originally published September 28, 2021 / THE WASHINGTON POST
Participants and crew from "Surviving R. Kelly" accept the award for best documentary at the MTV Movie and TV Awards on June 15, 2019.
(Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
dream hampton, an award-winning filmmaker and writer from Detroit, is the executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly.” R. Kelly’s predation and abuse of Black girls was an open secret for almost three decades. After he was convicted of nine federal counts of sex trafficking and racketeering on Monday, the self-nicknamed “Pied Piper of R&B” is finally seeing his own bill come due.
But while this verdict may make potential future victims safer, it’s not enough. We need to invest in the safety and futures of survivors and whistleblowers. I’ve seen first-hand just how great those needs can be, and how far we have to go in providing them. The creators of the #MuteRKelly hashtag hoped to de-platform the singer, and to make his fans, mostly Black people, remember the Black girls he’d victimized when they bought his concert tickets or streamed his music. But they also called for restitution for his victims. Punishing an abuser and preventing him from doing more harm in the future doesn’t automatically mean that the people he’s already hurt are made whole again. And it doesn’t acknowledge the value of what survivors do for the rest of us when they accept the risks involved in coming forward.
For our Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” I sat for countless hours with women as they opened old wounds and relived their trauma. Many of them said they were teenagers when he began abusing them. Some of them didn’t feel able to sit in front of our cameras, but they spoke to us to corroborate the stories of those who did appear on screen. They had no way to be sure what impact their testimonies might have. But they all faced our cameras knowing that a significant number of viewers would disbelieve them and abuse them online, and that Kelly himself would continue to use his resources to harass and intimidate them. And still they spoke through tears, through terror, beneath hot lights and for the hours it requires to make television. I can say from listening to their stories that not one of them is emotionally healthy. Every single one of Kelly’s survivors, of all genders, could use a fund making decades of therapy possible. And that's just a start. My own experience suggests just how daunting it can be to provide even basic resources to help someone cope with the aftermath of speaking publicly about violence and abuse. Documentaries aren't the genre one goes to for big-budget filmmaking. But I wanted therapists on set for the survivors. What I got instead were lawyers, ever present to police my interview questions and, ultimately, protect the project from litigation. I understand this was necessary to get the series on air. But imagine if that kind of protection were present for the women who made the series so compelling. Once the series became a cultural phenomenon, each of those women needed some of the same things I did, including individual security as a result of threats from Kelly’s supporters and investments in online security to protect their private information so they wouldn’t be subject to further harassment and retaliation.
These are just some of survivors’ immediate needs. It’s important to acknowledge that crimes like Kelly’s affect whole communities, and to design responses that operate on a similar scale. Story continues below advertisement Long-term investment in victims and prevention might look like full funding for existing organizations — such as Chicago’s A Long Walk Home — which uses art therapy and other therapies to help young people heal from sexual violence and trauma. We should also treat survivors’ experiences as a source of expertise and make it possible for them to reach back into their respective communities and build the kind of infrastructure that makes young Black and Brown children less vulnerable to predators. It’s brave women like the ones I spoke to, not Kelly himself, who are centered in my thoughts in this moment. Elevating their voices was a start; hearing them out was the very least we should do. But neither this — nor Kelly’s long-overdue conviction — should be the end of the story. Everyone associated with “Surviving R. Kelly” is receiving messages of congratulations, but I don’t feel like celebrating. I’m thinking of tangible ways we can help the women who survived Kelly’s abuse — and women like them, whose abusers aren’t famous, best-selling singers.