R. Kelly has written and recorded some of the most beloved songs of his generation. Songs adored for their inspirational content (“I Believe I Can Fly,” “The World’s Greatest”), or their ability to weave clever wordplay in with a dirty metaphor (“Ignition,” “Ignition (Remix),” “I’m a Flirt”), or for their audacious, semi-ironic appeal (“Trapped in the Closet” chapters 1-33), or just for being straight-up sex jams (“Bump N’ Grind,” “Sex Me”). His voice is incredible, he rarely receives his due as a songwriter, and the DVD director’s commentary for “Trapped in the Closet” on DVD features a little silhouette of Kels sitting in the corner, watching the music video while smoking a cigar.
All of this has always been hard to square with the fact that much of what we know about R. Kelly is awful. He was 27 years old when he married the singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time. (They met when she was 12.) As other media outlets have reported, someone who looks very much like R. Kelly was in a homemade pornographic video committing statutory rape against (and urinating on) a teenage girl.
Kelly was acquited by a jury on 14 charges of child pornography, but people who are familiar with the video and the circumstances behind its relase may have a different opinion from the jury about who the man in the video is and what exactly it is he’s doing in it. Former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis broke the initial story in the late 90’s, and subsequently interviewed dozens of women who made similar allegations about Kelly, and discussed them in detail with music journalist Jessica Hopper in the Village Voice in 2013.
All of which is to say: R. Kelly is an important figure in American music, but also a very controversial one. And that controversy has begun to overwhelm the Houston Free Press Summerfest. As Houstonia reports:
Music fan David Hayes has attended the Free Press Summer Fest every summer since 2010, and was planning to go this year as well—that is, until he saw that one of the headliners was R. Kelly, the popular R&B singer who has been accused of having sex with teenage girls and possessing child pornography. “Disgusted would be the right word,” Hayes said. “I just can’t believe he’s gigging anywhere after what he’s done. I don’t understand how any person in their right mind could put up the fee to pay him to perform, or go see him.” […]
Tonight, a group of Houstonians will meet with Free Press publisher Omar Afra to discuss their opposition to Kelly’s appearance. Asked about the meeting by phone, Afra declined to respond until he meets with them. “We’re pretty much in the listening stage right now,” he said. “We never preclude dialogue. If somebody’s got a concern, we’re here to hear that.” But why did Free Press invite Kelly in the first place? Afra’s response: “He’s a musician.”
Interestingly, in 2012 the Free Press published a story criticizing its rival the Houston Press, saying that the alt-weekly’s massage parlor ads made it complicit in human trafficking. To David Hayes, that stance seems at odds with inviting Kelly to headline the paper’s signature concert. “Free Press was being extremely, vocally critical of the Houston Press for those ads,” he said. “So it seems like a hypocritical twist to turn around and do this.” Free Press Summer Fest has never dropped a musician from its lineup. But if the pressure continues to mount, R. Kelly may be the first.
It makes sense why Summer Fest would book Kelly—other festivals have done it to little controversy. Kelly headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in 2013 to little fanfare, and was a second-headline guest at Bonnaroo the same year. (He also made a surprise appearance at Coachella that year, sitting in with indie rock band Phoenix.)
Summer Fest typically books a more diverse bill than most of those other festivals, but it’s still an indie-centric fest that caters largely to the tastes of mostly-white hipster crowds, as do Pitchfork, Bonnaroo, Coachella, and the rest. That’s an audience that adores the ironic appeal of Kelly as much as his sincere gifts as a singer and songwriter, and it’s hard to square that appeal with the fact numerous rape and sexual assault allegations have been made about the man.
Since DeRogatis and Hopper wrote about Kelly in the Village Voice at the end of 2013, though, Kelly’s side-gig as a hipster favorite has been tamped down a bit. Last summer, Kelly was booked to perform at the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio—headlining alongside a number of indie rock bands—and public outcry quickly followed, with at least two bands on the bill threatening to drop from the festival and the local NPR station revoking its sponsorship. (That festival later dropped Kelly from the bill.)
And a similar pushback is happening in Houston now. It’s not just the media paying attention to Kelly and the allegations against him: Girls Rock Camp Houston, a non-profit organization that teaches girls in the Houston area (with or without musical experience) to play in a rock band over a week-long summer camp, began circulating a petition urging the festival to drop Kelly this week:
This past week, you released the lineup for Free Press Summer Fest 2015, which includes R. Kelly as a headlining act. A pedophile. Indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. Has filmed video footage of himself engaging in sexual acts with underage girls. Teenage girls he would prey on outside of their gospel choir class at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. Leaving long lasting emotional and psychological trauma, for some resulting in attempted suicide. After dozens of lawsuits, the girls feeling like they could get no justice, settled. The girls of Chicago are the girls of Houston and they matter. They deserve the right to live without fear, violence, intimidation and predatory sexual behavior. R. Kelly should not be able to continue to profit from performances that glorify his persona of sexual predator.
Girls Rock Camp Houston stand together against the scheduled R. Kelly performance at Free Press Summer Fest 2015 and we, the undersigned, call on Free Press Houston and Pegstar to cancel the performance, agree not to reschedule, or work in any way to promote R. Kelly in the future.
At least one band with deep ties to Summer Fest, Free Radicals (who’ve played the festival every year since 2010), has pledged not to perform if Kelly is on the bill.
So far, though, Free Press Summer Fest appears to still be in their “listening stage,” even nearly a week later. As of yesterday, the festival was still promoting Kelly’s appearance on Facebook, and according to the Washington Post, activists appear to be frustrated with the lack of response beyond the meeting:
“We’re frustrated because this is a long, persistent pattern of predatory behavior,” local activist Regina Agu alleged to The Post. “We feel like he has profited by playing up the persona of being someone who engages in predatory behavior or behavior that targets young girls.”
“Plus,” she added, “we’re not the first group of people in the country to try and have him removed from a music festival, so we know what can happen.”
(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)