The Message in R. Kelly’s Meltdown

Explosive rage, statements of persecution, and an appeal to male viewers: The singer’s CBS interview about sexual-abuse allegations seemed familiar.

R. Kelly and Gayle King on CBS This Morning.
CBS / Lazarus Baptiste

Accused of dominating and manipulating dozens of women, R. Kelly defended himself on CBS This Morning by interrupting, talking over, and talking past Gayle King. When the reporter asked the singer whether he imprisoned women, he exploded, “I don’t need to—why would I?” His hands shot to his temples as his voice climbed. “How stupid would I be to do that? That’s stupid, guys!”

Guys—with that, Kelly was no longer addressing the person in front of him. “Is this camera on me?” he asked, pointing. “Use your common sense. Forget how you feel about me!” King tried to regain his attention by repeating, mantralike, Kelly’s first name, Robert. It didn’t work. Kelly teared up, stood up, and screamed: “I gave you 30 years of my fucking career! … You killing me, man!” Kelly’s publicist eventually came over and hovered, unsure of how to intervene. King remained sitting.

The performance at first had an air of stand-up comedy: Kelly mockingly straightened his jacket as he scoffed at the idea that he one day decided “I just think I have to be a monster.” But by the time he was up and spitting, he’d taken on the tenor of a child having a tantrum, or Brett Kavanaugh yelling at his confirmation hearing.

The 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse that police charged Kelly with in February involve four women, including three who were allegedly underage at the time. Lifetime’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly, which aired in January, featured dozens of sources—alleged victims, their family members, and Kelly’s former business associates—who say Kelly seduced young women and then basically held them as sex slaves. A lawsuit by a former girlfriend was settled in 1998, four years after he secretly married the then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah, and a jury acquitted Kelly of allegations of child pornography in 2008. Kelly has always denied the assertions against him.

On CBS This Morning, Kelly continued to contest his innocence—not with evidence but with emotion. Though he had made mistakes in personal relationships with women, those who spoke publicly against him were lying, he said. Social media had allowed the defamation of innocent celebrities, in his telling, and the notion of him keeping women hostage was plainly preposterous. “If you really look at that documentary … they were describing Lucifer,” Kelly said of the Lifetime movie about him. “I’m not Lucifer. I’m a man. I make mistakes, but I’m not a devil, and by no means am I a monster.”

With details, he was fuzzy. King asked him whether he could really say he’d never been with underage girls. He replied by referencing the “two cases” in his past that he could not talk about for legal reasons, adding, “People are going back to my past … They’re trying to add all of this stuff now to that.” Elsewhere in the interview, though, he more forthrightly denied ever sleeping with anyone under 17. When King suggested that he had a thing for women much younger than he, Kelly replied, “I don’t look at ‘much younger than me,’” before brandishing a line that it’s hard to imagine an accused pedophile’s PR team would ever approve of: “I just look at ‘legal.’”

Though sitting for an interview, Kelly appeared to be mostly interested in using CBS’s platform to directly reach the public, or at least some portion of it. He turned from King and spoke into the camera numerous times, even asking during a makeup break whether they were still filming and then whimpering, “This is not true.” He peppered his remarks with guys and man, slangy tics that also ask for solidarity from male viewers. Women such as Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary, who live with Kelly and whose parents say have been brainwashed (their interview with CBS airs Thursday), are “like girlfriends,” he said. “I’ve known guys all my life that have five or six women, so don’t go there on me.”

In the ranks of men who have defended themselves against allegations raised during the #MeToo wave, Kelly’s stands out for its anger. He has not tried to perform contrition for vague missteps while denying criminal wrongdoing, paths taken by Russell Simmons and Harvey Weinstein. Rather, with his self-pitying 19-minute song “I Admit,” and now with the King interview, he’s asserted himself as persecuted in the loudest and most public terms possible. “I need somebody to help me not have a big heart,” he told King. “Because my heart is so big, people betray me and I keep forgiving them.”

The closest comparison here might be to the #MeToo target now on the Supreme Court. The substance of what the two men have been accused of differs vastly, but their responses—and the cultural scripts they draw upon—rhyme. Brett Kavanaugh shouted about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations as being unfair given the life he’s lived, while Kelly argued that his previous acquittal meant the present allegations were also “unfair.” Boys-will-be-boys logic—whether about drunken tomfoolery or sexual conquest—play in both’s defense. Most strikingly, the force and fury of the tactics used by both men make the same dare. For those inclined to believe the accused, passion in the face of prosecution could read as innocence. For those who aren’t, it might look like a predator’s brutality coming out.

Either way, King’s equanimity in the face of a meltdown made a pointed contrast to Kelly’s very male performance of righteousness through rage. King told Kelly she didn’t want him ranting at the cameras, but he did so anyway; after the segment aired, her co-anchors asked whether she feared for her safety in the interview, and she said she didn’t. She also offered why she kept her cool: “It wouldn’t do any good if we both got hysterical.”