Columbus musicians and fans balk at R. Kelly as festival headliner

Ohio having the discussion Chicago never did at Pitchfork 2013

July 23, 2014

*** UPDATED JULY 28: WCBE WITHDRAWS AS FESTIVAL SPONSOR

In response to R. Kelly headlining the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus on Labor Day weekend, Ohio’s musical community is having the spirited public debate about separating the art from the artist that Chicago never had when the controversial R&B superstar topped the bill at the Pitchfork festival in 2013.

Andy Downing, a reporter at ColumbusAlive.com and a former music contributor to The Chicago Tribune, first raised questions about the young festival’s decision to give Kelly its top slot in a post that ran on June 25. Wrote Downing:

Organizers downplayed the inclusion of Kelly, born Robert Kelly in Chicago 47 years ago, who was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, and whose history of sexual predation on underage girls was chronicled at length in a Village Voice discussion between music journalists Jim DeRogatis and Jessica Hopper that went viral late in 2013.

“I don’t even think [Kelly’s inclusion] was a debate. We don’t have a national R&B act, and we wanted to fill that void, and he’s one of the best-selling artists of all time. Why wouldn’t we?” said FMMF cofounder Bret Adams. “He’s good national press for us and Columbus. He’s a nationally known name. He was not convicted of anything. He was acquitted. If we wanted to limit our artists to people who never had brushes with the law or were not good people, then you can eliminate quite a few across the board. We’re running a festival to help brand the city of Columbus. We’re not the morality police.”

In a longer follow-up on June 30 that referenced this blog’s series of “Kelly Conversations” last summer, Downing chronicled the beginnings of a backlash to the booking by Columbus musicians, and he quoted some of the hundreds of posts debating the issue appearing on forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. In the weeks since, several bands have pulled out of the festival in protest, and others have begun organizing a competing FemmeFest in response. In a post on its Web site on July 22, Columbus folk-rockers Saintseneca wrote:

We were disappointed that the artist selected to headline the festival was R. Kelly. We feel his selection as a performer ignores his very serious allegations of sexual violence and assault. We feel it is an affront to all survivors, who are already often overlooked and forgotten in our society. As a result, we’ve decided to withdraw from the festival.

That followed an earlier protest of the booking by the electronic duo Damn the Witch Siren. Those musicians met with festival organizers to discuss the issue, but ultimately pulled out of the festival as well.

“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,” musician Nathan Photos wrote on the band’s Facebook page. “[But] after about an hour’s deliberation, they were unwilling to budge on the issue, and they were also unable to make us feel differently about things.”

At least Columbus promoters have been willing to discuss the booking. In stark contrast, Pitchfork corporate chief Ryan Schreiber and festival booker Mike Reed have yet to respond to requests for comment on their booking last July, though Reed did tell this reporter at last year’s festival that it was “hypocritical” for this blog to criticize the booking when WBEZ was a sponsor of the festival.

Columbus public radio station WCBE 90.5-FM has found itself in a similar position this summer. It signed on as a sponsor of Fashion Meets Music before Kelly was announced as a headliner.

“We’re still deciding precisely what we’ll do—at the very least, we’ll put together a panel discussion to focus not only on the R. Kelly/Festival issue but the underlying societal sexism, racism, and rape attitudes which surround our listeners’ concerns,” WCBE general manager and program director Dan Mushalko wrote this blog via email.

“I think the incident has opened up a window into these much larger societal issues and—this is where I’m very proud of WCBE listeners—Columbus is not afraid to look inside to try to find some answers. We’ll record the discussion and edit it down to a one-hour special we’ll broadcast sometime afterward.

“But this is a much bigger issue than a panel discussion/on-air special can give justice to,” Mushalko added. “That’s what I’m wrestling with: What more can we do? How can we leverage the controversy and our special to make a true, lasting difference in the community? I simply haven’t figured that out yet, but there’s a wonderful thread on our Facebook page, and I’m hoping that the combination of comments and insights there will end up providing the epiphany to create a greater positive out of such a horrific negative.”

“I’m darn proud of our city for this. We see an issue, and bring it to the fore. To borrow a phrase from the Columbus Foundation, this is ‘the spirit of Columbus!’”

Again, this attitude is a striking contrast to some media outlets in Chicago, which continue to snicker at last year’s controversy. For her efforts to discuss the issue in The Village Voice via an interview that has so far generated 4.5 million page views, Hopper found herself caricatured on last week’s Pitchfork cover of The Chicago Reader, seemingly infatuated with yours truly as I sit waving a sword beside “a box of old R. Kelly crap.”

The ultimate validation for raising these issues, however, may be the impact on sales of Kelly’s concert tickets. The chart below, current as of last night, shows the unsold tickets to his Columbus performance in blue, while promoters have shut off even trying to sell seats in the third tier of the Nationwide Arena.

*** UPDATED: Andy Downing reports that WCBE has withdrawn as a festival sponsor. Says general manager Mushalko: “It may be too late for this year, but I think it is important for them for the next festival to really understand the reasoning behind [our decision].”

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast Sound Opinions and Jim + Carmel’s TV + Dinner.