Shut Up


The story behind #MuteRKelly

A conversation with Kenyette Barnes, a co-founder of the campaign protesting R. Kelly’s abuse and exploitation of women.

Yesterday, women of color from the Time’s Up movement, voiced their support for #MuteRKelly, an online campaign that has been working to shut down the singer’s concerts and radio play all over the world since last summer. It’s hard to find someone unaware of the many accusations of sexual and psychological abuse against the R&B singer, his previous indictments for child pornography, his marriage to Aaliyah when he was 27 and she was 15; but despite years of reporting on and testimony from black girls and women he has abused, R. Kelly has continued to tour and get cosigns from some of the world’s biggest recording artists. Last year, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye decided they wouldn’t stand for that anymore.

Following a Buzzfeed report about R. Kelly’s exploitation of young women and news that R. Kelly would be performing in their city, Atlanta, Barnes and Odeleye started #MuteRKelly in an attempt to get that concert canceled. And while that show still went on, the campaign has since succeeded in getting R. Kelly concerts in 10 different cities canceled. Their latest victory saw the singer removed as a headliner for a Chicago show that will otherwise continue as planned.

The endorsement of Time’s Up’s women of color, signals greater support for #MuteRKelly and the women who, for years, fought R. Kelly’s lionization and profit in the absence of national publicity and support. On the day of the announcement, Barnes spoke to The Outline by phone about the origins of #MuteRKelly, what Hollywood’s support means, and what’s next in this campaign to take power away from abusive men.

Listen to the conversation between Kenyette Barnes and Ann-Derrick Gaillot on The Outline World Dispatch.

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How do you feel about the Time’s Up letter that came out today saying that they’re joining the #MuteRKelly campaign?

I am honored, I’m humbled. This was such a modest little campaign that started with an attempt to cancel the Atlanta concert. And for Time’s Up to get on board, in addition to #MeToo, it just really solidifies for me that we’re doing the right thing. I’m so happy about their involvement, and I am speechless. This really just gives a boost to our campaign as we prepare for another protest in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Up until this point, how had trying to get publicity or cosigns from really visible people gone?

It's been challenging. For instance, when we started most recording artists didn’t want to touch it. Last year there was an article in Buzzfeed that asked about 40 different recording artists their opinions of R. Kelly and would they work with him again. And it came back with a series of “No comment.” When we launched in Atlanta, radio stations weren’t interested in hearing our story. They wanted to question us, but they weren’t really interested in hearing the need for a #MuteRKelly campaign. We received a lot of negative backlash, especially from radio stations. The most recent was Wendy Williams in late January. And attorney Sophia Nelson, who was on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, was very disparaging to not only the campaign but also Tarana Burke and her work on #MeToo. So we’ve had more indifference and criticism than we have had support. It was very difficult to get traction behind this, but now that it's moving I’m excited.

How did you and Oronike team up for this?

#MuteRKelly co-founder Kenyette Barnes.

#MuteRKelly co-founder Kenyette Barnes.

I have been outspoken against R. Kelly since about 1999. After the the child pornography case in Chicago and subsequent case in Florida, I just checked out of R. Kelly. I don’t listen to his music, I don’t allow him to be played around me or my children, and I speak very frankly about why I don’t like that. We started #MuteRKelly [when] he had come to Atlanta for his concert. At that point BuzzFeed had just broken the story about the young ladies in what they were calling the “sex cult.” At that point I just couldn’t do nothing. And I am a registered lobbyist in Georgia, I am an activist, so I have a skill set to organize and talk to elected officials and things of that nature. My plan was to lobby the Board of Commissioners that housed the venue [and] convince them to cancel the concert. That would have been a win for us. Oronike, her background is in arts management. She made a petition and got about 200 signatures and that's how we connected, through social media looking at what [each other] were doing. And so I reached out to her, introduced myself. I told her what I wanted to do. We met up to get coffee and I said, Do you want to do this? And she said, Let’s go. It was really our mutual outrage and our differences that made us a dynamic team.

As far as the hashtag itself, that was was originated by a professor at Clark Atlanta, Dr. Stephanie Evans. Just in a random thread talking about R. Kelly I think I had mentioned that he was coming to Atlanta and I don’t like him and I’m going do something. And she just said, Mute R. Kelly. It was just really organic and I said, You know what, I think I like that. Another woman I would like to celebrate is Dr. Sharnell Myles. She is a trauma based counselor here in the Atlanta area and she works with victimized girls, primarily sexual abuse. And the one thing that she made clear to us: Don’t forget the larger message. So if you listen to the narrative around #MuteRKelly, yes it’s about R. Kelly himself. But as a broader, larger narrative of sexual violence.

Why do you think it’s taken so long to have this groundswell behind holding R. Kelly accountable, especially compared to people like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein?

I think there are several reasons. One, when we speak culturally about sexual violence in the black community, because the victims were all young girls of color, it tends to be a dirty little secret that you just don't talk about. The first thing you’re going to hear when you see a black victim and a black accuser or offender is, Well what's wrong with him? Is he sick? Do we need to get him some help? You can’t take down a black man, as opposed to centering the victim and the victimization. The other reason is we’re just not believed. Black girls are not believed. And I speak not only as an activist and an organizer of this amazing campaign, but as a survivor of child pornography. No one believed me and it was kind of almost my fault. Like, Well why didn't you just get up and leave? Well, because that’s not the way sexual abuse works.

I think a lot of young women, especially women of color, who find themselves in these situations, silence themselves. They don’t talk about it, they take it to the grave, they find ways to cope. And unfortunately these ways of coping are not healthy and are still not holding the accused accountable. So it’s a combination of we don’t believe black women and girls, we center protecting black men over protecting victimized black girls, and then you have rape culture and slut shaming. You mentioned Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby was found guilty by a jury of his peers in a court of law. In a court of public opinion, he is still very innocent even though he’s admitted to doing some of this stuff. So I think it translates to just the need to protect black men and the black community based on the history of racism, plus not believing black girls. It’s a perfect storm of exploitation.

#MuteRKelly continues until his career is over.
Kenyette Barnes

After the initial articles about Harvey Weinstein came out and more and more people were using the Me Too hashtag, there were conversations about how the movement was leaving women and girls of color out. What are your thoughts on that?

I believe it was absolutely true. And that is something that with #MuteRKelly we wanted to center. The founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, is eternally grateful for us for this campaign for several reasons. One, she’s been talking about R. Kelly but never got any traction. And #MeToo was sort of hijacked and did not center women of color, which was her original focus. This does not conclude that girls of color are the only ones who are sexually assaulted. Not in any way do I want to have it appear I believe as such. However, when we’re talking about disparities and the [sexual assault] epidemic, black girls primarily are more likely to suffer from sexual assault, for a multitude of reasons, than their white counterparts. So #MeToo did move away from that original message. #MuteRKelly has provided a template to return to that original message. [It] seeks to change the narrative around sexual assault in the black community.

You say a lot of the resistance you’ve faced has been from radio stations. I assumed that it would be from R Kelly fans mostly.

Definitely. The surprise came from the amount of backlash that we got from his fans. And at one point I had to disable notifications all of my social media because I was being harassed, threatened, horrible things were said about me. The worst thing that happened was a rape threat where someone told me if he sees me at a concert protesting he’s gonna do whatever he wants do [to me]. And it’s a shame that it’s come to that. We have had several political bodies and elected officials who support this. The first was in Atlanta and he got a lot of negative feedback just because he was supporting #MuteRKelly. Since then, the Detroit City Council has offered a resolution to #MuteRKelly in Detroit and the Wayne County Green Party has endorsed this campaign.

How did Bill Cosby’s recent conviction affect your outlook on #MuteRKelly? Did it give you any hope?

Absolutely. It demonstrated a turning tide in holding powerful men accountable. People seek restorative justice when bad things happen to them, that’s the purpose of our legal system, and unfortunately powerful men often escape accountability. To see Bill Cosby face that, it really gave us a lot of hope. Primarily because R. Kelly was not convicted in 2002 after he went to trial for child pornography. I think that this might be what takes him down.

What are the next actions for #MuteRKelly, especially now that you have this big endorsement and R. Kelly’s lawyer, publicist, and assistant have reportedly resigned?

#MuteRKelly continues until his career is over. The beautiful thing about the structure of the organizing is that we are developing teams on the ground. In the event he comes back to their city, it’s just a phone call for those teams to organize. We have a template of how to approach elected officials to put support on promoters to not book R. Kelly at certain venue, especially if these are taxpayer-funded venues. We are hoping that this collaboration with #MeToo and Time’s Up will translate into a larger conversation around sexual violence as it relates to high powered men, because that’s really what #MuteRKelly is about. Also, part of the the the goal of #MuteRKelly is to not only protest his concerts, to not only say disparaging things about him on social media, but to also have a significant financial burden placed on him. Because having access to that kind of money you can pay off people, you can buy a high-powered attorney, you can pay publicists and bodyguards to protect you physically and to protect your image. He has none of them right now and he’s extremely vulnerable. This is why he’s making videos. So #MuteRKelly intends to mute R. Kelly.