in the days. I remember knowing the details about him and his girlfriends and challenging what was then a 22-year-old man about how he was treating women. Sometimes Jay would say ‘I hear you, but I’m doing it anyway.’ Then a couple years later he’d say, ‘You were right.’
This is not to encourage all women to just call everyone out. The blowback is too real for that. It’s not about being friends with celebrities. Maybe you’re best suited to address your intimate relationships. Patriarchy and misogyny are systemic. The way black girls experience those are very different. We’re denied the protection that patriarchy is supposed to provide.
One thing that was striking to me was both survivors and peers considered him a musical genius. Where do you stand on separating the art from the artist?
I first started dealing with that question when Pearl Cleage wrote a book called Mad at Miles. She asked that people stop listening to Miles Davis after his autobiography with Quincy Troupe came out where he talks about abusing Cicely Tyson. I really did try to stop listening to Miles Davis but then I fell in love and started listening to him again.
One of the things about R. Kelly, not unlike Woody Allen, is that he’s hiding in plain sight. “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” is basically him flaunting his predator behavior in his lyrics. I have not been the best model of this but I am able to stop listening to R. Kelly and I’ve been able to do it for a long time.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.