A year after the cultural reckoning prompted by her January 2019 Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, filmmaker dream hampton is still defined in terms of her proximity to male musicians. Over the course of her breakout year, Brittney Cooper and Bustle talked to her about her overlooked film career, Kelly, her complicated relationships with hip hop and celebrity, her gun, and most importantly, how she defines herself.
When dream hampton thinks about Detroit, where she’s from, she thinks about the apocalypse. Although she is the daughter of a waitress and a mechanic, she wasn’t raised in the mythic Detroit that gave us Ford trucks, and with them, the American middle class. Hampton, who is fast becoming one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of our time, came up in the post-mythic Detroit, the one ravaged by the divestment of public interest and the crack economy that flourished in its absence, along with odder phenomena. “People were planting all these vacant lots,” she tells me, remembering how tall the grass grew. “At the same time, we had a pheasant problem. Random, right? So there was this way that the wild was reclaiming the industrial age from the humans.”
“I loved Nirvana. I loved guitars.”
Reclamation is a theme for hampton, who views her upbringing as a cautionary tale about what happens when whole communities are condemned to privation, and how rarely scrappy Black girls get to control that — or any — narrative. The desire to put narrative back in the hands of its rightful owners drove her to executive produce Surviving R. Kelly, the spellbinding Lifetime docuseries that premiered in January 2019 and arguably led to prosecutors renewing their attempts to convict Kelly, an R&B legend who had been accused of sex trafficking and sexual assault for years. The series made such an impact that Lifetime commissioned a sequel, premiering Jan. 2, titled Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning.
But the project’s success was also a moment of reclaiming her own story. Before Kelly, hampton was mostly associated with hip hop, specifically her proximity to its greats. People associate hampton so strongly with hip hop that they assume she is of and part of it. They are wrong.
For starters, she predates it. Hampton was born in 1971. “I remember a time before hip hop. I remember disco, I remember the Jacksons, Michael Jackson. I remember P Funk, and that was far more formative for me,” hampton says. “I loved Nirvana. I loved guitars.”
Hampton was always going to be a filmmaker. She studied film at NYU and recalls ruefully how her commitment to her craft — to her identity as a film person not of hip hop — led her to turn down Sean Combs’ offer to direct the video for Biggie’s 1994 hit “One More Chance.” She remembers telling Combs, “I’m not doing music videos, I’m an auteur!” Now the memory makes her laugh.
“I don’t know what dogsh*t I was on,” she says. “That’s back when the budget was like $150K, $200K, and I was like, ‘Yeah, no, I’m going to make films.’”
The first film she made out of school was a scripted short called I Am Ali, which debuted at Sundance in 2002 and portrayed the rapid onset of mental illness in a young, attractive Black man that shed light on that experience without making a spectacle of it. All of her documentary work since has been activist in some way.
“Someone like Jay-Z, there was no guarantee he was going to be famous.”
The problem is that hip hop — big name hip hop — has always loved hampton and trusted her, perhaps because she knew hip hop heads before they were famous. Biggie Smalls was her neighbor in Clinton Hill. “I was living on Cambridge Place. He lived on St. James,” she says. “He was literally my neighbor. So was Chubb Rock, and so was Daddy-O from Stetsasonic. So was Digable Planets. It was Brooklyn in the '90s.”
Filmmaker and archivist Syreeta Gates tells me of hampton, “she is my favorite rappers’ favorite writer.” It was by accident that hampton began writing the hip hop commentary and profiles that up until Surviving R. Kelly remained her best-known work. While she was at NYU, she took an internship at The Source and heard the other members of the four-person staff talking — but not doing anything — about the fact that Dr. Dre had allegedly just beaten up Dee Barnes. Hampton wrote an editorial about it that led to other writing opportunities, ultimately resulting in cover stories like her Vibe April 2000 cover profile of D’Angelo. Hamptons’ profiles were so good that Gates, off the dome, spits the first line of a legendary one that hampton wrote of Jay-Z in 1998: “Let me tell you something about money. And drugs. Myth and lore. Mandatory sentencing. Open caskets with bloated, bejeweled bodies. About kamikaze capitalists who just happened to be teenagers.” Dream hampton might be a working-class, Nirvana-loving Black girl from the D, but she’s got bars.
As a result, she rolled with the crew of hip hop generation writers that shaped the term “cultural critic” — Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kim Osorio — even as she made a name for herself as hip hop’s most outspoken skeptic. Hampton once told Tupac that he couldn’t rap. She broke the internet by suggesting that rapper Nas works with ghostwriters. Talking about those years in Brooklyn when “we were all making art at the same time in New York City,” she throws in. “Someone like Jay-Z, there was no guarantee he was going to be famous. Mase was a much bigger artists than him when Jay came out.”
“I was like, I’m not doing an R. Kelly - Behind the Music. I’ll walk.”
Her biggest problem with hip hop, though, was and is that hip hop has never loved Black women and queer people like it should. For all the ways the culture trusts her, she continuously points out why Black women and queer people cannot trust it.
It is the reason why she penned a love letter to Frank Ocean in 2012, encouraging and supporting him as a young Black man coming out as queer in a musical space that is notoriously homophobic. It is the reason she made Treasure, a film about the murder of a trans Black woman in Detroit. She says this is the reason that, when male rapper Too $hort made a video that gave young men techniques for sexually assaulting young women, she decided not to call him out but to call him in — to educate him. In a phone call transcribed and published by Ebony, she told him about “being in a pool and boys taking off our tops… and not that they didn’t do them to other boys too, but all the ways that this stuff was sexual assault and trauma, and maybe we didn’t name it that.”
Writer and activist Darnell Moore calls the confrontation a typical dream approach. “She has never lacked for a feminist analysis,” Moore says. Hampton was “always questioning patriarchy, and she did it in dangerous ways. Calling out Black male hip hop artists who she literally is in communication with in real life… That’s dangerous work.”
When I asked Gates what makes hampton so fearless and so magnetic, she says without hesitation: “Not giving a f*ck about what anyone thinks. Being clearly committed to the truth by any means necessary. Holding people accountable whether y’all cool or whether y’all not cool. Whether she rock with you or she don’t rock with you, she’s gonna call you out. Everybody needs that type of friend.”
“Something in my spirit said, ‘This man is mine to handle.’”
When Lifetime Television inquired about her doing a project on R. Kelly’s alleged crimes, hampton knew the story all too well. For the November 2000 cover of Vibe, she interviewed Kelly in his studio and wrote about his musical genius without questioning why there were so many young girls around. Two months later in The Chicago Sun-Times, journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has investigated sexual assault allegations against Kelly for nearly 20 years, revealed that Kelly had settled a case brought by Tiffany Hawkins alleging that Kelly had sex with her when she was 15. “I thought, a real journalist would have pushed,” hampton recalls. “I felt terribly about it. I had totally missed it, when it was in front of me.”
R. Kelly’s alleged predilection for underage girls has been discussed in the music industry since the mid-1990s, when at age 27 he allegedly married his 15-year old protégé, the now-deceased singer Aaliyah. The news begot whispers among industry insiders, but not much else. In 2008, Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges after a 2002 video was released allegedly showing him engaging in sexual acts with a 14-year-old girl. Kelly’s star continued to rise, to hampton’s chagrin.
Lifetime was not renowned for representing people of color in depth, or at all, but hampton agreed. “Something in my spirit said, ‘This man is mine to handle. He’s my generation’s to handle for sure,’” she says. Hampton adds that she laid down the law with the network, insisting that the project center on Kelly’s alleged victims. “Lifetime came back with this note like, ‘We want to make it linear, and we want to start at the beginning of his life,’” she recalls. “I was like, I’m not doing an R. Kelly - Behind the Music. I’ll walk.”
She prevailed, and Surviving R. Kelly, the original and the follow-up, feature hours of Black and Latina women telling their stories, in their own terms. A Lifetime spokesperson tells Bustle via email, “It was important for the survivors, the creative and our audience to tell as much of a 360 degree perspective as possible.” Both the first and second seasons feature commentary from Black psychologists and journalists sympathetic to the women Kelly allegedly abused, working from the still nascent #MeToo-era presumption that these women are to be believed. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, who appears in Surviving R. Kelly, says that the most powerful aspect of hampton’s approach to the material was that she disregarded an unspoken rule among Black people: “We don’t talk about our own. We don’t put our own on front street.”
Hampton is wholly uninterested in this brand of racial solidarity, especially when it gives cover to another rule that governs Black life: protecting Black women and girls is always secondary to defending Black men and boys.
When Surviving R. Kelly premiered on Jan. 3, 2019, the outcry was immediate. Kim Foxx, the Illinois state’s attorney for Chicago, took the unconventional step of inviting anyone with additional sexual assault allegations against Kelly to contact her office. Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga removed collaborations with him from streaming services. In the 12 months since the series premiered, Kelly has been charged with 10 counts of aggravated assault and 11 new counts of criminal sexual abuse in Illinois and 18 federal counts, including child pornography, racketeering, obstruction, and sex-trafficking. He is in prison in Illinois awaiting trial and has been denied bail. Kelly’s representatives declined to comment on these charges or any past allegations against Kelly.
Hampton could be taking a victory lap, but when we meet up in New York City in June to talk about it, she seems humble and reflective. Audience reaction to the series was, she says, “a mixed bag — a lot of blowback and lots of love.” She concedes that, as one critic observed, it may have been her responsibility not to bring accuser Asante McGee back to the Atlanta home where Kelly allegedly held her. While in the house, McGee has a visible trauma-induced reaction on camera. “Asante wanted to go do that walk through, but that doesn't matter. Is it something I could have prevented from happening? I took that criticism and thought about what I might have done different,” hampton says.
Hampton knows what it’s like not to be protected. In eighth grade, she fended off an attempted rape by three older boys from her neighborhood. “I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed,” she wrote in a 2012 essay about the assault. “I wanted to will myself into the Tasmanian devil, to be un-pin-downable, impenetrable.” Her friends and colleagues observe that same determination in her still. The first episode of Surviving R. Kelly Part II covers the gun threat called in to the New York City screening of the first season that Lifetime hosted for survivors and supporters in December 2018. The threat resulted in the evacuation and cancellation of the screening. Since Season 1 aired, hampton herself has been doxxed and accosted in public by Kelly supporters. She now has a cybersecurity adviser and a physical security adviser on the payroll.
The series also netted her an Emmy nomination, which has meant a lot of recognition for someone who hates celebrity. For all of her ties to famous artists, hampton has no patience with fame. She stylizes her name in lower case as an homage to bell hooks, perhaps the most important feminist theorist of the last three decades, and to promulgate hooks’ belief that individuals’ names should not be proper nouns.
“This lesson around celebrity is such a hard lesson to learn,” she says, the lesson being that it lands a person nowhere good. Working on Surviving R. Kelly reminded her of this: “You’ll see participants from our documentary trying to create product lines or new online personalities and trying to use it as a door opener. It’s as if they don’t understand that their desire for celebrity in the first place is what got them in this problem.” To be clear, hampton does not blame R. Kelly’s victims for his alleged crimes. But she tells me, she has had “more than one go around with celebrity,” and she believes that embracing or not embracing it is a choice. For her that choice is a hard no.
Still, finally being recognized for what she's here to do — make culture-challenging films — feels good. When ask how I Am Ali was received way back in 2002, she says, “I mean, it wasn’t. I’d never had anything received until now.” She estimates that even Treasure was viewed by 7,500 people, max.
“I’m not making calling out these pervs my life’s work.”
In the absence of winning that Emmy (Surviving R. Kelly lost to the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown), there have been other wins. For the first time, “People are asking me what I want to do,” hampton says. In 2019, work brought her to three continents. During the summer, hampton directed a project for Miu Miu in the south of France, and she is heading up Elizabeth Warren’s Creative Council for the 2020 presidential race, which hampton calls “the most important election of our lifetime.” As always, she has multiple documentary projects in progress, none of which she will talk about publicly for fear of jinxing them, and she has always done uncredited filmmaking for organizations and causes she supports. At least two of those assignments this year focused on the border crisis. She is constantly on planes, many of which seem to have mechanical delays, which annoy her.
Hampton had been so busy that scheduling made it impossible for her to showrun the second season of Surviving R. Kelly, so she took an executive producer role instead. Contacted recently to write about another musician’s alleged habit of texting with underage girls, she wrote from Johannesburg, South Africa, where she was working on another project she won’t discuss, “Not only don’t I have capacity, but I’m not making calling out these pervs my life’s work. So many sisters are on it.”
Instead, hampton is finally allowing herself some non-work pursuits: travel, design, food. (Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro is a favorite dining buddy.) She is also a self-described “HGTV junkie” and did the decor for both her mother’s and her 23-year-old daughter’s homes. She loves fashion, too. A course of steroids prescribed for a health issue in her late 30s caused her to outgrow most of her favorite clothes, which is how she discovered The Row, the luxury fashion line founded by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. “[They] make this really generously designed clothing line in the best material,” she says.
She bought herself a diamond necklace in Venice “for my big year” and took her first vacation in recent memory. Twice a year she goes to her favorite shooting range, a Black-owned establishment in Brooklyn, and practices firing the Glock she had before the physical security adviser recommended it for self-defense because “it puts me in a relationship to Black people who defend themselves.” As she says all this, she pauses to read an email from a longstanding Black Panther group about an effort to get a sick elderly member compassionate release from prison. “It’s just a bunch of old people still working on this, which is beautiful,” she notes.
If you ask hampton about the future, she doesn’t see a smooth path out of the misogyny and complacency that still surround us. But that doesn’t mean she’s not hopeful. Black women have never had an easy way. “I just imagine this course correcting that’s going to happen mid-century, near the end of my life, that is going to be terrifying for those who are still holding on to the past, and full of opportunities for those who can meet it,” she says.
Main image credit: So Focused Photography