“You have to say, ‘I have to sacrifice that I can’t support this person, because I’m putting money into the hands of a pedophile or a rapist.’ And, you have to separate that.” – Nicole Denson — who is openly bisexual and a survivor of sexual assault and violence herself — said that she aimed to form an proactive community that not only advocates for victims of sexual assault generally, but that is purposefully inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races and ethnicities.
Cult leader, rapist and sexual predator. Whether sensationalized or fully accurate, having accusations like these swirl around one’s career seem like they would destroy it. However, in the case of 51-year-old Rhythm and Blues artist R. Kelly, they barely seem to have made a dent. Born Robert Kelly, in his career, the singer has sold over 100 million albums, won multiple Grammy Awards and even created a well-received autobiography. Kelly managed to balance all this success with almost a dozen allegations — and one trial — since the 1990s, for illegal and inappropriate sexual conduct with both women and minors.
According to Liliana Reyes, a program director at the Ferndale-based LGBTQ community center Affirmations, that R. Kelly has experienced nearly uninterrupted success is deeply linked to society’s perception of celebrities and women.
“Sometimes, people put public figures on a pedestal,” Reyes said.
Reyes is also a supporter of the #MuteRKelly Detroit movement. The movement officially formed in December 2017, when its founders realized that R. Kelly was scheduled for a sponsored performance by 105.9 Kiss-FM at Little Caesar’s Arena, alongside singer Charlie Wilson. The show is on Feb. 21 as part of the “Tale of Two Kings Tour”. The movement’s aim is to cancel this show, or at least hold a protest event alongside it. This is all in an effort to make a statement supporting sexual assault victims.
Nicole Denson, an activist and director of advocacy services at WC SAFE — a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault — was one of the main drivers in this.
“The #MeToo movement is everywhere, sexual harassment is really, really talked about, and has been in the forefront in the media. So, as a person who is in a marginalized community and serves marginalized communities, it really hit home for me that he is in our city,” Denson said. “And so, I started on Facebook, a call to action, and quite a few people responded. This call to action was met by a lot of women of color, and a lot of women of color who also identify within the LGBT community – which I’m a part of.”
Denson — who is openly bisexual and a survivor of sexual assault and violence herself — said that she aimed to form an proactive community that not only advocates for victims of sexual assault generally, but that is purposefully inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races and ethnicities.
“I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about this issue. I believe it’s really hard in our communities because of the fact that, because of my intersections, it’s hard to understand what community speaks about my issues,” Denson said. “When I stand behind Black Lives Matter, I sometimes feel as if they might not talk about that trans women’s lives matter, or when I talk about or stand behind the LGBT (community), sometimes I feel like they don’t talk about the marginalized.”
Shortly after putting out her call to action, she made contact with Kenyette Barnes, the organizer of the national #MuteRKelly movement, which had a hand in cancelling several shows from the singer’s most recent tour. This contact helped to structure the Detroit branch’s organization. On its Facebook page, it outlines an eight-step process to both draw attention to sexual assault, and remove Kelly’s scheduled performance. Denson said a structured, and measured approach is absolutely vital to gain support and be heard.
“We’re very intentional about how we’re going about this,” Denson said. “It’s taking time. Right now, we’re reaching out by writing letters. This is business to them.”
However, as serious as Denson is about this topic, she wants to make clear, she’s not trying to judge his existing fans, she is trying to educate them on the seriousness of this topic.
“His sexual assault against a minor was videotaped. You have to understand that some of these allegations were not just allegations. Not only were they videotaped, but they settled out of court. So, you have to wonder, when he’s ‘stepping in the name of love,’ who’s love is he talking about? When you see these songs about sexual gratification, who is he talking about?” Denson said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s mostly black women who are supporting him,’ and I have to say to them, ‘That may be true, but this one isn’t.'”
Denson said that R. Kelly’s accusations have caused a rift with an impact similar to Bill Cosby’s.
“It’s OK. That’s the thing we’re trying to get across to people. It’s OK to be upset. It’s OK to say that R. Kelly made a good song. It’s OK to be mad that you sang ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ in grade school,” Denson said with a laugh. “It’s OK to be mad about that, or that I watched ‘The Cosby Show’ and I’m mad because he was Cliff Huxtable.”
However, Denson said that once the anger subsides, it becomes time to choose a side.
“You have to say, ‘I have to sacrifice that I can’t support this person, because I’m putting money into the hands of a pedophile or a rapist.’ And, you have to separate that,” she said.
Representatives for Little Caesar’s Arena, 105.9 Kiss-FM and R. Kelly did not respond in time for the publication of this story.
The Mute R Kelly Detroit: Protest LCA Your Rape Culture is Not Welcome Here event will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in front of Little Caesar’s Arena. The Arena is located at 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit. More information about the event can be found online at gaybe.am/6A.