FPSF Taking Some Heat for R. Kelly Booking

"Yall keep your teenage daughters safe during FPSF with r kelly being in town," says @the_sassy_salvy on Twitter, one of many users to voice displeasure with the singer's appearance at the festival.
"Yall keep your teenage daughters safe during FPSF with r kelly being in town," says @the_sassy_salvy on Twitter, one of many users to voice displeasure with the singer's appearance at the festival.
Photo courtesy of RCA Records

Free Press Summer Fest's booking of R. Kelly, the R&B star who has been dogged by allegations of sexual improprieties for decades, is striking a sour note with some people on social media. Others, however, seem perfectly fine with the idea. City of Houston officials, on whose property FPSF is scheduled to take place June 6 and 7, have thus far kept mum on the situation.

Kelly is billed second on this year's FPSF lineup, below only Skrillex and above Weezer, Steve Angello, St. Vincent, Mastodon, Belle & Sebastian and the Decemberists. Perhaps the people in charge are banking on fans' enthusiasm for the festival's other performers outweighing their disdain of the Chicago-based singer responsible for hit songs like "Your Body's Callin'," "Ignition (Remix)" and "I Believe I Can Fly." Omar Afra, co-founder of FPSF, declined comment until the outcome of a meeting Monday evening, where he was planning to discuss the matter with a group of "old friends and buddies."

"All I can say until we meet with these guys and know if they're even asking for anything, is that we're meeting with them tonight and we're glad to hear them out," Afra said. "We've always been available to the community to discuss any concerns, and we still are now."

We will of course update this story once we learn this meeting's outcome, but it seems pretty obvious that a major reason for booking Kelly at all is to increase the amount of buzz surrounding FPSF, perhaps even with the tertiary goal of inspiring articles like this one. It must be said that through our own reporting about the FPSF lineup last week, at least as many readers took issue with Skrillex's appearance as Kelly's, if not more so; we'd rather not think about what kind of message that sends.

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Except this: Skrillex has never stood trial on multiple child-pornography charges, and the cloud that has remained over Kelly for years has caused festivals similar to FPSF to balk in the past. Last fall, the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio, booked the singer to appear at its Labor Day weekend event, but pulled the plug after taking heavy criticism on social media as well as from another act scheduled to play, a local band called Damn the Witch Siren.

"The people of Columbus didn't feel that R. Kelly's reputation was reflective of their community, and took to social media to adamantly express their opinions. FMMF heard their concerns and took action," the festival's communications director told CNN.

True, Kelly has never been convicted of anything. In 2008, he was acquitted of 14 charges of child pornography stemming from a videotape that allegedly shows him urinating on a girl experts later said could have been as young as 13. She was 23 when the case was brought to trial, and her refusal to testify was a crucial element of Kelly's acquittal. According to former Chicago Sun-Times pop-music reporter Jim DeRogatis, who broke the story with a series of articles starting in 1996, dozens more girls -- all of them black -- received similar treatment by the singer.

"All of them settled," DeRogatis told the Village Voice in late 2013. "They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn't have a chance."

Kelly's criminal record has remained clean, although he has doubtless paid out a king's ransom in legal and settlement fees to keep it that way. Considering the kind of money he takes down from festivals like Coachella and Pitchfork in his hometown -- where a scathing 2013 review by DeRogatis brought the situation back on the media's radar -- he can probably afford it.

Indeed, Kelly remains under contract to RCA Records and has continued releasing albums (most recently 2013's Black Panties), playing festivals, touring internationally and appearing on Saturday Night Live alongside Lady Gaga. When he appeared on Twitter to promote Black Panties, though, his Q&A quickly deteriorated into a barrage of tweets like, "you still pissing on little kids and shit?" and "what do I do if she don't show me an ID #AskRKelly." Even some acts playing FPSF this year are reluctant to comment on his booking.

"While I'm usually one to chime in on all topics when asked, I'm staying out of this one," says Kam Franklin, whose power-soul ensemble the Suffers will back up the tag-team set of local rap stars dubbed "Welcome to Houston."

Kelly's booking also raises the question of why some celebrities who have similar charges lobbed against them get a relative pass with the public while others get locked up in the social-media stocks. Plenty of rock stars, from Chuck Berry and James Brown to Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Gary Glitter, have had their own sordid sexual histories aired in public, whether or not they ever went before a judge. With the exception of Glitter, now serving a 16-year sentence for multiple sex-related offenses, all of them have suffered relatively little damage to their critical and commercial fortunes (not to mention by and large stayed out of jail).

One of Kelly's heirs as an R&B leading man, Chris Brown, has had multiple scrapes with the law including a 2009 conviction for assaulting his girlfriend at the time, pop star Rihanna, but remains an active performer and had a hit single earlier this year with "New Flame." However, Brown has served his time, and his touring activities -- including a visit to Toyota Center last month -- have been complicated by the community-service requirement attached to his parole, which earlier this year forced the postponement of his current tour. His Toyota Center concert has now been rescheduled for next Monday, March 16.

Story continues on the next page.

 

Bill Cosby's date at Jones Hall in January is just one of the comedian's many cancelled appearances in the wake of his sexual-assault scandal.
Bill Cosby's date at Jones Hall in January is just one of the comedian's many cancelled appearances in the wake of his sexual-assault scandal.

Another obvious recent example would be Bill Cosby. The once-beloved comedian has also never been convicted or even formally charged (yet), but has become one of the biggest pariahs in show business in the months since one woman after another began accusing him of sexual assault late last year. (Another one surfaced just this past weekend, in fact.) Last December Cosby pulled out of a performance at Jones Hall scheduled for January, which would have been presented by the Houston Symphony but was scratched "by mutual agreement," according to a press release by the orchestra. The language said Cosby would return "in a future season," but gave no further specifics. (Translation: Don't hold your breath.)

Why hasn't there been even more of an outcry over Kelly than there already has? Perhaps many people simply don't care about those allegations anymore, or have forgotten about them and would prefer to enjoy the festival regardless of their opinion of Kelly. Others contend that the festival shutting itself off to such controversial performers amounts to self-censorship; it's still possible to walk into most area record stores off the street and buy an R. Kelly CD, after all, or order one from iTunes or Amazon.

But although technically Kelly is innocent in the eyes of the law, it's hard not to argue that given both the amount and the nature of the allegations against him, even these many years later, his appearance at FPSF -- which is quickly becoming a Houston cultural event as celebrated as the Art Car Parade -- just plain looks bad. The festival has always made a big selling point of its outside-the-box bookings and embrace of iconoclastic performers, from Willie Nelson to the "Welcome to Houston" battery, but now, seeing Kelly's name on that lineup card is giving quite a few people the creeps.

Friday morning and again Monday, we reached out to Houston Mayor Annise Parker's Office of Special Events, the City Hall department in charge of approving permits for festivals that take place on city property. Late Monday afternoon, we heard from Susan Christian, the director, and should be talking to her Tuesday morning. In the meantime, since the lineup announcement last Wednesday, Kelly's fans and detractors alike have not been shy about voicing their opinions. Where do you stand?

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