R. Kelly is Teflon.
Despite a quarter century worth of sexual predatory claims against him, the R&B crooner seems to constantly evade career oblivion, unlike the growing list of predatory men in the post-Harvey Weinstein landscape.
#MuteRKelly seeks to change that.
Co-founded by Atlanta-based activists Kenyette “Tish” Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, one of the hashtag campaign’s main goals is to get R. Kelly’s music off the airwaves. In July 2017, the duo partnered up and started a soon-to-be national firestorm. Using their individual career credentials in lobbying and arts engagement, they tried to persuade Live Nation and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to cancel a planned R. Kelly concert in Atlanta, where the activists and the singer reside.
Although the campaign won over the support of local politicians, Live Nation didn’t back down. The concert went on amid protests in August. That same month, BuzzFeed published an investigation that revealed the singer-songwriter had been harboring young women in his Atlanta and Chicago homes as part of an alleged “cult.” According to the report, Kelly – whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly – dictates “what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”
Subsequent concerts for Kelly’s “After Party” tour were canceled in eight other cities, from Los Angeles to New Orleans.
The #MuteRKelly co-founders have spoken to several of his victims and their families, said Barnes, who is involved in human trafficking legislative initiatives in Georgia. They hope “the momentum of the campaign” can “help further elevate their individual cases.”
Barnes and Odeleye want to make an economic impact on his career, but they’re also interested in a broader cause: Addressing the epidemic of sexual violence against women of color.
The accusations against Kelly have been well-documented. After marrying 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994 by falsifying her age on the marriage certificate, he was sued in 1996 by a woman named Tiffany Hawkins. She claimed Kelly “engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct” with her and other minors. The lawsuits continued to pile up as the singer enjoyed success in the entertainment industry.
This was before the New York Times published its Harvey Weinstein report, which opened the floodgates. #MeToo became a movement. Time’s Up debuted in Hollywood. One by one, powerful men with a penchant for sexual violence fell. But Kelly is still invited to award shows, his endless rap sheet of accusations get reduced to jokes, and musical collaborations with notable entertainers persevere with inconsequential outcry.
In the last few months, the musical group Xscape invited Kelly to the last leg of their sold-out tour, which doubled as Kelly’s 51st birthday celebration. Hip-hop legend Lil’ Kim hinted at a collaboration with the R&B crooner on Instagram. The general apathy and internalized misogyny towards his statutory conduct led controversial pop culture commentator Wendy Williams to dismiss the #MuteRKelly campaign on her show asking, “What is this, 10 years too late?”
The answer is it’s never too late to fight for survivors of sexual abuse and stand in solidarity with the movements that champion them.
Marginalized women have been routinely ostracized in their pursuit for justice, even in the #MeToo era. From Lena Dunham’s ill advised statement aimed to dismiss the validity of Aurora Perrineau’s rape accusation against her “Girls” co-writer to Rose McGowan’s continuous blind spot for trans women and Weinstein’s penchant to only discredit the survivor testimonials of women of color – the onslaught of traumatic news coverage that regurgitates the deeply ingrained societal tendency to center on white women can seem daunting.
But a silver lining gleams.
The Black Women’s Blueprint has supported black women and girls since 2008, the same year R. Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography case brought against him in 2001. (Prosecutors argued that a sex tape showed him with a girl as young as 13.) The nationally recognized civil and human rights organization’s mission is to secure socio-economic equality and “develop a culture where women of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased.”
In January, the Black Women’s Blueprint backed the #MuteRKelly initiative by helping to gather a group of over a dozen protesters to disrupt the ongoing economic support of the singer outside his headline gig at FREQ nightclub and an appearance at the Highline Ballroom in New York. In a statement released on Blavity, Black Women’s Blueprint name checked other alleged sexual predators in the public eye, including comedian Bill Cosby, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and music mogul Russell Simmons. They urged “anti-rape organizations, individual advocates and black people concerned for victims and survivors” to rally “everyday to ensure the safety and protection of black girls in particular.”
Sevonna Brown, the human rights project manager at Black Women’s Blueprint and a longtime reproductive justice advocate, says the organization is committed to ending and preventing “all sexual violence against black women and girls.”
Last September, the Black Women’s Blueprint collaborated with other radical groups – including BYP100, the Trans Sisters of Color Project and Sistersong – for the March for Black Women. The demonstration was held at the nation’s capital, and it became the one of the largest mass mobilization centered on black women in the United States since the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia.
Brown says the March for Black Women originated out of the need for “black women’s issues to be at the forefront of the feminist response to the new [Trump] administration.”
Despite the undeniable legacy of revolutionary activism and scholarship produced, black girls and women have historically been overlooked in the fight for women’s rights. Yet black girls and women disproportionately experience violence at schools, in their neighborhoods, at work and beyond. More than 20 percent of black women are raped during their lifetimes, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. More than four in ten black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetime, with white women, Latinas and Asian/Pacific Islander women reporting lower rates, black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse including insults, humiliation, name-calling and coercive control than women do overall, IWPR reports.
In other words, breaking down R. Kelly is just one part of the mission. With the burgeoning Time’s Up and #MeToo crusades, it’s imperative that we focus on the plight of black women.
Luckily, cracks have already begun to show in the facade. Alongside the nationwide protests, Kelly has recently been evicted from his Atlanta homes. Barnes thinks the “evictions are an indication of economic instability,” and said the displacement “might be in some way a direct – or indirect result – of #MuteRKelly.”
So what can the average person do to join the movement? Brown suggests engaging in a simple action: logging on. The Internet’s ability to connect people and “start a dialogue” with like-minded perfect strangers in a matter of minutes can offer up new methods on building strategy. Reach out to Black Women’s Blueprint and similar organizations in your neck of the woods to “seek local voices and assemble actions near you if Kelly is coming to town.” And if he’s not making a tour stop in your area? Brown also recommends calling venues that are hosting him and explaining what your advocacy looks like.
Plus, if you subscribe to Tidal or Pandora, you can dislike his music in an effort the co-founders of #MuteRKelly have titled “ThumbItDown,” which hopes to eventually remove his music from the streaming services.