#MuteRKelly Co-Founder On The Moment, Her Movement And Its Momentum

May 6, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 11:16 am

The #MuteRKelly movement is picking up steam. Founded late last year by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, #MuteRKelly seeks to draw attention to the artist's controversial past and is pressuring companies to cut ties with him.

Accusations against the R&B crooner date back almost 20 years, and last year a string of bombshell articles raised new claims that R. Kelly was "brainwashing" young women and continuing to have sexual relationships with minors.

So far, Kelly has escaped any major consequences for his alleged indiscretions. He was famously acquitted in 2008 on 14 charges related to child pornography. In the decade since, he has continued to tour and release new music.

But just Friday, three more women came forward with previously unreported claims that R. Kelly had relationships with minors. And in the wake of Bill Cosby's historic conviction on sexual assault charges, the #MeToo movement is beginning to address Kelly.

Time's Up — an organization of celebrities and volunteer lawyers brought together by #MeToo activists — released a statement on Monday calling out Apple, Spotify, RCA and other companies for their financial ties to R. Kelly.

Organizers associated with #MeToo, Time's Up and #MuteRKelly are hoping that the moment will lead to lasting change. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of #MuteRKelly, about the movement and what she hopes it will accomplish.


Interview Highlights

On why now is the right moment

One is the culmination of the work that myself and Kenyette Barnes have been doing since last year when the latest allegations of the sex cult came about. We started calling media attention back around to these allegations.

But also I think that this year it's blown up because we have a convergence of the women's movement — the Time's Up movement, the #MeToo movement — all of these women who are calling for justice against sexual abuse.

I think we're at a moment where women no longer feel the need to carry the shame of sexual abuse and internalize it and say it was their fault and keep it under wraps. I think we're at a point now where they're saying ... "I deserve justice." And they're calling for it.

On what she hopes #MuteRKelly will accomplish

We're calling for a complete and total mute. We don't want to hear him on the radio. We do not want him on streaming services. We do not want him booked at concerts. We want the collective society to erase him from our consciousness. So that he can no longer be insulated from the consequences of his crime. It's his money, it's his wealth, it's his notoriety, it's all the connections that he has in the entertainment industry that make it hard for victims to successfully prosecute him. And if we're able to take away the funding source for all of that, then we're able to expose him and hopefully get a conviction against him for the things that he's been doing for the past 25 years.

On if she wants to see R. Kelly go to trial

Absolutely. I think that any and everybody who is guilty of sexual abuse should be tried in court and should be convicted. So it doesn't matter to me that something might have happened 20 years ago. Women still carry those very real scars from that time with R. Kelly. He preyed on these women at such an important time in the development of their self-esteem, of their sexual identity. And when you mess with a child during those years, that sticks with them forever. So I think he absolutely should be held accountable for it, and I would love to see him go to jail for it.

On the place of black women in the #MeToo movement

Women already have a very hard time proving these things and getting support when they bring it forward to the greater society. But black women have an even harder time. Because of so many pervasive stereotypes that have been going around since slavery about black women's promiscuity or our trustworthiness or lack thereof, it's really hard when we come forward for people to just jump behind us and say, "Yes, I'm going to support you." So we absolutely have been lost in the mix of all of the conversations that have been going on.

On statements from Kelly's representatives that the controversy is an "attempted public lynching"

It makes me incensed that he would draw a comparison to our ancestors who were lynched. So many of the black men and women who were lynched in this country were lynched trying to protect their families, their children and their community.

R. Kelly is being called to task for his actions. That's not a lynching — it's a reckoning. And there's a difference.


NPR's Barrie Hardymon edited this story for broadcast. Ian Wren contributed to this story for web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The hashtag #MuteRKelly started trending last week. The online campaign calls for companies to cut ties with R. Kelly, the singer-songwriter, because of allegations of decades of abuse of girls and young women. The campaign, which began last year, was recently backed by the anti-harassment coalition Time's Up and has been spearheaded by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye. We spoke to Odeleye via Skype, and she told us they want a complete and total mute of R. Kelly.

ORONIKE ODELEYE: We don't want to hear him on the radio. We do not want him on streaming services. We do not want him booked at concerts. It's his money. It's his wealth. It's his notoriety. It's all the connections that he has in the entertainment industry that make it hard for victims to successfully prosecute him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: R. Kelly is no longer a big earner for these companies, though, in the same way that he might've been before. Do you think that that helps your case in a way because it's no longer about the money, and he has less power?

ODELEYE: Well, you know, it's always about the money. I mean, if they're earning $5 for a record company, they're going to, you know, keep them on the payroll. But he also has really deep connections that you don't necessarily see on the surface. He started a lot of people's careers. He's written songs for a lot of people. He's produced a lot of folks. You know, there are women who've been in relationships with him who have singing careers that don't want to now, you know, burn the bridge that got them to where they are. He still is very powerful within the industry. And we've been having the same block against the powers that be in terms of dropping him as we did, you know, years and years ago when people were calling for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think black women's voices have been lost in this movement and the wider movement of #MeToo?

ODELEYE: Absolutely. I think that, you know, we are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to importance in this country. Women already have a very hard time proving these things. But black women have an even harder time because of so many stereotypes that have been going around since slavery about black women's promiscuity or our - you know, our trustworthiness or lack thereof. It's really hard when we come forward for people to just jump behind us and say, yes, I'm going to support you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walk me through a little bit some of the responses in the African-American community. You know, I've heard some claim that R. Kelly is a successful black man that's done a lot for the black community through his music and that he is a victim of systemic racism in the way that, you know, other black people are. And so, therefore, somehow should not be held accountable.

ODELEYE: You know, I think that as a community, you know, we have some internal housecleaning to do in terms of who it is we support and who we do not support. R. Kelly is a talented musician, but he has not cured cancer. He has not built hospitals and schools in our community. What he has done is used his money and his fame to prey on young women. That's it. And so I think that that claim a lot of times can be our knee-jerk reaction because so many of our famous and successful people are targets unfairly so. But we have to be able to sift through and see who it is is - that's a valid claim against it and who it's not. And with R. Kelly, that's just not a valid claim.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that in a statement to BuzzFeed News earlier this week, Kelly's representative said that the controversy is, quote - and I'm quoting here - "an attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture." Your reaction to that?

ODELEYE: I find that, you know, it makes me incensed that he would draw a comparison to our ancestors who were lynched. R. Kelly is being called to task for his actions. That's not a lynching. It's a reckoning, and there's a difference. And so to make that incendiary comparison is really trying to pull on the emotions of the African-American community. But it's not founded in any validity, in any logic whatsoever. He is a pariah to our community. And, honestly, if there was going to be a lynching, then we, as a community, should've done it with him a long time ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: National co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign Oronike Odeleye joins us via Skype. Thank you very much.

ODELEYE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.