Kenyette Tisha Barnes used to be a big fan of R. Kelly’s.
That is until allegations and accusations surfaced years ago about the R&B singer and songwriter and his involvement with underage girls. After that, she wouldn’t allow his music around her.
“It was disgusting to me,” said the Grant Park mother of three, who works as a contract lobbyist on youth and domestic abuse. “We were so comfortable in our social apathy. People put the onus on the girls and not the adult. People made jokes about it or no one spoke about it at all. He was just untouchable. He had an incredible position of power in the entertainment industry.”
She sees signs that is changing.
Barnes and another Atlantan, Oronike Odeleye, are co-founders of #MuteRKelly, a national grassroots movement launched in 2017 to pressure radio stations and concert venues to stop playing his music or booking performances.
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Kelly has denied the allegations against him.
Recently, #MuteRKelly has increased traction, particularly in wake of a disturbing six-part docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly,” that aired on Lifetime as well as the continuing strength of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.
The docuseries included interviews with women, who were allegedly sexually involved with him or accused the Grammy-winning Kelly, whose full name is Robert Kelly, of holding them virtual prisoner in his home; their relatives; members of his inner circle and celebrities such as John Legend, Sparkle and #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke.
Some of the allegations go back to the 1990s. At least one as recently as 2017.
Odeleye was featured in the documentary.
“I think the response we are getting now is one we should have had 25 years ago,” she said. “The tide of social justice is changing.”
#MuteRKelly now has chapters in 10 cities in the United States and one starting in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where Kelly is scheduled to perform in April.
Barnes recently woke up to find #MuteRKelly was trending on social media. Singer Ne-Yo posted a #MuteRKelly message on his Instagram account, and wrote that music isn’t “more important than protecting our children, protecting our little girls. PERIOD.”
“I think the movement will continue to grow until people feel justice has been done,” said Odeleye, managing director of an Atlanta arts organization, during a telephone interview on Tuesday. “We tell people we want him in the jailhouse or the poorhouse. This is about the victims. It has sparked conversations about child sexual abuse. It has resulted in people talking about rape culture.”
Social media has been filled with people critical of the singer as well as those who still support him.
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith turned to Instagram to ask why Kelly’s record sales and streams had spiked after the docuseries aired.
“How is it that R Kelly’s music sales have spiked (substantially) since the release of the docuseries Surviving R Kelly? I need some help in understanding. What am I missing???”
Barnes thinks the numbers are misleading. She thinks the numbers may have spiked during concert protests, moments of public controversy or people becoming curious about his music or lyrics.
The allegations against Kelly have brought lawsuits and settlements, but he has never been convicted.
In 1994, details emerged of a secret marriage between popular “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” singer Aaliyah, 15, and Kelly, who was then 27. The marriage was quickly annulled.
And in 2008, Kelly was acquitted by a Cook County jury of child pornography charges years after a sex videotape surfaced of a man who appeared to be Kelly engaged in sex with a girl that prosecutors said was his underage goddaughter. The girl refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Similar allegations have reached into Georgia. In 2017, BuzzFeed reported a story that Kelly “held women against their will in a cult” at his homes in two cities, including Johns Creek. Kelly refuted those allegations.
TMZ has reported that the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has opened an investigation into allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against women. The DA’s office told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it didn’t have a comment at the time.
Odeleye and Barnes bonded over a desire to make a change.
“Every couple of years for the past 25 years, women have been coming forward with their stories,” said Odeleye. “It seemed as though overall society was ignoring them, and that incensed me.”
She started calling radio stations about not playing his music but largely received the brushoff.
“The response was always, ‘Yes, we know all of that, but it’s none of our business and we’re not going to take a stand about it,’” she said. “People want to hear him and we’re going to play him.”
When she got off the phone with one radio station, she broke down in tears.
“Radio has historically been a political vehicle for our community,” she said. “It was progressive. That’s why this was just heartbreaking to me.”
Odeleye started a petition.
That’s when Barnes reached out. They decided to work together.
“She’s the activist,” Odeleye said. ” I was just a girl who was mad.”
Barnes had been lobbying the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to cancel an August 2017 concert at the Wolf Creek Amphitheater.
The concert went on and she led the protest outside the venue.
Today, she wants to see more action, particularly in the black community, and greater efforts made to protect black women and girls.
“In the black community, white supremacy is the ultimate sin; however, we live in an intersectional oppression,” Barnes said. “Sixty percent of black women are victims of sexual violence before our 18th birthday, and the biggest cause of homicide among black women is intimate partner violence … this has to end.”