R. Kelly brings no protesters, lots of supporters and one near brawl to the Yuengling Center in Tampa

A planned protest of the controversial singer's concert never materialized, but there was still drama on stage.
R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)
R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)
Published November 11 2018
Updated November 11 2018

It was quiet outside the Yuengling Center, the only sounds coming from muffled car stereos and a high school softball game across the street.

There were no protests, no picketers, no cries from students and professors to "mute R. Kelly," Saturday's controversial headliner.

And with nothing but silence outside, the screams of 2,300 fans inside felt that much louder.

"If there's anybody in here that feels they are going to be offended tonight, they need to leave," the Grammy-winning R&B singer told the Tampa crowd, "because it's about to get freakier than a mother."

The only angry mob at the concert turned out to be on the stage itself, as a near brawl almost derailed the end of the night. More on that in a minute.

The concert, announced barely a month ago, drew the ire of women at the University of South Florida, who sought to have the concert canceled due to the long history of allegations of sexual misconduct against the singer, including charges of child pornography involving teenage girls.

BACKSTORY: Yuengling Center: R. Kelly show will go on despite protest at USF

While the concert was a facility rental, booked neither by the university nor the Tampa Bay Lightning-linked group that manages the arena, the protestors argued that it had no place on their campus, and linked up with a national initiative dubbed #MuteRKelly for organizational support.

RELATED: Before R. Kelly's Tampa show, #MuteRKelly founder Kenyette Barnes explains why she wants to cancel it

R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

Ultimately the crowd was well below that of Kelly's last two Tampa concerts, both held at Amalie Arena in the pre-#MeToo years of 2014 and 2016. The floor and lower bowl were healthy, but the entire third level and much of the second weren't even open. The production values were also much lower than his last two visits – no elaborate stage, no video backdrops, no costume changes, no full band or dancers.

The choppy, 70-minute set saw fans singing loudly to hits like Bump N' Grind, You Remind Me of Something, 12 Play and Ignition (Remix). But more than once, Kelly expressed frustration with the sound, pausing the show until the levels in his ear were to his liking.

"We got to get this s— right, man; I came too far, motherf—ers paid too much money," he said. "I don't give a f—, I'm going to do a soundcheck in the middle of the show if I have to."

R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)
R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

Fans who came either hadn't heard of the protest, or paid it no mind.

"To me, anything that's being protested, whether it's politics or concerts, it's just got to come down to personal opinion," said Melissa Sapp, 38, of Tampa. "It's like a church of a certain religion, or a strip club: If you don't like it, just don't go in. There shouldn't be any violence or harm for those that want to attend."

Others had no problem separating the art from the artist.

"I don't agree with what he does outside of his music, but I like his music," said Niky Morgan, 31, who came down from Brooksville for the show. "The music is old. It's before I knew any of that."

And others said that since Kelly has never been convicted of a sex crime, he should not have to be silenced.

"If people want to protest, they're going to protest," said Michael Rodriguez of Tampa, a Chicago native whose seen R. Kelly several times. "But this is how he makes money. This is his career. He does shows so he can feed and provide for his family. So let the man put on his show."

"I feel like a lot of the times, we cast our own judgment," said wife Melissa Rodriguez, 31. "We don't stand by that 'Everybody's innocent until guilty.' You're guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion."

Aisha Durham, the associate professor of communication who initiated the protest, said in an email she felt let down by the university and Yuengling Center's lack of response to her petition, which had drawn 14,656 signatures — 911 of them in Florida — by showtime.

"Both Yuengling and my own university do not value the voices of women on campus or supporters from across the world," she said. "It is not surprising. It took decades for the country to catch up to the Bill Cosbys and (Bill) O'Reillys of the world. Kelly's talent works as a shield – for now. He should expect protests and petitions at every concert stop on his Memory Lane Tour. The women who are working to #MuteRKelly do not want people to forget the ugly man behind the music."

Yuengling Center officials, Durham said, "have failed all women in the Tampa Bay community. And for what? Money."

Plenty of women did show up at the Yuengling Center Saturday night, including opening acts Keyshia Cole and Adina Howard, and 95.7 The Beat DJ Anjali Queen B, who emceed.

Adina Howard performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)
Keyshia Cole performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

And before Kelly went on, dozens of wristbanded women streamed up to a roomy pit in front of the stage, with at least 20 getting a seat on stage behind the singer.

Smoking a stogie, sipping Hennessy and tossing out fistfuls of dollar bills, Kelly frequently dipped into the pit to sing as the women pawed at his legs and groin. Once he took a woman's phone and sang into the screen before rubbing it all over his crotch.

R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

When he got to Down Low (Nobody Has to Know), Kelly stepped all the way down to the floor of the pit, eventually kneeling out of view, completely surrounded by women. Whatever happened down there, it ended with Kelly stumbling back on stage missing a shoe. As soon as he got there, a small melee erupted among a group of women on the side of the stage, a few feet from Kelly himself. Clearly agitated by the skirmish, he stormed offstage, leaving the arena in confused silence.

After a few minutes, Kelly returned, surrounded by security, ending his set without performing his signature hit I Believe I Can Fly.

"Everywhere I go, there's drama, y'all," he said. "But one shoe and all, I'm going to get through this motherf—er."

Hobbled but not muted, he kept right on singing, enabled to continue by the screams drowning out all the silence.

R. Kelly performed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Nov. 10, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

— Jay Cridlin

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