R&B singer R. Kelly leaves the Cook County Criminal Court Building Friday, June 13, 2008, in Chicago after a jury found him not guilty on all counts in his child pornography trial. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Though Fashion Meets Music Festival cofounder Bret Adams said there was no debate over the decision to invite R. Kelly to headline the group’s inaugural event, which takes place in and around the Arena District over Labor Day weekend, community chatter hasn’t slowed in the wake of last week's announcement.
Damn the Witch Siren, a local electro-pop duo slated to perform at the fest, followed a Facebook post asking organizers to reconsider Kelly’s inclusion — a post that generated the band’s largest Facebook response to date, according to its members — with a blog entry titled “An Open Letter to Columbus, R. Kelly, Fashion Meets Music Festival and All Women” that read, in part, “We are asking Columbus, and society as a whole, to WAKE UP AND STOP IGNORING THE SERIOUS PROBLEM OUR CULTURE HAS WITH GLAMORIZING PREDATORY MEN AND IGNORING THE VICTIMIZATION OF WOMEN.”
The blowback is rooted in Kelly’s extensive history of legal trouble. In 2008, the singer was tried (and acquitted) for making child pornography, and he’s paid off dozens of lawsuits filed by underage girls who charged statutory rape. He also had a sexual relationship with Aaliyah, marrying the late R&B singer when she was 15 using illegally falsified documents. This after writing and producing her 1994 debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. The marriage was later annulled, and the court records sealed.
As of publishing, Damn the Witch Siren has yet to pull out of the festival, and the musicians are currently weighing their options after one of the organizers reached out in recent days in an attempt to mediate the situation. “Before we come to a final decision, we owe it to the festival organizers to hear what they have to say,” band member Nathan Photos said in a Facebook message, noting he expected a more substantial discussion to take place in short order.
Reached via email, FMMF’s Adams confirmed the fest had been in touch with the band, and a meeting was scheduled to take place in the Short North the afternoon of July 1. He also apologized for the defensive tone he took in the immediate wake of the criticism the festival received from Damn the Witch Siren and a group he described as “a vocal minority.”
“R. Kelly may not be a good person, but he is a national artist that people want to hear, and as a fellow artist you should respect the art, not the artist,” Adams wrote. “He is playing as a ticketed show in Nationwide Arena, and no other artist or patron will come in contact with him unless they purchase a ticket.”
Adams also reiterated points made in last week’s phone interview, namely that Kelly provides a marquee name for the newborn festival, fills a demographic need and offers a degree of credibility on the national level.
Even so, he said missteps were made, adding, “Most importantly … we will do a better job of informing our artists in the future so that they are not blindsided, and we will listen to their concerns in a thoughtful manner, as we should have done last week.”
Alternative Fashion Mob founder Kelli Martin, one of the designers scheduled to participate in the event, responded to an Alive Facebook post about the booking, writing, “This is SO not good man...yikes.”
“[FMMF] gave us the example of a national act on par with Prince, and R. Kelly is obviously a far cry from Prince,” Martin said in a follow-up phone call, pointing to both R. Kelly’s legal woes and his lack of ties to the fashion world as reasons for her disappointment (“They got Joan Jett to play the [Obetz] Zucchini Festival, so you’re telling me they couldn’t land someone with some style for this?”). “It was a great concept, and now it’s something I feel weird about having to do. I hope [the controversy] dies down, or they change it [and remove Kelly] and donate the money to a homeless shelter or something, but that’s not going to happen.”
At the same time, a handful of commenters brushed aside the various criticisms offered both by festival participants and fellow readers — “Get over it people,” one individual wrote on the Alive Facebook site, “[Kelly] is great live and will be a great show” — and among some posters there appeared to be a general lack of awareness of the seriousness of the multiple rape accusations levied against Kelly.
Instead, some appeared to view the 47-year-old singer as a cartoonish lothario prone to surreal, self-parodying goofs like “Trapped in the Closet," a song cycle that spawned an episode of "South Park" and led to headlining slots at hipster-approved festivals like Bonnaroo and Pitchfork. Others still reduced his criminal trial — he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 when his defense team convinced a jury the identity of the girl in a 27-minute sex tape was not conclusive — to a series of urine-centric, “Chappelle's Show”-cribbing jokes, completely glossing over the fact prosecutors alleged the girl in the video was as young as 13 at the time it was filmed.
While the various sordid details that surfaced during the trial were horrific, it was not an isolated incident, which is a point former Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis stressed repeatedly in a lengthy Village Voice interview that went viral after it first posted online in December 2013 and now sits at almost 5 million page views.
“I think in the history of rock ’n’ roll, rock-music or pop-culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly," said DeRogatis, who first broke the Kelly story for the Sun-Times in 2000, in his interview with Village Voice. “Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits. The videotapes — and not just one videotape, numerous videotapes. And not Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson, Kardashian fun video. You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his 'gift.' It's a rape that you're watching. So we're not talking about rock-star misbehavior, which men or women can do. We're talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined.”
In a 2013 blog post — one in a series inspired by the controversy surrounding Pitchfork's decision to invite Kelly to perform at its annual Chicago festival — DeRogatis, now a professor at Columbia College and cohost of the syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions, further chronicled the pop star's well-documented misdeeds, including a 1996 lawsuit brought against the singer by Tiffany Hawkins. According to the suit, Hawkins started having sex with Kelly when she was 15 and he was 24. When he ended the relationship following her 18th birthday, she was so distraught she attempted suicide by slitting her wrists.
These are the details, DeRogatis said in a recent email, that many in the younger generation have never been exposed to, which is a large part of the reason last year’s Village Voice exchange created such a public firestorm. “There was a vague awareness, but no specifics,” he wrote. “When confronted with the specifics, people react.”
Confronted with questions about the Village Voice piece in a December 2013 interview with Atlanta radio station V-103, Kelly responded by shrugging off the criticism, essentially telling the hosts haters gonna hate.
“Well, I feel like I got the football man, and I'm running toward the touchdown and if I stop and look back or mess around, I'll get tackled,” he said.
To continue the sports analogy, it appears a number of people don’t enjoy watching Kelly spike the ball in celebration these days, a development reflected in the negative response to his FMMF headliner selection. For many, his inclusion has been a distraction, drawing attention from the things organizers have done well (there's a strong focus on local music, and attendees will be able to see a bulk of the artists perform free of charge — Kelly, of course, excepted) and even causing some to entirely reevaluate the event.
“I thought that this was a cool idea,” wrote one commenter in the initial post on the FMMF Facebook site announcing the lineup, “but now that I know R. Kelly is involved I will not be attending or supporting the festival.”
UPDATE: Damn the Witch Siren has officially withdrawn from FMMF, posting the following statement to its Facebook site: "Hello everyone. We feel that we owe it to those of you who are curious to inform you that we have withdrawn from Fashion Meets Music Festival. We want to thank all of you who have supported us in this and helped raise awareness of what we consider to be a very serious issue. We wish the best to the festival organizers and all the other bands involved."
In a Facebook message, band member Nathan Photos said the meeting with organizers, which took place in the Short North July 1, was far from contentious ("They were really nice and courteous to us about the issue, and I think it was really considerate of them to meet with us under the circumstances," he wrote), but the parties were unable to strike an agreement. "After about an hours' deliberation, they were unwilling to budge on the issue," he wrote, "And they were also unable to make us feel differently about things."