AActivist Oronike Odeleye was at her desk, knee deep in another 12-hour day of homework when the news broke. A friend called. R&B performer and producer R Kelly had been convicted of all nine counts in his sex trafficking case, he said. At first, Odeleye felt “a little stunned, but also really relieved”, she says, thinking first of the survivors who had courageously shared their testimony.
With Kenyette Tisha Barnes, Odeleye founded the #MuteRKelly movement in 2017. The goal: a financial boycott of Kelly, given the years of child sexual abuse and allegations of sexual misconduct brought against the star. At the time, she had hoped soon “to intervene in the name of justice during her trial”. Monday, September 27, that day arrived. But as the week wore on, she wasn’t convinced the industry was ready to take a closer look.
“There is no morality in capitalism apart from profit,” she said simply. “I think the machine of the industry has not changed. Its only moral is profit. Odeleye also works in entertainment, as an arts consultant and director of the black-owned One MusicFest. From that perspective, she reflects on how the bottom line fuels the business.
Kelly’s guilty verdict has been marked as a late symbol for accountability to surviving black women and girls. However, we have yet to see what this essay means for the music industry – what is the likelihood that this result will inspire a watershed moment of transformation?
Kelly’s case exposed a complex web of associates and facilitators who facilitated his crimes. As it stands, there is still a long way to go to protect fans, musicians and other music workers from harassment and assault. Industry may struggle to shed a legacy of protecting those considered worthy – talent, and arguably some executives – over those seen as indispensable. It would be naive to rely on the judicial system’s treatment of sex trafficking in a single trial as a model of any future liability. But maybe it’s time for the music world to fully understand how fame kept Kelly off her abuse for so long.
Kelly seemed invincible before his arrest in 2019. Signed at Jive Records, he began his career in 1992, on an album with the group Public Announcement. A year later, his solo debut, 12 Play, would propel the track Bump n ‘Grind to the top of the Billboard Hot R&B singles chart. Over the decades, his discography has spanned an ambitious gospel soul, graduation cut, sexually explicit R&B and the multi-year chaos of the opera Trapped in the Closet. But it was always considered a huge hit, only managing to make it to the top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 with albums released from 2015 onwards.
As testimony throughout the six-week trial has been detailed, this star power granted Kelly god status among her fans as well as a hallowed place in black musical culture of the 1990s and 2000s. at a time when young female fans were still easily dismissed, assumed to be sex objects or musical lightweights more invested in the appearance of the performers than in their sound. This “groupie culture”, inherited from the rock of the 1970s and 1980s, set the tone.
Odeleye recalls that at the start of the #MuteRKelly campaign, she and Barnes were mostly bombarded with hate and harassment online – the language they used to talk about abuse was not yet mainstream. They continued, engaging those who wanted to listen. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about what sex means, what grooming is and how it works, the kind of manipulation abusers use – you talk about it in a more holistic way than” some gold diggers and a black man they’re trying to get down ‘, you know? “
Kelly and her facilitators recruited young women and children at her concerts or in schools. This behavior has been overlooked, seen simply as a superstar blessing her fans with her presence (and phone number). Groupie culture provides a foundation on which fan-celebrity interactions can intersect across the consent line, into an acceptable catch-all. Its strongly gendered standards shape fans and those in the industry.
To truly effect change, those in power must push back against these standards, according to Naomi Pohl, deputy general secretary of the UK-based Musicians’ Union. “I think the music industry has been slow to recognize that we have a problem,” she says, recalling the 2018 launch of the union’s Safe Space Scheme for testimonies of harassment and abuse. She recalls that after Harvey Weinstein’s revelations in late 2017, “the music industry as a whole reacted more, saying, ‘Well yes, sexual harassment happens in all kinds of workplaces. Akin to a reluctant shrug, an acceptance rather than a commitment to change the culture.
Kelly’s beating also gave her a similar coating to Telfon’s – no allegations seemed to stick to her, starting with a 1996 civil case brought by Tiffany Hawkins that said a 24-year-old Kelly had sex with her when she was 15, under the pretext of advancing her singing career. His lawsuit named Jive Records was finally settled out of court. Lawyers representing Jive have successfully argued that the label was not responsible.
This first case illustrated how the device around Kelly worked to prevent her from being seriously questioned. Barry Weiss, managing director of Jive from 1991 to 2011, told the Washington Post that Kelly’s off-stage behavior was not the label’s business. “I was a record company releasing R Kelly records,” he said in 2018. “That’s all I knew. I wasn’t involved in his criminal affairs. We were a record company, for god’s sake.
Later, when Kelly was acquitted of child abuse charges in 2008, he seemed untouchable. After this verdict, he continued to release music and tour. He also, according to trial testimony, fine-tuned his system for enlisting and controlling the targets of his abuse. Only the domino effect of Jim DeRogatis’ 2017 reporting for BuzzFeed, the #MuteRKelly movement and the January 2019 Surviving R Kelly documentary ultimately sparked a criminal investigation and Sony / RCA allegedly “severed ties” with Kelly.
Prior to that, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson, Phoenix and Chance the Rapper were all among the artists who collaborated with Kelly after the acquittal as he rose to iconic status (Gaga, Phoenix and Chance the Rapper apologized in 2019 for doing so). For what it’s worth, some had spoken. Rapper Vic Mensa called Kelly a “scumbag” in 2017, and Common, Omarion, and Ne-Yo publicly condemned him following the Surviving R Kelly docuseries (John Legend appeared on the series himself).
It’s too early to say how this first verdict will affect the music industry (Kelly faces further charges in Minnesota and Illinois). The transcendence of music attracts many, but the structures of its industry leave room for trauma. Pohl describes this dynamic: “Just like Harvey Weinstein, it’s a situation where someone has a lot of power, and then other people entering the industry are more vulnerable because they desperately want to gain a foothold in it. They desperately need the promised fame and fortune. And unfortunately, these power imbalances can be abused – that’s exactly what happened in the R Kelly case. Sony has yet to publicly respond to the legacy allegations and condemnation.
Until the misogynist, entrenched sexism, and gaping power gaps are resolved, change will come slowly. It may have been easy enough for Kelly’s entourage to look away – or, in the case of her former tour manager, bribe an official for the fake ID in order to allow Kelly, 27 , to marry Aaliyah, 15 years old. . It can be more difficult to reshape the parts of an interconnected machine that has operated in a particular way for decades.
“If you’re an artist signed to a record company,” says Pohl, “your contract will probably deal with the royalties you get, what you agree to deliver. Is there something there about the well-being of artists, about abuse and harassment? Probably not. Do workplace policies and procedures cover artists and freelance workers? Probably not. ”That, at least, sounds like a starting point.