What really happened when Erykah Badu ‘put up a prayer’ to R. Kelly

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Erykah Badu played Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on Saturday. | Wikimedia Commons

The Grammy-winning neo soul icon could have played the role of “healer” at her Chicago show, instead she opened a wound with her remarks on R. Kelly.

When Erykah Badu took to the stage at Chicago’s historic Aragon Ballroom on Saturday night, the mood of the sold-out crowd gathered in defiance of the blizzard-like conditions outside was euphoric.

After Badu’s band had spent some 20 minutes warming up the audience, everyone was primed for the R&B star to deliver. The first several songs — beginning with “Hello” before segueing into “Out My Mind, Just In Time” and then “On & On” off her 22-year-old debut album Baduizm — were sublime and hypnotizing. The mood was set and that mood was euphoric.

Shortly after that, the mood shifted when Badu brought up Chicago native R. Kelly, who just got dropped from his label in response to the myriad sexual misconduct allegations resurfaced in Lifetime’s new docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, to a loud chorus of boos.

In her remarks, which hit Twitter Saturday night before a video surfaced on TMZ sometime on Sunday, Badu commented that she was “putting up a prayer” to her friend and former collaborator and that she “hopes he sees the light of day” if the allegations he is facing are true. She went on to ask whether R. Kelly’s survivors should be similarly “crucified” if they, too, become perpetrators of misconduct.

The reaction to the comments, as is evident from the video footage, was swift. Boos, whistles and shouts of “No!” followed. A small number of ticketholders appeared to have wandered toward the exits.

I was one of the fans who left the show early. While I stuck around for about another hour of Badu’s impressively lengthy two-and-a-half-hour set, it felt to me that the positive energy from the start of the concert never returned.

It was hard, too — as a survivor of sexual violence myself —  not to feel dismissed by the singer-songwriter’s remarks on Kelly, making Badu’s once-empowering anthems like “Appletree” and “Otherside of the Game” feel like a kiss-off to those audience members who’d been booing her just minutes before.

Many fans’ enjoyment of the night was not derailed by the R. Kelly remarks — a couple standing next to me slow danced joyously through much of the night and there are just as many, if not more, positive comments about the concert from those who were there in person on Twitter as there are negative ones. Still, the show felt like a missed opportunity to bring healing to a Chicago crowd very much in need of it.

The show came just one day after former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to just over six years in prison for fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014 — a sentence described as a “slap in the face” my community organizers here.

“What about the shutdown?!” one fan behind me screamed repeatedly during Badu’s R. Kelly aside. Indeed, the federal shutdown is hurdling toward the one-month mark forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers — about 40,000 of them based in the Chicago area — to go without paychecks while the Trump administration presses Congress to fund a border wall.

It perhaps wasn’t surprising that Badu brought up her friend on Saturday night. Badu was identified earlier this month by the Lifetime docuseries’ creator, dream hampton, as one of the many industry artists — along with JAY-Z,  Mary J, Blige and Dave Chappelle — who refused to participate in the project, though some — like Gaga, Chance the Rapper and Celine Dion — have taken steps to publicly distance themselves from Kelly since then.

Badu had also just posted an Instagram caption — suggesting that she can “C on both sides” in the “court of public opinion” — that fans believed was addressing the R. Kelly controversy the day before the Chicago show. Given the headlines questioning that post’s intended meaning, she may have planned to clarify her remarks while in Kelly’s hometown.

Some fans on Twitter have also argued that Badu’s remarks in Chicago are being taken out of context to begin with, suggesting that they don’t equate to a defense of the embattled R&B star at all.

Still others are pointing out on social media that Badu has a growing history of problematic statements, including a Vulture interview last January where she saw “something good” in the “wonderful painter” Adolf Hitler. In the same piece, she also defended comedy legend Bill Cosby, who’s since been convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison time. Badu has also said in the past that girls should wear longer skirts in school so that they are less of a distraction to their male teachers.

In a Sunday evening tweet, Badu appeared to be attempting to clarify her remarks, writing that she “want(s) healing for you and anyone you have hurt as a result of you being hurt. … That’s all I’ve ever said. Anything else has been fabricated or taken out of context.” On Sunday, she also retweeted a tweet urging fans to “stop cancelling people because the angry mob on twitter says to do so” and another stating that Badu wasn’t “taking his [Kelly’s] side” or “condoning his behavior.”

Regardless of what Badu intended, the message of “unconditional love” was lost on many fans and survivors in attendance in Chicago on Saturday night, as the spirit of the remarks seemed to downplay the trauma of the many women of color who have bravely come forward to tell their stories in Surviving R. Kelly. It was a stormy night indeed.

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