By Maitefa Angaza
Last Thursday, #MuteRKelly founders Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Tisha Barnes were among the deserving people honored with The Root 100 Award. In fact, they were #5 on the list! (Stacey Abrams was at the top.) The Atlanta-based duo flew to New York City for the ceremony and was received with high praise from both iconic figures and colleagues. The two were awed, humbled and inspired to continue their important work.
In an interview with Our Time Press, Odeleye shared the impetus for this work and talks about what’s happening now with the case, about the women involved, and about the deeper and wider abuse we can all help to combat.
“I worked one day with the news on,” said Odeleye, “and I heard the family of Jocelyn Savage asking for help to get their daughter back, and they had not seen her in, I believe, over two years at that time.”
Odeleye was shocked, realizing that she hadn’t been paying attention and hadn’t heard much about this, aside from jokes by Dave Chappelle. She did some research and found that new allegations had steadily surfaced every couple of years.
“We had all swept it under the rug and celebrated this man! I sung his song at my high school graduation. And then being from Atlanta and living in Atlanta – which is number one in the nation for child sex trafficking – I was appalled that he was in my backyard doing this. These young women and these families had been coming forward and asking for our help as a community and we’d been ignoring it. So, I was just compelled to try and do something to stop it.”
So she and Barnes did just that. The pair was perfectly suited to sound the clarion call amidst the inertia of onlookers to the tragic pile-up of young victims. But they expected to gain some consensus and receive a lot of criticism in an online conversation lasting a few days. Taken completely by surprise by how #MuteRKelly progressed from a hashtag to a burgeoning movement, they accepted the challenge thrust upon them to ride this bull charging at the throat of R. Kelly’s livelihood.
Kenyette is an activist and founder and CEO of Nu Vizyon, a social justice and political strategy consulting and lobbying firm. Odeleye, a freelance arts and entertainment consultant with high-level arts institutions and political clients, is also the managing director of the international Creative Currents Artist Collaborative. They’ve honed skills suited to this endeavor and cultivated contacts able to assist in spreading the word. The movement received an exponential boost when it was officially endorsed by the Time’s Up movement’s Women of Color Committee, which includes Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay and other heavy hitters whose words move swiftly across all media.
Their expertise and the support they received were critical to moving forward, and once they got started, they were intent on standing for the victims.
“Having traveled a couple of times to Chicago streets,” said Odeleye, “I have not met anybody around my age who does not have a story about R. Kelly–about him approaching them at the mall, his bodyguards approaching them at McDonald’s. They have friends who went home with him. He was such a known factor and he did this for so long.”
Although some women are still coming forward today, Odeleye says there are many, many other women who have stories they could share. She hopes justice will be done, not only for those who came forward, but also for those who have not, for a variety of reasons. She reminds us that no one owes the world a personal story, that many of these women are now married with children and would rather not rehash the traumatic details, particularly when they see that there are now so many charges against Kelly from various quarters that it’s possible he’ll be in jail for a long time.
As for the level of impunity that R. Kelly enjoyed, Odeleye says that it’s not uncommon, especially for a man like him.
“You know he was a million-dollar moneymaker for a lotta, lotta people,” she said. “He had a huge team that was willing to lie and pay people off, and blackmail and threaten, in order to keep R. Kelly being able to make money. And he didn’t even have to have all that. Sometimes in the Black community, this could be our uncle, our friend, a cousin. I believe they’re saying statistically, that over 60 percent of Black women will be sexually abused before they’re 18. That’s over half of our community who are experiencing this in their homes – not from rich and famous people – but from people who should be loving, and protecting, and guiding them. And we, the community, conspire to keep it quiet from shame.”
Despite the breathtaking range of allegations against R. Kelly revealed in dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly documentary, there are still people – both men and women – who have decided to look away and continue their worship of the tarnished music icon. A quick look at his social media pages shows that although there are hits and ridicule, R. Kelly denial is still alive and well. The man himself commented on the “Fans Support R. Kelly” Twitter group page to say, “The greatest to ever touch a mic. No weapons formed against me shall prosper.” And hashtags on the “R. Kelly Fans” page include, #SurvivingLies and #ISupportRKelly.
In this climate, some young women get blowback from peers or family members for enthusiastically supporting the #MuteRKelly movement. Odeleye’s advice to them is straightforward.
“I think everybody involved in any kind of activism or pushing back against a status quo is gonna have to understand that they’re going to receive blowback. No progress in any arena is gained without struggle. Any movement that is asking for justice for a group that has not gotten justice, is going to get pushback. But you have to be strong and keep moving forward and know that you’re on the right side of history. And though that can be a hard and lonely process, you have to have faith in the righteousness of your struggle.”
Odeleye says that whether young women are inspired to now tell their own stories or to stand up for others, they should line up their friends and work with allies who will help them to counter the blowback. She says this will help them to maintain the energy and endurance to keep doing what they feel is right.
Next week, we’ll publish Part Two of this interview in which Odeleye reveals how she brought R. Kelly’s money train to a screeching halt, about the pushback along the way, The Root 100 Award and more.