In the aftermath of the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, listeners everywhere are rethinking their relationship with R. Kelly and his music. Music business institutions are also facing pressure to cut ties with the singer as he faces investigation and possible criminal charges for the alleged behavior outlined in the program.
Kelly’s label, RCA Records, still lists him as being on their roster, though they have not sent out a press release about him since October, 2016. The label has faced public pressure for years to drop Kelly—pressure that is only ratcheting up in recent days.
As important as his future with RCA is, equally crucial is the way some people still hear R. Kelly’s music in 2019: on the radio.
The amount of airplay Kelly has received has been in a free fall since Surviving R. Kelly began. According to Billboard, the number of all-format radio impressions of his music dropped nearly 85 percent between the first night the series aired and the Monday following its conclusion.
This is the continuation of a longer trend: his spins fell roughly 40 percent over the course of 2018. But Surviving R. Kelly seems to have given additional momentum to the movement to get him off of radio. Stations across the U.S., from Seattle to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Savannah to Dallas, have removed R. Kelly’s entire catalog from their playlists. And iHeartMedia, which owns over 850 stations, is the subject of a new campaign to remove Kelly’s music from all of them.
The #MuteRKelly movement, unsurprisingly, has heard plenty of similar stories from DJs—both the radio and live performance variety. “#MuteRKelly has received countless emails from DJs around the country who are joining us in boycotting R Kelly's music,” they say in a statement to Complex. “Many shared their stories of having not played him in years, or arguing with clients about why they wouldn't play R Kelly despite audience requests.
“What's more impressive to us, however, are the stories from DJs about playing R Kelly in the club and immediately being booed until they turned it off. The masses are waking up, and it's in MASS action that we see real and lasting change.”
Angi Taylor is a DJ at 103.5 KISS-FM in R. Kelly’s native Chicago. On January 9, she attended a protest against Kelly outside of his studio on the city’s West Side—a protest that happened to fall just one day after the singer’s 52nd birthday. (Kelly’s “goons” were there in full force, she says, flashing lights at TV cameras to ruin their shots.)
Taylor was there, she takes pains to point out, as a private citizen and “not representing my company.” But she is well aware that her lifelong love of R. Kelly’s music (one of her first concerts was seeing him supporting his 12 Play album) has caused her to make statements on air over the years that she now sees in a different light.
“I have been on the air saying, ‘I love this song’ or ‘It reminds me of this moment in time,’” Taylor says. “But at the same time, we have to move on and get away from people that are committing these crimes and not being brought into the light for what they've done.”
Taylor now refuses to play Kelly’s music on air, which is not a big concern, since KISS is a Top 40 station. She laughs, “There's not any top 40 R. Kelly songs that are coming through anymore.” Taylor hopes, though, that other stations follow suit.
I have been on the air saying, ‘I love this song.' But we have to move on and get away from people that are committing these crimes. - Angi Taylor
Newport News, Virginia’s 94.7 The Beat, played an R. Kelly song on Thursday, January 10, but that will likely be the final time.
Station owner Rochelle “DJ Ro” Boyce made an “executive decision” to remove Kelly’s music. “This is a very controversial issue in which we should air on the side of what is right,” she writes. “It is not right to continue to support a man that has such little respect for our black women and children. To continue to support him sends the message that we stand behind him and his behavior and poor choices is something that we will never support, condone or enable.”
Yuriy Kalustyan, a student at Western Washington University, hosts a weekly show called West Coast Wednesday on the school’s radio station. On the same night that Taylor was in front of R. Kelly’s studio protesting, Kalustyan ran headfirst into listeners’ feelings about hearing the singer over the airwaves.
“I had a playlist with old-school hip-hop tracks, and I played [a song] by Snoop Dogg featuring R. Kelly,” he tells Complex the following day. “After the hook, about a minute in, I started getting phone calls from people saying, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe you're playing R. Kelly right now. Do you know everything that's going on with R. Kelly? How dare you? How are you playing this?’”
The on-air phone calls led to more complaints and, shortly afterwards, a call from the station director. “He said, ‘People have been complaining,’” Kalustyan explains, before revealing the potential consequences: “They're considering shutting down my program." (Shortly after this story was initially published, Kalustyan reached out to say that his show had indeed been suspended for the remainder of the quarter, but would return in March).
During our conversation, Kalustyan moves back and forth, sometimes in the same sentence, between understanding listeners’ reactions and considering them overwrought.
“I was like, R. Kelly's on the hook—like, whatever, you know? I'm aware of the controversy with R. Kelly and everything, but I guess I just didn't think this was like the biggest…” He lets the thought trail off, then continues, “I understand why some people felt the way they did, but to be on the brink of getting shut down over it, I don't know. I think it's a little crazy.”
That type of “craziness” might only increase with time. The #MuteRKelly movement makes it clear that they have no intention of stopping until R. Kelly’s music is gone from the airwaves.
“We will continue to work to encourage DJs, radio stations, and the masses, to financially divest from serial sexual predator, R Kelly,” the organizers behind the campaign explain in their statement. “That financial divestment is directly tied to their commitment to not play his music. Radio spins = royalty checks. Streaming songs = royalty checks. Playing him in the club, at a wedding, at the family BBQ, or at the baby's graduation = normalizing sexual abuse and propping up rape culture.
“We won't stand for it any longer. Black women deserve better.”