MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, a disturbing story about an R&B superstar. For years, Robert Kelly, better known as R. Kelly, was at the top of the R&B charts. Many of his songs were raunchy, and his performances were infused with sexual overtones, but some of his other hits were so popular, so mainstream, they became a staple of graduations and church services.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it...
MARTIN: But there was a side to R. Kelly that was not an act, and that is the focus of a three-part documentary that started airing this week on Lifetime. It's called "Surviving R. Kelly," and it describes in graphic detail the singer's alleged pursuit of teenaged girls over decades, with painful accounts of the physical and psychological abuse they say they experienced from him. R. Kelly was prosecuted in 2008 in connection with one such allegation involving a 14-year-old girl. He was acquitted after the alleged victim refused to testify.
And to this day, R. Kelly continues to deny allegations of such conduct. Lifetime has aired two episodes, with the third and final installments set to air tonight. And we should mention here, as the filmmakers do, that this subject matter may be very upsetting for some listeners.
Having said that, I started my conversation with executive producer Dream Hampton by asking her why she wanted to make this film. And she talked about the #MeToo movement.
DREAM HAMPTON: We've watched, like, really powerful men be taken down by really credible allegations about decades of really bad behavior. I'm talking Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, obviously Harvey Weinstein.
MARTIN: But Dream Hampton says R. Kelly's name has not come up, and it should.
HAMPTON: And for those of us who are from that generation, that is remarkable that one of our most egregious offenders is just not in the conversation at all. And I thought it was important that he, you know, that we have a reckoning with who he has been and continues to be.
MARTIN: There are a number of explosive allegations in this film. And I do want to point out that the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, has very aggressively covered R. Kelly over the years. But it's your contention that most people still don't know the full picture of this person.
HAMPTON: Well, it's Jim DeRogatis who has been - and relentless and was publishing in places outside of the Sun-Times when they became disinterested. To this day, these girls are still not able to talk to their parents. And we know that they are being abused, that they are being denied food, denied movement, denied contact with their families. And that's happening right now in 2019.
MARTIN: You are referring to the fact that girls who are of age, even though they are the legal age of consent, it is alleged that they are being essentially held as captives. It's almost like a cult-like situation.
HAMPTON: Yes. And, Michel, one of the girls, Azriel Clar, who he still has to this day, was 17, which is not the legal age of consent in Florida and may be the only possible case against him in the present.
MARTIN: Now, I'm going to hold that thought for a minute and get to the allegation that he has pursued very young girls for a very long time, almost throughout his adult life. And you speak to one woman named Lisa Van Allen who says that she, from the age of 17, was basically used as - what would you say? - a sex slave of his or she was induced into sexual relationships with an under-aged girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SURVIVING R. KELLY")
LISA VAN ALLEN: When I figured out that I had had sex with a 14-year-old, it made me feel betrayed because he lied to me and told me she was 16, which would have been close to my age. And it also made me question his motives. I mean, the fact that he lied about her age to me told me that he obviously knew that wasn't OK for her to be younger.
HAMPTON: That girl ended up being the girl on the tape.
MARTIN: And the tape is what, for those who don't know?
HAMPTON: It's a horrific tape. It's one that I avoided when it went kind of viral in the streets in 2000, 2001 because I knew that it was child pornography.
MARTIN: Dream Hampton says she set out to document how R. Kelly lured aspiring singers into inappropriate sexual relationships through their mutual love of music, a pattern she suggests may have begun with Aaliyah, a rising star who tragically died in a plane crash in 2001. R. Kelly married Aaliyah when she was only 15, and he was 27. The marriage was later annulled. Dream Hampton notes, though, that not all the young women were superstars in the making.
HAMPTON: While, yes, he did target aspiring singers, he also basically has a pattern of choosing regular black girls who don't look, you know, who aren't the most glamorous, who aren't coming in, like, super sexy. In fact, we have, you know, stories from Jim DeRogatis's reporting and from the girls' testimony of him as actually making them dress less sexy. And he operates - you were talking about a cult. I would say it's far closer to like a sex-trafficking ring.
So, you know, he chooses girls that a lot of his fans dismiss and disbelieve. And for all kinds of complicated and historical reasons, we don't believe. We don't necessarily believe that, you know, black girls - we don't afford them innocence in the same way we don't afford black boys innocence. And, you know, police will tell you that they thought Tamir Rice was 16 instead of 12. We do the same thing to black girls.
MARTIN: The other thing that the film does is describe the network of people who enabled the behavior. I mean, in the film, we hear how staff members used to go out and give his number to certain girls whom he had identified. And I wonder, what do you hope that people will learn from your discussion of their conduct?
HAMPTON: Well, on one hand, it's more evidence of how he, himself, has created an ecosystem. I mean, the girls talk about receiving rules. And very quickly, they understand who's in the ecosystem. But it made me think of men who are abusive, men who are guilty of statutory rape, men who prey on young girls belong to families. You know, they are our cousins, our brothers, you know. And we just have not had the conversations about what it looks like. And, quite frankly, this is a conversation that, you know, men need to be having with one another about what it looks like to hold each other accountable.
MARTIN: You know, we've been following Twitter, of course, over the last couple of days. Some people are saying it just doesn't matter. You know, there's the art and then there's the artist, and his behavior shouldn't be part of the equation. And what would you say to people who believe that?
HAMPTON: With music in particular, unlike other art forms, we connect it not to the artist necessarily but to moments in our life - you know, to our graduation, to our wedding, to our family reunion. And I get that. But what we'd like to do is deny them this ability to say that he's innocent, so that if you're going to be a supporter of him, then you're not going to be able to tell us he's innocent.
MARTIN: That was Dream Hampton, the executive producer of the Lifetime documentary "Surviving R. Kelly." Dream Hampton, thank you so much for talking with us.
HAMPTON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.