Activists Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye were awarded the Visionary Award at the 16th annual Evening of Impact on Thursday for their work organizing the #MuteRKelly campaign.
As hundreds of people dressed in suits and evening gowns streamed into the Morgan Manufacturing warehouse space in the Fulton Market for a night of cocktails, dinners and awards, Jim DeRogatis looked out of place. He was dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and slacks and was seated at a table by himself.
He was quiet. That’s because Jim was still reacting to news about a man he has been reporting on for nearly 20 years.
“11 new charges have been laid against him,” he said, almost to himself. “Wow, that’s great news.”
The man DeRogatis was referring to is R. Kelly, who had a host of new charges (related to his sexual assault and sexual abuse case) levied against him that day by an Illinois grand jury. A journalist and music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, DeRogatis has been covering and investigating the sexual abuse charges against R. Kelly since he first helped break the story in 2000.
It was fitting that he was reacting to the news at the 16th annual Evening of Impact, a fundraising event benefiting sexual violence prevention and education outreach. The event was hosted by Resilience, a nonprofit dedicated to healing and empowerment for sexual violence survivors in Chicago.
At the heart of the evening were Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye. The two co-founded the #MuteRKelly campaign in 2017, which sought to bring awareness to the alleged crimes of an accused serial sexual abuser.
“[The #MuteRKelly movement] has done what no other movement has done, and it’s centered the sexual violence of Black women and girls by predators of power,” Barnes told the Defender. “That’s really what we’re trying to dismantle — that power.”
Since beginning their campaign, the pair have been directly responsible for shutting down 13 R. Kelly concerts as well as forcing RCA Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music, to drop Kelly from their talent roster. Their work, coupled with the 2019 documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, has been widely recognized, and on Thursday, they were honored with the 2019 Visionary Award from Resilience for their efforts.
While speaking on stage, Odeleye smiled and reminded the audience of the work Resilience provides and its importance.
“While our focus has always been on [#MuteRKelly], it is always good to be recognized for our efforts,” Odeleye told the crowd. “Especially by an organization as important as Resilience — the largest standalone rape crisis center in the Chicagoland area, which provides more crisis intervention and medical advocacy services within a single city than any other rape crisis center in the whole state of Illinois.”
When Odeleye and Barnes began their work in 2017, they could not anticipate the impact the #MuteRKelly campaign would ultimately have, but they always knew that they wanted to make it more than another internet fad.
“#MuteRKelly sought to be more than just another Twitter hashtag,” Barnes said on stage. “We wanted our work to extend beyond the concert protests and cancellations to begin to craft a larger narrative centered on the intersection of Black women and girls, sexual violence and predators with power.”
For DeRogatis, the night was an opportunity to honor the “real heroes.” His upcoming book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, is the culmination of two decades worth of investigations into the R&B singer’s alleged crimes, and it comes at a time when sexual assault is more in the cultural consciousness than ever before. However, he’s still cognizant about the reality of the situation.
“I think #MeToo and #TimesUp have started a much-needed conversation,” DeRogatis told the Defender. “But as you and I sit here and talk, Kelly is living in Trump Tower where once stood the Sun-Times with two young women whose parents are saying they are being kept as part of a cult…There’s a level of weirdness here that’s only beginning to be understood now.”
So, for Barnes, DeRogatis and Odeyele, their work is not over. While Kelly walks free, there is still much to be done to ensure justice for the survivors and the victim’s families.
There’s no shortage of hope though. While the #MuteRKelly founders started the movement in anger and in reaction to the horrific allegations against the R&B singer, there has only been one thing that has carried them through: Love.
“Love for R. Kelly’s survivors who were brave enough to come forward and love for the ones who remained anonymous as they worked on their own healing,” Odeleye says. “Love for our community that deserves better than entertainers who get rich off of our support and abuse us in turn…and above all, an unabashed, all-encompassing love for Black women.”