In recent years, public acknowledgment of the sexual abuse allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly have grown from whispers to a roaring chorus of outrage. A swell of commentary was ignited this month by Lifetime’s recent six-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” and the continued efforts of the #MuteRKelly movement.
In the summer of 2017, Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Tisha Barnes launched #MuteRKelly campaign in response to a shocking Buzzfeed report by Chicago-based music journalist and critic Jim DeRogatis. The extensive report revealed details regarding women being held in an abusive cult under R. Kelly’s control.
Following the premiere of the docuseries on Jan. 3, a petition started on July 19, 2017 by Barnes and Odeleye has picked up traction. The petition calls on companies to stop doing business with R. Kelly.
Since its launch, the mission behind #MuteRKelly has been to persuade music companies to cut ties with the singer and to encourage consumers to stop supporting his career by, in part, refusing to listen to his music and not attending any of his concerts.
This month, across social media, people have been weighing in on the multiple accusations of predatory behavior by R. Kelly following the airing of the docuseries, which documents his illegal marriage to the late singer Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old, his indictment and subsequent acquittal on child pornograpy charges and the allegations that he has for more than 20 years, perpetrated sexual abuse against underage black girls.
Kenyette Tisha Barnes recently spoke with The Lily about the “Surviving R.Kelly” docuseries, recent action taken against R. Kelly and what’s next for the #MuteRKelly movement.
[This interview has been edited for length.]
The Lily: For many people, the #MuteRKelly movement and the premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly” has sparked honest conversations about the allegations against R. Kelly and about sexual violence against black women and girls. This may even be the first time that some people are having these conversations. What lessons do you hope viewers walked away with after watching the docuseries?
Kenyette Tisha Barnes: My first lesson is to believe survivors. We have just become comfortable with the social narrative that there’s a motive attached to sexual violence on behalf of the victim. And also earlier last year BBC did a documentary and a lot of this stuff was also shown in their documentary, so you have two major production companies that are saying the same thing. So these are not YouTube videos. These are professionals that are putting their careers on the line to tell these stories, but the first and most important [lesson] is believe survivors.
The Lily: You and Oronike founded #MuteRKelly in July 2017. Throughout the course of the movement, how much time have you two been able to spend with the survivors who have spoken out about R. Kelly?
KTB: We have spoken with quite a few of the survivors, and because we are an activist movement, and our focus is strictly on holding R. Kelly accountable, we really wanted to be connected with either law enforcement or legal representation or counselors, because that was really what they [the survivors] needed. So as a rule we never really reached out to any survivors, because you just never know where a survivor is, if they want to talk, if they want to be identified in any way, but when they did reach out to us we were always pretty open with believing them first, and if we had any resources that we could point them in the direction of we would do that.
The Lily: Were you taken aback by any of the revelations made by the women and parents, who were interviewed for the docuseries?
KTB: No. I was taken aback by the egregiousness of it and the fact that despite the egregiousness of it, people are still indifferent to what has happened.
The Lily: What were the first steps you and Oronike took to get #MuteRKelly off the ground?
KTB: The first steps were we lobbied the local government here that was hosting the concerts in Fulton County [Georgia], and we decided that “Hey guys, he can’t perform in a taxpayer-funded venue” and this is a lot because the concert was scheduled maybe a month or two after the allegations had come out about him holding these girls in his house against their will and all of this sort of predatory, abusive behaviors, and we just said “Enough is enough.” Oronike and I met because of #MuteRKelly. Now, we have a huge concentric circle, but we had not met. She’s very “I’m not an activist. Kenyette’s the activist,” but she put together a small petition; she called radio stations, and she just said simply “Guys, stop playing him on the radio; this is disgusting; we can’t do this.” And [on] my side, I said “Hey, I’m going to use what I know which is lobbying and activism, and I’m gonna go before the county commissioners, and I’m gonna say, ‘Guys, don’t let him perform here,’” and if that doesn’t work I’m going to protest the concerts. So the two of us kind of met in a very organic way, had coffee and over coffee and mutual outrage, #MuteRKelly was born.
The Lily: What would you say to those who have taken part in victim blaming upon learning about the past and present allegations against R. Kelly?
KTB: I’d say that it’s a symptom of a larger problem in the black community of how we handle victims of sexual violence. I mean it could be a survivor of R. Kelly, it can be a survivor of a local pastor, it could be a survivor of the guy who owns the the bodega on the street corner. We just have in the black community accepted that racism is our only form of oppression, so things such as gender-based violence, sexism, queerphobia, transphobia, those just don’t resonate to the larger black population as legitimate oppression issues, and we’ve just developed this narrative in the black community to explain away sexual violence. We call girls fast. We attach these precocious labels on them. So we have a problem when it comes to how we’re protecting black girls and how we’re framing sexual assault involving black girls and black women as victims.
The Lily: I wanted to ask you about that whole concept of “acting fast,” because I feel it can have really dangerous consequences for young black girls. Why do you think this is something that has been imposed on girls for so long but not on boys of the same age?
KTB: For a lot of black women, the kind of panacea of status is to be attached to a man. We have allowed those narratives to exist, one, because we teach women that there is a scarcity of the availability of men and two, because it plays directly into patriarchal norms, which benefit predators, so I think it’s time for us to revisit that narrative, I think it’s time for us to understand where it comes from and the damage of it and really center and protect and wrap our arms around these young sisters, because they need us.
The Lily: It has recently been reported that R. Kelly is currently facing investigation in Georgia and that a prosecutor in Illinois is asking for witnesses and victims to come forward following the docuseries. How does it feel knowing that a movement that you co-founded helped play a part in that?
KTB: It’s humbling. It has a degree of vindication attached to it, because I know the amount of blood, sweat and tears that went into this. I know how many sleepless nights and lack of support that we received throughout this movement. People just didn’t want to talk about it. They thought we were absolutely nuts to be doing this. So it’s humbling. It’s vindicating. I am honored to be on the right side of history with this. It’s a little overwhelming, but I would say it’s very humbling, and it’s quite vindicating.
The Lily: What were some of the responses that you received directly? Were they from people that you knew or from strangers who didn’t understand why you two were doing this?
KTB: It was a combination of strangers, colleagues, family members. At one point, it got so bad that I had to remove some people from my social media. It was just a lot, and I think part of it was this idea that “not R. Kelly, anybody but R. Kelly.” We’ve been accused of, you know that our motives are really about taking down a black man, and it really isn’t about the girls, that there are some attention-seeking motives.
The Lily: Do you and Oronike have any plans to expand #MuteRKelly in any way? What does long-term success for the movement look like for you?
KTB: Well, right now we have two new chapters in the United States. That makes 10, and then we have one chapter in Germany, so we have our first international #MuteRKelly chapter. Our goal is to have a chapter of #MuteRKelly in every state, in every metropolitan area, so that if he decides to pop up with a concert, there’s a group there to mobilize. Like today [Jan. 9] there is a protest in Chicago. There are people protesting his recording studio to say “Let the girls go” and really stand and consider survivors. That’s really what I want. One of the things that I am planning is a National #MuteRKelly Day.
The Lily: For people around the country who want to join the #MuteRKelly movement or even start their own efforts to end sexual assault and violence against women and girls, what would you say are the best ways for them to get started?
KTB: Well, there are a couple of things. One, if you want to be involved with us you can find us at muterkelly.org. Also, there are a lot of amazing organizations around the country including the, the Black Women’s Blueprint in New York, the Sasha Center in Detroit, the Black Women’s Defense League in Dallas. So there are a lot of existing organizations around the country and most of them are local to many major cities. Just sign up to volunteer. If they have an action, sign up to volunteer either to attend a protest or volunteer with pamphleting or phone calls or fundraising or whatever they need. A lot of these organizations do need funding. They are grassroots, and they are doing the Lord’s work to combat sexual violence.
The Lily: How many protests in total have you and Oronike spearheaded since launching the #MuteRKelly movement, and about how many people have showed up for them?