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Tamra Simmons and the Making of “Surviving R. Kelly”

Ahead of the premiere of Surviving R. Kelly: The Final Chapter, Boardroom caught up with its executive producer to discuss the series, the protection of Black women, and what it takes to create a captivating show around a controversial topic.

On the ground activism beyond performative reasoning, willing participants and subjects, inarguable facts, and a compelling story of justice that brings the voice to many silenced survivors. These are just some of the key components that make Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. From the parents of Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary to choreographer and ex-wife Drea Kelly, the multipart installments carefully handle the anecdotes of each survivor and gives them both a safe space and a platform to tell their story without having to pardon any interruptions from the chaotic media frenzies.

Following the first 2019 installment of Surviving R. Kelly, the six-part documentary series instantly took on a life of its own, forcing the media, bystanders, and supporters of the singer-songwriter’s career to open their eyes and no longer turn a blind one to the situation at hand. Within weeks of its debut on Lifetime, RCA Records cut ties with their former label signee. The following month, prosecutors in Illinois’ Cook County filed multiple charges against him for aggravated sexual assault, including three underaged women.

Enter executive producer Tamra Simmons, who has dedicated the last few years of her career to the ideation and creation of the triggering, thought-provoking, and earth-shattering series. The series later earned a Primetime Emmy nod for Outstanding Informational Series or Special, which credited producers Simmons, Joel Karsberg, Dream Hampton, Jesse Daniels, Brie Miranda Bryant, Jessica Everleth, and Maria Pepin. Following the success of Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, Simmons inked a development deal with Blue Ant Studios to identify and develop a slate of unscripted projects, as reported by Deadline. Other notable projects of Simmons include WeTV’s Growing Up Hip-Hop and Growing Up Hip-Hop: Atlanta, and Words of Wisdom: Faith & Forgiveness.

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For Surviving R. Kelly: The Final Chapter, the documentary series dives into the 2021 trial which resulted in his conviction and a sentence of 30 years in prison for charges including racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping, and forced labor. With commentary from #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, comedienne and actress Amanda Seales, and HuffPost’s Black Voices editor Taryn Finley, the final arc of the story illustrates the monumental impact of the series and how it served as an agent of change when there was no meaningful progress.

In an exclusive interview with Boardroom, Simmons discussed the production of complex storytelling, how to protect the emotional and mental wellness of the survivors, and what projects are next on the horizon as she closes out the final chapters of the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries.

D’Shonda Brown: How did the initial production and ideation of Surviving R. Kelly come about?

Tamra Simmons: I think it was back in 2017. There were allegations that were coming out, a lot of articles, and so I thought, “we’re still talking about this like 10 years later.”

I realized that it’s actually [about] these parents trying to get their daughters back from R. Kelly. With me being in Atlanta and they were in Atlanta, I reached out to different resources to get in contact with the family to see if I could help them with anything since I’m a mother as well. It kind of started from that for me, just being a researcher and wanting to know what exactly is going on. When I was informed of what was going on, that’s when I was like, “okay, no, something’s going on here.” When I met the family, they actually told me about the other women so that’s how it really started.

It didn’t start like a television production project type of thing but me being in television, of course I had connections because I realized that a lot of Black women weren’t actually speaking out about the #MeToo movement and things like that. I didn’t see Black women’s voices being heard, but I know as a culture, we actually kind of wanna put things on the back burner or hush hush and keep things behind closed doors. I felt that there was power in numbers. These women were all coming forward, but they didn’t know about each other, but they had similar stories, so that’s how I really started.

DB: How did you go around shopping the docuseries and eventually landing it at Lifetime?

TS: We just do normal development and at the time, we had two families and I think it was maybe three women. It was one of those things where we’re just like, “this needs to be on a bigger platform and a platform that supports women,” and Lifetime was one of the choices that we had. We’re very pleased with that.

Tim and JonJelyn Savage in Surviving R. Kelly: The Final Chapter premiering January 2 at 9/8c

DB: In your opinion, what’s the importance of having a Black women and femme-identifying production crew behind this powerful docuseries?

TS: For me, it wasn’t like, “oh, it needs to be a Black crew.” It was just me being a Black woman, [and] I know our culture of course, so I think that’s really what it was. It wasn’t a race thing for me as far as who the crew should be, who the director should be, or that sort of thing, but I wanted someone to understand our culture of course.

DB: While working on Surviving R. Kelly, how did you protect your own peace and prioritizing mental health while handling such a sensitive and triggering topic for the docuseries?

TS: I didn’t know what I was actually taking on. I didn’t know how big of an impact this documentary would have, and I really wasn’t focused on me or any awards. I didn’t even know you could be nominated at the time. I was really, very passionate about the project. Hearing those stories – and there’s women that didn’t wanna come forward and be on camera – it was very hard to digest. Over time, of course, I had to seek my own therapy for that and for other reasons, too.

There were threats that were going on in security, and my life pretty much changed because of the documentary.

DB: How did you go about identifying these women and protecting their voices once they agreed to be part of the docuseries?

TS: It wasn’t like I went and tried to find the women. It was more of like, you talked to one woman and then she tells you about another woman that she’s talked to, and then another woman tells you about a woman that she’s met. It was more like the women were connected in this circle, but they didn’t think that they could actually take on R. Kelly, so everyone was just silent. I think that was one of the first people that they told outside of not being a victim of R. Kelly’s themselves. I was one of the first people that they actually confided their stories in.

Ebonie Doyle in Surviving R. Kelly: The Final Chapter premiering January 2 at 9/8c

DB: What was the most difficult part of creating and producing this third installment of the docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly: The Final Chapter?

TS: I guess in creating it, it was hearing the women’s stories. I’m an empath, so it was more of hearing that this was happening and they didn’t think that they could tell anyone [and] that no one would believe them. I think that’s the hardest part for me. How do you go through so much and then just not have any support and not even think that they could talk to therapists because they didn’t think the therapists would believe them either?

DB: This third chapter also recounts the journey of survivor Azriel Clary. When you look at a young woman like Azriel, how proud are you when you look at her journey as a survivor who continued to pursue a career in entertainment?

TS: Whenever Azriel realized that she was also a victim, my mind was at peace and ease because I feel that without the documentary, she probably wouldn’t have been able to have that clear picture of the type of life she was in.

Sometimes victims don’t know they’re in a situation until they come out. It was maybe a year after the documentary came out that I think she said that she watched it and when she watched it she was like, “wow.” That’s what made her realize, “I am a victim as well and this man didn’t favor me over other women. This is what he was doing and I was perpetrated.” When she left, I’ve been very proud of her progress. Even with people being negative towards her, she just lets it roll off her back as she continues moving forward with her own life and career. I love the fact that she’s making a name for herself outside of being attached to R. Kelly.

DB: Would you say that this has been the most difficult project of your career?

TS: If you interviewed me maybe a month ago, I would say yes, but I recently did the Casey Anthony documentary. There are different measures for both of those. The difficulty of Surviving R. Kelly is there and they’re both challenging, but I feel like the Casey Anthony documentary was a little bit more difficult than [Surviving] R. Kelly at this time.

Courtesy of Tamra Simmons/Live Always Productions

DB: In your professional opinion from the lens of an executive producer, what makes a good docuseries?

TS: I think doing research and doing it from a journalistic point of view is the best to do with a documentary. Because you don’t wanna tell people how to feel or what to think, you just wanna lay out the facts. Once you do that and you paint a picture in a story, you allow people to come to their own conclusion. Gathering as much information on both sides as much as possible and presenting the best picture overall is what makes the great documentary.

DB: When we see the state of the entertainment industry and the lack of protection of Black women, it extends beyond R. Kelly. From Megan Thee Stallion to Kehlani, what is the importance of using platforms in media and entertainment to protect and amplify the voices of Black women?

TS: I think it’s extremely important to continue to understand that when Black women come forward, it’s not because they’re wanting fame or attention. I think with Megan and Kehlani, it goes to show you that these women already had fame. A lot of people have said that a lot of the women from Surviving R. Kelly wanted to be famous, they were using him for clout, and that sort of thing. These women did not become famous because of this story. If anything, they had their cars and houses burned and they were threatened. I want people to understand that when a victim comes forward, whether Black, white, whatever, you have to have some type of compassion for that person and understand that everyone has their own story and experiences. When people do come forward, I feel like people should believe them until they give them a reason not to.

DB: What other projects can we expect and support coming down your production pipeline?

TS: I’ve been working on the Destiny’s Child documentary with Matthew Knowles and it’s currently on hold right now, but hoping to complete that in 2023. I wanna do a lot of different scripted television series and films. I’m looking to branch out on the scripted side as well.

I’m just one of these people that don’t like to box myself in. When some people are like, “oh, she just does documentaries,” I’m like, “No.” I usually bust out with a different project just so I can say I don’t just do documentaries; I can do it all.

Watch ‘Surviving R. Kelly Part III: The Final Chapter’ on Lifetime, premiering on January 2 and January 3, 2022. If you are or fear you have been a victim of sexual violence, please contact The National Sexual Assault Hotline at RAINN.org or 1-800-656-4673.

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About The Author
D'Shonda Brown
D'Shonda Brown
D'Shonda Brown is the Music and Entertainment Editor at Boardroom. Prior to joining the Boardroom team, she served as the Associate Editor at ESSENCE and Girls United, ESSENCE's Generation Z platform. Through the years, the Spelman College graduate has amassed bylines in entertainment, fashion, beauty, wellness, and business across For(bes) The Culture, HYPEBAE, Byrdie, HighSnobiety, xoNecole, REVOLT, and more.