Since #MeToo went viral in 2017, it has transformed our culture for the better. The movement, created by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, has helped survivors and allies push back against rape culture and rally to hold abusers accountable, ousting media moguls, comedy icons, world-renowned chefs and politicians. Invoking the legacies of Harriet Jacobs, Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor and Anita Hill, Black women survivors have carved out spaces to raise awareness, disrupt sexual violence in the Black community, and most importantly, heal. However, the movement hasn’t quite had the same impact in the music industry, specifically in hip-hop and R&B.
In this piece, writer Kellee Terrell spoke to Oronike Odeleye, one of the co-founders of #MuteRKelly, another viral hashtag that morphed into an influential movement. Odeleye opens up about how rage sparked the hashtag, how and why so many people knew about R. Kelly’s past predatorial behavior and said nothing, and why we need more men to speak out.
I started #MuteRKelly in July 2017 out of a feeling of outrage. After decades of blatantly abusing Black women and girls, R. Kelly was going on with his life with our community-sanctioned support. Honestly, none of us can deny that we always had the receipts and heard the stories; we didn’t want to believe them and deal with the truth.
So we turned our backs on Black women.
The anger in that simmered inside me, and when I learned that he was living in Atlanta — not just my backyard, but the nation’s sex trafficking capital — I knew I couldn’t be complicit.
We couldn’t be complicit.
While I didn’t have the power to sway the courts or investigate evidence, I knew that with social media, I could get R. Kelly off the radio, hurt his pockets and amplify the voices of survivors. But most importantly, through this hashtag, we could stop sending the message to our girls that their bodies and lives don’t matter or that they aren’t worth protecting.
But when Kenyette Barnes, co-founder of #MuteRKelly, reached out to extend her communications savviness to join forces with me, we created a movement bigger than we could have imagined. Granted, it wasn’t easy. In the beginning, we were bombarded with hate mail, accusing us of “trying to bring down a good Black man.” We were called agents for “doing white people’s work.” Sadly, a majority of the backlash we received was from Black women. I wasn’t hurt because I understand the history of how Black women are and have been the biggest protectors of Black men, even if it’s to our own detriment. When Black men are “harmed,” we have this collective knee-jerk reaction to defend them, even when these same men cause us and our community harm.
Despite the phrase “all my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk” also being part of our history, so is this deep connection we have to artists like R. Kelly. His songs are the soundtrack of our lives. When we hear “Step in the Name of Love,” we aren’t thinking about him urinating on a 14-year-old — we are thinking about our sister’s wedding. When we hear “I Believe I Can Fly,” we are thinking about our child’s graduation, not him forcing other women to have sex with minors. But we have to break free from this bond and stop putting our sanity and loyalty on the line for this man. This isn’t Medgar Evers or Martin Luther King Jr. we’re talking about, or someone who has bettered the community or created schools and opportunities. He is a serial predator who needed to be held accountable.
Our work homed in on that, and in time, thankfully, that accountability finally happened. But we also saw change, and not just about R. Kelly, but about rape culture in our community. Thanks to our movement and movements like #MeToo, the conversation began to shift. The language we use around consent, sexuality and sex work didn’t just evolve among Black young women and girls, but among older women and even men, too. And we’ve seen it in places I never believed were possible. I remember a few years ago, when a male friend told me that, when a DJ played an R. Kelly song at an Essence Fest event, everyone in that room booed and told him to “turn that shit off.” That, right there, is change.
But I also know we have a long way to go, and it can’t just be Black women leading the charge.
I often think of all the men who have DM’d me thanking us for creating #MuteRKelly because they have known for years that he was a predator. But when I asked them to say that publicly on their social media accounts, they were silent.
Ironically, that reaction is the opposite of how Black men have mythologized the history of how they protect us. Whatever happened to stories of men finding an abusive boyfriend or husband, or the neighborhood molester, and beating their ass in the streets? You know what happened? That was a lie. Because instead of calling out an abuser and handling it, we admonish women for their abuse, or call parents “irresponsible and negligent,” or label girls as “fast.”
Sadly, this is how we foster a community of R. Kellys.
Think about it: No one goes from perfect gentleman to rape. Tory Lanez didn’t go from being a nice guy to being charged with assault after Megan Thee Stallion said he shot her in the foot. What happens is that years go by and unchecked abusive behavior only escalates because we turned our heads instead of stepping in and intervening in the beginning.
This happens at the expense of Black women every time.
So enough with the lip service about how Black women are magic or rocking Stacey Abrams T-shirts thanking her for saving this country until we actually protect all of us in real life. And we can do it, if we all rise up and hold men like R. Kelly accountable.