By Stephanie Younger •
Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence.
Could a hashtag topple the career of a popular artist? Hashtags have the power to raise social consciousness about the exploitation of marginalized communities, to give them a platform that influences public discourse, and to ultimately change the status quo. Notably, “#MuteRKelly” was started in 2017, to eliminate R&B artist Robert Kelly’s music from playing on radio stations, in the wake of several allegations of sexually abusing multiple young Black girls—over the course of nearly 30 years. #MuteRKelly is effective and successful in its mission, as evidenced by the ways the hashtag ignited a global conversation about the exploitation of young Black girls, and that many radio stations were prompted to finally stop playing R. Kelly’s music, and led to his imprisonment.
In 2008, scholar Moya Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” to acknowledge that Black women face the intersections of “misogyny,” defined as “hatred of women,” and “noir,” meaning “Black” (Bailey 1). Misogynoir is the impetus for overlooking R. Kelly’s crimes, which he hid in plain sight. Her article, entitled, “Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly,” cites a case of R. Kelly as an example of how foundational misogynoir is in the world. For example, R. Kelly filmed himself raping a 13-year-old girl, and was acquitted, even though fourteen witnesses identified the girl and her age (Bailey 14). Misogynoir puts a name to the injustice caused by R. Kelly’s egregious actions, which was not his first, but were tolerated by the world—and people’s argument? “He made some good music.” #MuteRKelly gave people who, no longer willing to be complicit with the abuse of Black girls, a platform to declare their outrage and to take action. As society became more informed about misogynoir, people were able to connect the dots to the hashtag, #MuteRKelly. Objectification is the standard behavior in the portrayal and treatment of Black women and girls in court, and as a result, society failed to act responsibly for this child, as she didn’t fit society’s “standard” of “what a 13-year-old girl should look like” (Bailey 13). Bailey used logos by chronologically stating the timeline of events, and she conveys to people in the medical field that they need to take a lead in correcting their behavior as they take the lead in adultifying Black girls. She identifies the objectification and adultification of Black girls as a systemic problem. Similarly, #MuteRKelly elicited global conversations about these same forms of misogynoir Black girls face at a young age. Bailey’s terminology radiated her ethos in a new age, where people are beginning to take a stand against favoring violence of Black girls, for the sake of money. The hashtag empowers the community by providing a platform for that new ideology to grow. Despite being acquitted in 2008, and in this case, #MuteRKelly changed the narrative and the justice system’s perception of these specific Black girls that R. Kelly preyed on.
The social consciousness hasn’t improved prior to #MuteRKelly, as shown by the 2017 study from Georgetown University’s Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, which reported that adults believe Black girls, as young as age five, need “less nurturing, protection, support and comfort,” unlike white girls (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez 1). Rebecca Epstein, Jamila J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez, who authored the study entitled, “Girlhood Interrupted,” refer to this disparity as “adultification” (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez 1). This report identified a core source of the issue that #MuteRKelly aims to prevent – the perception that young Black girls are “fast,” which is another word for “promiscuous.” Dajour Evans, a then-senior at Georgetown, and editor of the student-led publication, “Georgetown Voice,” wrote an article in support of #MuteRKelly, and asserted that “Black girls need support too” (Evans 1). She cited the Lifetime docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly,” among the interviews that “shine a light on the harrowing abuse that Kelly has subjected young black girls and women to for almost three decades—three decades in which his career continued to flourish” (Evans 2). Evans epitomizes the ethos of #MuteRKelly by imploring people to take into account that actions speak louder than words, and to act on their sympathy (Evans 3). In increasing numbers, #MuteRKelly benefited the community by legitimizing the support of academic scholars and former fans.
Less than a month after the Georgetown study was published, Oronike Odeleye co-founded #MuteRKelly, along with Kenyette Tisha Barnes. They began with an online petition. In an interview from the docu-series Surviving R. Kelly, Odeleye stated, “The goal of #MuteRKelly in the beginning was very humble. It was, “Let’s get him off Atlanta radio,” and “Let’s get his concerts cancelled”” (Bellis and Finnie 28:15-28:25). The hashtag #MuteRKelly uses pathos at its core argument to impel its audience to act. Their initial audience was the Atlanta-based radio stations who played R. Kelly’s music, and venues that hosted his concerts. Odeleye continues,
“That was met with resounding silence…The radio stations would not respond, would not call me back” (Bellis and Finnie 28:31-28:37).
Because of the music industry’s complacency with R. Kelly’s actions, Odeleye decided to mobilize people into action, and seven protests across the country in response to venues that would host his concerts. (Bellis and Finnie 28:51-30:08). Odeleye’s testimony does not hurt the outcome of the trial, but serves to commemorate solidarity of Black women and girls in the movement and to inspire others. The hashtag does far more good than harm by giving community to the survivors, and helped change the ethos of society.
#MuteRKelly achieved the goals of removing him from radio stations in Atlanta, and cancelling his concerts, and as it continued to grow, more radio stations in other states and concert venues cancelled R. Kelly. Finally, the movement to “mute” him became a world-wide effort and helped the goals of removing financial support from the singer’s career and stopped media outlets from playing his music. Accessibility is one of the keys of #MuteRKelly’s wide appeal. Julastri Anhar’s Diponegoro University-based study entitled, “A Study of Language and Gender in #MuteRKelly Hashtag on Twitter,” used logos to compare gender usage in the movement and brought to light some of the language habits of Twitter users. Based on the study, men used swear words when expressing disgust about the star’s crimes and women used swear words in a manner atypical to women, and the key is that ordinary people were talking about it (Anhar 43). There is power in a community turning their considerable attention to issues relevant to their generation, then can evaluate it and demand change. In this case, they normalized the option of not listening to R. Kelly’s music. For example, Anhar shows one Twitter user who stated
“A listener just requested an R Kelly song on @Radio702, I was curious how this was going to go down and @NonnBotha refused to play it – asking the listener to request another. Thank you” (Anhar 40).
The widespread public engagement has led to public scrutiny and raised social awareness of R. Kelly. Unlike Bailey and Odeleye, who both started worldwide conversation, the author’s mission was to “investigate Twitter’s impact on sexual abuse issues” (Anhar 2). In a similar vein, this study shared some ideas with Bailey, who studied the impact of sexual violence of 13-year-old girl. #MuteRKelly on the Twitter platform was a powerful conveyance tool that opened the door for its users to engage in activism to right an overlooked social wrong.
The #MuteRKelly movement is indicative of the strides that gender justice has made in the past decade. The hashtag is the pulse of the changing public sentiment about these issues, when in fact, it was assumed that the misogynoir would keep R. Kelly free of accountability. #MuteRKelly ensures that people are still actively talking about and still actively care about how industries and the courts treat the case. As a result, Apple Music, Pandora and Spotify stopped featuring R. Kelly’s music last year (Wang 1). The advent of #MuteRKelly provided a platform where credibility could grow. In the end, thanks to the advent of Twitter’s hashtag movement #MuteRKelly Robert Kelly had to face the music. #MuteRKelly has successfully helped the movement bring to light the systemic failures that allowed Robert Kelly to abuse and rape Black women and girls un-impeded for almost 30 years.
Anhar, Usi Julastri. “A Study of Language and Gender in #MuteRKelly Hashtag on Twitter.” Diss. Diponegoro University, 2019, www.eprints.undip.ac.id/78323/1/SKRIPSI_USI_JULASTRI_ANHAR_(13020115130120).pdf. Accessed 12 April 2020.
Bailey, Moya. “Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016., Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 12 Apr. 2020.
Surviving R. Kelly. Nigel Bellis, Astral Finnie, Oronike Odeleye, Lifetime, 2019. Netflix. (www.netflix.com/watch/81174915?trackId=14277281&tctx=0%2C0%2C6439bbab-5117-4cd7-b0b7-57fe3a3ff482-83035281%2C%2C.) Accessed 23 April 2020.
Epstein, Rebecca, Blake, Jamila, Gonzalez, Thalia. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, 26 June. 2017, www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf. Accessed 23 April 2020.
Evans, Dajour. “#MuteRKelly Black Girls Need Support, Too” The Georgetown Voice, 18 Jan. 2019, georgetownvoice.com/2019/01/18/muterkelly-black-girls-need-support-too/. Accessed 23 April 2020.
Wang, Amy X. “Apple Music, Pandora Join Spotify in (Sort Of) Muting R. Kelly.” Rolling Stone, 18 May. 2018, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/apple-music-pandora-join-spotify-in-sort-of-muting-r-kelly-629453/. Accessed 23 April 2020.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student activist and writer who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.