FMMF parts ways with R. Kelly in wake of community backlash

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Following weeks of community uproar, organizers of the Fashion Meets Music Festival have parted ways with controversial R&B singer R. Kelly, who was slated to headline the inaugural event over Labor Day weekend.

A joint statement released Tuesday evening by FMMF organizers and R. Kelly's camp read, in part, "Fashion Meets Music Festival and headlining artist R. Kelly have come to the mutual decision to cancel Kelly's upcoming performance at the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival."

Kelly's publicist also released the following statement: "R. Kelly is sorry to disappoint his fans, but looks forward to seeing them in the near future during one of his upcoming tours."

Word of the decision comes a week after local folk-rock collective Saintseneca announced it was withdrawing from FMMF, and less than a day after local radio station WCBE 90.5 FM ended its sponsorship of the event. Both cited Kelly's troubled legal history, which includes a 2008 trial where the singer was acquitted on charges of making child pornography, in their respective announcements.

"We feel his selection as a performer ignores his very serious allegations of sexual violence and assault," Saintseneca wrote in a statement posted to its official site on July 22. "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."

According to FMMF communications director Melissa Dickson, organizers came to a final decision to part ways with Kelly on Friday, July 25, following nearly a month of internal conversation that began when local electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren raised preliminary concerns about the singer's headliner selection - concerns that eventually led the band to remove itself from the bill.

"[Starting] on June 25 there was a lot of back and forth on the criticism we did receive, but then also looking at [Kelly] as an artist," she said. "Then truly the last few weeks … the festival has taken a lot of heat, and we really just wanted to listen to Columbus and really take a stance and move forward."

The festival has no plans to replace Kelly on the bill, which is now headlined by the likes of O.A.R., Michelle Williams and Local Natives. Furthermore, Dickson declined to comment on the possibility either Damn the Witch Siren or Saintseneca could be invited back to FMMF, saying only "our initial response is to look at the sponsors and musicians and artists and vendors who aligned with us."

Response to the news from those in the local music community has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We've just gotten the news that R. Kelly is no longer part of the Fashion Meets Music Festival," wrote Nathan Photos of Damn the Witch Siren in an email. "We don't know all the details of this turn of events or what we'll be doing next, but we do know that we've never been so proud to be part of the Columbus community. We live in an incredible, intelligent, compassionate city, and we hope this sets an example and starts a dialogue throughout the entire country."

WCBE general manager Dan Mushalko pointed to this ongoing dialogue in a July 27 interview, saying, "I really think it's important to engage."

"What I'm also hoping comes out of this is people realize they don't have to be quiet," he continued. "They can voice how they feel. That, to me, is the measure of a human, really. Are you willing to stand up for what you believe is right? Or are you going to go back in the shadows and let others decide your fate?"

Raeghan Buchanan of The Girls!, one of founders of FeMMeFest, an alternative festival launched in response to the R. Kelly booking and designed to "connect our female-friendly local scene," celebrated the news ("This is an impressive victory, especially for the local musicians and others in our scene who fought to have their voices heard in a meaningful way," she wrote in a statement), but also reiterated the group's desire to move forward as planned.

"Our genesis may have come out of negativity," she wrote, "but we have already begun the path to positive action, and we see no reason to stop now."