Last summer, Oronike Odeleye, a freelance arts administrator working in Atlanta, Georgia, was sitting at her computer catching up on the day’s news when she learned that R&B star R. Kelly had been accused of creating an abusive “sex cult” comprised of young vulnerable women he isolated, brainwashed, and physically and emotionally abused. “This news was especially jarring to me because [R. Kelly] was abusing women here in the Atlanta metro area,” said Odeleye. “These crimes were not something happening far away to some other people—these crimes were being committed against young women in my own backyard.”
After learning about the “sex cult” and R. Kelly’s many alleged abuses, Odeleye started to look into the singer—who’s been accused of sexual relations with minors since the early 90s, when the then-27-year-old Kelly married then-15-year old singer Aaliyah—and his history of sexual abuse allegations much more closely. During her research, Odeleye realized that throughout the past 20 years, she had already heard about many of the allegations against R. Kelly.
“I was just around Aaliyah’s age when I learned about her relationship with R. Kelly and I remember later when the tape [which showed the singer engaged in sex acts—including urination—with a girl prosecutors believed to be as young as 13] that made the allegations of his sexual abuse a national story,” said Odeleye. “But even after all of these stories came out, the story eventually ended and people moved on. And that allowed R. Kelly to repeat his behavior of sexual abuse against minors and young women.”
“For over two decades, R. Kelly has been preying on young women and damaging them at such a crucial time of developmental as they become young women and sexual beings,” said Odeleye. And last summer, she decided it was time to act.
Shortly after learning about the singer’s alleged “sex cult”, Odeleye started an online petition which called for radio stations to stop playing R. Kelly’s music. By this time, Odeleye had decided that although a court may not convict Kelly, people could still support the women who came forward with allegations by boycotting his music. “We don’t need a court to tell us to not listen to R. Kelly on the radio, we don’t need a court to tell us not to go to his concerts. Instead, we must take our collective power and harness it kick R. Kelly out of our shared community,” said Odeleye.
The campaign began to take off and within a week, Odeleye partnered with her co-founder Kenyette Tisha Barnes, who created the now-viral #MuteRKelly hashtag.
Odeleye wants it to be clear that she is not an activist by trade or experience. “I’m simply someone who saw something that was wrong within my community, and I set out to change it,” she explained. “I hope others see this too, and realize that change doesn’t have to come from the top down—everyone can make a difference.”
Then, in October 2017, the New York Times released its bombshell investigation into sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. With Weinstein’s exposure labeled a watershed moment and the rise of the #MeToo movement, Odeleye’s campaign to mute R. Kelly continues to pick up steam. “The petition was steamrolling,” said Odeleye. “It was a crucial time in the country when we as a community were finally willing to look at crimes of sexual abuse and harassment against women, and women were standing up to say, I’m not going to carry what has happened to me as my guilt and shame, but I’m going to place the blame squarely where it belongs and that is on the perpetrator of these crimes.”
While #MuteRKelly originally focused solely on removing R. Kelly from radio airwaves, the momentum and atmosphere around the #MeToo movement inspired Odeleye and Barnes to set their sights on expanding the campaign. “We saw that R Kelly had a concert coming up and we thought, let’s try to get that cancelled, too.” Since the launch of the #MuteRKelly campaign last summer, their work has resulted in ten concert cancellations, according to Odeleye. In addition, #MuteRKelly has held five demonstrations at R. Kelly concerts that they were not able to get cancelled. Currently, the latest #MuteRKelly petition calls on events promoter and venue operator Live Nation to cancel Kelly’s upcoming shows and for Sony to drop his recording contract.
Today, just days after Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of aggravated assault, the #MuteRKelly campaign announced a new ally: the #TimesUp campaign. This is the first time the anti-sexual harassment movement has demanded action against an individual abuser since the organization’s call for prosecution of Harvey Weinstein.
In an open letter published by The Root, Women of Color of Time’s Up, a subsect of the movement which includes marquee names like Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes, demanded a full boycott of organizations still associated with the singer. “Together, we call on the following corporations and venues with ties to R. Kelly to join us and insist on the safety and dignity for women of all kinds,” the letter reads.
Ticketmaster announced yesterday in a small note on its site that R. Kelly is “no longer performing” at the 2018 Love Jam festival in Chicago. However, since the publication of the #TimesUp letter against Kelly this morning, not one of the corporation called out by the collective—including RCA Records, Ticketmaster, Spotify, Apple Music, and Greensboro Coliseum Complex—has publicly commented on the singer or their business with him.
Odeleye was thrilled by the reaction to the #TimesUp letter, which was shared on Twitter by the likes of John Legend, Elizabeth Banks, and Kathy Griffin. “When we first started this, while we could get some people to publicly denounce R. Kelly, a lot of people, I would even say most people, dismissed our claims,” said Odeleye. “People would give excuses for R. Kelly or even blame the victims and their families for the situation. Now as more and more stories are coming out about the ways in which sexual abuse is inflicted against women at all stages in their life, and the different reasons why women don’t come out about abuse, people have been more willing to think about these girls.”
“And if someone who is rich and powerful is coming out to stand up against R. Kelly, people across the nation are starting to think differently about a poor Black girl from Chicago who was abused by R. Kelly,” said Odeleye. “I want people to understand that this is not my solo crusade against R. Kelly. This campaign is to ignite the community as a whole, and for everyone to join in. We are saying loud and clear, we are not going to stand for this from R. Kelly or from anyone else. This is us saying that young Black girls matter, young women matter, and ultimately all women matter.”
“Now, people are more willing to engage critically with what is happening within society, and that gives me hope.”