In the week following its premiere, Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly has prompted the kind of nation-wide conversation certain music journalists have been pushing for since the turn of the century. A DA in Georgia is now investigating R. Kelly, whose legal name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, over the many abuse claims in the Twitter-trending documentary. Award-winning celebrities like Chance The Rapper, who has repeatedly collaborated with Kelly, and Common have denounced the alleged serial predator. Lady Gaga finally apologized for recording 2013’s confounding “Do What U Want” with Kelly following increased fan pressure to make amends.
The premiere of Surviving has also sparked backlash. Some wondered whether Lifetime, purveyor of so-called guilty pleasures like Married At First Sight and Dance Moms, is the right home for something as serious as the stories of Kelly’s many traumatized survivors. Or if a first-week-of-January premiere date was the best time to introduce a documentary this world-changing, this loud. Then there’s the hostility of Kelly himself, who reportedly attempted to “expose” his accusers via Facebook before the social media site took his page down.
In mere days, Surviving R. Kelly has created waves that have become entire oceans — and Lifetime is not apologizing for it.
“Was I nervous about the doc?” asked Brie Bryant, the network’s senior vice president of unscripted development and programming and Surviving executive producer, over the phone. While Bryant doesn’t exactly say “no” — the smart exec knows which tiny words can quickly become trending headlines — her response suggests the Lifetime exec was never afraid of unveiling Kelly as an alleged predator and serial abuser with an obsession with underage Black girls, as Surviving suggests.
“I always like to err on the side of honesty. It felt like an honest journey,” Bryant continued. “We wanted everyone to be able to tell their own piece of the story. Putting those pieces together was important.”
It’s no surprise Bryant was consistently bullish about the project, considering Surviving’s origin story. While some may wonder how this hard-hitting story ended up on a more often than not breezy network like Lifetime, Bryant explains production house Kreativ Inc. pitched her the documentary when it was just an idea. Although there were “discussions” about it going to another networks, Bryant, a Black woman, fought for Lifetime to acquire it.
“It was around the time #MeToo had broken, and we had internal conversations here about what should we be doing,” she said. The answer was Surviving R. Kelly, which Lifetime originally saw as an hour or 90-minute special. This is when they tapped powerhouse filmmaker and advocate Dream Hampton, who stylizes her name as “dream hampton,” as showrunner. What began as a documentary including a few survivors and survivors’ parents snowballed into what would become Twitter’s first runaway TV hit of 2019: a series spanning six jaw-dropping episodes and boasting 54 participants.
The documentary was the most tweeted about series of January’s inaugural week, save for the live Golden Globes telecast, and inspired about 739,000 impressions, according to Nielsen. All that social love translated to actual viewership, as Lifetime says Surviving reached 18.8 total viewers over its three-night run. The streaming viewership tally has yet to be added.
“I’m pretty happy with where we ended up,” Bryant said with a laugh, admitting she was “surprised” by the numbers. At this point, even the disturbing rise in Kelly’s listenership isn’t rattling Lifetime. As Bryant countered, “My response to that is, so did the sexual abuse hotline." Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse And Incest National Network (RAINN), confirmed to NBC the hotline had a surge of 20% total and more calls about childhood sexual abuse came in than usual following the documentary’s premiere.
“I’m thankful people are out there and must have watched and thought, ‘Okay, I need to pick up the phone and talk to someone and provide myself with the self-care I need,’” Bryant continued. “That is the stuff I will never be disappointed in.”
One of the biggest controversies to come out of Surviving isn’t what’s inside the documentary — it’s what’s missing. As previously mentioned, Lady Gaga, a vocal sexual assault survivor and advocate herself, has come to condemn her R. Kelly track which features repeated lines like, “Do what you want with my body,” following the firestorm around the docuseries. In a now-viral tweet, the Star Is Born powerhouse reckoned with how her own past trauma led to the “dark” decision; Kelly's serial abuse and predation allegations were public knowledge when “Do What U Want” was first released.
Lady Gaga's statement arrives after creator Hampton revealed the singer-actress declined to be interviewed for Surviving. In interviews with The Detroit Free Press and Shadow And Act, the director also revealed Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Questlove, Lil’ Kim, and Lady Gaga’s Star Is Born co-star Dave Chappelle all declined to join the project as well. This is why John Legend, one of the only A-list performers to be interviewed directly for the series, was lauded as a “hero.”
However, Lifetime isn’t worried about who didn’t hop on camera. “Everyone has their own stuff and has to be wary about what they say ‘Yes’ to. It has to feel right for you,” Bryant said.
“What we’re all grateful for is that there’s more support than we could have ever imagined, and the people who were supposed to be in the doc are actually in the doc.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).