For more than 20 years, R&B singer R. Kelly has been dogged by allegations involving under-aged women, a period packed with lawsuits, settlement agreements and alleged sex cults.
But the 51-year-old Grammy-winning artist - whose real name is Robert Kelly - has never taken any genuine responsibility, denying any of his actions were illegal or against anybody's will. And the one time he was placed on trial for having sex with a 14-year-old girl in 2008, he was acquitted, in part because the victim refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Beginning Thursday, January 3, Lifetime will air a three-day, six-hour documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” which covers all this emotionally wrenching territory and more. It features several women who were involved with him, some going back to the 1990s, one as recently as 2017.
Family members, music industry insiders, activists, academics, medical professionals, former employees, journalists and celebrities such as Wendy Williams and John Legend weigh in as well.
Atlanta residents Lisa Van Allen and Asante McGee both had relationships with R. Kelly and are featured in the Lifetime documentary "Surviving R. Kelly" airing January 3 through 5, 2019. CREDIT: Lifetime
Three Atlanta women are featured prominently.
- Lisa Van Allen was one of R. Kelly's sexual exploits when she was a 17 year old in the 1990s and was forced to have threesomes with a girl she later found out was just 14.
- Asante McGee, a self-described "super fan" of the singer, met him in her mid-30s in 2014 and dated him for two years before she spent a brief time in his Johns Creek home where she said she was sexually and psychologically abused.
Kelly has only one announced tour date scheduled in 2019 and it's in Germany in April, according to Songkick.
Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music stopped playing R. Kelly music on their curated playlists earlier this year. Syndicated host Tom Joyner also removed R. Kelly music from his show, heard in Atlanta on Classix 102.9.
Locally, according to Mediabase 24/7, Kiss 104.1 has not spun an R. Kelly record since October. Until mid-December, Majic 107.5/97.5 still had two of his songs in regular rotation. V-103 has played several of his songs the past month.
Kelly in the past has denied all allegations and didn’t respond to the documentarians when they reached out to him with questions.
The first episode focuses on R. Kelly’s rough upbringing as a child. He said in past interviews that he was sexually abused by family members. He also showed early signs of musical prowess, using that as an outlet for his pain. He blossomed as a musical prodigy.
But at the same time, as he spent a lot of time at his former high school well into his 20s. He'd hang out with 13, 14 year old girls. Then he discovered Aaliyah, produced her first album, then had sex with her when she was just 15. In 1994, he secretly married her when he was 27. Her family soon had the marriage annulled. "He destroyed a lot of people," said his back-up singer Jovante Cunningham in the episode.
Yet R. Kelly weathered that scandal in a way that would probably not happen today.
“Robert feels like he’s invincible,” Cunningham added. “In hindsight, in society, we kind of made him feel that way.”
Starting with episode two, the stories of physical and mental abuse from survivors begin to pile up. He humiliated the women, controlled them. He forbade them from talking to anybody else. They needed permission to eat or go to the bathroom. They were required to call him “Daddy.” He videotaped many of his sexcapades.
"He stole my life from me," said Lizzette Martinez in the second episode, "being abused like this."
Van Allen’s story appears toward the end of episode two, into episode three. She was one of the first women to come out publicly against Kelly during his 2008 trial in which he was accused of sleeping with a 14 year old. But at the time, she felt totally alone.
With this documentary, "I'm hoping that people are more open to change," Van Allen said in an interview three days before the documentary's debut. "Back then, it was pretty much just me. It was my word against his. Now there are all these other girls coming out. Like with Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, there's power in numbers."
Van Allen, now 38 and engaged to be married, said she wants Kelly to be held accountable for his actions and is happy to see the progress made by the @MuteRKelly campaign.
She would love to see him prosecuted but for now, she said she believes he is no longer living as lavish a lifestyle as he used to. “He’s feeling the wrath,” she said. “That’s a start.”
Van Allen said Kelly fans attack her regularly on social media. She just wants them to look at the facts and remove emotion from the equation.
“Talking about this is like therapy,” she said. “The more I talk, the better I feel. I want to help others. And by getting it out, it helps me to move on.”
McGee, the other Atlanta woman who had a relationship with Kelly, was not a teenager when she met him in 2013. She was in her mid-30s, a full-grown woman who had loved his music since she was 14. She traveled to multiple cities to see his concerts and when she moved to Atlanta in 2006 would attend club appearances he’d make at places such as the Velvet Room and Club Karma.
She eventually caught Kelly’s attention and had sex with him for the first time in Baton Rouge and enjoyed it. “Is this a dream?” she thought. For two years, she dated him, knowing full well it was not at all exclusive. She said she enjoyed her time with him, that he was mostly kind to her, wining and dining her. (She said he did one time leave her in a van for eight hours after they had an argument.)
But McGee - who was a remote customer service agent at the time - said she only became perturbed when he moved her into his Johns Creek mansion in May of 2016. He quickly imposed rules. Most notably, she could not enter a room without knocking or stomping. “I had to get his permission to eat, to leave my bedroom,” she said. He would get angry if he didn’t like what she wore. She was not allowed to talk to the other women outside his purview.
And he would summon her on occasion to what he called “the Black Room” where she would have to submit to whatever sexual proclivities he desired. “That’s the dark side of him,” she said. “That’s why he called it the Black Room.”
She said she really was in the house for only about a week in total before she left in disgust, noticing how young most of the other women were. One woman, who she called “the trainer,” would inform her of the rules and had been with him since she was 14 or 15, McGee said.
“My hope is this documentary will help people understand and recognize Robert for who he is,” McGee said, “and separate R. Kelly from Robert. He has a sickness and he needs help.” She said she has not been deterred by what she calls the “victim shaming” from his fans who “choose to see what Rob wants them to see.”
McGee said her time with Kelly has damaged her ability to date. “Men say things and I get immediately suspicious,” she said, even if what they say is totally innocent. And she blames that on Kelly’s ability to charm in a way that makes her question her own judgment.
“If it was him, he just brought more attention to the documentary,” Van Allen said. And Kelly has not been able to stop Lifetime from airing it.
“The truth is the truth,” Van Allen said.
“Surviving R. Kelly,” 9 p.m. Thursday (January 3), Friday (January 4) and Saturday (January 5) spanning to hours each night, Lifetime
About the Author
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years.