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.”
Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography trial in 2008 even though a video had surfaced of him having sex with an allegedly underage girl. (Kelly’s lawyers convinced the jury that the identity of the girl in the tape hadn’t been conclusively established.) Still, accusations continue to surface. Dozens of women have sued Kelly for sexual abuse, many of them claiming they were underage at the time. And although the allegations were first made public by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis in 2000, R. Kelly remains a marquee performer, releasing bestselling albums, selling out concerts, and headlining events like the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival.
The tide of public opinion may be turning against the singer, however. Last July, the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio dropped R. Kelly from the lineup after protests from other bands, festival vendors, and angry Ohioans. After the Free Press Summer Fest lineup was announced last week, outrage spread across social media. (Sample comments on Facebook: “I just found out that he was on the line up, and was completely at a loss for words”; “He should be in jail.”)
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.