"Surviving R. Kelly" Showrunner Discusses Verdict
dream hampton: I missed it. I missed what was right in front of me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to award-winning filmmaker Dream Hampton in a moment of startling vulnerability. Hampton admits that when she authored a profile about R&B megastar R. Kelly back in 2000, she noticed the very young girls in his entourage but she dismissed it.
dream hampton: I missed it. I missed what was right in front of me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This mistake troubles her, and it's part of why she said yes to creating the six-part docu-series Surviving R. Kelly, which premiered on the Lifetime Network, in January of 2019. The series features the distressing testimonies of young women who allege they survived appalling, physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the artist.
Woman 1: There’s a difference between R.Kelly and Robert. R. Kelly is this fun, laughing, loving guy, but Robert is the devil.
Reporter: Kelly is accused of videotaping himself having sex with an underage girl.
Man 1: Taking advantage of minors will not be tolerated.
Reporter: Jurors found him not guilty on all charges.
Man 2: Robert has said all along he'll be cleared of these terrible charges.
Woman 2: Shame on you.
Protesters: Shame on you.
Woman 2: Shame on you.
Protesters: Shame on you.
Woman 2: Milk R. Kelly.
Protesters: Milk R. Kelly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A little more than a month after the series premiered, this happened in Chicago, Illinois.
Reporter: Kelly's been indicted by a grand jury on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against four alleged victims.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Five months later, it was this.
Reporter: The R&B singer found himself in handcuffs once again last night when he was arrested while walking his dog outside of his Trump Tower home in Chicago. He is facing a 13 count indictment in the Northern District of Illinois, including charges of child porn and obstruction of justice, and there is a separate sealed indictment in Brooklyn that we should learn more about later today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then on Monday, more than three years after Hampton’s series shook the music industry, we got this news.
Reporter: In one of the most prominent trials of the MeToo era, a federal jury has convicted R&B superstar R. Kelly on all counts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and on today's episode of The Takeaway we begin with the artist and activist, Dream Hampton. Dream Hampton is the showrunner and executive producer of the docu-series Surviving R. Kelly. Dream, welcome back to The Takeaway.
dream hampton: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You were the first person that I emailed yesterday when I heard the verdict. How did you learn about it, and how did you feel?
dream hampton: I've been doing this wonderful thing where I have been leaving my phone in a drawer, [laughs] while I run errands and so I came back to it, and I guess it was around four o'clock and there were 30 messages and I was stunned. I remember 2008 and I remember his acquittal and I can't say that any of this I expected. Maybe some other people associated with production did but even making Surviving R. Kelly, about a 50-year-old R&B singer who hadn't had a hit in a decade and whose predation had been an open secret for nearly three decades. I didn't expect that there would be charges, I didn't expect there would be trials, and I certainly didn't expect a conviction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go back to your decision to pursue this story, to tell the story. Why? Why that story then especially given, as you just said, 50-year-old R&B singer who hasn't made a hit in a minute?
dream hampton: I really messed up. In October of 2000, so that means this is back when there were magazines. I must have gone out to Chicago in July or August if it had a street day of October, November. I did a cover story of R. Kelly. In fact, the photo of that cover story became evidence in the 2008 trial about him and it was a profile. It was a profile about his habits, about how he worked in the studio and I had missed the real story. There were young girls in the studio, but that wasn't something that I hadn't seen before.
I was in the studio when Puff was working with Total. I was in the studio when Mary J Blige was just out of high school singing background to Father. See, I've been in studios before and I missed it. I missed what was right in front of me.
About a month after the cover story that I did about R. Kelly in 5 Magazine was released, Jim DeRogatis began his reporting about Tiffany Hawkins, a girl who went to the police, Chicago Police Department, as a post teenager and alleged that R. Kelly had abused her as a minor.
That article became evidence that this Aaliyah marriage which had happened when I profiled R. Kelly, which I'd asked him about during the interview, got very defensive and seemed surprised that I would even ask him, but that became evident that this wasn't some weird spring, winter love or whatever euphemisms we have for predation. That there was a pattern to his predation. Shortly after that, of course, a video came out of him sexually abusing a 14-year-old who turned out to be Sparkle's niece.
I felt like when I was invited onto this project, this wasn't my idea, I was hired to be the showrunner and executive producer of this, I couldn't say no. I knew that it would be second-hand trauma, that it would be difficult. I knew that we were in a new landscape. I wasn't really thinking about MeToo, in fact, I was thinking about the way that one is so easily trolled and doxed in this moment.
All of those things were nothing compared to this duty I felt to-- I don't know right or wrong. Also, I'm from this generation and I was around and I was in this business as a music journalist when he was getting away with all of this. I just owed it to these survivors to do the best job that I could do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who else owes these survivors, who else missed it, either through actually missing it or by choosing to turn away from it?
dream hampton: Well, we can talk about the ecosystem of enablers and that exists on a corporate level, it exists amongst his peers. On a corporate level, there was a lot made of the fact that John Legend was the only celebrity in Surviving R. Kelly. I did an interview early on, I think it was my very first interview about the docu-series and I was asked why he was the only one and I named all of the people that I'd invited who didn't come on and that became a headline, and sure, I'm not backing off of that. I did ask those people and I asked them for good reason but who I wanted more than his peer celebrities were the people who ran Jive Records, for instance, his record label, Barry Weiss, I called him several times, trying to get him to come on camera.
People at that record label, he had a hand put pick few women, quite frankly, who he would only work with and I don't know, I asked Stephen Henderson who was responsible for producing BETs Award shows and who gave him almost 12 minutes to perform this epic kind of homage to Sam Cooke years after we'd seen a tape of him raping a 14-year old.
I wanted all of these people to come on camera not to have a got you moment, I wanted Jay Z to come on and talk about, as a 50-year-old man, to reflect on the decisions that he made to make a record like Not Guilty with R. Kelly, to go on tour with him after he was acquitted.
Some of those reasons might have been really pedantic, it may have been that they had a contract to do this tour, and he would have been in breach of contract, which he ended up being anyway when they canceled it. I wanted to hear some of these explanations and I wanted people to be willing to possibly be reflective and they were unwilling.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your point about, maybe it was just a contract, there is the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt, of course, warns us of the ways that we can all participate in it even if we are not enacting it, we're enabling it. I wonder if in addition to those who owe the survivors and those you've named here, those of us who consume the music. Those who even right now are in social media saying, well, but he's a genius. What do we do with a musical genius who is a serial sex abuser and a pedophile?
dream hampton: I don't have the answer to this question, but I can tell you it doesn't begin with or end with R. Kelly. I know that the women who began Mute R. Kelly hope to not just deplatform him, but the boycott-ensation, and most probably the divestment was about stopping income from flowing towards R. Kelly, mostly live concert is where artists are earning their income and have been for the past decade.
That money was directly responsible for the staff that R. Kelly told which girls would eat on a particular night and who was on punishment, who was disallowed from coming out of the studio room that he'd locked them in and was disallowed bathroom privileges.
There was an operation. This is why he was charged with a RICO charge. There was an operation, a criminal operation that your concert dollars were flowing directly towards you funding. This question about art versus artists is a test that I failed personally. I'm able to turn away from R. Kelly, even though I do think he is probably the greatest R&B singer of my generation. Well, besides Mary J Blige.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was like, "Are we about to do this conversation?" Because we can have conversation.
dream hampton: Mary J, she wins, but I wasn't able when Pearl Cleage wrote Mad at Miles after Quincy Troupe's autobiography with him came out and we learned about the kind of serial abuser he was. I may have been successful of a Miles Davis' boycott for a couple of months, and then I fell in love and I was listening to Miles Davis again.
I have not passed that test all of the time of separating the art from the artist or boycotting an artist because of their personal terrible behavior. I would like if people are unable to stop listening to R. Kelly, stop streaming him, then I would like these music companies, the Spotifys, and the other companies to establish a fund. The restitution that's going to be necessary to begin the healing journeys for these victims is mammoth. We're hearing reports that he's broke, that he has a negative income. If you can't stop listening to R. Kelly, let that money go towards his victims.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about the survivors we've been talking about about Kelly, but let's talk about the survivors. Obviously, not only did you provide this extraordinary and extremely painful to watch series, but you were in the room, you encountered, you engaged, and undoubtedly made choices about what we would see and what we would hear. Can you talk to me a bit about that process?
dream hampton: I've been thinking about the process a lot lately, and I've been thinking about, and this may be a conversation for some other place, but I've been thinking a lot about what documentary can do and what it can't. First and foremost, the studio was interested in protecting itself from libel, from being sued, from litigation.
That meant that while we had lawyers who were policing my interview questions, making sure that they weren't leading, making sure that they could stand up as a transcript and say a lawsuit, we didn't have therapists on the set. That investment wasn't made, and these women were reopening wounds and trauma and reliving that from our cameras for hours under hot lights. We would take breaks and then they needed them often, but none of the survivors and I interviewed every one of them and their parents, none of them sat for me for less than four hours.
It was necessary for me to play a role that quite frankly in the world of sexual victims and crimes, I was charged as a producer on this to play the prosecutor, and prosecutors aren't my favorite people, which means that I was required, if someone told me a story that was awful, I was required to ask the same questions detectives ask, for instance, like, "Who else did you tell about this and when, and may I have their contact?"
I had to do all the kind of verification that we think is happening in the criminal justice system. That's not a role that I'm proud of necessarily. I would have much rather reached out to them as a survivor myself, as a Black woman, as a sister, but that wasn't the role that I was charged with doing on the set in order for this project to make it to television. Does that make sense?
Melissa Harris-Perry: It does. As I listened to you say it, I wonder how you survived Surviving R. Kelly, how you, as a survivor, as a mom of a daughter, how you made it through day-to-day?
dream hampton: I had something that not one of the women that I interviewed had, which was a history of engaging in therapy, and some resources to take care of myself. They were my own personal resources, we don't get rich making documentaries. I don't know if that's a surprise to people, but I did have this history of knowing how valuable therapy was. I immediately put myself back in therapy.
I wish that we could have done that for the survivors, whatever second-hand trauma I experienced was nothing compared to them having to relive this for the cameras, knowing that they'd be opening themselves up for division. Knowing that in this social media age, where they all have accounts, most of them public, that you would see the kind of comments that you saw even on Jerhonda Pace's Instagram yesterday. They're still being trolled and that never feels good.
I made it through, but I wasn't the most important person on the set. By the way, yes, I had to do all of the interviews and hold these stories, but everyone was affected, our sound guy. This like white guy in his early thirties had never heard anything like this. Everyone who worked on this project, the women who had to pre-interview the victims from the team, they had to hold these stories. So everyone was affected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why do you think we care so little about the assault, the abuse, the actual missing Black girls and women, why is it so easy for us to literally look at it happening to them? To watch it on video and to make a story that it's somehow their fault?
dream hampton: That's a hard one, and growing up Black and female, this isn't a new story to me. It's not a new story, there's a legacy of Black feminism that I certainly didn't make something as amazing as Ntozake Shange For Colored Girls or as strong as Alice Walker's Color Purple. Those are just two examples from a particular generation. Black feminists been taught us that this cognitive dissonance is something that we have to struggle against.
Our impulse to protect Black men often outranks any notion that we'd have to care and love for not just Black girls and women, but Black children. R. Kelly, he's victimized people on a gender spectrum. By the way, R. Kelly himself was a victim, and there's this way that we fail and it's not disconnected to white supremacy, is not disconnected to a criminal justice system that has framed innocent Black men for sexual crimes. We know this history, it has been written about and it seems like we have to start at the beginning every generation, and that to me is exhausting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was moved by Hampton's willingness to be vulnerable, about messing up and missing the signs of Kelly's predation. I have to say, I felt that too. When I first moved to Chicago in late 1999, I started an educational enrichment program for high-achieving juniors at Kenwood Academy High School. As a newcomer to the city, I didn't know that it was the same high school R. Kelly attended as a student. I got to know the dedicated leadership there, the terrific students of the high school. So many of those young people from that program, I'm still in contact and relationship with them. Back then, I started to hear rumors and warnings, people saying, "Professor Harris, make sure you know where your kids are at all times. Make sure you're counting heads in the programs because sometimes he comes by."
Now, what I, and the entire city learned in 2000 is that the he was R. Kelly. That year, Kelly faced charges of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student from Kenwood Academy High School. That was more than 20 years ago, and like Dream Hampton, I carry a certain weight, a guilt, a knowing that we all knew that there was this open secret of abuse swirling around us. Honestly, I think most of us felt helpless.
We weren't lawyers. We didn't have the kind of evidence that you could take to court. Feeling helpless, to stop him, we just drew the children closer to us. We sought to protect them with our vigilance, with our care. Of course, we know that, for decades, there were always just enough who slipped beyond our fingertips, beyond our arms, and through the cracks and they became vulnerable to Kelly and to his abuse. Let's keep going now with Dream Hampton.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dream, you mentioned Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, bell hooks. It's a reminder that we're not just survivors as Black girls and women, we're also creators. We're not just the sum of all the horror that is occurring to our bodies and our minds and our souls. You're a creator. I'm constantly finding you backstage at events that I didn't even know you were producing. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about your joy projects, when you're doing work that maybe feels a little bit less like Black girl salvation and a little bit more like just Black girl magic?
dream hampton: Yes, I think you remember me backstage with the headphone set on, on the set of Black Girls Rock, where I got to work with Regina King this year at the Oscar. Steven Soderbergh invited me onto his team and that was so great to figure out in this moment where Derek Chauvin had just been convicted, like how to keep her buoyant and also have some to be in the moment.
I'm built for this. I'm okay dealing with the darkness in my work. I don't know if you were to look at my resume, that there'd be much evidence of joy, but in my real life, and you've been to my dinner parties. I like to cook for my friends. [chuckles]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Food, and the music like Michael Jackson. Like, "Have you been listening to this playlist? This is amazing."
dream hampton: [chuckles] Yes, I will be up till three in the morning, curating a playlist and trying to figure out what appetizers would be great with what main dish I'm serving. I mean, that's the life that I'm living and I'm trying to create some pleasure and ease in it. I began my career as, say, a writer by calling out Dr. Dre for abusing Dee Barnes.
There has been like heavy lifting and hard work, and maybe that'll change. I'm doing a piece right now for the LA Opera that is about the opposite of that, but I don't get that many opportunities to do that. It's not because I'm more courageous than anyone else, but it's because I'm willing to do that dark work. I don't know that that'll change, but I'll continue to have good playlists and great dinner parties even as I do this work. [chuckles]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dream Hampton is a filmmaker, activist and executive producer of the docu-series Surviving R. Kelly. Dream, thank you so much for joining us.
dream hampton: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We would also want to hear from you, the community of The Takeaway, and here's what you told us about your reaction to the guilty verdict.
April M: Hi, my name is April M and I'm calling from Horicon Wisconsin. Unfortunately, it took forever, but when things like this come to light, it's good to see justice. Feeling bad for the victims, of course.
Jennifer: Hi, this is Jennifer. I'm calling about the R. Kelly verdict. To me, it should have been done 20 years ago. He's been grooming girls ever since Aaliyah. To me, I hope he rots in jail for the rest of his life. I am a rape survivor. To me, this is finally a victory for us and we deserve this. Finally, it shows money does not help everything. To R. Kelly, I'm glad you got caught, and to all the victims, I hope you get the help you need.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aisha sent us a tweet saying, "Well, it's about time, regardless of their skin color, too many rich men have been getting away with so much ish. As I'm typing these words, many young women are being sexually abused just for wanting to start or advance their career. It's an ongoing issue." Thank you for tweeting to us, for calling us. It is always so good to hear from you guys. Now, remember, send us a voice memo with your thoughts at Takeawaycallers@gmail.com.
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