Earlier this month Lifetime debuted Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries that explores the allegations of sexual assault and abuse that have surrounded the artist for decades. (He denies the accusations.) Until now the claims have had little impact on his career. But the response to the series has been enormous, with new attention on the women's stories in the Time's Up era. In Georgia a criminal probe has been opened to look into claims of sexual harassment and abuse. On social media celebrities and collaborators have started to speak out. At a recent appearance protestors rallied outside. Here the cocreator of the #MuteRKelly campaign reflects on what justice would look like and whether people are at last prepared to listen to black women and girls.
I was 14 when I heard that R. Kelly had married Aaliyah, who was his protégée. She was 15 at the time, and it baffled me. I didn't think of it as abuse. It was more, "What does a 15-year-old want with an old man?" R. Kelly was 27. To me, he was ancient. But I dismissed it. I was a kid, and I didn't understand. I thought, I guess this is what celebrities do.
It just hit me then: We're dancing to these women's pain.
More rumors came up, and each time I didn't think too much about it. I wasn't OK with it, but I didn't make a fuss about it either. Then [BuzzFeed] reported in 2017 that R. Kelly operated what some in the media around Georgia called "a sex cult." After decades of accusations, it dawned on me that people knew full well what was going on, what was happening to black women, and we had made a collective decision not to take action. And I realized: I'm one of those people who is not standing with the victims. I had heard him on the radio. I had heard his music at barbecues, graduations, parties. It just hit me then: We're dancing to these women's pain.
Kenyette Barnes and I started #MuteRKelly in response to the news that this was happening in Georgia, where I live. I don't know what I expected, but I wasn't prepared for the response. We got so much hate mail. People were telling us we wanted to take a black man down, that we were believing these victims with no evidence, or that the women deserved what they said happened to them. It shocked me.
The petition that we circulated asked radio stations not to give him air time, and I figured it wouldn't be a big deal. I thought, OK, I’m going to send this petition to the radio stations, and it'll be like, "Yep, he’s a horrible person. We’ve always known it. We’re going to stop playing him." That would be that. Two days of my life, and then this is taken care of for good. I was naive. It wasn’t like that at all. We were met with silence. Then we were met with ridicule.
There were a few bright spots; otherwise I'm not sure I could have kept at it. Women started to reaching out from all over, writing to us, "Oh my God, thank you so much for doing this. I’ve been doing my own personal protest against him forever." Or, "I've been telling my friends that they shouldn’t support this man." With #MuteRKelly, people started to feel like, "We have a banner to fly our flag under."
Little by little, we have watched people come over. We’ve watched the tide turn, as people started to take a deeper look at these reports. The fact that the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up movement exploded at the same time—that's a factor. Because now the women who said "I was a little uncomfortable with this, but I brushed it off" know that there's a lot of us out there who aren't going to be quiet.
#MeToo and Time's Up and #MuteRKelly focus on different aspects of sexual abuse that we experience as women, but our goal is the same. We're standing up and telling people, "We’re not going to accept this in our workplace. We’re not going to accept this from our entertainers. We’re not going to accept this in our lives and our homes. We’re not going to accept this behavior for our children. Wherever we find it, we’re going to root it out." That’s the importance of this moment, and that's the reason it's so crucial that this conversation is back at the forefront of people's minds. The difference here is that this alleged abuse affected black women and girls, a lot of them not from privileged backgrounds.
In black communities, I think, when people heard about #MeToo, the reaction was “Yes!” When we heard about Time’s Up, it was “Yes!” When people heard about #MuteRKelly, it was like, "Hold on now…" His music is so rooted in our experience that we have an emotional connection to it—not so much to him but to the music itself. When people hear "Step in the Name of Love," it brings up good memories. When they hear “I Believe I Can Fly,” they’re not thinking about Space Jam; they’re thinking about their baby’s graduation from kindergarten. It's not OK, but I do think a lot of people didn't want to let those good feelings go and face the reality that was behind them.
It's hard to accept that sometimes, yes, someone is a terrible person. And our support has helped them this whole time.
So what's changing now? Well, after the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly premiered, people who, until now, refused to accept these allegations have been forced to think about who or what they want to protect. As black people, we have an inside voice and an outside voice. We're cautious when it comes to criticizing other black people in the media. We feel and often are attacked from all sides. People don't want to contribute to that. Sometimes we can't parse out when an attack is relevant and when it’s not—who we should support and who we shouldn’t. Part of the problem also is that as a culture in general we worship celebrities. We want to be like them. Eat what they eat. Wear what they wear. It's hard to accept that sometimes, yes, someone is a terrible person. And our support has helped him this whole time.
Watching the show and seeing how deep the alleged abuse goes, seeing the whole timeline of it laid out, with so much corroborating evidence—from people who’ve worked for R. Kelly, from people who’ve collaborated with him, from people in the industry? It's impossible to ignore this. It forces each of us to ask ourselves, "Why am I so invested in supporting this person who has never thought about supporting black women?"
We owe this to Dream Hampton, the executive producer of this series, and to all the women who’ve come forward and to all the legal teams that are helping these women attempt to get justice. Kenyette and I started #MuteRKelly and continued it even when we were disheartened, because we knew it could snowball and make a difference. We're part of a nationwide movement now, but it has not been a short road. No one is getting rich off this. No one is getting famous or making a fortune off this. People won't even tell their friends what their salaries are, and yet these women are on national television, telling their deepest, darkest secrets, showing us their worst pain. That deserves our respect. Now all we can hope is that action will be taken; this has been an emotional roller coaster—for us since 2017, but for some of these women for decades.
Legal justice is important, and I'm glad to see that investigators in Georgia and Illinois want to look into this now. But for our movement, it has always been about the culture that supports a culture of abuse and breaking that culture down. If we can get R. Kelly off the radio, if he can't book concerts, if his music is not on streaming services, that's a success to us. That's people telling him, “We will not support this. We will not support it from our entertainers, from our politicians, from our religious leaders, from our neighbors, from our friends."
If nothing else happens, the fact that so many women decided to take a step forward, whether that means through the legal process or just to be open about this with their families and friends, with their children—I think that is a win that we’ve gained from this movement. The rest will just take continued effort. Time's up, but the work's not done yet.
Oronike Odeleye is the national cofounder of #MuteRKelly. Follow her on Twitter at @SuiteLadyOro.