The protesters outside North Carolina’s Greensboro Coliseum on May 11th had one crystal-clear demand: R. Kelly, they said, must be stopped. Some 35 to 40 protesters held #MeToo, #TimesUp and #MuteRKelly signs referencing the R&B singer’s long history of sexual abuse accusations. They circulated a letter ripping Coliseum officials for not meeting with the protesters and chanted, "Which side are you on?"
Inside, the 5,000 people at Kelly’s Coliseum show – filling about three-quarters of the 6,500-capacity venue – saw the singer perform hits like "Ignition (Remix)" and "I Believe I Can Fly" and suggestively rub himself with a fan’s cellphone. "If there were 5,000 people who paid money to see R. Kelly, those are also 5,000 people who say they don’t trust black women and their families," says Omisade Burney-Scott, a North Carolina-based director of Sistersong, the reproductive-rights group that helped organize the protest.
What happened in Greensboro was business as usual for an industry whose response to allegations of sexual misconduct, even today, is often deafening silence. Kelly’s manager did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Representatives for other relevant parties – Greensboro Coliseum itself; Live Nation, whose Ticketmaster division sold tickets for the Greensboro show and which promoted six Kelly concerts in 2017; RCA Records, Kelly’s longtime label; and Sony Entertainment, which owns RCA – all declined to comment.
"We have been talking about, screaming about R. Kelly for more than a decade and nobody has been paying attention," says Tarana Burke, the longtime civil-rights activist who founded the #MeToo movement. "We want Live Nation to stop promoting his concerts. We want RCA to drop him from the record business."
Accusations that Kelly has had sex with underage girls have circulated for decades, and in 2008 he faced a criminal child pornography trial after the discovery of a 27-minute VHS tape that allegedly showed him having sex with, and urinating on, a 14-year-old. Kelly was found not guilty of those charges, and his career seemed to recover – only to run into a renewed backlash in the past year, particularly after Buzzfeed published an explosive report accusing Kelly of "running an abusive ‘cult’" in June 2017. Kelly’s team has vehemently denied all charges against him, and promoters, radio stations and record labels have remained largely silent.
In an era when entertainment industry players like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and former Republic Group President Charlie Walk have all lost their careers after being accused of serious sexual misconduct, Kelly is still standing. "The obvious difference is the folk who stepped up in the R. Kelly cases are black women and girls," Burney-Scott says. "People don’t believe black women and girls when they say they’ve experienced harm, or sexual assault or violence."
In interviews for this story, industry sources offered equivocal statements of the kind that have protected the singer for years. "I can’t defend any of his actions," says one source at a major record label (who, like others, would only speak under anonymity). "Do you want to be in business with an artist that is [allegedly] a rapist, or worse? Of course not, nobody does. But you have to look at the individual circumstances of the artist. Have laws been broken? . . . In the case of R. Kelly, you have him saying, ‘None of this stuff is true.’"
Adds a source in the concert business: "Maybe things will change, going forward, in the #MeToo era, but he was acquitted. No one’s putting a gun to the head of a consumer to buy a ticket to go see him."
#MuteRKelly activists are frustrated with these tepid responses. They protested Kelly’s Atlanta concert last year and demanded to meet with officials from Live Nation, the world’s biggest promoter, which put on the show and drew 4,800 fans out of 5,400 capacity. "Live Nation just ignored it. It was pretty brutal. It was almost a slap in the face," says Kenyette Tisha Barnes, a co-founder and national organizer of the movement. (Live Nation, again, did not respond to a request for comment on #MuteRKelly.)
Kelly is far removed from his peak hitmaking years of the late Nineties. His concerts over the past couple of years have had spotty attendance, from near-sellouts in Detroit and Atlanta late last summer to shows in Baltimore and Virgina Beach that were barely a third full, according to Pollstar; he currently has no upcoming performances listed on his website. Yet top music-business companies continue to do business with him, unlike the Hollywood studios that have shunned Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. "These types of behaviors are so prevalent in the music industry," says Shay Lawson, an attorney for Kitti Jones, a former Kelly girlfriend who has accused the singer of physical abuse in interviews. "This is just a theory: There may be a fear of a domino effect. If they go after one person, how many other dominoes will fall?"
Some in the music business have made small moves in response to #MuteRKelly activism, including Chicago promoters who removed the singer from their "Love Jam" concert scheduled for last month, and wound up canceling the event. (Promoters didn’t respond to email.) And Kelly’s lawyer, publicist and assistant severed ties with him after a BBC documentary in April. "They’re feeling the pressure," Barnes says. "They know we’re out here."
The most prominent response to #MuteRKelly came from Spotify, which removed the singer’s songs from its playlists in early May. "When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator," the company said in a statement at the time. Within weeks, the service killed the policy, saying it would not "play judge and jury" regarding artist behavior.
In interviews for this story, some music-business sources attempted to change the subject to the Spotify debate, arguing that streaming services should not make content decisions based on artists’ personal behavior. But activists say that this conversation has only served to mask the real issue: the accusations against Kelly. "It’s deflection," says #MeToo’s Burke. "Largely, R. Kelly’s audience is black women and girls. We have huge buying power, and I hope they recognize that. They should be paying attention."