After absorbing the news that R. Kelly was found guilty in the federal racketeering and sex trafficking case against him, Surviving R. Kelly executive producers Tamra Simmons and Jesse Daniels called the women who bravely shared their stories of abuse in the documentary.
“They’re like family to me now,” says Simmons. “I’m calling, they’re screaming and then we’re crying together. It was an amazing feeling after seeing them being bashed and cyber-bullied among all kinds of things on social media just for speaking out.”
“It’s been incredibly emotional,” adds Daniels. “I don’t want to speak on their [the survivors’] behalf. But ultimately I can say that for many of them the uniform message is that they feel heard.”
According to Nielsen, an average of 2.1 million total viewers heard these women in January 2019 as they recounted the sexual and mental abuse wielded by Kelly in Lifetime’s riveting documentary Surviving R. Kelly. Helmed by an executive production team that also included Dream Hampton, Joel Karsberg, Jessica Everleth and Maria Pepin, the six-part series featured appearances by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, John Legend and Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards. Lifetime aired a sequel, Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, in January 2020. Kelly, dropped by RCA Records soon after the first broadcast and arrested in July 2019, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 4, 2022.
Simmons and Daniels talked with Billboard about the documentary’s impact on what was, for some survivors, a “nearly 30-year journey of shouting into the wind.”
What was your initial reaction after hearing the verdict?
Simmons: These survivors have been fighting all these years for their voices to be heard and to actually matter. So outside of R. Kelly being found guilty on all counts, the real verdict is the justice given to the women who have survived all of this for so many years.
Daniels: For some of the survivors, it has been nearly a 30-year journey of shouting into the wind at times. We saw a lot of survivors take the stand during the trial to be heard by the justice system. Even so, there were so many other survivors who didn’t take the stand. So ultimately, this verdict speaks for everybody in saying that the justice system hears them.
When did you begin working on the documentary?
Simmons: There were new allegations that came out regarding R. Kelly around 2017. As an African American woman, I remember the trial back in 2008 [Kelly was exonerated]. Everyone was talking about it, wondering what the verdict was going to be. Then it’s almost 10 years later and the situation is still happening, especially in the Black community. And I’m like, how is this happening? Jesse and I had worked together on another show and began talking. The Savage family in Atlanta, where I live, held a press conference [in 2019] to find their daughter [Joycelyn, then-said to be held captive by Kelly]. A mother myself, I reached out to the family to see if there was anything I could do to help them find justice. Then things moved forward like a domino effect. I learned about another family looking for their daughter and about other women that had been sexually abused by Kelly. Jesse and I talked about the power that television has. And he said we need to put something together to give these women a voice and a platform. So that’s what we did — and it worked.
Daniels: We worked quietly for months and months, meeting survivors and the parents of survivors to put together a story that journalists like Jim DeRogatis had been writing about for years. Then we started realizing this was there was something much bigger and important to tell. Just to give a sense of the timeline, all this was happening before the #MeToo movement started gaining traction. Thankfully with that traction, we were able to get Surviving R. Kelly made.
How significant was the documentary’s role in ending this years-long journey to justice?
Simmons: Journalism is important. But while people were listening, they weren’t really listening. I believe that when you can see what’s happening and not just read an article, you can see and understand the depth of what’s actually going on. So visually, we never said Kelly is a bad person or he’s guilty. We just painted a picture so people could see exactly what’s happening, what had happened and how far it went back — to the ‘90s— to understand why the 2008 trial happened. One episode of the documentary talks about the jury saying they didn’t believe the women were telling the truth then because of what they looked like and what they wore. Victim shaming … that’s why Black women were afraid to speak out. So between #MeToo, these women having enough strength to come forward and their becoming catalysts for other women and men to speak out, that’s why we’re seeing this result now versus 2008.
Are there any plans to do another documentary follow-up?
Daniels: We watched the trial very closely to see how this would all come together. But we have no plans to do anything else.
What message does the verdict send about the ongoing issue of sexual harassment in the music industry and other workplaces?
Simmons: These women are an example for other women of color. I think that people are going to listen and believe now. We saw with the R. Kelly trial how long this has been going on, how long it can go on and how it’s been covered up. Because of these women, these survivors, everyone that is of color can have a voice that will be heard. In the same breath, I’m grateful for Tarana Burke and others who are putting in the work to create a new narrative for people of color in different areas of the entertainment industry. Having difficult conversations and opening up various ways to help Black women and Black men is how we get to a better place.