Day 6

After 20 years of allegations, the campaign against R. Kelly may have reached a tipping point

Sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly, including statutory rape, have come in and out of the spotlight for two decades without harming his career. But #MuteRKelly founder Oronike Odeleye says this time will be different.

#MuteRKelly co-founder Oronike Odeleye says a new documentary has 'lit a fire' under her campaign

R. Kelly arrives for the 2013 American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. (Getty Images)

This month, Lifetime released a documentary series entitled Surviving R. Kelly. The six-part series features detailed accounts from women, several underage, claiming to have been physically and sexually abused by the singer, R. Kelly. 

While public allegations of sexual misconduct and assault against R. Kelly stem back to 1991, the singer has continued to deny all allegations of abuse.

In July of 2017, Oronike Odeleye founded the #MuteRKelly campaign as a means of bringing public attention to the allegations. 

Odeleye spoke with Day 6 host, Brent Bambury about her thoughts on the series and her projections of how it will impact the public. 

Kenyette Barnes, left, and Oronike Odeleye, right, launched the #MuteRKelly campaign. (Submitted by Oronike Odeleye)

You're one of the voices in the documentary. Did anything in the documentary still catch you by surprise?

Oh yeah. So many things just took my breath away.

Of course, I've known about this. I've been entrenched in this work now for the past two years, but it was shocking to me how many people are complicit in this work. 

There's no way for him to be able to sexually abuse dozens upon dozens of young black women for 25 years without a network around him that is supporting and helping him to do this.

So, seeing that in the documentary — hearing that the police were tipping him off when things were happening — it was just shocking, maddening, infuriating and just lit our fire to continue pushing even harder.

Do you think one of the consequences of the documentary will be that some of those people around him may be held to account?

Well, I definitely hope so because what they are doing is not only amoral, it's criminal.

To hear in the documentary that Azriel might have gotten out of the studio and was running down the street, and bodyguards of his came and grabbed her and took her back — that's criminal behaviour. So, I absolutely hope that they are also held accountable.

But first and foremost we have to chop this monster off at the head; we have to deal with R. Kelly.

We have women coming forward, saying that they're not going to carry the shame and the silence around with them.- Oronike Odeleye , Founder of # MuteRKelly  campaign

Aside from the documentary, since our conversation in May of last year, has the picture changed for R. Kelly in any way?

Since our conversation, we have gotten more concerts cancelled. Artists have stopped working with him; have stopped returning his calls.

We've gotten radio stations to come out and say they're no longer going to play him. His camp has had to change how they move, completely. They've stopped advertising his concerts until a couple of weeks out because they know that if they give us notice we're going to organize and might be able to get it cancelled.

They have dropped his performance fees. They have agreed to pay for a lot of the promotions, so the promoters will find an economic incentive to continue to work with him. So, they're scrambling.

Just recently he's had to turn the comments off on his social media page — on Instagram — because it's so overwhelmingly negative. So yes, absolutely things have changed for him. 

He has withstood pressure for many, many years. What makes you think this moment might be different?

Well, sometimes a lot of things have to align in order for justice to be done, unfortunately.

In this moment we are looking at the #MeToo movement. We're looking at the Time's Up movement. The Mute R. Kelly movement.

We've kind of got a nation-wide swell of information about sexual abuse and all of its forms. We have women coming forward, saying that they're not going to carry the shame and the silence around with them. We're looking at a time where people really are saying, "No, I'm not the problem. The problem is the predator. The problem is the abuser."

Now, we're going, "No, none of that is relevant." The only person responsible for abuse is the abuser and they should be held accountable. So, I'm hopeful right now. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to bring this to justice soon. 

Singers R. Kelly, left, and Lady Gaga perform onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre LA, live on Nov. 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

We're still talking about someone with enormous power in the entertainment industry. Spotify removed his music from curated playlists, but that hasn't affected his streaming numbers.

In fact, there's a report that since the release of this new documentary there's been an increase in R. Kelly song streams. What does that tell you?

Some of that is to be expected because when you start talking about somebody it raises curiosity. People kind of go, "Oh yeah, I did like him. What was that song I used to like?" Or, they hear that some of the songs are about, actually, some of the underage women that he was dealing with and they want to go back and listen now for clues.

So, we understand that you know, that was going to happen. The real story is what's going to happen moving forward. So, is it going to be that he gets these continued spins, or did people get their curiosity satiated and now they're like you know, "I can't listen to that anymore, it creeps me out."

And we're hoping that that's the case. We're hoping that people, when they hear it now, it won't feel the same. It's not the fun music that they remember. Now they think about the victims behind those songs and won't be able to continue listening to it.

[Lady Gaga] looked at herself and said, "What was going on with me at that time and where am I now?" and that's important- Oronike Odeleye

This week Lady Gaga came out and apologized for her 2013 duet with R. Kelly. In that apology she referenced her mental health at the time. What does that mean to you?

I think that's very important. You know, some people might say, "too little, too late," but I don't agree with that.

I believe whenever we come to an understanding about things is the right time. So, I'm happy she came forward and saw the error in supporting that man and not speaking out sooner. I think we all have to look at our mental health in various degrees.

When we are supporting abusers, when we are blaming victims, when we're making an apology for rape, that doesn't have anything to do with what's happening externally. That has to do with what's happening internally with us, with our life, with what we've been taught, with what we've been through.

And so, we have to look at that. Whenever we're not giving empathy to those who are asking us for their support, we have to look at why not internally ... it sounds like that's what she did.

She looked at herself and said, "What was going on with me at that time and where am I now?" and that's important. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Oronike Odeleye, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.