Two interviews with R. Kelly show just how impactful the Me Too movement is, and how far we still have to go.
When the groundbreaking Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” aired in January, it felt like restorative justice. Watching the testimonies of survivors, united in their treatment at the hands of a onetime titan in the music industry, was a powerful indictment of a society that had for too long allowed Kelly to thrive.
Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” pressed Kelly on the allegations in a masterful interview this week that devolved into a full-scale meltdown, with the disgraced singer screaming and sobbing at the camera. Watching Kelly’s explosive reaction to her questions, I was hit with a flashback.
In 2015, I was the one sitting opposite R. Kelly ― for an interview with HuffPost Live. He was in the midst of a publicity blitz for his latest album, “The Buffet.” The album’s sales were abysmal, and there was speculation that long-standing accusations of sexually predatory behavior toward minors was partially to blame.
Yet no one interviewing Kelly on that media tour was asking him about the accusations. This was before the Me Too movement really took off, setting off a cultural reckoning about sexual abuse and power.
It was clear to me and my female-led production team, Kate Balch and Kate Osborn, that we couldn’t maintain the status quo ― where a fear of losing access to other A-listers repped by the same publicists had long meant media outlets avoiding putting tough questions to Kelly about the serious allegations against him. So I combed through court documents and records in the days leading up to our interview, read the searing accounts of young black women who had accused Kelly of serious sexual misconduct, and knew that I was in a privileged position to tackle the issue.
During our interview, I challenged him on what I’d read. But Kelly pushed back hard, repeatedly attempting to assert his power over me. He shouted over me. He asked me a series of odd, inappropriate questions about my drinking habits. With the cameras still rolling, he stood over me with his dark sunglasses on, called me beautiful and told me he loved me. The interview remains one of the most challenging I’ve ever done, not because I was talked down to, but because powerful people ― powerful men ― infrequently allow that power to be questioned, especially not by women.
Kelly and I had slated a half-hour for our chat. But after 17 minutes, he stormed off.
That year ― 2015 ― was seven years after R. Kelly had dodged a child pornography conviction, and still nearly two years before the Me Too movement would start to topple powerful men who had terrorized women with impunity. (Tarana Burke had already introduced the idea, but it had yet to fully land in the public consciousness.)
The way Kelly acted in 2015 ― and at times during King’s interview this week ― is, in many ways, a byproduct of a dying era. A time when emotional and physical manipulation of the vulnerable wasn’t just tolerated, but in many cases was the norm. That kind of behavior was enshrined and protected by other men (and some women) across the music industry and beyond. Which explains why, when confronted, Kelly didn’t even seem to recognize his behavior as inappropriate.
King’s interview with Kelly is of an entirely new era. He was out on bail after his arrest last month on sexual abuse charges. He was on the defensive ― a last-ditch attempt to plead innocence in front of a public that has seen him exposed by the very women he subjugated. He turned on the tears. He was pleading to the camera. It was a far cry from the smug, chauvinistic hubris he exhibited to me.
Though it was eerie to see how the mask of lawyered-up respectability slipped when he was pushed. Like many predatory men, Kelly has become so accustomed to being propped up and protected that even with his power seriously chipped away, old habits die hard.
This is the first time I’ve written anything substantive about my experience with R. Kelly. I felt like it was important at the time to let the interview stand on its own, for people to see Kelly’s behavior unvarnished without commentary. And to be honest, I was somewhat overwhelmed after the torrent of rape and death threats I received in response.
But his interview with Gayle King exposed a pattern of behavior, and it feels important to acknowledge that. It shows publicly the tacit power abusers feel they have over their victims.
And it reveals what still has to change.
For too long, men have been able to get away with abhorrent behavior because they helped make other people rich or shore up their power. For even longer, we’ve displaced black women from the center of the narrative, silencing them and refusing to hear them. Even now, there are some who refuse to believe the many, many survivors.
It is depressing that Kelly saw a spike in music streams and record sales after “Surviving R. Kelly” aired in January. When the allegations are many ― and in public ― we can’t in 2019 let abusers both hide and flourish in plain sight.
We have a role ― all of us ― in shining sunlight on toxicity, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. And my interview with Kelly truly made me appreciate my own part in doing that as a journalist; that holding the powerful accountable isn’t a lofty goal, but a necessary act.