Maker of BBC’s controversial new R Kelly film: “I hope R Kelly watches it”

R Kelly: Sex, Girls, & Videotapes is available on iPlayer now

For more than 20 years, R Kelly has been the focus of extremely serious allegations of sex with underage women. In 2002 footage emerged that appeared to show him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. When he was 27, it was widely rumoured that he had illegally married Aaliyah when she was just 15. Just last year, allegations were made that the R&B icon was running a “sex cult“.

As his shocking hour-long documentary R Kelly: Sex, Girls, & Videotapes arrives on BBC iPlayer, NME caught up with documentarian Ben Zand to discuss its contents.

At what point did you decide this was the next documentary you wanted to make?

Basically after the #MeToo campaign. R Kelly was a guy I’d liked for a long time, but equally I’d heard for a long time a lot of allegations around him, starting at school. Stories about him weeing on women. As a kid I always thought it was a bit of a joke – I didn’t understand it. And then after the allegations came out last summer I wondered why R Kelly was seemingly exempt from consequences – if the allegations are true. Because his allegations are arguably worse or more plentiful than a lot of people who’ve been outed in the #MeToo campaign. He’s still making music, and he’s making music with some of the biggest artists to this day.

Was it difficult to track down your interviewees? Were people willing to talk?

It’s a mixture. It wasn’t necessarily difficult to find people who had something to say about R Kelly, but it was quite difficult to get them to go on camera. Some were really keen to talk because they hadn’t spoken to him for years and what they claimed to have seen many years ago had been on their minds, and they wanted to speak out about it. But a lot of people who are still close to R Kelly are obviously very much still in his circle. He’s a successful man, they’re on his books, so there are a lot of people who did not want to speak because they feared they’d lose their connection with R Kelly. And there’s also a lot of people who wanted money to talk. Obviously we don’t pay anybody so they weren’t in the film in the end.

What was the most difficult interview you had to do? 

I’d probably say two. Kitty, obviously, because her story is just amazingly depressing: she says she was forced to have sex on more than 10 occasions when she didn’t want to. Obviously they were all allegations but she alleges that she was hit by R Kelly, and she describes this horrible situation – this sex dungeon. It’s depressing to hear about that and she was visibly saddened by it, and by the fact that she felt as if no one really cared about her story. She felt like, because she was an African-American woman, she didn’t have as much of an ability to speak out – people didn’t care about her story as much.

The other one was James, the studio manager. Just because of the culture he described around R Kelly in the studio. He talks about parties where men were running a train on the women. He talks about R Kelly in the studio: when he was recording ‘Feelin’ On Yo Booty’, he got two women to come in and bend down in front of him, basically naked, for about two hours while he was recording it. Just the culture around it is very shocking. It’s quite sinister.

Did it surprise you that R Kelly’s brother Carey didn’t want to say anything negative to you?

It was quite surprising, mainly because he had in the past spoken out against R Kelly numerous times. With Carey it was a very difficult thing trying to figure out whether he was doing this because he wanted to get back in R Kelly’s life – you know, R Kelly is a rich man, Carey is not. Also he’s an aspiring artist – maybe he thinks his brother can help him. Maybe he’s rescinded a few of the things he once thought as a consequence of that.

Will anything happen to R Kelly based off these allegations?

The question is: how much further will this go? He’s had allegations now for 20 years or more, there’s a guy in the film who claims that he married Aaliyah when she was 15, and R Kelly was 27. There’s numerous women who have come out and claimed that they were pretty much forced to have sex, which is rape. The question is: would any of those women be prepared to try and bring about a criminal case? And that is very hard for a lot of these women. You’re going up against a man who has a lot of money. Many years on, they don’t really want to drag themselves through the courts, and that’s why there’s been so many NDAs I suppose. Money is justice to a lot of people. R Kelly’s faced allegations for a long time and he’s still making music, he’s still signed to a record label and he’s still working with huge artists.

Do you think his portrayal on shows like South Park have an effect on how people view him?

I think the fact that from his whole sex-tape video – when it came out [in 2002]… you have to look at what that was claiming to be. The accusations of that were that he was having sex with a 14-year-old girl. But from that, in society and pop-culture, all that was really taken away was that he likes to pee on women. He was acquitted, he was found not guilty, but from that, Dave Chapelle did a mock-parody of it. For some reason it has been trivialised to a degree. I also think that, because one of the worst allegations that he’s had was so long ago, people have maybe forgotten about it, or they’ve heard a lot about it and have already made their decision on R Kelly – that he kind of exists in this strange realm.

And it’s not like he came out and apologised for anything – he hasn’t really addressed it or spoken out about it, he didn’t speak to us for the film, so he’s chosen a tactic of silence and it seems to be working. What happens when the allegations come out – they reasonably quickly die because he doesn’t address it, and that’s why I think it’s important to make a film like this, because we’re re-evaluating the allegations, we’re painting the full picture, allowing people to make up their own minds. I really do think that the time has come where R Kelly needs to address it because they are very serious allegations and very serious questions need to be answered.

Do you hope he watches the film?

Yeah. I hope he addresses the allegations. I can’t say for sure whether he’s guilty or not guilty but what I can say is that he needs to answer the questions. We gave him an opportunity to be in the film, and at first it seemed like he might be in the film, and then they just went completely cold. I believe everybody has the right to voice their opinion of a situation. I hope he does watch it and I hope he does an interview. I’ll happily interview him.