Lizzette Martinez never imagined ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ would be this big
The premiere of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part Lifetime docuseries on the R&B superstar’s decades of reported sexual abuse and exploitation, was only hours away. But Lizzette Martinez still didn’t know if she wanted to watch it or not.
Last month, Martinez had been invited to a private screening of the series in New York City, where she was supposed to be able to see the work surrounded by her fellow survivors. But seven minutes after someone pushed play, a gun threat forced the organizers to evacuate the facility. So by the time the series was set to air, Martinez still didn’t know how the project had turned out, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to find out at the same time as the entire world.
Her anxiety was intense. As Martinez put it to ThinkProgress by phone from Los Angeles, she was ruminating on questions about the docuseries and her role in it. “How am I going to be perceived to the world? Is it going to be a positive thing? Was it worth it? Is change going to happen? Is he going to be really held accountable? Or is this just going to be some tabloid thing that’s everywhere again, and nothing really happens?”
Martinez first came forward in May 2018. In a BuzzFeed story reported by Jim DeRogatis (the journalist who, almost 20 years ago, broke the story about Kelly’s alleged serial sexual predation of girls as young as 15), Martinez described how she met Kelly in 1995 at the Aventura Mall in Miami when she was 17 years old. At the time, she was still a senior in high school but already interested in music. A cheerleader, she performed in an all-girls R&B trio called Sweet Sensations.
Her relationship with Kelly began when his bodyguard pressed a balled-up piece of paper with star’s phone number on it into Martinez’s palm. “Music was my joy,” Martinez says in the docuseries. “So I felt like my dreams were going to come true.”
Kelly, who was 28 years old at the time, knew Martinez was a minor. As Martinez describes in the series, Kelly took her virginity at a party after members of his crew gave her alcohol until she was drunk. Martinez said Kelly hit her on five occasions and repeatedly pressured her into engaging in sexual acts she did not want to perform. Kelly was married at the time, though Martinez didn’t know it. (Kelly’s ex-wife, Andrea, is interviewed at length in Surviving R. Kelly as well.)
Martinez became pregnant with Kelly’s child, she said, and he wanted her to terminate the pregnancy — even though, as a devout Catholic, she didn’t believe in abortion. When she miscarried, she couldn’t get him on the phone. When complications from mononucleosis she got from Kelly landed her in the hospital, Kelly, again, was nowhere to be found. She ended the relationship in 1999. After some consideration, Martinez decided against pursuing legal action against Kelly.
“I didn’t sue him when I was young because I was not going to be silenced,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to talk about it then. But I knew this day was going to come.”
In Martinez’s estimation, the BuzzFeed piece that broke her story “went under the radar,” prompting little public response. Maybe it got lost in the #MeToo swirl. The day before her piece came out, the Washington Post published an investigation into Charlie Rose that included new allegations against the CBS anchor by 27 women. Three days after the BuzzFeed piece went live, a New Yorker investigation revealed four women accusing New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman — a Democrat and, to all the world, champion of women’s equality — of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence. Within hours, Schneiderman had resigned; his story, interlaced as it was with Democratic party politics and his office’s prosecution of Harvey Weinstein, dominated the news cycle for days.
Not so with Surviving R. Kelly. “It’s everywhere,” Martinez said. “I never imagined it would be this big.” Lifetime reports that the series reached 18.8 million total viewers over its initial airing and generated 1.4 million total interactions across social media, a historic high for the network. The series will be aired again in its entirety on Friday, January 11.
“Now, my name is everywhere,” Martinez said. “I’m in the first episode, so that’s even harder. I’m the first survivor they’re going to hear from. So you feel good about it, because my story is out there. But it’s totally overwhelming.”
The night before the premiere, online attacks from Kelly’s supporters were already pouring into Martinez’s inbox. She’d been on Twitter reading the comments. “His fans are the worst,” she said. “And it’s not the men. It’s the women. Which makes you feel even worse.”
Martinez, who is Puerto Rican, said the venom from women of color has been “so disheartening.” She’s gotten messages in which people incorrectly identify her as a white woman and tell her, “You need to worry about white men.” She’s seen black women rallying for one another, but “where are the Latinas?” she asked.
A few weeks before the premiere of the docuseries, someone tried to break into her house. “So I can only imagine what’s going to happen after tonight.” She said she told Lifetime about the attempted break-in, “and they said they were going to come up with some sort of solution, but I never heard from them again.” (Lifetime responded to several questions from ThinkProgress about this incident and the safety issues for survivors with a statement: “Lifetime has been engaged with security concerns throughout the production of Surviving R. Kelly.”)
Days after the premiere, a page “Surviving Lies,” reportedly created by Kelly’s camp, went up on Facebook. Threatening to methodically “expose” Kelly’s accusers as frauds, its first target was Asante McGee, who has spoken publicly about being a “sex slave” of Kelly’s. It revealed McGee’s arrest record and claimed McGee was working with Timothy Savage — who says his daughter, Joycelyn, has been “brainwashed” by Kelly and lives with him still — to extort Kelly. By Monday, the page was taken down. And according to a police report, Kelly’s manager, Don Russell, has been threatening Timothy Savage. His alleged ultimatum: Stop participating in Surviving R. Kelly or Russell would release information that would “ruin him, his reputation, businesses, and family, because it would show him a liar.”
Martinez remains concerned for her own safety, but she’s even more worried about the young women who are still in Kelly’s house, “because I feel like he’s losing his mind and he’s a very dangerous person.”
“And you know, I know that it’s hard for his fans,” Martinez said. “I said that in the film. I understand that. I get it. But when are you going to start listening? This has been going on for how long? We all have the same story [about] the same predator? When is the world going to wake up and listen?”
The issue with R. Kelly is that people have been listening — to R. Kelly.
Hyperbolic appreciations of Kelly’s vocal talents are threaded throughout Surviving R. Kelly, which premiered over the weekend. Take music producer Craig Williams, who admits he failed to intervene in any way while he witnessed and facilitated Kelly’s sexual pursuit of children for years. “He really reminded me of Marvin Gaye, of Sam Cooke,” Williams says. “A legend.” Renowned concert choir director Lena McLin, who watched Kelly linger around Kenwood Academy High School picking up girls and whose only indictment of her former star student comes in a single sentence at the very end of the series (“I hope Robert is trying to get his sins together”) speaks with zealous conviction about Kelly’s artistic prowess. Even as a teenager, she recalls, “He was musically genius material.”
What do we do with the theoretically singular and indispensable gifts of men who also happen to be predators? Among diehard fans of some artistic icons, a belief persists that the talent of one man is such a rare and precious resource that must be preserved at any cost. “Separate the artist from the art,” they advise. As if it were so simple, like the latter can be surgically extricated from the body that produced it so as to be cherished all by itself, stripped of its context and consequence.
But with Kelly, the idea of such clean division feels particularly absurd. His music — and the success it brought — lured in victims, charmed a distractible press, and enabled his reportedly prolific and ongoing violence. His art acted as a smokescreen and a bluff. It was too pure, too close to gospel, to possibly be the work of a predator; or it was too outrageous, too in-your-face-filthy, to be lifted from Kelly’s actual life.
Meanwhile, the girls he sought out were vulnerable because they, like Kelly, were hungry and talented. They, like Kelly, had musical abilities they wanted to share with audiences. To look at the women who identify as survivors of Kelly’s abuse is to see a generation of young, female artists whose gifts were systematically squandered, a class of would-be stars whose careers sputtered and died under Kelly’s control. Sweet-talked away from a table at McDonald’s, scooped up at the mall, smacked down just as they were ready to rise. They’ll never know what would have happened to them if Kelly hadn’t intervened in their lives, and neither will anyone else.
When Martinez met Kelly, she said, “I had a life. I had school, I was an aspiring singer-actress. I had my little thing going on. And at the end of it, I had nothing.”
For Surviving R. Kelly, Martinez was interviewed by showrunner dream hampton for hours. “I went into a lot of stuff that I hadn’t spoken about in years. Even to BuzzFeed, I wasn’t so in-depth.” She shared some memories that are “hard to even say out loud.”
And for all of the docuseries’ flaws — its occasional reliance on reality TV stylistic flourishes and sound effects, some sequences that feel graphic or invasive — the testimony of Martinez and survivors like her is its undeniable strength. It is a necessary corollary to the campaign to #MuteRKelly: An effort to amplify the voices of Kelly’s victims and their families.
“Mentally, I’m just trying to stay focused on the reason why I came out and told this story,” Martinez said. “Because I could have just kept on with my life as I have been, even though it has affected me and I think about it constantly, all the time. I came out for these girls. You take all the backlash and bullshit that comes along with this, and I go back to why I did it, and that just keeps me going every day. Because we got out. We’re survivors. But the bigger story is that there’s still girls there.”
Azriel Clary and Joycelyn Savage are still living with Kelly. Their parents, who are interviewed in Surviving R. Kelly, say their daughters are being held against their will in what BuzzFeed described as a “cult.” The Clarys say they have not heard from their daughter, who met Kelly at age 17, since she graduated from high school in 2016. The Savages say they have not seen their daughter since December 2016. Their only communication with Joycelyn has been scattered text messages. She’s given interviews to TMZ that her parents say appear rehearsed. They believe their daughter has been “brainwashed” by Kelly.
Martinez said she speaks with the Clarys and the Savages “on a daily basis.” Before the docuseries, she said, those parents “weren’t really taken seriously. The Savages, for almost two years, have been trying to get people to understand what’s going on and what they’re fighting for, and I feel like the movie did them and the Clarys the most justice. Because it’s easy for people to say, ‘You know how he was.’ But if you watch the movie, he basically kidnapped these girls.”
Martinez ultimately decided to watch the series. She had two friends with her, friends who told her that she should watch it and be proud of it. So she did. She’d watch for a while, then get up, because sometimes it would be too much. She doesn’t like watching herself. “And then you’re reliving stuff,” she said. “And it was not easy.”
When she was done with the whole series, she said, she felt “bittersweet.” Uplifting music plays over the faces of the survivors as the finale ends, and it definitely feels “empowering,” she said. “But my heart was still kind of broken, because those girls still aren’t out. Those parents are going through so much.”
The backlash to her story, Martinez said, continues with intensity. “I get called a liar, cursed at. All kind of messages. But I’ll tell you what: It’s not as many as the love I’m getting, so it’s okay.”
Abuse survivors and people who are currently experiencing abuse have been reaching out to her, she said. She’s able to give them numbers to call, the resources they need. “They’re thanking me, and maybe this has helped a lot of people.” The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one of the nation’s leading sexual assault hotlines, reported a 20 percent surge in calls over the days Surviving R. Kelly was airing.
It’s a good thing, she said. But it’s a lot. “I put myself out there for others, and I’m not in the right frame of mind at the moment right now to help everyone. People message me and I don’t want to leave them hanging, so it’s become like a job to me right now. Not saying that i don’t want to, it’s just a bit overwhelming. I’m a compassionate person and I know what they’re feeling, but it’s also hard on me.”
“Some days I do feel like, okay, this is great. I’m showing strength. And all that,” she said. “But then some days when you’re online and you hear all this nonsense, the attacks… I start to think, why did I get involved in this? I never thought it would be this big and this emotionally draining.”
She doesn’t regret appearing in the docuseries, but she is ready to take a step back. “These past few days have been very rough on me. And the nightmares… I need to take care of myself.” Down the line, she plans to write a book about her experiences. This stretch, with BuzzFeed and Lifetime and the experience of going public, will be called “The Aftermath.”
She hopes Kelly is “brought to justice.” And perhaps her hopes will be realized. On Tuesday, three days after the Surviving R. Kelly finale, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into the allegations made against Kelly in the docuseries. According to TMZ, investigators “were flooded with calls” after the show aired.
In the meantime, Martinez expects that “there’s going to be a lot more women coming out that maybe were afraid to speak up [before]. I think we gave them that strength.”
“When it gets overwhelming, when you get a lot of calls, and you’re hearing the drama all day, and the threats from his camp, I say to myself: Maybe I shouldn’t have done this to myself,” she said. “But feelings are not fact. That’s the feeling I’m having at that moment because it’s becoming overwhelming and I’m getting anxiety over it. But then I recenter myself and say, the movie wasn’t only about you. There’s power in numbers, and I’m not the only one that shared all that pain, so I need to remember that. That I’m not standing there alone.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit the Online Hotline, y en español a rainn.org/es.