Point/Counterpoint: R. Kelly at FPSF

Note: since opinion was divided so sharply about R. Kelly's appearance at FPSF, we decided two opinions about his performance would be better than one — Ed.

Seemingly all of the media coverage for 2015’s Free Press Summer Fest has revolved around the extremely controversial choice of naming R. Kelly as a headliner. Certainly this is of no surprise, as Kelly is equally famous for his horrid behavior and assault allegations as he is for decades of popular music. Knowing that Kelly would be a polarizing choice to say the very least, why would FPSF take the gamble of naming him to the Saturday night top spot, knowing full well that the choice would leave an awful taste in the mouths of many Houstonians?

Maybe because, as appalling a person as R. Kelly may be, the public still loves his music. And that’s okay.

To defend a person like R. Kelly is a ludicrous concept and a pointless task. However, to defend an artist like R. Kelly, who has crafted beloved hits for more than 20 years, is impossibly easy. The clearest path here is to simply (and somewhat sadly) illustrate that Kelly is one of many, many examples of horribly behaving male artists whose work we still love anyway: Sam Cooke, Jimmy Page, and the extra-pervy but always-revered Woody Allen, to name just a few. To be clear: this does not in any way validate their behaviors; but rather, separates the behaviors from the art.
The issue is that as a public, we do not know how to deal with the cognitive dissonance we experience from someone like Kelly. We fear that openly liking his music somehow makes it appear that we condone his behavior, when ultimately these things are not related. No one is saying that artists like R. Kelly are quality people, but rather, that they are capable of producing quality things. Good or bad, right or wrong, these are not one in the same. And we as citizens, women, feminists, whatever, should not feel discomfort or shame for liking what we like.

Does inordinately loving “Step In the Name of Love” make me a bad person who condones sexual assault? Of course not. Just like adoring Sam Cooke’s voice, Jimmy Page’s ridiculous guitar, or Woody Allen’s comedic and cinematic genius does not mean I’m okay with diminishing behavior, or mean that I am not in support of women’s voices. Part of the problem we face as a public to deal with these issues is that we can’t seem to reconcile our own guilt about how liking someone “bad” makes us feel about ourselves.

On Saturday night, R. Kelly put on an incredible concert, and everyone in attendance knew it. Thankfully the night was drama-free, allowing the audience to simply enjoy the show. His performance was on point, rife with energy, excitement, and crowd interaction. His vocals were astronomical; his band, choir, and DJ all adding color and life to the performance. The crowd was down for the party and danced and sang for the entire show. Kelly essentially played a DJ’s set of his own music through the years, indulging the crowd with full versions of favorites (“Ignition (Remix)” was bananas) and teased with a single verse or two of others, reminding the crowd just how many songs R. has put into the universe. In short, he laid it out, and the crowd loved every moment.

So after all the drama, controversy, and concern about R. Kelly’s headlining spot at this year’s 2015 FPSF, the uncertainty remains: was he the right choice? If the question truly circulates around the performance, the music, and the crowd’s enjoyment (this is a concert we are assessing after all), the answer would be a resounding yes. (SELENA DIERINGER)
After sitting through R. Kelly last night, my opinion on the dude — and his super-outdated music — hasn’t changed. In fact, it probably took me further down the “Kells sucks” rabbit hole. I just don’t like the dude.

But, to be fair, it seems like I may be in the minority on that. A huge crowd had already gathered well before Kelly’s 9:50 p.m. start time, and most of them appeared to be actual fans rather than protesters or gawkers, which is far from what was expected. Given his controversial booking, I would have expected more kickback from the general public, but nope. The most that happened in the minutes leading up to Kelly’s show was a chant of “Pee on me,” which, while slightly humorous, is still grounded in what were some serious child-rape allegations.

And once he hit the stage, busting out with songs like “Ignition (Remix),” of course, it was really obvious that I was one of the few in the crowd that was watching with utter disdain. The masses who had gathered to watch Kelly bust out some really old (and honestly not that brilliant) songs — including the poor chick by the metal gate who, arms raised, was pulled into Kelly’s crotch at one point, while he gyrated and vibrato-ed wildly — went nuts. But no matter how many times Kelly tried to sell us some sex — pretty much every moment he was on stage — nothing jived with me. Sorry, but even after watching him, I just cannot get into Kelly’s schtick. He needs to stop rubbing on people.
Look, was “Bump N’ Grind” a good song? Sure. And to be fair, Kelly performed it, and “My Story,” and even “Fiesta” reasonably well Saturday. But the fact that he’s spent decades handing out what is presumably hush money over those child-assault allegations, and defending that infamous video in court, negates any validity he may have had for me. Ultimately, Kelly can be a good performer — even one who contributed a lot to his musical genre, which he admittedly did — and still be incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

Where in the hell were all the rest of the protesters? Maybe (unlike me) they just decided to skip out, rather than give that hot mess of hip-hopera more attention than it deserved. Or perhaps I’m just one of the few who thinks that no matter how much you think Trapped in the Closet is a work of art, is still cannot trump what Kells’ alleged victims will have to deal with the rest of their lives.

And honestly, even if I remove all of my preconceived ideas about who Kelly is as a person, I still can’t quite jump on that bandwagon. At the end of the day, I just don’t find 17-minute songs about being trapped in a closet to be all that enamoring. I’d rather listen to Chance the Rapper, who played a brilliant albeit odd set only a few hours before. He’s actually interesting, and probably much less likely to elicit chants about pee. It’s a win-win for everybody. (ANGELICA LEICHT)

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Selena Dieringer
Contact: Selena Dieringer
Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht