Less than a week after Lifetime aired the first episode of its cutting docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, calls for the R&B singer’s comeuppance have reached critical mass. John Legend, Meek Mill and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, have decried the performer’s alleged sexual predation and misconduct, and singer Omarion has vowed to retire songs Kelly had written for him in the past. The greater music industry, though, has been surprisingly silent. Despite campaigns like #MuteRKelly and a petition with more than 80,000 signatures calling for his label RCA to drop him, the record label has yet to comment on the controversy.
RCA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the status of R. Kelly’s contract with the label for this story. Kelly joined RCA’s roster in October 2011 after his previous label, Jive, was restructured into RCA. Since then, it has issued four albums on RCA, the video album Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 23 – 33 and the compilation The Essential R. Kelly.
“It seems a little defiant to me,” Kenyette Tisha Barnes, a co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, tells Rolling Stone. She and Oronike Odeleye founded the campaign in the summer of 2017. “Right now, our petition has over 75,000 signatures and each one of those signatures are hitting the inboxes of executives at [RCA’s parent company] Sony and RCA, and yet they have not completely divested. That, to me, is just shocking, especially when I’m sure R. Kelly is not one of their largest-selling artists.”
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“We want them to take a stand and say that we won’t continue to accept this behavior from artists just because they’re making us money,” Odeleye adds. “We want them to say, ‘No, we will not accept this.’ Because the record companies are very complicit in all of the crimes that R. Kelly has committed over the past 25 years, and we want them to say they will no longer be complicit in that type of behavior.”
The organization Time’s Up has been lending its support to the #MuteRKelly effort, as well. “In the spring of 2018, we joined the fight to #MuteRKelly,” organizers say in a statement to Rolling Stone. “We cannot condone profiting off the trauma of black girls and women. Time’s Up calls on any organization still in business with R. Kelly to cut ties immediately. All allies in the fight against sexual violence must take a stand on this issue, and stand together in defense of women of color.”
“We need morality clauses in a lot of these contracts,” Barnes says. “By no means is this about censorship or taking away someone’s artistic licenses; it’s saying when you have problematic performers, we can’t be giving them a revenue stream to lure vulnerable girls and then buy themselves out of accountability. Record companies have culpability here. They need to divest.”
Since its premiere, Surviving R. Kelly — which features more than 50 interviews with Kelly’s ex-girlfriends and family members alongside John Legend, Wendy Williams and #MeToo activist Tarana Burke — has become a cultural phenomenon. The network announced Tuesday that the show reached 18.8 million viewers total and was the “Number One most socialed primetime program across broadcast and cable for three consecutive nights.”
After it aired, Ne-Yo posted a message to Instagram: “There is NO excuse. Music is important. It really is. But it’s not more important than protecting our children, protecting our little girls. PERIOD.” Meek Mill echoed Ne-Yo’s sentiments on Twitter, writing: “I’m not feeling R after watching that. … It don’t take a rocket scientist to see what was going on. What I’m tryna figure out why did they let it go on soooooo long!”
Jada Pinkett Smith questioned why there was supposedly a surge in R. Kelly’s music sales since the docuseries premiered, in a tweet: “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???” She went on to ask for a discussion on her Facebook live about what she’s missing. “I really don’t want to believe it’s because black girls don’t matter enough, or is that the reason?” she asked in a video that accompanied the tweet.
“We want [RCA] to take a stand and say that we won’t continue to accept this behavior from artists just because they’re making us money” – #MuteRKelly founder Oronike Odeleye
Color of Change, an organization that supports justice campaigns for black communities, has also been vocal in its calls for RCA and Sony to act. (It has built campaigns and pressured RCA to drop R. Kelly since 2017.) “Many artists in the music industry have publicly shamed R. Kelly and spoken out against his horrific history of sexual abuse,” Color of Change’s senior campaign director, Brandi Collins-Dexter, tells Rolling Stone. “It only seems like a natural next step for his record label, Sony’s RCA, to drop him immediately. Despite Kelly’s decades-long documented coercion and sexual manipulation of young black women, including countless civil suits and a trial for 14 counts of child pornography, he continues to be signed by the label.
“RCA is complicit in the failure to hold R. Kelly accountable,” she continues. “In fact, the label has relished in the publicity and intentionally popularized an image of R. Kelly as a palatable sex symbol, rather than the sexual predator he is. As momentum grows to hold R. Kelly accountable, both in the public and in the music industry, RCA must prioritize justice over profit: drop R. Kelly immediately or continue enabling the abuse of black women and girls for the sake of profit.”
Despite RCA’s deafening silence, Odeleye and Barnes have found the reaction to Surviving R. Kelly heartening, saying that it has brought new awareness to people. “I received a message on our Instagram account from a woman who had posted on her account apologizing to young black girls [and] to the community, saying she had been a fan for years,” Odeleye says of one reaction since Surviving R. Kelly premiered. “She had been going to all the concerts and buying all the music … Now she understands why she has to divest from him and that was very powerful me, because it’s important for us. Everyday folks are supporting him and keeping him afloat.”
“I believe it speaks to how we view sexual violence in the black community, full-stop,” Barnes says. “This is larger than R. Kelly. We have found ways to victim-blame and shame victims and survivors into silence and to protect the predators. … When you look at the black community and oppressive behaviors, racism and white supremacy tend to be the original sin of black people. And there’s so many in the community who believe above all else that we have to protect our community and we’ll work it out amongst ourselves and, as you see, we haven’t actually done that well. We’ve instead enabled predators to abuse with impunity. I think we need to change the narrative and realize that people are responsible for their own behaviors and then hold the behaviors accountable.”
Odeleye says now that the allegations against Kelly have reached a wider audience, she’d like the music industry to react accordingly. “We want his concerts canceled,” she says. “We want promoters not to book him. We want venues not to host his concerts. We want him removed from streaming services. We want his music not to be played at parties and clubs by DJs. We want a complete and total mute of R. Kelly, so that we can remove all of the revenue streams that are allowing him to insulate himself against the consequences of his crimes.”