On the fifth anniversary of the first FMMF, new details surface in the decision to remove the controversial R&B singer
When the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival announced R. Kelly as a headliner in June 2014, the decision was met with immediate public blowback owing to the R&B singer's long history of alleged sexual abuse, which had received renewed attention in the months following the December 2013 publication of a viral Village Voice article.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, local electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren posted an open letter to the organizers decrying the selection, eventually withdrawing from the festival. Folk-rock act Saintseneca followed suit, and local radio station WCBE 90.5 FM also withdrew its sponsorship.
Additionally, one national headlining act threatened to drop off the bill unless FMMF cut ties with Kelly, which the festival did in July 2014, releasing a statement that read, in part, “Fashion Meets Music Festival and headlining artist R. Kelly have come to the mutual decision to cancel Kelly's upcoming performance.”
At the time, the split served as a rare public setback for Kelly, who, despite years of deeply reported allegations of sexual assault, had managed to maintain his headliner status, even topping the bill at the high-profile Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. Indeed, less than a week after FMMF cut ties with the singer, he was back on the main stage at Lollapalooza in his hometown of Chicago, appearing as a guest of Chance the Rapper, who played Kelly's gleeful hype man for a trio of songs. (More recently, Chance called his decision to record a track with Kelly “a mistake.”)
In the last two years, however, Kelly has faced increased public repercussions for his alleged behaviors, owing in part to the continued work of former Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis, who first reported in 2000 on the musician allegedly exploiting his position to meet and have sex with underage girls. In 2017, DeRogatis published a viral BuzzFeed piece investigating women allegedly being held in a “cult” by the singer, and in June DeRogatis will release a book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. Earlier this year, Lifetime also aired the six-part documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” from filmmaker Dream Hampton, in which some of the women making allegations against the singer told their stories on camera for the first time.
The scrutiny has taken a toll on Kelly's bank accounts — in February, he spent three nights in jail after being arrested on multiple accounts of sexual abuse, unable to raise the $100,000 bail — as well as his professional life. RCA Records, the singer's longtime label, severed ties with him in January, following the departure of his lawyer, assistant and publicist, who exited his inner circle in April 2018.
Five years after FMMF split with Kelly under intense community pressure, the singer has no tour dates scheduled, making it worth re-examining how festival organizers came to a decision that so long eluded countless other fests, concert promoters and venue owners.***
At the time that FMMF rolled out its initial lineup, festival founder Bret Adams said the singer's inclusion was never a point of debate. But recent interviews and an internal email shared with Alive by Adams paint a different picture.
According to Cory Hajde of BravoArtist, which assisted in booking year one of FMMF, organizers traded emails discussing potential headliners for months, lobbing around acts like Alanis Morissette, Florence and the Machine and even Prince. Eventually, Red Light Management provided a list of available performers that included R. Kelly, who caught the attention of some at FMMF due to his prominence, Hajde said.
Though the show eventually landed at Nationwide Arena, there was initial discussion of the singer headlining Huntington Park, which is part of the reason Columbus Clippers President and General Manager Ken Schnacke turned up in an email thread voicing concerns about the singer.
“The BIG QUESTION is one of the artists. … They are suggesting an urban rapper by the name of R. Kelly,” Schnacke wrote in an email dated April 24, 2014, and provided to Alive by Adams. “My concern is that he has somewhat of a checkered past. … I just wanted to float this by all of you and see if anyone has any MAJOR OBJECTIONS to this act performing at Huntington Park. After I hear from you, I also intend to put it before our major sponsors. Just trying to be careful with this.”
“Joyce Martin [from my office] … was the one who started doing some research on him and came back to me and said, ‘Ken, we might want to talk about this. This guy has some things on his resume that aren't too impressive,'” Schnacke said in a mid-May phone interview.
In a follow-up email to Schnacke and others in April 2014, Adams wrote, “So everyone is clear, I originally rejected R. Kelly, however was convincingly persuaded that leaving out this demo would be a critical mistake for the festival.” Paula Brooks, then a member of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, later chimed in with an email calling Kelly's “I Believe I Can Fly” “a great song” and “very moving.”
“We said, ‘Wait a minute. He has some baggage, but it's a ticketed show, OK, so if you had an issue with R. Kelly, you didn't have to go,'” Adams said in an early May interview at his Dublin office. “But Ken said, ‘Let's run it by everybody,' and we had not a single negative response. … And that list included county commissioners, city officials. … Then when the controversy happened, all those people who thought R. Kelly was a great first-year act for the festival suddenly didn't have a voice.”
According to Hajde, the blowback was immediate once the festival announced Kelly as a headliner. “The amount of feedback we got that first 24 hours, it was unbelievable,” he said. “I almost quit right then because I was so nervous about what it could do to [BravoArtist's] reputation as a company.”
But when Damn the Witch Siren went public with concerns, Adams largely dismissed the potential controversy, Hajde said, a stance that started to soften once Saintseneca followed the duo's lead.
“With [Witch Siren], Bret said, ‘Blacklist them. Shut them out,'” Hajde said. “When Saintseneca came out with it … that's when [Adams] was more like, ‘We've made a mistake.'”
But the real turning point, according to both Adams and Hajde, arrived when Future Islands informed organizers of its intention to exit the festival due to Kelly's presence. The Baltimore quartet was eventually persuaded to remain on the bill under threat of legal retaliation, and has never publicly discussed its decision. (Future Islands did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“We got an email from [Future Islands'] manager saying they were withdrawing and there was no conversation to be had,” Hajde said. “At that point, removing Kelly was already a conversation. … But that was the final straw.”
“Red Light [Management], CAA (Creative Artists Agency) — basically anyone who mattered banded together and went to Future Islands and said, ‘You do this to us and you're going to have a problem getting booked,'” Adams said (Red Light Management did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment). “At this point, we were changing our position [on Kelly]. It was an education process for us. We originally got the feedback from the powers that be in the city that [booking Kelly] was a good decision, so we were changing our own assessment because it wasn't just the five rude bloggers we blocked from Facebook. These were real concerns.”
Hajde also recalled Future Islands singer Samuel T. Herring standing in the alley behind Park Street Tavern the Sunday after FMMF ended, discussing the R. Kelly situation with rapper Afroman, among others.
“[Herring] straight up said, ‘We're happy we played here, because we liked the show we played and we liked who played with us, but we were kind of scared into doing this,'” Hajde said.
As the controversy unfolded, Adams remained in daily contact with Kelly's team, working to negotiate his release. At the time, there was speculation that the decision was tied as much to low ticket sales as growing public sentiment, but even Hajde — a vocal critic of his time working with FMMF — said tickets matched the expected pace of sales, and that had Kelly gone on it likely would have been profitable.
“We really needed to think about the announcement,” Adams said. “We had to evaluate everything because we had a huge financial commitment to R. Kelly, and we couldn't just cancel the contract. Contractually, [public sentiment] is not reason to cancel, because you're making a moral decision to not have him on the bill.”
Eventually the festival reached an agreement with Kelly's team, settling on a dollar amount in the low six figures in order to officially cut ties, Adams said.
“The agent we dealt with was good to work with. He understood the blowback,” Adams said. “Even if he didn't want it to happen because he knew other festivals could do the same thing.”
It would take years for these fears to fully materialize, though. In March 2015, a similar controversy developed around Kelly's headlining slot at the Free Press Summer Fest in Houston, whose organizers reached out to FMMF to discuss their experiences, according to Adams. Unlike Columbus, however, Kelly's Houston concert moved forward as planned. He wouldn't cancel another tour date until 2017, shortly after the “cult” allegations surfaced in DeRogatis' BuzzFeed feature.