Few things have been as spectacular and at the same time as painstakingly slow as the apparent comeuppance of sexual abuse accused R&B maestro R Kelly.
Since the airing of Lifetime Network’s Surviving R Kelly in early January (which interviews many of the women he is said to have terrorised), the musician has been dropped by his label RCA, charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse (going as far back as 1998) and arrested and then released after paying $161 000 in child support for his three children.
And yet, dream hampton, the executive producer of Surviving R Kelly, seems more comfortable with acknowledging her complicity than with accepting any congratulations for her part in Kelly’s unravelling. A part of that has to do with the fact that Surviving R Kelly is driven by what the filmmaker and activist calls “a stacking of stories”, a process of corroboration that not only centres the survivors’ testimonies but is, in fact, solidarity in action, with more than 50 interviews ranging from parents and survivors to journalists and clinical psychologists.
Another part probably has to do with the fact that she, like the rest of us, counts herself as among those who for years were so blindly swayed by R Kelly’s artistry that we were oblivious to the moral paralysis that had begun to set in.
While writing magazine features to pay her way through college, hampton wrote what she considers to be a tame profile of the producer published in Vibe magazine in November 2000. In it, she wrote only “about his process” in making music, she told journalist Jelani Cobb in a New Yorker Radio Hour interview aired in January. “This was post marriage to Aaliyah and prior to Jim DeRogatis writing about all of his predatory behaviour and the lawsuit about him,” she said to Cobb. “I felt so wack about how that happens, like my article coming out in November and Jim DeRogatis’s reporting coming out in December, that I never wrote another magazine profile on an artist again.”
The DeRogatis article told the story of how R Kelly was, in 1996, sued for $10 million by 20-year-old Tiffany Hawkins, who claimed that the musician began sleeping with her in 1991 when she was 15 and he was 24, even coercing her to participate in group sex involving other minors. She apparently settled for $250 000 in 1998, an amount that came tied up with a nondisclosure agreement. In interviews, hampton speaks about the documentary project as both a chance to redeem herself for that article but also told the Mail & Guardian that the time spent producing the documentary series constituted some of the darkest years of her life. “Just having to, like, go home and have dreams and nightmares about it. Wake up and get back into it to watch these frames over and over again for dozens of hours, as one does when one is editing. And then to know that for people who really need to hear this — black men and black women — to know that this wasn’t going to change a lot of people’s minds at all.”
Over the course of two brief conversations, we speak about her other film projects and try to wrap our heads around this very question of why the tide of public opinion on R Kelly has taken close to 30 years to turn. “It is because he makes music,” she says. “And music gets into your bones, into your cells, into your memory. It gets into your bedroom. It gets into your love life. It gets into your memories of your mother at your braai. If you find out that there is something terrible about the person who makes the soundtrack to your life, someone like a Hugh Masekela … it would be easier to hear something about [former ANC president Oliver] Tambo than Hugh Masekela. One of them is deeper in your soul,” she says.
While Surviving R Kelly has been her most watched project, debuting with close to two million viewers when it launched on January 3, hampton maintains that she never really meant to do documentaries. “This is always my, like, this other muscle, the same muscle that makes me organise and be an activist,” she says.
She counts herself as among the generation of Americans who “became conscious about what Steve Biko would call black consciousness” because of South Africa. “My first political action was to go to a Shell [fuel station], which was near my home in Detroit,” she remembers. “On the cardboard that I had made, on one side I had done a science project, on the other side I had written ‘Boycott Shell, Free South Africa Now’. It was February in Detroit and it was very cold. So, for a lot of people in my generation, who were born in the Seventies, the work that Winnie Mandela was doing and the work that exiled ANC members were going around doing, it helped to permanently activate a lot of us.”
Her two more recent film projects, BET’s Finding Justice (which looks at six sociopolitical issues across six American cities) and HBO’s It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It, continue in this “permanently activated” vein. The latter, filmed entirely in Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional facility (a maximum security prison), is co-directed by inmates. It uses the device of the personal narrative as a way of dissecting the conditions that lead to mass incarceration in a manner that is less likely to rouse vindictiveness from the authorities. “That has its limitations too,” says hampton. “When you are inside there are always guards who are always watching everything. And if you have a systemic analysis they will hold it against you when it is time to go for parole or bail. So one of the things that they [the inmates] were able to do through this telling of their own biographies was to talk about the conditions that led up to the crime and the harm that it caused in their communities. So in that way we were able to sneak in systemic analysis in this way of autobiography, which many people have done. I mean, this is why Malcolm X kind of walks us through his life [in his autobiography], not because his life is so much different than any other black man in the early 20th century, but because when he talks of his father being attacked by the [Ku Klux] Klan, he is talking about a post-war reality for blacks that led to the rise of the systemic terror that was the Klan.”
For now, though, hampton is seeking a break from projects steeped in reality, confessing a yearning for something that can transport her back into her imagination.
She cannot field a question about Paul Beatty and Black Lives Matter. The rental that she had been organising on another line has arrived. Hopefully, it will make a quick stop inside her imagination. For, I suspect, she may never be able to shake her permanent activation.