‘He’s Trying to Make Himself Into This Helpless Victim’: A Q&A With #MuteRKelly Co-Founder Kenyette Tisha Barnes

If R. Kelly really wants to make an admission, she says that federal prosecutors might be a better audience than his die-hard fans.

[Photo: R. Kelly]
#MuteRKelly's Atlanta action was born over coffee and mutual outrage. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Kenyette Tisha Barnes doesn’t need to listen to “I Admit,” the 19-minute confessional mishmash song released Monday by R&B producer and vocalist R. Kelly. In the song, R. Kelly rambles through talk and testimony about his legal and career woes, reading problems, sexual exploits, childhood abuse, and betrayals of friends.

Barnes is the co-founder of #MuteRKelly, a national movement that launched in 2017 that seeks to hold the Chicago star accountable for what accusers and journalists such as Jim DeRogatis say is a decades-long pattern of sexual assault and predation, particularly targeting Black girls and young women.

Many of Kelly’s listeners have been loath to acknowledge the allegations that he ensnared young girls, coerced them into sex, and literally held some captive in a cult-like atmosphere in an Atlanta-area mansion. In the early 2000s, a tape emerged, purportedly showing Kelly engaging in sex acts with a girl believed to be as young as 12 or 13 years old. When accusations went to trial in 2008, some die-hard fans sported “Free R. Kelly” T-shirts. Kelly, who infamously married songstress Aaliyah when she was 15, is musical royalty, with Grammy after Grammy tucked under his cotton-candy-colored furs; his discography includes the inspirational, played-at-kindergarten-graduations anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” alongside the 1994 hit “Bump and Grind” and other club-pleasing songs.

Kelly has vehemently denied the allegations, most recently in “I Admit.” Through his lyrics, he tells parents not to “push your daughter” in his face and says: “I’m abusing these women, what the fuck? That’s some absurd shit (what?)/They’re brainwashed, really? (really)/Kidnapped, really? (really)/Can’t eat, really? (really) Real talk, that shit sound silly (yeah).”

When Kelly was slated to play a date in her hometown of Atlanta, Barnes took to the internet and contacted public officials to force the concert’s cancellation (the show did go on, however). A lobbyist and a Twitter warrior who’s not afraid to call out anyone online (including progressive organizations such as the NAACP, because independent vendors played R. Kelly tunes at a recent convention), Barnes has helped spark a movement that has mobilized longstanding outrage and prompted or influenced the cancellation of at least ten R. Kelly performances in places such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

The small but intersectional movement includes music-industry professionals, parents, queer and trans folk, #BlackLivesMatter activists, and staff from reproductive-justice organizations such as SisterSong. Apple Music no longer plays the singer’s music in featured playlists (though it’s still available in its library). The #TimesUp movement has lent its support.

Meanwhile, more accusers have continued to come forward.

Rewire.News talked to Barnes about the song release, sexual violence in Black communities, and local governments’ role in promoting arts programming that does not perpetuate abuse.

Rewire.News: You didn’t listen to “I Admit.” But you read the lyrics. What was your take?

Kenyette Tisha Barnes: For the record, I’ll never listen to it. I didn’t want to hear him tell a story, I wanted to read the words on the page. I won’t give him the satisfaction of trying to entertain me. After all, he is the Pied Piper [of R&B, a moniker that R. Kelly gave to himself], and the Pied Piper played a flute.

I was floored. The lyrics say, “I did all these wonderful things for people, and yeah, I may have hurt a few people.” I’m not interested. It reads to me like a letter an abuser would write to their partner saying, “This is why I did all these horrible things to you, and please understand me. I’m not perfect.”

There’s no accountability. There’s no atonement. There’s no desire to right the wrongs. I see the song not as his admission of anything, but of his frustration that his image and his career are on the chopping block. He knows it. It’s almost a deflection; he’s trying to make himself into this helpless victim. You want to admit something? Well, then admit it to a federal prosecutor.

Rewire.News: Do you see the song as a response to the #MuteRKelly movement?

KTB: Yes, partially. I also see it as a response to the groundswell of negativity that he’s received in the last year or so. The #MuteRKelly movement is the most concerted social justice effort to take him down and hold him accountable. In the past, it’s been individual activists and survivors who tried to come forward, and they’ve always been silenced and dismissed. I see the song as yet another way to silence and dismiss. But, unfortunately for him, that’s not going to work this time. It’s another ploy to take the heat off him.

I’m encouraging people: Don’t even buy the song. Read the damn lyrics if you really want to know who Robert Kelly is. It tells you what you want to know.

Rewire.News: You referenced that there have been individuals who have been on this case for, in some cases, decades. But how did #MuteRKelly start?

KTB: It started in a couple of ways. For the Atlanta movement and action, that happened pretty organically. I’ve been anti-R. Kelly for decades. I was done with R. Kelly after the sex tape came out and the trial. No, I’m not going to say it was a sex tape. It was pornography; the rape of a child.

It sort of boggled my mind how we as a community sold out that young lady and sold out a lot of young ladies in our families who’ve dealt with that. It was not only that “No, he didn’t do it.” It was: “She’s lying.” But people consumed it, watched it. Instead of reconciling that this was the rape of a child, it was “she’s fast.” “How do we know she was just 13? You know that these 13-year-olds are just fast anyway.” It became too much for me. I’ve been outspoken about this; as a survivor of child pornography, that’s not a victimless crime.

When I decided to do this, my original plan was pretty crude. It was to lobby the Fulton County (Georgia) Board of Commissioners. That’s the county that oversees the venue in the Atlanta area, where R. Kelly was supposed to perform in August 2017. If the board wouldn’t stop the show, my plan was to protest the show. At the same time, my #MuteRKelly partner Oronike Odeleye put together a very modest petition to ask Atlanta radio stations not to play the music and for people to not buy the tickets. It was almost a perfect storm. #MuteRKelly, at least the Atlanta movement, was born over coffee and mutual outrage.

Rewire.News: From Bill Cosby to R. Kelly, why is it so hard for people to divest from Black entertainers whose work they’ve loved when they find out they’ve done—or are alleged to have done—terrible things? What’s at the root of this devotion without question?

KTB: We don’t like to see our heroes in a bad light. A lot of people really hold on to people in the public spotlight, whether they’re performers, celebrities, sports figures, or elected officials. We just don’t want to believe these people can do what they’re accused of. So that’s one.

Two, it speaks to an very ugly subculture of how we handle sexual violence in the Black community. We don’t look at the intersectional violence against Black women and the violence that’s committed intraracially. It’s just “boys will be boys,” and “don’t be a ho.” Or: “Yeah, he might have done that, but he’s sick. And you’re not perfect either.”

The combination of those two has given R. Kelly and any kind of hero a pass to continue doing this with impunity.

It’s time to see these individuals as people and view their behavior as pathology. We’re trying to do a cultural cognitive paradigm shift. It doesn’t matter if the girls were sexually precocious. There are sexually precocious girls, but not all men are raping them.

And in the criminal justice system—which I believe is part of the problem here—it’s really difficult to hold them accountable.

Rewire.News: Critics of #MuteRKelly, R. Kelly’s supporters, and Kelly himself say that he has been convicted of nothing. How do you respond to that argument that these are simply allegations?

KTB: There are a lot of people who have committed crimes who have never been convicted. Let’s take a look at George Zimmerman. Let’s take a look at Kevin Spacey. We have a history, in this country, that people in the dominant class, whatever oppressive class you’re looking at, are often saved from indictment and prosecution.

The other thing, too, is that there are numerous nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) [contracts that require parties not to disclose information about the agreement or certain events, often in order to receive a monetary settlement]. And according to attorney Susan Loggans, who has represented at least three of Kelly’s accusers, there have been countless NDAs, and many of these young women were under the age of 16 years old.

If you don’t have a witness [who is willing to testify or is barred from doing so by an NDA], you don’t have a crime. He’s essentially paid his way out of those allegations. And when you have someone who has the ability to hire high-powered attorneys who can drag a court case beyond the statute of the limitations, beyond the point where witnesses are willing to testify, it was strategic to prevent him from being convicted.

When people ask me this, I say George Zimmerman is walking on the street, and you’re wearing a Trayvon Martin T-shirt. So stop. The people who killed Emmett Till lived their entire lives without conviction.

Rewire.News: What is the cultural work that you want to do in Black communities? As a journalist, I attended a recent R. Kelly concert protest in Greensboro, North Carolina. And I noted that there were 30 protesters and, say, 5,000 people who went to the concert. And I couldn’t help but notice that the hecklers were mostly Black women.

KTB: The biggest supporters of #MuteRKelly and the organizers are Black women. The biggest supporters of R. Kelly are Black women. It’s a conundrum.

But, in my opinion, when we look at the statistics of sexual violence in Black communities, 60 percent of Black girls and women will have been sexually assaulted in some way by the age of 18. That’s almost two-thirds of us.

When you have that degree of people in a community dealing with this type of trauma, the community has to rationalize it.

Then, when you see a movement that’s calling truth to power in terms of sexual violence, it’s almost cognitive dissonance. It’s like, “Wait a minute, why are they making a big deal about this? I’m a survivor and I’m not making a big deal about this.” Well, because you’ve learned from your abuser that it’s your fault. We’ve been taught that sexual violence isn’t that bad, and it’s just part of a being a woman. You learn self-shame, and when you accept that self-shame is the only way to prevent these things from happening to you, it’s easier to say that “if you were more of a lady, this wouldn’t have happened to you.”

And I just think we don’t view sexual violence as a big issue, but see it as an extension of the feminist movement. And we think the feminist movement was led by white women, who were also racist and often complicit in false accusations against Black men. This [argument that sexual violence is a white feminist concern] is frequently used as a pivot when Black women prioritize their sexual oppression to the same degree as their racial discrimination.

Rewire.News: You’re a lobbyist. What should local governments do when performers with allegations of gender-based violence come to their city? There has been some effort in Greensboro to urge politicians to ban Kelly and performers with similar allegations or records from performing at venues that are owned by the city or significantly supported by taxpayer dollars.

KTB: That’s the best: for municipal venues to say “you cannot perform here.” Local municipalities can create resolutions or ordinances that say they don’t want controversial artists in our communities, especially if people in the community don’t want them there. They can also have discussions about what it means to be female and vulnerable in their communities. We can work with legislatures on issues around sexual violence and sex trafficking. This has never been about censoring his music. It’s about his behavior.

Rewire.News: Since R. Kelly is still, in some quarters, such a beloved musician, what blowback have you gotten?

KTB: There’s this fear that if you are vocal about this, if you’re out front talking about this, you’re not going to get a man. I’ve often heard this from people, “You know you gotta stop talking about this because ain’t no man gonna marry you.” I’m like, I’m divorced, and I have no problem getting a man. And the men who I deal with understand that this shit is wrong.

But to answer the question about the cultural work we need to do, we have to accept that sexual violence is oppression. And sometimes, the oppressor looks like our father, brother, or partner.

This interview has been lightly edited.