Cindy Lys couldn’t watch more than half of the first episode of Surviving R. Kelly. Like many in Chicago, the Lifetime docuseries hit too close to home. As an alum of Northside College Prep High School and Young Chicago Authors, she too grew up hearing the stories about Kelly. Her friends whispered about how he used to allegedly ride around the high schools on the South Side, scooping up girls.
In 2008, when the R&B star was acquitted on 14 counts of child pornography stemming from the infamous sex tape, Lys felt sad. To her, the verdict sent a strong message to Black girls across Chicago.
“I just remember feeling this message that if I were to come forward about something, no one would take it seriously. Nobody is going to care,” Lys tells Broadly. Now a therapist and licensed clinical social worker, Lys remembers being a young woman whose body developed at an early age. She received a lot of sexual harassment because of it, she says.
“I would be on my own if something like that had ever happened to me,” she explains. “Who would believe me? I might be blamed for walking into a situation I perhaps should have known was going to be precarious or dangerous.”
Through harrowing victim and witness accounts, expert analyses, and clips from Kelly’s most memorable TV interviews, Surviving R. Kelly laid out nearly 30 years of alleged sexual and mental abuse by the singer. Because of his ecosystem of handlers and attorneys, Kelly has managed to remain fairly unscathed by the law—despite ongoing sexual abuse allegations and new stories of him keeping a harem of women in a sex cult.
At the time of his child pornography case, Kelly was on top of the music world. Hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” granted him crossover status as an R&B, pop, and inspirational artist, which only made him more invincible in the Black community. With Black America, especially Black Chicago, rooting for his every success, it made it difficult to separate him from his art. Thus, when the 2002 tape of Kelly allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old girl hit the streets, some fans pointed fingers at the girl instead of Kelly. The girl and her family denied that it was her in the tape. Kelly was later acquitted.
“It used to be in criminal law that if you didn’t have the testimony of the victim, then you really couldn’t do a sexual assault case,” says Leonard Cavise, professor of law emeritus at the DePaul College of Law in Chicago. "Everybody always suspected, at least, that R. Kelly had paid off a lot of his victims so that they wouldn’t testify against him.”
Today, however, there’s a change in attitude for many victims of sexual violence. The #MeToo movement showed women that they are not alone and because it, they are feeling more empowered to speak out against misogyny and toxic masculinity. With the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, Black girls and women are now demanding justice and a platform to be heard.
“There’s a lot more interest in the public in prosecuting these cases for two reasons: One, the #MeToo movement, and two, the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Cavise believes. “The Black Lives Matter movement is basically saying, ‘Hey, look, we’ve been victimized by this sort of thing for years too. Just because the victims are Black doesn’t make this any more of an outrageous sort of case.’”
According to Chicago attorney Adam Sheppard, who worked with the defense lawyers on Kelly’s child pornography case, Surviving R. Kelly has brought on a resurgence of allegations. However, the same challenges that prosecutors faced in the child pornography trial still remain today.
That’s why prosecutors haven’t been able to charge Kelly with anything else since the initial trial.
“The prosecution will have their hands full because there is a lack of a prompt outcry,” Sheppard tells Broadly via phone. “There may be a lack of corroboration. Corroboration includes everything from witnesses who may have seen the incident to physical evidence such as DNA.”
Adding, “Those are common facts in a sexual assault prosecution that prosecutors rely on [such as DNA] and apparently, given the age of the alleged offense, that won’t be available to prosecutors in this case.”
There is also the issue of finding a victim who’s willing to testify. Because the 14-year-old girl denied being in the 2002 sex tape, prosecutors didn’t have a victim to testify against Kelly. That’s why they charged him with possession of child pornography instead of a charge of predatory criminal sexual assault.
With Cook County State’s Attorney recent call for victims to come forward, Sheppard says it shows that prosecutors are vigorously investigating the recent allegations against Kelly. But that public announcement could negatively affect the state’s case as well.
“It could affect the credibility of the witnesses,” Sheppard says. “You didn’t come forward until somebody solicited your statements or until you saw this documentary on TV. Sometimes it takes something like this to motivate a victim to come forward but I think the defense will have a good point when cross-examining these witnesses.”
Prosecuting Kelly is going to require victims who are willing to testify at trial, with Kelly and the world looking on. According to Lys, this is the hardest thing for someone to do. “It’s almost like re-traumatizing the person who has been through the trauma. Sometimes those investigations and interrogations can feel as though [victims] are not being believed in a lot of ways."
In fact, Lys says, the process is so intimidating that victims often give up. Investigators are trying to get consistent answers and stories out of victims and witnesses, but the way they ask questions can make a victim feel that they have no chance in winning this case.
Currently, about 3 out of 4 sexual assault cases go unreported with a majority of victims not coming forward because of fear of retaliation, belief that the police wouldn’t do anything to help, and more.
“Usually reputations are destroyed after making a public accusation because everyone has their opinion,” Lys says. “I think because of those types of challenges in the legal system, it can be really hard to come forward.”