Controversial R&B singer R. Kelly and jam-rock collective O.A.R. will headline the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival, which is scheduled to take place in the Arena District over Labor Day weekend.
The headliners, along with former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, Baltimore synth-poppers Future Islands and electronic-leaning musicians Rusko, Destructo and Paper Diamond, were announced during a press conference early Wednesday, and join previously detailed acts like Local Natives, Cold War Kids and New Found Glory. More additions are expected in the coming weeks.
O.A.R. is scheduled to perform for free at McFerson Commons, 218 West St. in the Arena District, while Kelly’s Nationwide Arena show, which is set to take place Friday, Aug. 29, will be a ticketed event.
Organizers downplayed the inclusion of Kelly, born Robert Kelly in Chicago 47 years ago, who was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, and whose history of sexual predation on underage girls was chronicled at length in a Village Voice discussion between music journalists Jim DeRogatis and Jessica Hopper that went viral late in 2013.
“I don’t even think [Kelly’s inclusion] was a debate. We don’t have a national R&B act, and we wanted to fill that void, and he’s one of the best-selling artists of all time. Why wouldn’t we?” said FMMF cofounder Bret Adams. “He’s good national press for us and Columbus. He’s a nationally known name. He was not convicted of anything. He was acquitted. If we wanted to limit our artists to people who never had brushes with the law or were not good people, then you can eliminate quite a few across the board. We’re running a festival to help brand the city of Columbus. We’re not the morality police.”
Reaction amongst some in the local music community was immediate — and far-less forgiving.
Damn the Witch Siren — one of dozens of local acts scheduled to perform free at the fest — immediately took to Facebook to decry the decision.
“It has come to our attention today that Fashion Meets Music Festival has decided to choose R. Kelly as one of the festival headliners. While we were (and still are) very honored to have been asked to play this event, we cannot personally support the decision to have [an accused] serial rapist perform,” band members Bobbi Kitten and Z Wolf wrote. “We don't want to withdraw ourselves from FMMF, but we are seriously considering it unless the powers that be give this booking decision a second thought.”
Commenting on the post, Raeghan Buchanan of The Girls! added, “R. Kelly has a long history of violence towards younger black women. The Girls! were not asked to play, and so any gesture by us is kind of empty, but I back you up and appreciate fellow musicians in our town standing up against something that a lot of the industry has felt it convenient to ignore.”
Lydia Loveless’ initial reaction to a Facebook posting about Kelly's FMMF inclusion read simply, “I am super pumped to have declined this, then”
In a follow-up email the singer wrote: “Normally I am pretty opinionated, but all I can come up with for now is I am pretty ashamed of our justice system and kind of disgusted with having him in the city.”
Organizers are aware of these criticisms, but appear ready to weather any backlash.
“[If] somebody from O.A.R. or Michelle Williams — who just retweeted all our stuff — or any of our headliners had an issue with it, then I may take a look at it,” Adams said. “Every artist is entitled to their opinion about performers [on the bill]. We feel differently about it. He was a great catch for a first year festival that had no track record, and we’re going to put him in Nationwide Arena.”