The R. Kelly cry face—memed into oblivion after footage of his bizarre and explosive interview with Gayle King was first made public yesterday—seems poised to replace the Michael Jordan cry face as the go-to stock image for brutal and humiliating public defeat. If you believe in karma, seeing him in such conspicuous anguish—and having said anguish be such a source of mirth and glee—could be a form of karmic justice. He is getting, finally, what we’ve been asking for. What we’ve been waiting for. But only if you squint.
If your eyes are open, what you’ll see in that interview is not a man in agony, but a master manipulator wielding each of the tools in his shed. The gaslighting, the pleading, the lying, the fabricated pragmatism, the tears, the theatrics, the hyperbole, the aggressively conservative gray suit, the hypercognizance of camera placement (so he could make direct eye contact with us)—this was R. Kelly attempting to do, to Gayle King, and to us, what he’s been accused of doing to women and girls for decades. What we saw wasn’t pain. It was a superpredator attempting to make us his prey.
It didn’t work with Gayle. But how many people watching do you think were maybe swayed by his display of grief? How many people watching do you think were maybe compelled to possess some sympathy for him? How many people watching do you think were maybe possessed to buy what he’s selling?
And, most importantly, how many women and girls victimized by him are watching us watching him and wondering why so many of us think this is so fucking funny? Yes, he ruined lives and destroyed families and created an entire ecosystem and economy around his lecherousness and depravity, but that “Ignition” pun was clever tho.
That jokes can exist as a cathartic activity is an idea most of us (black people) are acutely familiar with, as responding to racism and discrimination and subjugation with humor sometimes can be a way of maintaining sanity and resisting white supremacy. Jokes are cheaper than Klonopin. But the jokes about R. Kelly have always felt different. Even the ones I’ve laughed at before—like Dave Chappelle’s famous “Piss On You” video—regarded the things he’s accused of doing and being with a comedic flippancy. Like he’s been accused of shoplifting or public urination and not the rape and humiliation of teenagers. They also messily—and perhaps even intentionally—make his alleged victims punchlines too.
As R. Kelly’s numerous professional collaborators in the last several years proves—a list that includes Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga—regarding his alleged crimes with an appropriate heft and care is still a concept we collectively struggle with. The jokes fly because the sort of crimes he’s accused of and the sort of people he targets just aren’t taken seriously. But what exactly are we laughing at? What exactly do we think is so funny? Who exactly are these jokes meant to entertain?
Of course, the meme-ification of R. Kelly will continue and increase. There might be more interviews. There will be a trial. So many opportunities for great content just can’t be ignored.