Surviving R. Kelly was intended to cause a cultural reckoning. Featuring former associates, journalists, musicians, activists, and alleged victims tied to R. Kelly, the three-night Lifetime event that garnered 1.9 million viewers its first night, examined the life of the Chicago-bred singer whose 25-year career has been shadowed by numerous allegations of sexual assault and abuse.
As American mainstream television's first-ever attempt to uncover the private life of a notoriously predatory man, Lifetime succeeded in giving a voice to Black women who are disproportionately affected by sexual assault.
But another important element of the documentary was how it highlighted Black women's relationship with exposing abuse. Kelly’s accusers—Kitti Jones, Jerhonda Pace, Lisa Van Allen, and Asante McGee— spoke candidly throughout the series about their experiences with the R&B singer, detailing their fear of going to the authorities because of retaliation, shame, or no one believing them.
Their concerns were valid. The media plays a huge part why Black women's stories of abuse are not believed—largely because they're not reported on as often as their white counterparts or simply not listened to. And in the specific case of Kelly's accusers, their stories have been silenced either by non-disclosure agreements or the general public's cynicism toward their stories.
Eventually, they did come forward with their specific stories of alleged abuse—and they serve as analogous experiences to how many Black women in this country grapple with sexual abuse.
As reported by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall. Furthermore, Dr. Gail Wyatt, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA who's written extensively about Black women and sexual assault, found through semi-structured qualitative interviews that African American women will discuss the unwanted sex with family and friends, but are less likely to disclose to trained professionals.
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Girls, an online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of Black women and girls, believes the indifference some Black women have to disclose their stories of abuse has to do with generational trauma from centuries of systematic oppression.
"There is a stronger sense of feeling obligated to protect Black men that Black women have, [which is] incredibly detrimental to our safety," Bradford told Broadly about the reluctance some Black women have to expose Black men for abuse. "I think this sense of obligation comes from having an understanding of the prison-industrial system and how it is often unfair and unjust for Black men."
Harden believes the unjust judicial system—which disproportionately imprisons African American men—created a sense of care-taking of Black men and boys in ways that are not always reciprocal for Black women and girls.
"You will often hear about the Black man's life that has been 'ruined' because of a sexual assault charge without an extension of the conversation being how the woman's life was impacted and how all of this was a function of his decision to assault," she said. "The lack of focus on his accountability is often glaring and heartbreaking."
dream hampton, the executive producer for Surviving R. Kelly, also believes generational trauma in the Black community is one of the reason why some Black women are reluctant to disclose their assault.
"[There is] a particular kind of shame for Black women, not wanting to 'give up' Black men to a system that they know to be unjust and corrupt and historically racist and having targeted Black men," hampton told Broadly.
The cultural critic and filmmaker hopes that the series—which was a top trending Twitter topic in the US on all three nights of its airing—will reignite a conversation about Kelly's position in the music industry, shed light on the plight of his accused victims, and encourage those affected by sexual abuse to speak out.
"He had a lot of control," hampton said about Kelly's alleged relationships with his accusers. "There was a lot of manipulation. It's a complicated issue. I hope that this gets discussed and unpacked."
In the last episode of the series, McGee takes cameras through the Atlanta home she resided in during the course of her relationship with Kelly. McGee, who met Kelly at age 35, pauses in what is referred to as "The Black Room." She explains how the room got its name. "The whole room was black. He had black curtains, furniture was black. Right here in the middle was the actual bed." Adding, "This room right here, besides my bedroom, was the most degrading thing ever.... You had Rob pretty much making you do the unthinkable."
Despite the clear upset McGee faces in reliving her alleged experience, she contends that had she believed what Kelly's other accusers had said, she would be in a different place.
"Because I was so much of a fan, I couldn't see him as a monster," she says. "But now, actually being in that house and witnessing with my own eyes, I regret not listening and believing of the allegations that happened."