The May 1 open letter by the Time’s Up organization announcing it would back the #MuteRKelly campaign represented a notable first for minority women in the #MeToo era.
Spearheaded by the Women of Color of Time’s Up, a subgroup that includes Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and Lupita Nyong’o, the latest effort made clear that the ongoing conversation around curbing sexual abuse and misconduct would not solely focus on victims who are white or famous or both.
The letter reassured women of color that Time’s Up leaders would use their star power and call for one of the most popular and powerful R&B singers — R. Kelly — to be held to account for accusations of sexual abuse and exploitation of primarily black women that span two decades.
“As women of color within Time’s Up, we recognize that we have a responsibility to help right this wrong,” the letter said in part. “We intend to shine a bright light on our WOC sisters in need. It is our hope that we will never feel ignored or silenced ever again.”
A rep for the singer decried the campaign in a statement to Variety as an “attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
The existing #MuteRKelly campaign, begun last summer, has struggled to gain traction because — in the view of some activists and journalists — the singer’s alleged victims are black. In an op-ed last summer for The Undefeated, a sports and pop culture news site that focuses on racial issues, culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald argued that Kelly has enjoyed a successful music career because of the discounting of black accusers. “Black women and girls are continually pressured to keep their mouths shut to protect black men who commit violence, sexual or otherwise, against them because of some warped definition of racial solidarity,” she wrote.
Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, called it a big deal that prominent, powerful women like Rhimes and DuVernay have joined the effort to pressure companies like RCA Records, Ticketmaster and others into severing financial ties with Kelly. The letter also called for putting pressure on Apple and Spotify to drop Kelly’s music from streaming platforms. As yet, none have cut ties.
“They’re not speaking up as celebrities,” Burke said. “They’re not speaking as directors and producers and actresses. They’re speaking up as black women who have influence, and they’re speaking up for black women who do not have influence. The victims who have come forward making allegations are from low-wealth communities, are 100% black women and don’t have the reach.”
Film and television producer Effie Brown (“Dear White People,” “Real Women Have Curves”) said the focus on marginalized groups is welcome and long overdue.
“Women and women of color are also now speaking up,” Brown said. “This whole intersectional feminism is real. What people are calling inclusive and diverse has oftentimes left us out.”
Echoing criticism by others who have said Time’s Up was an exclusive club of A-listers, Brown said she nonetheless has always backed the group’s efforts and
is heartened to see the direction it has taken: “I’m supporting it 100%, but now I feel that it definitely has become a bit more inclusive.”
The targeting of Kelly is also a notable shift in strategy by the Time’s Up organization. During a March media briefing with reporters, members of the group bristled when asked to address a question about accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Ryan Seacrest by his former stylist. The aim of the group is much broader, the members said, explaining that they plan to tackle other gender disparities in the workplace, including equal pay and expanding efforts to ensure safe work environments.
Time’s Up’s decentralized organizational style mirrors that of other social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. Those efforts eschewed the emergence of charismatic leaders who would speak on behalf of the groups.
Indeed, it was a consensus by the women of color in Time’s Up that tipped the organization into joining the #MuteRKelly campaign, said activist and actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
During a panel last week at the Milken Institute Global Conference, Smollett-Bell told a packed room of mostly female business leaders, government officials, dignitaries and other prominent figures that the women of color in the group banded together and decided to amplify the voices of women taking on Kelly.
“When we were sitting down a few weeks ago and discussing some of these initiatives we are working on, … all of these things that we are trying to do within the industry, [DuVernay] was like, ‘We cannot move forward without addressing this elephant in the room,’” Smollett-Bell recounted. “How has he been able to operate and continue to do business and continue to go on tour and release albums and be on streaming platforms?”
Reps for DuVernay and Smollett-Bell did not respond to interview requests seeking additional comment.
Actress and activist Ashley Judd also joined Smollett-Bell on the Milken Institute panel. One of the first women to go on the record with her experience of harassment by Harvey Weinstein, Judd spoke at length about the importance of including women of color in the conversation and said they played a pivotal role in launching the current movement.
“Thank God women of color rose up when #MeToo went viral because they made sure that Tarana received the credit as the mother of the movement,” Judd said. “It’s so important that we continue to take those whose experiences are marginalized, particularly through the intersection of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation and identity, and centralize them.”
A rep for Judd said the actress was unavailable to elaborate on her remarks in an interview.
In an open letter, more than 700,000 female farmworkers expressed solidarity with the women in the entertainment industry who were speaking out about abuses they’ve suffered. That prompted Hollywood women to act and form the Time’s Up movement.
That type of action, Brown said, will be key to ensuring conversation turns into meaningful change. “That’s what’s going to set this apart,” Brown maintained. “I hope these movements turn into action that turns into access for all.”