Sexual predator image plagues R Kelly

WASHINGTON: It’s been seven years since R&B star R Kelly stood in a Chicago courtroom and repeatedly whispered, “Thank you, Jesus”, after a jury acquitted him of 14 counts of child pornography.

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But like fellow embattled entertainer Bill Cosby – who has never been charged for his alleged offences – the 48-year-old Kelly has found that, in the social media era, the stench of sex crime accusations is increasingly hard to wash away, even after a “not guilty” verdict on charges that Kelly videotaped himself having sex with an underage girl.

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The latest evidence of that can be found in the sudden pushback from activists in Houston, where Kelly is booked to headline the Free Press Summer Fest (FPSF) in June, joining artists such as Skrillex, Weezer and the Decemberists on the bill.

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The call for Kelly to be dropped from the festival is being led by the nonprofit Girls Rock Camp Houston, which created a “Cancel R Kelly at FPSF 2015” Facebook page and delivered a letter to festival organisers this week citing the old allegations against Kelly and asking that his appearance be cancelled.

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A publicist for Kelly did not respond to requests for comment. The singer, found not guilty in 2008, has always denied wrongdoing.

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“I’ve done a lot of wrong things in my life, but I’m not a criminal,” he said in 2003. “I’m not a monster.”

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But successfully removing him from a concert lineup is not without precedent.

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In August, the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio, dumped Kelly after several bands dropped out and a radio station withdrew its sponsorship. Saintseneca, one of the bands that declined to participate, organised an alternative concert benefiting victims of sexual assault, according to a statement on their website.

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“We feel his selection as a performer ignores his very serious allegations of sexual violence and assault,” the statement said. “We feel it is an affront to all survivors, who are already often overlooked and forgotten in our society.”

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Kelly headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in 2013, which drew strident protest from journalist Jim DeRogatis, who was later featured in a damning Village Voice Q&A discussing his 15-year effort to unearth the history of Kelly’s alleged sexual predations against women of colour.

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The gritty, detailed exchange went viral and forced many music fans to seriously confront the accusations made in court against Kelly for the first time. DeRogatis also made the case that music festival organisers – who have resisted being labelled morality police – bear greater responsibility for vetting the acts they book.

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“The thing that’s interesting to me is that Pitchfork is a journalistic and critical organ,” DeRogatis told interviewer Jessica Hopper. “They do journalism and they do criticism. And then when they are making money to present an act – that’s a cosign, that’s an endorsement. That’s not just writing about and covering it. They very much wanted R Kelly as their cornerstone artist for the festival. I think it’s fair game to say: ‘Why, Pitchfork?’”

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Houston activists appear even more emboldened than critics in years past. They’ve absorbed DeRogatis’s work and they say they’ve learned from last year’s successful campaign to drop Kelly in Columbus. After the FPSF lineup was announced last week, a backlash quickly gained momentum on social media and was picked up by Reddit users.

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“We’re frustrated because this is a long, persistent pattern of predatory behaviour,” local activist Regina Agu alleged. “We feel like he has profited by playing up the persona of being someone who engages in predatory behaviour or behaviour that targets young girls.”

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“Plus,” she said, “we’re not the first group of people in the country to try to have him removed from a music festival, so we know what can happen.”

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Agu was among a handful of protesters who met festival organisers in Houston on Monday. Each side praised the co-operative tone of the meeting; but several days later, Kelly’s critics told the Washington Post they were still anxiously awaiting to find out if the controversial singer would be booted off the festival lineup.

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Contacted by e-mail on Wednesday and asked for an update on Kelly’s fate, FPSF founder Omar Afra released the following statement: “Meetings and discussions with (Girls Rock Camp Houston) have so far been very good and we are happy to have an open door for discussions though we have made no decisions on changes to the FPSF bill.

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“We have always been and will continue to be open to dialogue with our community. GRCH is a great organisation and we are glad to continue to support them as we have done for the last decade. We will be speaking and meeting with them regularly.”

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Late on Wednesday night, the Free Radicals – a “dance band with a commitment to peace and justice” – took to Facebook to announce they had “decided to stand with Girls Rock Camp Houston”.

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The Free Radicals, regulars at the Houston festival, declared: “We won’t play FPSF2015 (or offer to play since we usually kinda sneak in at the last minute) unless the Girls Rock Camp Houston’s demands about R Kelly are met.”

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Washington Post