While #MeToo takes down the men who prey on predominantly white women, this serial abuser of Black girls remains unscathed. The women behind the #MuteRKelly initiative aim to change that.
Aside from a Groundhog Day prediction that winter would linger an additional six weeks, February 2002 brought with it some pretty compelling evidence that underscored singer R. Kelly’s peculiar infatuation with underage Black girls. VHS footage, infamously dubbed the R. Kelly sex tapes, hit the streets and made rounds among the general public. I admit, I saw it and it is hard for me to unsee the man who eerily “resembles” Kelly, from the faux cornbraids, which he wore at the time, and his deep-set, ill-boding eyes, down to the signature goatee that framed his cunning smile; a smile I was ten years invested in.
The 27-minute tape revealed the man “bumping and grinding” with three young girls; each at different times during the recording. The most disturbing act was the unsavory, adulterated sex which occurred between Kelly and a young girl who appeared just barely pubescent. She does a seemingly seductive, awkward dance for him in the nude. Kelly can be heard saying “before I forget,” before he hands the girl some cash and puts his penis in her mouth. She straddles him—they have sex. After ejaculating, he urinates in her mouth and on her body. The scene was the seedbed for a litany of “pee” jokes directed at Kelly in the years that followed. Right then, my affinity for 12 Play, R.,TP2 and all things R. Kelly died. The soundtracks to my wonder years were no longer about sexual freedom, but rather a misconstrued translation of something far more sinister: pedophilia, perversion, statutory rape, sexual manipulation.
The tape led to a criminal indictment and Kelly was eventually found not guilty on all 21 charges, ranging from child pornography to child sexual assault, six years later. Perhaps the verdict was enough for the public court to vindicate Kelly. For me, it mattered not one iota because I saw what I saw. The visual, unlike hearsay, should have been more than enough to spark the kind of disgust, outrage and action to bring his career and suspect behavior to a screeching halt—but it didn’t.
Eighteen years later, Kelly’s sexual corruption is still funking up good air. This is what happens when we don’t put out the trash: The refusal to hold the singer culpable has given him license to exercise a sick brand of tyranny over young Black women for more than two decades; Tiffany Hawkins and Tracey Sampson, Patrice Jones and Montina Woods, Jerhonda Pace and (N) and Jocelyn Savage and Azriel Clary to name a few; and Kitti Jones, who claims to have escaped Kelly’s recently reported sex cult. Jones tells of a more malignant experience in Rolling Stone and a newly released BBC documentary, where others corroborate much of what we’ve heard about the singer over the years.
It has taken nearly a quarter of a century for Robert Sylvester Kelly to finally feel the brunt of his sexual deviance—courtesy of Black women. These gutsy women are leading a charge that not only holds R. Kelly accountable, but also those who are complicit in his ability to be profitable. Their goal is to eradicate his music and presence from the public sphere and bring a larger lens to his behavior. Their efforts are gaining momentum.
Instagram user @97babygirl, who claims to be a close friend of Ariel Clary, a 17-year-old lured into Kelly’s reported sex cult, uses social media for her form of protest. She actively calls out the entertainer and his alleged cohorts in an effort to bring attention to the abuse Clary and other women may be facing. The posts tell a harrowing story that situates Kelly as a Svengali over grown women and girls as young as 15. She puts Kelly on full blast while making an appeal for Clary’s return. Clary, who has received little press, has not been seen by family or friends in two years.
Before the Twitter version of #MeToo, the original grassroot movement was ten years in the making and created by TIME Person of the Year 2017, Tarana Burke. Burke, a staunch advocate for “survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities,” recently convinced radio personality Tom Joyner to #MuteRKelly; she has also been relentless in amplifying Kelly’s alleged sexual predation, particularly in spaces he is least likely to be mentioned.
“Everytime I’m in mainstream media, I evoke the name of R. Kelly. He’s not even on their radar,” Burke told me. “Sexual violence knows no race, color, class or gender, but the response to sexual violence does. The response to sexual violence is highly gendered and highly racialized and definitely defined by class.”
Burke speaks to the fact that the well-being of Black girls is not on mainstream America’s radar either; despite statistical data revealing approximately 40 to 60 percent of Black women report coercive sexual contact by age 18.
This slight is partly the reason Kelly escaped the scrutiny, pursuit, and cancellation earned by Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. In a country where whiteness reigns supreme, a concern for Black girls’ bodies and trauma is nil—compared with what there is reserved for white women. As Malcolm X imparted years ago, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
We bear witness continually to the painstaking reality of X’s statement every day and throughout American history. During the 19th century, J. Marion Sims gained a living and critical acclaim as the “father of gynecology,” though he terrorized and enslaved women with extreme medical experiments. Recy Taylor was abducted and gang-raped by six white men during the Jim Crow Era. After 67 years, the State of Alabama apologized, though her assailants were never brought to justice. On April 22, 2018, Chikesia Clemons was violated sexually and physically by two white police officers who choked her and threatened to break her arm while attempting an arrest in a Waffle House in Alabama.
No one protected Anarchy, Betsy, or Lucy. Justice for Mrs. Taylor was never received. Ms. Clemons was treated inhumanely.
Blatant disregard for the Black-woman body is beyond abysmal and quite frankly, Kelly adds to this scurvy narrative. The Black women behind #MuteRKelly recognize this and are hell-bent on pulling his plug.
Their dedication has garnered the support of both the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. To date, their petitions and protests have gotten ten R. Kelly concert dates cancelled, and influenced local elected officials to join the conversation. They created #ThumbitDown, a campaign where users of music-streaming platforms—like Tidal and Pandora—can change the algorithm and frequency of R. Kelly songs till they no longer play. This action affects artist revenue. Internet radio station BOSS.FM is the first to remove R. Kelly music from all of its channels in stance alongside #MuteRKelly.
At the heart of this growing campaign is two women from Atlanta, Georgia, adamant in seeking restorative justice on behalf of young Black women. Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye teamed up and committed to doing what no other entity or organization has done: Mute R. Kelly literally. It has been a long time coming, but as a victim of child pornography, Barnes says she was “fuck R. Kelly long before #MuteRKelly.”
“My first public conversation about R. Kelly was in 1999 in Cleveland, Ohio, concerning [his relationship with] Aaliyah, and grown men having sex with underage Black girls. In 2002, I worked in a capacity where I was dealing with girls who were in a similar demographic; by this time, the sex tapes leaked,” Barnes told me. However, the catalyst for #MuteRKelly occurred in 2016, when news of Kelly and his then-19-year-old girlfriend Halle Calhoun made headlines. The news bothered Barnes. Once again, Kelly was a thorn in her side. Shortly after, Buzzfeed published an exposé on Kelly’s alleged sex harem which included young girls in the state of Georgia. Her tipping point was when local radio stations began promoting his Atlanta concert.
“It was really [a matter of] if not now, when? If not you, who?” Barnes reflected. “My original intention was pretty crude. I was gonna first lobby the Fulton County Board of Commissioners who housed the venue. If they said no, I was gonna roll-up with a lawn chair and sign, and at some point, use the ticket I purchased to go into the venue and bum rush the stage.”
Until reports of an R. Kelly sex cult hit Atlanta, Odeleye had no intention on becoming an activist, nor holding Kelly accountable. She, like many others in the black community, was disconnected from the depravity of R. Kelly because of how the media conveyed his past transgressions.
“When I first heard about Aaliyah and the video, I was a much younger person, and [the video] was presented in pop culture very much like satire–like this crazy, quirky guy is doing odd things,” Odeleye recalled. “I didn’t think about it in a real way. Then, as an adult, to have this come back up in my own backyard made it real.”
Odeleye researched Kelly’s current activity and fell into a deep rabbit hole of court cases, witness accounts, and victim testimony of not only sexual abuse, but physical and mental abuse as well. Her findings prompted her to start an online petition that challenged local radio stations to stop playing R. Kelly music and for venues to stop hosting his shows.
That Kelly’s target victims are Black women is not only central to the broader context, but is also a key factor in the Black community’s connivance. Black people, too, have been as silent and supportive as mainstream media. It is the Black community, namely women, who pour into Kelly’s ongoing success. They’ve featured him in one of the largest women-centered festivals, they fill arenas, buy his music, and defend his immoral behavior. The time has come for Black women, and men, to reckon with that.
“The music industry has been well aware of what R. Kelly has been doing for forever … but we, as a community, have made excuses for R. Kelly. A lot of the blame and burden needs to be put squarely on the shoulders of Black women.” Odeleye said. “When you go to R. Kelly concerts, it is all Black women. When I get in arguments online, it is all Black women. Any hate mail I receive is all from Black women.”
Odeleye attributes Black women’s response to the effects of patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture deeply woven into the fabric of American culture and also one that is prevalent in Black culture—the vehemence in which we protect our villains and dismiss our Black girls.
“I’m really interested in the conversation we’re having about sexual abuse among young women in our community and why it is women so often jump up in defense of these men instead of siding with their sisters. I feel like the work we’re doing is sparking that conversation on a larger scale,” Odeleye said.
Because of this, #MuteRKelly will not stop with Kelly. Both she and Barnes plan to stay the course, by promoting healing and creating safe space specific to Black women and girls.
“#MuteRKelly is a symptom of a larger problem. We’re going to strengthen our connections with #MeToo and #TimesUp. We’re going to start a larger conversation around [it all]. We’re looking at legislation that addresses rape kits, [non-disclosure agreements] and statute of limitations around things of this nature,” Barnes said.
From its founders to its national organizers, the #MuteRkelly team is 100 percent Black-women led and will continue to center its work on Black women and girls. The organization remains unapologetic about that. Their goals do not end with R. Kelly. They plan to stay the course long after he is muted, and young women are out of his reach, by creating safe space and promoting healing for women survivors of sex crimes who are Black.
Kelly got one thing right: “When a woman’s fed up, there is nothing you can do about it.” Period. Point blank. End discussion.
Sexual violence projected onto Black women and girls is a social and cultural issue that must be addressed not only in the music industry, but on all fronts and at every level. While there are challenges Black women face as victims, as survivors and social justice warriors, #MuteRKelly, #MeToo, and #TimesUp makes it plain: getting away with sexual violence against Black women will no longer be tolerated. In their fight, they demonstrate a brand of strength and resilience that should inspire us all to protect our vulnerable and take a stand for what is right, and that it is never too late to seek justice.