Kenyette Barnes has been trying to silence R. Kelly since her college days in the early 2000s. But only recently has the country started listening.
Barnes, an Atlanta lobbyist and activist, is the founder of #MuteRKelly, a social media movement akin to #MeToo or #TimesUp, designed to diminish the controversial singer’s influence the music world. That includes concerts like the one scheduled for Saturday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa.
Professors and students at the University of South Florida last week launched a petition to have the concert canceled or moved from the Yuengling Center. (It was booked not by the university or the arena’s management company, but as a facility rental by an out-of-state promoter.) Barnes, whose movement has followed R. Kelly in concert for more than a year, swiftly got on board. They’ll keep pressure on university and venue officials up until the show, with a possible protest outside the arena on Saturday.
"This has just happened for too long without any degree of accountability," Barnes said. "This movement will mobilize these activists to say, ‘Hey, this is not just two or three people, this is a movement.’"
Here’s more of what Barnes had to say about her mission.
How does the #MuteRKelly movement take hold on the ground in any given city?
We have individuals around the country who will let us know if he’s having a show. For the most part, we find out maybe a day before everyone else. Lately they’ve been very quiet about advertising their shows, when in the past, you would know about it and it would be really heavily promoted. I think the stealth nature of the promotion and the advertising of his shows has changed significantly over the year, primarily because they are trying to do these without some sort of protest action. But we’re pretty diligent about finding out what’s going on.
When you say "they," is R. Kelly doing this all in house? Or is it third-party promotional companies?
"They" are promoters. What we’re finding is that after last year, when #MuteRKelly launched, R. Kelly was being promoted primarily through Live Nation, and now that’s not the case. So in these cities there are local promoters who are taking on the mantle of promoting his shows, and they tend to be very stealth in their advertising. They try to keep the targeted audience very direct, so they’re doing a lot over social media now as opposed to the large-scale promoting they used to do. The promoters, I believe, are aware of the impact of this campaign, and while they don’t want to divest from promoting him — because he is still a moneymaker — they want to not deal with the accountability and the backlash.
You can buy tickets on Ticketmaster, so I don’t think Live Nation is completely able to wash their hands of R. Kelly.
Oh, absolutely not. And that’s something we’ve really been very clear with them on. Live Nation needs to divest from him, Sony needs to divest from him, and RCA. We can’t allow people to continue to make money in whatever way they do and promote such a problematic individual. So while Live Nation has not, on the surface, promoted him since #MuteRKelly started, of course they have their hands in the cookie jar as well.
Is this the first time #MuteRKelly has been involved with a concert on a college campus?
No, the first one was in Chicago. Activists did an amazing job of shutting it down. Because it came from staff within the institution and they really centered the students and the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses, being able to present that in a very compelling way was one of the reasons why the administration decided to simply cancel the concert. And I’m optimistic that the same thing will happen in Tampa.
What are we to make of the thousands of fans who will come to this show?
People have this uncanny ability to separate the man from the music. Also, we’re dealing with an unspoken truth in the black community, that sexual violence is something you don’t talk about. That it’s something that if it happens to you, you have to examine yourself to see how you got yourself in that situation, as opposed to, "Let’s hold these predators accountable." And then that is wrapped up in a whole lot of social justice issues, and how black men, who are most likely the perpetrators of black girls, are treated by the judicial system. And then you have this idea that black girls simply are not that affected. One of the things that this movement seeks to do, using R. Kelly as a template, is to say, yes, black girls can be raped. They can be sexually assaulted.
Have you been approached to be involved with campaigns about other artists, like Chris Brown or XXXTentacion?
I’ve had people send me messages saying, "Yeah, we hate XXX, can you help us?" I’m not about censorship. Sometimes music is just really abhorrent, and I might not like it, but I would never censor someone’s music. But I do believe we can censor the behavior.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.