In the summer of 2017, activists Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye began the #MuteRKelly movement from their home base in Atlanta as a way to pressure corporations to financially divest themselves from the singer and bring attention to multiple sexual abuse allegations against the singer. As the movement went global, Barnes and Odeleye have been at the center of mobilizing various grass roots organizations aiming to fight sexual abuse and misogynoir.
R. Kelly’s guilty verdict earlier this week was both the music industry’s highest-profile conviction in the #metoo era as well as the most prominent conviction whose victims were mainly Black women. Speaking to Rolling Stone one day after the verdict, Barnes shares the whirl of emotions she experienced surrounding the verdict, why streaming services and radio stations that continue to play Kelly’s music should still be held accountable and why there’s still a “lot of work to do.”
Right now, things are a little surreal. The mountain of evidence that the U.S. prosecutors presented was so overwhelming. You would literally have to be blind to not see that. I was prepared for the guilty verdict. So I felt relief and then it changed and it became sadness that it took so damn long. But the work continues.
I was pretty involved [in the trial]. I was given information about the testimony when it became public and none of it surprised me because I had been talking to survivors. Part of this campaign requires me to dive knee-deep into this murky underworld of Robert Sylvester Kelly and it was pretty dirty, to say the least. Hearing it in a public forum, you never are desensitized from it. I heard the horrid details about how he would keep them captive and not feed them and monitor their activities of daily living. I knew all that. And because I knew it didn’t mean that it was any less egregious to hear it. Nothing surprised me, but everything repulsed me.
This is the beginning of a new conversation. Yes, we can stay in the space of anger and knowing that this happened for over three decades and nothing happened, but what this verdict shows us is that Black girls matter; that Black young bodies have agency and they deserve protection and deserve to be validated when they tell us that horrific shit happens to them. That, to me, is where this verdict takes me personally as the leader of this global campaign: This isn’t the end. Robert Kelly has charges pending in several jurisdictions — federal and state — and we will be there to make sure that those survivors are heard as well.
We still have a campaign against the streaming platforms because every time someone streams a R. Kelly song, that is money going into his pocket and we have to stop that. And it’s not censorship. It’s not “bringing down a Black man.” This is accountability and sometimes accountability is ugly. This is what has to happen to ensure that not only will he no longer harm and malign; his enterprise will no longer harm and malign, and that it sends a message that that behavior is no longer acceptable. And if it happens, then you too can face the music just like he did.
When we hear about “cancel culture” fears, it seems to come from individuals who have benefited from a system of oppression in some way. And what that lets me know is that Black woman have been heard. What this moment does for me as an activist is it lets me know that, OK, this is a win, but this is not the end of it for us. Our next strategy definitely is going after the streaming platforms again and the urban radio stations, because they hold culpability as well. There were urban radio stations playing R. Kelly’s music after that verdict. What the hell is wrong with you all?
It brings to a larger conversation that misogynoir and rape culture and adultification are real and alive in our community and we have to call those out, too. R. Kelly was by far the most egregious sexual predator of our modern times, and he is now being held accountable; brought down to his knees by Black women. And that needs to be stated whenever this conversation occurs.
[The streaming services] are complicit. There has to be a moral compass here where we say, “Yeah, we might have to eat this money [spent on promoting certain artists], but we can’t support this anymore.” When I see urban radio stations [playing him], it feels like they’re doubling down on the only power they think they have: misogynoir, rape culture and the subjugation of Black women and girls. It’s embarrassing. And most of these radio stations are run by Black men. So when I have these conversations and I listen to radio stations playing R. Kelly on repeat, what I’m hearing is, “As a Black man, my only power in this world under the boot of white supremacy is to subjugate Black women and girls. And I’m not giving that up.” That’s what I hear and it hurts me. So we got a lot of work to do.
The answer [on if streaming services and radio will change] lies within the point of convergence between, “It’s not going to change it” and “They’re being forced to change.” If they do happen, will it be because of a moral ‘Come to Jesus’? Absolutely not. Those changes from those streaming platforms and urban radio stations will happen because the social pressure is too strong. When you start having protests outside radio stations, it’s not going to be pretty. It also calls into question, ‘Why are we not doing this?’ It looks like accountability. If a streaming service immediately removes R. Kelly because of this conviction. They don’t just walk away. They have to answer to “Why did it take a conviction?” When you had activists for years telling you this, why did it take a conviction?
And I understand that for some people, their decisions are driven by the law. And part of the fabric of our culture is the criminal justice system in that we believe that when individuals are found guilty, changes occur in how we interact with them and how they interact with society.
I don’t see any way this [movement] will die. There has always been Black women who have been on the front line advocating against R. Kelly. But these Black women were silenced, marginalized, and shamed. But the movement didn’t stop. We were unrelenting. We understood that this was a population that was never going to get justice. The sad reality is that I am certain there are survivors who believe they would never get justice; that has got to hurt. When we talk about the survivors of Dr. Larry Nassar, most of these were young, white gymnasts. Nobody questioned their parents. No one questioned the motives of these girls. They understood that predators will often occupy spaces of safety to have access to vulnerable victims. But somehow, that same grace cannot be extended to the survivors of R. Kelly. That’s insane. That’s the hard part for me. And that’s really what fuels the catalyst of this work.
The message I would say to survivors is that you did nothing wrong. Predators seek their prey, and we often hear the narratives about precociousness and “fast ass” girls. The reality is that there is no girl fast enough to catch a man who is out looking for a girl. And we’ve got to be clear about that. Adolescent sexuality is very complex. They’re going through puberty, their hormones are everywhere but the last thing to develop is their frontal cortex. They do not have a developed brain. And so because of that, they want access to this adult world. They look like adults; they imitate adults. But they’re not adults yet and that makes them prey. Young girls are more malleable, more manipulable and more exploitable. And we have to call this what it is: exploitation.
“Mute R. Kelly” isn’t going away, but I think there will be some rebranding in what we do in our collective spaces around activism for Black women and girls. What’s interesting about this case is that the linchpin within the RICO charges is that this was organized domestic minor sex trafficking. And you have major organizations that purport to be the leaders in sex trafficking and they do not capture racial data. And so that is something we’re going to really dive hard into because we can’t do this work, we can’t develop programs and we can’t develop effective policy if we’re not looking at that intersection as well. There’s a lot of work remaining in this space.
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