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Five takeaways from the new film about R. Kelly’s alleged abusive sex cult

Filmmaker Ben Zand tells us what he uncovered when making his documentary about the cases brought against the R&B star

People talk about the #MeToo movement as though the fall of Harvey Weinstein marks the end of open secrets about abusive men in the entertainment industry. However, one documentarian feels there is over a decade of allegations levelled against one of music’s biggest stars that seemingly still go unaddressed.

In R. Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes, Ben Zand follows a dark trail of allegations against Kelly dating back to the 90s. In particular, he looks at the latest accusations that came to light in a BuzzFeed article alleging that R. Kelly is holding multiple young women captive – most of them 19 or in their early 20s – in various properties around the US. On Zand’s journey he spoke to R. Kelly’s ex-girlfriends, who claimed to have been trained to be one of his “pets” in his “sex dungeon”. The women who currently live there claim they are acting of their own free will, however their families are fighting for their release. One of these “pets” is thought to have been with R. Kelly since she was 14. 

“I used to be a big R. Kelly fan growing up, he was my favourite artist”, Zand explains to Dazed over the phone. “R. Kelly has this reputation of being a bit strange, but I don't necessarily think that people realise how serious the allegations are.” We caught up with Zand to retrace the steps of his journey into Kelly's cult, and find out what he learned about the case.

KELLY'S VICTIMS FEEL SILENCED

Ben Zand: “The film starts with a lady called Kenyette Tisha Barnes, one of the main figureheads of the #MuteRKelly movement – she felt that the fact these were black women has allowed many to turn a blind eye.

“A lady called Kitty told me she used to be in a relationship with R. Kelly and was in his sex cult. He allegedly forced her to have sex with numerous women in the cult who he called his ‘pets’, and was abusive. These are serious allegations. She says that he trained a 14-year-old girl – she wasn't a child by the time Kitty was there, but that she had been with R. Kelly since she was. Then she became his ‘pet’. It was a hard film to make.

“Pretty much every single African-American lady that I spoke to felt that there is little media appetite or action because they are black victims. And in most cases working class. They're all quite poor, a lot of them are from poor areas of Chicago and as a consequence, they just do not feel listened to at all.”

HE’S DODGED MULTIPLE CASES AGAINST HIM

Ben Zand: “We spoke to an attorney of Jocelyn Savage’s family, she is one of the girls is that is supposedly in a relationship with (Kelly). Her family say that she's being kept there, and in her TMZ interview she was being quite unusual. She was saying that she's fine but was not prepared to give her location away.

“During the making of our film, one of R. Kelly's girlfriends, Halle Calhoun, was supposedly just about to come out and Gerald Griggs, the attorney, thought this was going to be a huge breakthrough. Halle and Jocelyn supposedly had some quite revealing, and damaging things to say. He was preparing to basically make some form of a criminal case and it all fell through, as it has done many times. It all pins on this thing of having a victim who comes out within the statute of limitations, who has adequate evidence to actually be able to bring about a criminal case, and give the state enough confidence that a prosecution will happen. That hasn't happened yet and it doesn't look like it's going to happen in the near future.

“Pretty much every single African-American lady that I spoke to felt that there is little media appetite or action because they are black victims” – Ben Zand

“In the early 00s, possibly the biggest allegation was a videotape (a homemade sex tape, allegedly with a 14-year-old girl). That came close to being used as evidence of all of these claims, but he was acquitted.

“R. Kelly has taken a very interesting approach in not apologising for anything and not remotely addressing it. It’s really worked for him. He has never expressed any form of guilt, he's not saying sorry to anyone. So even when allegations have popped up, they have died down. A lot of the people we have been speaking to are like: ‘what is the point of doing an interview? Every time we do it, no-one cares.’ There’s a feeling of helplessness. I do think eventually he will have to address it, the question is when.”

KELLY IS REALLY OPEN ABOUT HIS LIFESTYLE

Ben Zand: “We spoke to a guy called James who used to work in R. Kelly's studio. He worked with him for years and revealed he even had a bedroom in his studio where women would go and have sex with him for days. They wouldn't leave the studio, and then eventually they would get escorted out by one of his interns, who would get them a taxi home. When he was making the song ‘Feeling on Your Booty’, in the studio were two girls who were basically naked, bent over in front of him, and he was using that as inspiration.

“Rocky Bivens started out with R. Kelly as one of his assistants, and then moved up to managing his life. He went to Aaliyah and R. Kelly’s wedding – something which hasn't been confirmed before. Aaliyah was 15, R. Kelly was about 27, which obviously says quite a lot. But, Rocky Bivens still knows (Kelly). He manages a band now called Xscape, and he is putting on an event with Xscape and R. Kelly at the moment. He says, pretty much without a doubt, that R. Kelly has a problem with underage girls, given his marriage to Aaliyah, and the word paedophile was mentioned. It’s shocking just how willing people around him are to basically expose him.”

THE MUSIC INDUSTRY IS COMPLICIT

Ben Zand: “What struck me is that it's just an extension of a culture that existed. I was told about parties he had where men were running a train on women. There was an occasion when (studio engineer James Lee) went to one of the parties, and one of R. Kelly's best friends tried to force a girl to give James a blowjob and the girl said, ‘I don't want to do it, I don't blow white guys’, and then he said ‘You have to do it because this guy's my boy.’ It's just this realisation that when somebody is famous, so many are willing to take advantage of a situation. The music industry has a lot to answer for, and I would assume that that is going to get more and more coverage.

“His mind has been completely warped by years and years of 'yes men', people telling him everything is fine, I think he just probably doesn't even realise the extent of the situation. It's nearly 20 years of allegations and he is still operating. We went to one of his concerts in the film and there is this bit he does quite frequently. He stands at the front of the stage and gets women to rub his genitals with a towel, then they rub his tongue, then they bite his genitals through his jeans – he is not trying to tone down his sexual appearance.

“One of the most shocking things is the industry’s reliance on non-disclosure agreements to push things under the carpet. It does seem in many cases, that money is justice, in the US especially. If you are rich and powerful and have a lot of influence, you really can create your own narrative and shut people up. There's one lady who we spoke to who didn't make it in the film, but she's an artist. When she is trying to get studio time they’ll ask her for sexual favours in exchange.”

HIS BEHAVIOUR IS LIKELY TO BE THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Ben Zand: “Put it this way, R. Kelly is signed to a record label owned by Sony, and he has made music with some of the biggest artists that have ever been. He has written music for Michael Jackson. So if these allegations turn out to be true, you then have to think, how many people could have known about this? How come no one has ever said anything about this? What is everyone else doing? If – and I say if because I cannot say he is guilty – but if the allegations turned out to be true, then a lot of people have to answer a lot of questions.”

Watch the documentary on BBC Three here