The #muteRKelly campaign was started in Atlanta, July 2017 by two black women: Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeyle. They were responding in the best way they knew how to the raft of terrifying sexual abuse allegations levelled at R&B singer R Kelly. In a short period of time, they managed to hold five national protests and were instrumental in the cancellation of eight R Kelly concerts. Now, after an appearance in a recent, revelatory BBC documentary called R Kelly: Sex, Girls And Videotapes, the campaign has been signposted by the celebrity-backed Time’s Up movement, who released a statement demanding “appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now”.
Tish, who is a political consultant, register lobbyist and activist, says the pair collectively decided to found the campaign ”because it was clear that there was no attention being placed on the sexual violence against black girls by high-powered men”. Although the fact that he married Aaliyah when she was 15 in 1994 and faced a child pornography trial alongside numerous out of court settlements with underage girls in the late 90s and noughties, last year, Buzzfeed News broke details on an alleged “sex cult” where he was keeping women under strict rules, which sprung the pair into action.
“It was clear that there was no attention being placed on the sexual violence against black girls by high-powered men”
Their original idea was to lobby the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to cancel an upcoming show, and campaign to get the Atlanta radio stations to stop playing his music, but the campaign has swelled to a national (and international media) level. And with good reason – without widespread outrage, it seems unlikely that his label Sony and RCA Records, who are “only interested in the money that he can make and not the social ramifications of his personal life”, as Tish puts it, will ever drop him, or that he will ever stop getting concert bookings. The singer currently has two upcoming performances scheduled – in Chicago and North Carolina.
For Tish, the racial element of his alleged crimes makes this a battle particularly worth fighting – when I ask why R Kelly has yet to face his “Weinstein moment”, she counters, saying, “Weinstein raped white women”. “Black girls are not protected and most vulnerable,” she goes on. “The sexual violence of black girls is often handled under the radar of racism and misogyny. Primarily within the black community, there is a strict acceptable degree of behaviour and if you deviate from that then sexual violence is your punishment.”
As Bisi Akintoye argued in a previous piece for gal-dem, “When situations like this arise, as a black woman, you’re almost required to choose between your gender and your race. There’s a kind of “we won’t let them take one of ours” mentality among some black women, which allows them to defend black men accused of crimes, against perceived white attacks.“
Tish and Odeyle (pictured above) recognise this too, saying that the black community idolises Kelly, and view him as “the King of R&B”. “We tend to protect problematic black men and American culture because we understand the risk of harsh penalties, incarceration and punishment due to the systemic racism of criminal justice in our country. His fans and the black community protect him and demonise his victims.” Bill Cosby’s recent conviction on three counts of sexual assault was a huge victory against this trend.
“We tend to protect problematic black men and American culture because we understand the risk of systemic racism in the criminal justice system”
Their collaboration with the Time’s Up movement seems to have given the #muteRKelly campaign the boost it needed to force the music industry to take action. As well as receiving vocal support from the likes of Shonda Rhimes, John Legend and Tarana Burke, Kelly has also been forced to release a skin-crawling statement to Buzzfeed News, in which he claims to support “the pro-women goals of the Time’s Up movement” and that they had “neglected to speak with any of the women who welcome R. Kelly’s support”. The statement went on: “We understand criticizing a famous artist is a good way to draw attention to those goals — and in this case, it is unjust and off-target.”
His representative further called it an “attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”