In Lifetime’s new documentary Surviving R. Kelly many interviewed bring forth strong accusations against the singer once crowned the King of R&B, alleging sexual misconduct that dates back to the early ’90s and his relationship with late R&B star Aaliyah.
The shocking 6-part docu-series is built upon wide-ranging interviews with many of R. Kelly’s former friends, family members and colleagues, but most notably, women who claim that for decades the hit-making singer and producer used his power and influence to sexually and physically abuse women and young girls.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, eight who escaped his world – or tried to help loved ones they say were trapped – share their harrowing stories. Representatives for the 52-year-old star, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, responded “no comment” to PEOPLE’s request for a response to the allegations made in Surviving R. Kelly and our interviews.
The documentary’s first episode, airing Thursday, Jan. 3, includes an emotional interview with former backup singer Jovante Cunningham, who met R. Kelly at age 14 and claims she bore direct witness to his sexual encounters with underaged girls in the ’90s, including his one-time protégée Aaliyah Haughton.
“Aaliyah [was] very tom-boyish, glasses, braces, no swag,” Cunningham describes of meeting the 12-year-old aspiring singer who became acquainted with R. Kelly through her uncle Barry Hankerson, his manager at the time.
“She truly was a beautiful young lady. We used to sneak Aaliyah out of the hotel room and take her all over the place,” says Cunningham. Aaliyah would go on to make it big with her debut R. Kelly-penned single “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” “Those were the good old days,” says the former backup singer, “but those are the things that also make you cry.”
During her interview, Cunningham breaks down recalling when she claims to have discovered her boss R. Kelly, then 27, and Aaliyah, then age 15, had a sexual relationship.
“We were out on the road with Aaliyah,” she says. “On a tour bus, there really aren’t many confined spaces. When you get on the bus there are bunks and so these bunks have little curtains you can pull at night if you don’t want anybody to see you sleeping.”
“So it just so happened we were all laying in our bunks and the curtains are open, everybody’s communicating, laughing,” Cunningham continues. “When the [room] door flew open on the bus. Robert was having sex with Aaliyah.”
Asked what she saw, Cunningham responds: “Things that an adult should not be doing with a child.” She adds, “I can’t stress to you how people are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago.”
In 1994 it was widely reported that R. Kelly and Aaliyah had secretly gotten married and news outlets made public a marriage certificate that listed Aaliyah’s age as 18, though she would have been 15 at the time.
R. Kelly and Aaliyah never addressed the reports about the nature of their relationship, but in the documentary, his former personal assistant Demetrius Smith claims he was present at the wedding and admits to obtaining false documents for underaged Aaliyah.
“Robert came to me, we were in Miami,” recalls Smith. “Robert said, ‘Man we got Aaliyah in trouble’.” After asking what was the problem, Smith says he got a heartbreaking answer: “Robert mentioned to me that ‘I think she’s pregnant’. That broke my heart right there because I really believed him when he said that he wasn’t messing with Aaliyah…Once he told me that I was at a loss for words.”
Smith goes on to claim, “I was in the room when they got married. I’m not proud of that. I had papers forged for them when Aaliyah was underaged. It was just a quick little ceremony, she didn’t have on a white dress he didn’t have on a tux. Just every day wear. She looked worried and scared.”
The marriage was reportedly annulled within the year. “Her parents had the last say,” says Smith. Aaliyah’s career continued to soar until the star died tragically in a plane crash in 2001.
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R. Kelly also continued to top the charts, but in 2002 he was indicted after a video surfaced allegedly showing a man engaged in sex acts with a woman who some witnesses testified was 14 at the time of the recording. Both R. Kelly and the woman denied that the video was of them, and R. Kelly was never charged with assault. In 2008, R. Kelly was found not guilty on 21 counts of child pornography.
A report from BuzzFeed News released in July 2017 alleged that R. Kelly has kept at least six women in his Chicago and Georgia properties who allegedly fulfill his desires and are punished if they break any of his “rules.” Amid these allegations — which have never led to formal charges — women’s rights organization Time’s Up along with stars like Ava DuVernay and John Legend have called for a boycott of his music with #MuteRKelly.
For more powerful stories from alleged victims of R. Kelly, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now.
Surviving R. Kelly airs on Lifetime at 9 p.m. ET from Thursday, Jan. 3 through Saturday, Jan. 5.
If you or someone you know think they are being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now for anonymous, confidential help, available 24/7.