It’s been almost 20 years since Chicago music journalist Jim DeRogatis first published an article about sex abuse allegations against R&B superstar R. Kelly. In the intervening years, Kelly was charged with—and acquitted of—child pornography. His alleged penchant for urinating on underage girls became a punchline instead of a source of outrage. He was even invited to headline Pitchfork music festival in 2013, and hardly anyone (besides DeRogatis) batted an eyelash.
“The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” DeRogatis said in an interview with the Village Voice that year.
But the walls are finally closing in. In early January, Lifetime aired Surviving R. Kelly, a harrowing six-part documentary series that details years of alleged abuse and frightening patterns of behavior. Since then, Kelly was dropped from his label, his songs (even collaborations) were removed from streaming services, and there’s been renewed law enforcement interest in the accusations against him; just today, CNN reported that a grand jury has been convened in Chicago in connection with newly released footage of Kelly allegedly having sex with another minor.
It seems what finally made the narrative click in the hearts and minds of the public was hearing the stories from the victims’ perspectives.
At first blush, Lifetime—a network most closely associated with made-for-TV melodramas—might seem like an unlikely place for groundbreaking, journalistic fare, but two of the show’s executive producers, Tamra Simmons and Jesse Daniels, say they had Lifetime in mind from the start. We spoke with them and Lifetime SVP original programming Brie Miranda Bryant about the making of the show and everything that’s happened in its wake. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Can you explain the genesis of the project? How did you get started and how did it make it to Lifetime?
Tamra Simmons: Jesse and I went through some articles, seeing some different things regarding R. Kelly and new allegations. Then I had contacted the families, the Savages, to see if I could talk to them about some of the things that were going on. They were located in Georgia, so since they were local, because that’s where I’m based, I talked to them. Then we just kind of built a relationship and they started telling me about other survivors. That’s when I was telling Jesse about the ones that I had met. So we kind of just were like, hey, there’s more to this story than just what’s out there. One survivor told us about the other ones, and that’s how we ended up getting the list of survivors that we have.
Jesse Daniels: That process took us a couple months, of just starting with one family leading to another survivor which led to another family, and so we had many phone calls over the course of several months to make sure that we had their trust—we trusted them and they trusted us which was super important—and then also that we had enough of a story that we had felt like, OK, let’s take this to Lifetime.
Brie Miranda Bryant: And then once creative came to me with the pitch, I really very much thought it fit what Lifetime does really well, which is showcase and give women a platform who are courageous and brave for standing in their honesty. As we dissected it…I thought it was important to tell the story from beginning to end. So we start in 1970 and we finished shooting in November of 18, very close to the air date. But when the team put the project together and brought it to Lifetime it was two or three survivors and a couple sets of parents at that time. I thought it was going to be a strong 60- to 90-minute doc and what we ended up with was six really strong hours and 54 people that sat down to tell the story.
So after it was brought to Lifetime, it expanded into something much larger than what you’d initially conceived?
J.D.: The truth is that we kept adding more interviews all the way through the entire production and post production, so as you learn more, as you meet more people, those people introduce you to other people, and so we didn’t really know exactly what we had until the final product. But what Brie said was true, which is that when we did talk to Lifetime initially, we realized that there is 30 years of history here to tell about and in order to understand what’s happening now to parents now, today, or more recent survivors, you have to go back and identify those patterns that happened even 30 years ago and unpack those.
As you’re contacting these women and families did you face any reluctance? Were there people who didn’t want to participate because of the nature of the documentary?
B.M.B.: Absolutely. These stories go back a long time and I think a lot of people who had lived through it had buried it or weren’t ready to speak about it, so it was certainly a process and what Tamra did so nicely, and [fellow executive producer Dream Hampton] also, was gaining the trust of the participants as they went along. At the end of every interview there was always the question of anyone else that we should talk to. Is there anyone that you think would want to sit down with us or we should reach out to, would you be comfortable giving us their contact information, which is how one thing lead to another.
How did you go about building trust with these subjects?
T.S.: I was really just myself, and I was talking to them like I was one of their girlfriends or friends that they just met. They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I’ve known you forever.’ Just being open to them and not judging them because that’s the reason they were quiet, because they thought people were going to judge them.
So here I am a stranger that they don’t know, and I’m not judging them and it’s not because I want to get a story or I want to hear it or I want to do a TV show. I think once they realized we’re there for them and it’s not just about a television show or R. Kelly—it was really about them and they trusted [us]. I also had Jesse…they had a lot of confidence in both of us. We know it’s hard to open up someone you’ve never met or never been around. I think we were genuine the whole time.
J.D.: The key was being honest with them about where we were at with the production, this bigger idea of putting this big documentary series together that would piece together the entire puzzle, and let them know what we wanted to do and then also really, just as Tamra said, spending the time to listen to them. Certainly we sat down with them for hours on camera, but prior to that we heard their stories many different times on the phone and just heard them out. It’s just a matter spending time with them and building that trust.
Did you guys have Lifetime in mind from the get-go?
J.D.: Absolutely. And the survivors were so excited, like, please take this to Lifetime! We felt this is the perfect network for them because we’re giving a platform for women to speak out about abuse. Lifetime certainly has a rich history of being involved in big topics like that and for years [they had] the Stop Violence Against Women campaign, which was one of the first things we talked about when we brought them the project. So they got that this was not just a doc, this was bigger than that. That we had some big social issues to talk about. They were not only just behind that, but they helped build it and let it grow.
T.S.: I’ve been a fan of Lifetime and their work, and then I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m actually going to work on a show with Lifetime. It really didn’t click in my head, because, like I said, it wasn’t like we were building a television show—we really were telling the story.
It sounds like the network was super eager to air this, but were there conversations about the risk of lawsuits since it’s such sensitive material?
B.M.B.: With all of these sort of stories there’s always those conversations about how we can best tell the story, can we do the best job of telling the story, can we be the platform to provide a space for that, and everybody was on board with this one from the beginning. This dates far before I even got here; the Stop the Violence public affairs campaign that Lifetime has been doing forever. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp we wanted to create something and contribute something that lasted after the hours were over, and I think we did that.
Was working on this ever just really kind of emotionally draining?
T.S.: I know for me, I’m like oh my gosh, how much can I handle? I would get anxiety like, oh my god, this is so much, and then I’m like, “Calm down, Tamra, calm down.” And I would go to Jesse and he would help me calm down. It was like the chain of command, we were all calming each other down, like you can do it, keep pushing, keep going, keep going. Motivating each other through the process.
J.D.: We’ve all had many, many phone calls, weekends, late at night, early morning, with the survivors, the production, trying to make this thing as good as it can be. Then when you’re in the room with our survivors and you’re with them for hours and they’re telling their story, it’s very emotional to hear. I think everyone, not just us, but everyone gets pretty affected by that.
I read that since the show aired, two criminal investigations have actually been opened. Does that feel like a victory for you guys?
B.M.B.: I think the thought process behind putting the documentary together was always focused on the women and honoring the stories that they trusted us with. That’s always been the focus, and as things sort of start to happen now it’s interesting to see, it’s all really overwhelming, quite frankly. We’re all just realizing what a very deep impact this has had, globally. That this has become a global conversation is interesting in itself. The positioning was to make this a platform for these women so that their stories could be told more than anything else.
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