By Maitefa Angaza
In last week’s issue Oronike Odeleye spoke of the unexpected, but wildly eventful arc that swept her and cofounder Kenyette Tisha Barnes from a few Tweets into the pages of modern history. She talked most however, about plight of the young girls allegedly sexually assaulted imprisoned by R&B superstar predator R. Kelly, and about the women they are today. Odeleye also addressed the impact on young women who’ve never met R. Kelly, but choose to defend their sisters, and the import of the public’s response and responsibility. This week we hear about the impact on young men, the strategy and sacrifice involved in bringing the movement to victory, and the work that still lies ahead.
As we know, R. Kelly is now in prison awaiting trial and whatever the outcome, his performing days are likely over. But Odeleye and Barnes delivered a staggering blow to his career before he went to jail, creating a poisoned pariah of one of the music’s biggest moneymakers. How did they get they get the industry and the venues to back away?
“It’s the fear of bad press,” said Odeleye. “Because we are very media savvy, so we le them know that we are contacting all of the local outlets in their town. Sometimes it is honestly, that they did not know the extent of the allegations against him. Very often the promoters at these venues are older white men who are just looking at popular artists and sales when they’re choosing their programming. I usually send a full list – R. Kelly’s timeline of abuse. They don’t want any of that drama, and so they cancel.”
The movement has been responsible for getting 14 concerts cancelled in the U.S., with R. Kelly being able to perform at about four or five. And those concerts featured uninvited backup singers – the chorus of voices added by protestors outside each venue. Odeleye and Barnes did meet with pushback, but a hint of their media and social media arsenal usually put the final nail in the Kelly concert coffin. New promoters were not booking R. Kelly and those who had shows coming up were reaching out to Odeleye and Barnes to let them know that they were cancelling or trying to figure out the legal ramifications of cancelling.
“A few promoters were telling us that his team was saying they would reduce his rate by 50 percent or pay for some of the promotion,” said Odeleye. “They were really trying to find a financial incentive to keep him working, but the promoters were just backing out in droves.”
This was the most important goal, says Odeleye. Not being a part of the justice system, they could not defend the victims in that way, but they were very clear in asking the Black community to financially boycott R. Kelly. She said that his sales had become so low, and people were increasingly embarrassed to be seen going to his concerts, if he hadn’t been arrested, they still have succeeded in cutting off his income from concerts.
“We let promoters and venues know that if they have the concert, we will organize a protest outside,” Odeleye adds. “And that’s gonna be more bad attention. So oftentimes the fear of that will make them cancel. R. Kelly tried to book concerts in Amsterdam and in Germany, but since we’ve started this movement, he’s not been able to perform overseas. We stay one step ahead and organize people on the ground there, so that those concerts never happen.”
According to Odeleye, the #MuteRKelly effect is evident in some changes young male entertainers are making as well. She’s seen a shift in the way they interact with female fans, for example and believes that her campaign and the #MeTOO movement has served notice to a lot of people. She shares one pretty clear example.
“The Baby – who is a huge rapper right now – someone sent me a clip of him in concert and there was a woman up on stage to dance with him and he asks, ‘Do I have your consent?’ She nods, but he says, ‘I need a verbal, Yes.’ So he made her say yes before he would grind up on her- things like that. So this has made people think about their actions in relationship to female bodies. Because so often entertainers feel as though Black women’s bodies are the spoils of war, of their fame and their wealth. That’s an important change that we’re seeing.”
She’s not convinced, however, that the music industry is ready to protect the people, rather than the perpetrators, to place profits secondary to holding artists and management accountable. Neither is she certain that all established musicians are seeing beyond the stage lights.
“There are likely some who feel this was just something that was going to blow over. Or that this was an anomaly with him, but that their actions were different… We’re gonna have to wait and see how these folks move forward.”
How does it feel to witness an international movement started by voicing one’s frustration? Odeleye is still amazed.
“That day at my desk when I started my little humble petition, I had no idea it was going to get this big!” She thought, “It would be like, a week of my life. I had no idea that, two-and-a-half years later, we’re still in this and that we would be able to create a worldwide movement to call for justice! I mean it’s absolutely overwhelming, but it shows the power of what just one or two people, aligned can do. It reminds me every day to stand in my power and to stand in my voice, because we can all make change in the world that we want to see.”
For those interested in being part of this change, the #MuteRKelly website has a How You Can Help page that outlines some things the public can do.
“Right now, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, as we wait for the trials to start. We want to keep people’s attention focused on it, because oftentimes, if we’re not paying attention is when illegal trickery can happen, which is what happened last time, when he was able to get off on the charges, even though there was overwhelming evidence – physical evidence – against him.
She says these things are less likely to happen when people are aware and vocal. If people see things happening that they don’t believe are aboveboard, they should go public with their concerns, so lawyers on both sides know attention is being paid.
“Let them know you are paying attention to what’s happening here, that you’re aware and invested in the outcome.”