Last year’s hometown R. Kelly set at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago last year was a singular treat, jumping generously through highlights from 38 songs before an ending singalong of “I Believe I Can Fly,” complete with balloon doves. Chicago music journalist Jessica Hopper’s passionately thorough Village Voice piece late in 2013 revisiting former Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim Derogatis’ reporting on Kelly’s alleged sexual crimes against teenage women, meanwhile, was as sobering as the R&B singer’s onstage act had been freeing. This year, over the weekend at Chicago’s Lollapalooza, rising local talent Chance the Rapper brought Kelly out on stage with him, a moment that deftly illustrates the sad complexity of how to deal with a gifted entertainer whom Derogatis calls “a monster.”
Chance tweeted ahead of Sunday night’s set that it would be “for Chicago,” and along with Kelly he brought out homegrown rapper Vic Mensa. Chance’s set included his just-released version of the theme from PBS’ Arthur, and Kelly sang his own “The World’s Greatest,” “Bump N’ Grind,” and “Ignition (Remix).” Watch a clip below via Stereogum.
The timing of Kelly’s appearance was notable. Late last month, he and organizers of Ohio’s Fashion Meets Festival issued a statement saying they had reached “mutual decision” to cancel Kelly’s scheduled headlining set at the Labor Day weekend event. The move came after a local folk-rock group withdrew from the bill and a local radio station dropped its sponsorship of the fest, both citing Kelly’s past run-ins with the law, including his 2008 acquittal on child-pornography charges.
From the video footage, it looks like the Lolla audience was, as Vulture puts it, “pretty into” Kelly’s performance. And his highly questionable past — which he didn’t exactly put to rest when he responded to Hopper’s Village Voice work by comparing himself (via Radio.com) to a football player who can’t take his eye off the end zone — had already been documented by the time, say, Will Oldham covered “The World’s Greatest,” or the Mountain Goats‘ John Darnielle went on the ILM discussion board to list “100 Reasons Why ‘Ignition – Remix’ Is So Damned Great.” Then there’s the inherently complicated relationship between a musician’s personal transgressions — even ones that aren’t merely alleged — and the music itself.
Chance, who spoke out against Chicago gun violence in a recent Arsenio Hall Show appearance, isn’t someone that would be expected to respond carelessly to statements such as this one from Derogatis in Hopper’s Voice article: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
Some criticized Chance’s choice of guest performer. “Sorry Chance this isn’t working for anyone,” tweeted a Sun-Times digital editor. Hopper, noting she’d been asked by people in the know if she was covering the rapper’s set, tweeted, “Yeah, think I covered R Kelly pretty succinctly at this point–but good lookin’ out, everyone.”
How to Dress Well‘s Tom Krell, who used to cover Kelly’s “I Wish” in concert, recently gave one of the more even-handed assessments I’ve heard on all this. “I’m not willing to perform that song live anymore, because I just don’t want to have that song attributed to me now, anymore,” Krell told me for SPIN.
One the one hand: “I think that song transcends him,” Krell said. “That’s why I made use of it in the way I had. You know, Joanna Newsom sings somewhere, ‘It’s not my tune, but it’s mine to use.’ I feel like that about songs, too. It’s sort of incidental that Robert sang that song and not someone else.”
On the other: “It’s really tough,” the “What Is This Heart?” singer continued. “I thought those articles were really inspiring because it’s like, hey, we made a mistake in our reaction to this, and we’re actually perpetuating a second kind of harm in not being aware of the mistake we made. So we need to snap out of it and wake up a little bit.”
Caught between music that brings some people joy and a music-maker credibly accused of bringing others intense misery, the competing examples of Chance at Lollapalooza and the Ohio festival cancellation suggest the waking-up process will be complicated — and isn’t over yet.