Oronike Odeleye heard the call to become an advocate for survivors of alleged sexual abuse by R. Kelly in the summer of 2017, after reading the lurid, explosive reports about sex cults led by the Chicago singer.
It was both the final straw for Odeleye, prompting her to mobilize others and take action, and just the latest in a string of sexual abuse accusations against the R&B superstar that have trailed him for nearly three decades. The Atlanta arts consultant said she was like many people who had heard of Kelly's reported indiscretions over the years. "I had heard about Kelly and Aaliyah; I had heard about the tape of him sexually degrading [a ] 14-year-old decades ago, but I hadn't really been paying attention to him since," she told PAPER.
But the sex cults were reportedly held in Kelly's former Atlanta home, and that motivated Odeleye to dig deeper. "I was just incensed," she said. "I found that every couple of years allegations have been surfacing, court cases have been being brought to court, women have been paid for nondisclosure agreements; every couple of years these women have been coming forward asking for the community's help and we had, en masse, been ignoring them."
What hurt more was knowing that these girls and women — specifically Black and Brown girls and women — were doing all the things we as a society ask sexual abuse victims to do: coming forward with their stories, and bringing the physical and mental scars of their experiences to courtrooms, to police stations, to mental health professionals, to their families.
For the past three decades, as fans and cultural critics heard of dozens of accounts, up to and including Kelly's infamous pornography case, which experienced six years of delays after that still-more infamous sex tape leaked to the public, they chose Kelly's music over the stories of survivors. The remix to "Ignition" became one of his biggest chart-toppers while Kelly sat in court and intermittently went on tour, recorded music, and made music videos.
Only now, with the presence of dream hampton's explosive Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, is the nation finally paying attention to what dozens of abuse survivors have to say. Aided by the advent of #MeToo and Time's Up, Odeleye launched a petition to get Kelly's music off Atlanta radio.
"I thought Atlanta in particular cannot afford to support him because we are in the top five of child sex trafficking in the nation," she said. "I wasn't even thinking nationally, I wasn't thinking about concerts, I was just saying in Atlanta we have to say we're not going to support this. So it started from there and I got so much support from a lot of different forces. My co-founder Kenyette [Tisha Barnes] reached out to me at that point. I was like, 'Let's form a movement and let's stop all the money.' #MuteRKelly just grew from there."
Since then, Odeleye said Time's Up has assisted in the #MuteRKelly campaign's efforts to put pressure on the industry that continues to support and enable Kelly financially at the risk of harming more girls and women. Sex abuse hotlines received a 27 percent surge in calls following the premiere of Surviving R. Kelly. The horrific firsthand accounts given in the docuseries are currently being investigated by police departments in Chicago and Atlanta so far. And artists including Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper, and Celine Dion have pulled songs made with him from streaming platforms. Kelly's label RCA is reportedly putting his new music on hold, and has no current plans of renewing his contract. His own daughter, after years of processing her own pain, has even spoken out against him.
Odeleye also said Surviving R. Kelly has lent further credence to the aims of #MuteRKelly, but also is reinforcing why we as a society should believe women who come forward. "You can hear their stories and their willingness to say things that are humiliating and shameful; to be able to look in their face and see their pain is to be able to see that this is the truth," she said. "You know women aren't making these stories up."
PAPER caught up with Odeleye, who spoke about accountability for survivors, both in the Black community and at large, reversing a culture of shame, and ways to mute R. Kelly.
So much has happened since Surviving R. Kelly premiered. How do you think your action has been affected since the show?
This just brought so much attention and spotlight to it that everything has blown up. We are inundated with emails of support, all of our social media numbers have more than quadrupled, our e-mail list and our mailing list has blown up, and people all over are really volunteering to do whatever they can in their cities to help us mute R. Kelly.
Why you feel that the entertainment industry and some fans refuse to totally withdraw support from people like R. Kelly?
Part of it is financial. We understand that for Spotify and Pandora, they can't afford for big names like Kendrick Lamar and other people to pull their music off their platform. So it wasn't so much in support of R. Kelly but in fear of losing a lot of other big names that they make a lot of money off of. R. Kelly makes a lot of money still. He's written a lot of songs for a lot of people, he's produced a lot of songs, and there are still checks that come in from that. There's a sense of loyalty there. A lot of people feel as though they worked with him forever, but even though they may not support his actions they don't feel comfortable coming out and saying blatantly that they think he's wrong. It takes a few brave people to be able to do that. So we understand there is that financial incentive to continue to support him. It's unfortunate. Today I did see that RCA didn't come out to say they're dropping him, but they did say that they will be releasing no new music. And we've heard that his contract will be expiring soon and that it won't be re-upped. So that's a step forward. What we really want these labels to do is to say, "We won't be complicit in this type of behavior," and to use this as a model to then put in morality clauses or something that safeguards the community from being a party to this type of behavior in the future.
"When we give him our money, we're co-signing this behavior. It's a hard thing to do, but we have to let him go."
Did you have any personal relationship with his music? Something the documentary hits on is how well he was able to manipulate the way people saw him through his music, which was alternately spiritual or explicit.
I was a fan of some of the more uplifting family-oriented dance music. I was rather young when 12 Play and a lot of the pornographic stuff was out so that wasn't necessarily in my rotation but "Step in The Name of Love" and "I Believe I Can Fly" were a staple in the community like Frankie Beverly and Maze. It's something that, at every Black family reunion or barbecue you're going to hear. So I was a fan of those songs and I really understand how people get emotionally attached to these artists because when they hear that, they're not thinking about his music video or his history or what he's doing, they're thinking about their baby's graduation where they sang "I Believe I Can Fly." They're thinking about being in a college romance when they used to play 12 Play. We're thinking about our lives when we hear this music and so we get so emotionally attached to those memories. But what we have to say is, "I have to connect the dots between listening to the music and buying the albums and going to concerts and the lifestyle that he is living," because it's the money that's insulated him from the consequences of his crimes. When we give him our money, we're co-signing this behavior. It's a hard thing to do but we have to let him go.
There's this idea that, as Black people, we have to hold on to him to prevent another Black man from being part of the prison industrial complex. I think people are afraid of what R. Kelly being brought through the justice system might mean for the community as a whole.
Absolutely. The African-American community is extremely protective of our celebrities, of our famous rich folks. We love to have a rags-to-riches story and someone to beat all odds, and that sometimes clouds that judgment in being discerning about who it is deserves our support and who doesn't. This is somebody that has been an inspiration to his community, but he used that cover to be a predator in this community for years. So we have to say that this is not the type of celebrity we want to support and encourage. We want people who are actually doing well for our community. We are so supportive of R. Kelly and he made some good music that nobody can deny, but he's not building hospitals, he's not giving out scholarships, he's not curing cancer. He hasn't done something that means we have to ignore all the harm he has done in our community, as well. I don't know any Black person who is between ages 32 to 45 who lived in the South Side of Chicago who does not have a story about R. Kelly perusing their neighborhood at their high school or their McDonald's to pick up young women. It has been an open secret in our community for decades that he's been a predator. Good music just doesn't erase that.
Abusers in power remain protected and upheld within those systems of power by the people around them. How does this change the way people had previously viewed the survivors, who have all been coming forward over the past few decades, but with little to no movement?
I think this was a monumental shift by people who saw the survivors. It's very easy to dismiss these things on an individual basis. When you hear one thing one year and then 30 years later you hear something else it's very easy to say, "These are gold diggers or they are targeting him." But when you see it laid out as a pattern of behavior over 25 years and you can hear their stories and their willingness to say things that are humiliating and shameful, to be able to look in their face and see their pain is to be able to see that this is the truth. You know women aren't making these stories up. There's no way for all of these women to have the exact same story and pattern of abuse. This opens everybody's eyes to how deep it goes, how far it goes. Like me, a lot of people have heard one thing here and one thing there but when you hear all these women and they're telling the exact same thing — how he's charming and charismatic and he makes himself vulnerable and they feel like they were in a relationship — just one after the other after the other after the other you realize this is a pattern of a predator that we're looking at. These are not individual women coming up with stories.
Beyond fandom, what do you think it is that specifically creates the silence or the lack of outrage we've noticed within the Black community?
I think it's because we have an issue with misogyny in our community. We have a feeling that we have to protect Black men at all costs and that they are especially targeted in our society or all manner of things. So we feel very protective of them. I think we all come to all of our decision-making by bringing all of our context with us. I'm a woman, I am also African-American. I have a college education. I bring all of that to everything I do. But Black people tend to default first and foremost with race. So we're going to stick together even though as a woman it may be detrimental to me, I'm going to default in what may be better for the Black community. And I think we see it in those kinds of terms a lot of times and we rally around as a race. It takes some type of stepping back and being willing to look at the issue head on, then little by little, deciding not to cosign it. I think initially the Black community rallied, and now we're looking at all the facts and people are turning the tide against him now.
That's definitely the work that we as Black people have to do. But, with a white-majority justice system, how do we create a culture in which Black girls feel safe and empowered to speak up against their abusers?
This is one of the big things that we hope will come out of this campaign. Yes, it's specifically about R. Kelly but in general this is just about how the Black community handles sexual abuse internally. We are hopeful that people are able to have these conversations about somebody who is an abstract character in their life. Because internally we have to be having conversations about how we deal with this. Over 60% of Black women are sexually assaulted before they're 18. So that means that more than half of us have experienced this and have not come forward for various reasons. What's been so inspiring to me is all the emails we get from people saying, "This happened to me," and, "I'm so glad you guys are having this conversation. It made me do x, y, and z, go tell somebody, confront my abuser, talk to my family about it." So if we can have more of these conversations in the public discourse, it trickles down to our living rooms. And that's really where change is going to happen. It's hard with the judicial system to get the justice that we deserve on all fronts but if we can internally start having these conversations, then we can rely less on the judicial system to deal with what needs to be dealt with and more on our internal community to handle it.
There is a toxic silence that the Black community — and other communities — lives with around sexual violence. What do you think reinforces that?
Because we create this culture of shame [around sexual abuse victims and survivors], parents really have a hard decision about what they're going to do when these kinds of things happen. Nobody wants their daughter to be the Black Monica Lewinsky. They had some sexual indiscretion when they were young and then it follows them for the rest of their life. While we would love for them to make a decision that's in the best interest of all of us, those parents have to think about their daughters. Who wants something that happened to them at 14 to be the deciding factor of their life forever? These are the hard decisions parents have to make. While I'm always disappointed if they don't come forward, I understand that because they have to think about the mental health and the well-being and the future of their daughter and not about saving the Black community from itself.
"By living in that silence and that shame, they're carrying something that we as a community should all be carrying together."
Whose voice do you feel gets censored through silence?
Silence really censors all of us in a way, but obviously it silences the victim. It makes them carry the burden of shame, of humiliation, of degradation alone. And that's unfair because that's not their burden to carry. But it also silences all of us because it doesn't give us the opportunity even to rally around them and to step up as a community and show them the support that a lot of us want to show. There's a lot of negativity out here, but these women have also received resounding support from the community worldwide. And by living in that silence and that shame, they're carrying something that we as a community should all be carrying together. When a child is sexually abused, that's all of our failure as community members, that's not just on the parents. We always want to put things on the parents, but that's all of our failure. We all need to live in that shame that we failed that child and the resolution of what we're going to do so that we don't fail others. Silence is detrimental all the way around for everybody involved. And I really, really hope that we're coming to a place with a mutual win with the Time's Up movement and Mute R. Kelly where victims are saying, "Hold on, this is not my shame." This is going to be an empowering moment for me and we're going to shift blame of that shame to the abuser and take it away from, most of the time, the woman who is involved. Hopefully we can change that dynamic so that we don't have these R. Kelly's happening over and over again.
For more information on the #MuteRKelly campaign and how you can help, visit muterkelly.org.
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