#MuteRKelly movement is bigger than the man and his music

Creators of campaign prompted by allegations against singer take a bow — and share some tough love.

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Oronike Odeleye (left) and Kenyette Tish Barnes, co-founders of the #MuteRKelly campaign.

Oronike Odeleye (left) and Kenyette Tish Barnes, co-founders of the #MuteRKelly campaign.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

I sat down with Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, co-creators of the #MuteRKelly campaign, who live in the Atlanta area and were in Chicago to accept an award from Resilience, a 45-year-old advocacy organization for rape victims.

Founded in 2017, #MuteRKelly resulted in R. Kelly’s concerts being cancelled in the United States and abroad after new allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.

Besides being investigated by the feds on possible sex-trafficking charges, Kelly faces multiple counts of sexual misconduct with minors, including 11 new felony counts of sexual assault filed against him Thursday.

Because Kelly has not been convicted of any sex crimes and was acquitted of similar charges in 2008, the campaign to shut down his concerts and ban his music is controversial — but necessary.  

In a wide-ranging interview, Barnes and Odeleye addressed the opposition they have faced trying to hold the R&B singer accountable for his alleged behavior. Here are some excerpts:

What pushed you to create the #MuteRKelly campaign?

Odeleye: In the summer of 2017, there was a news report that R. Kelly was [running] a sex cult in his home. I was immediately enraged…. Out of a feeling of a need to do something, a need to stand up in solidarity with the victims, I decided to start a petition to try and get him off the radio.

Barnes: I work as a lobbyist and an activist on sexual violence-type legislation. I have been muting R. Kelly since Y2K — before we even had Twitter, before we even had hashtag. Despite how much I talked about it in my professional setting, people didn’t care. There was always this kind of apathy. It was on all levels — from academicians to the guy on the street selling the tapes. It seemed like black girls and their sexual violence just wasn’t valid unless it fit a narrow criteria.

Why are some black people reluctant to deal with this issue?

Barnes: In our community… it’s race first always, and we will deal with the other stuff in-house. When you put hero status on a perpetrator, it becomes difficult because the community is really complicit in enabling some of those behaviors. And when you try to bring it out, you are immediately silenced.

Odeleye: We are so emotionally attached to the idea that black men were lynched in society, we completely erased the trauma that black women also experienced.

So it is trying to make connections today to these people’s minds…trying to make them understand that actually ridding our community of predators, of abusers, of violent men is not an attack on all black men because those are not the majority of black men.

You’ve been accused of being used as “pawns” by white racists. How do you respond?

Odeleye: When we get people who say, “You guys are just a pawn of white media or a pawn of white supremacy trying to bring a black man down,” it totally erases the [victims’] lived experience. It makes their lived experience tangential to something else they think is going on. Some of it is trying to break down the thinking. It is trying to make a connection between white supremacy and the way it oversexualized and devalued black women over time and has taught that to us pathologically over time.

Barnes: I’m done educating people because it always feels like gaslighting. Less than 2% of sexual crimes actually lead to convictions. That means you are more likely to go to jail selling weed than raping someone. Sixty percent of black women are victims of sexual violence before her eighth birthday. That’s an epidemic. We have to learn how to love our black men and support our black boys and hold accountable those kind of pathological behaviors that are really harming us.

What do you hope black people take from the #MuteRKelly campaign?

Odeleye: The ability to have an abstract conversation about R. Kelly influences your ability to have this conversation [about sexual violence]…because we are talking about what happens in our community — all day, every day. The ability to see it, to talk about it, to think about it enhances your ability to talk about it when you see it in your community. You get to see some of these warning signs.

Barnes: When we put people on pedestals, we get the demigod status. This is how they are able to use that status to abuse and malign. Aside from R. Kelly, I’m looking at politicians, clergy and other musicians. We have to develop another blueprint to separate the man from the music, the man from the pulpit, the man from the activism.

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