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

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.


When artists cry out for help, how do we justify our silence?

I recently watched the Oscar-nominated Amy Winehouse documentary. Having gone through college at the height of both Winehouse’s popularity and notoriety, the film was uncomfortable to watch.

Of course, in retrospect, the late-night monologues that mocked the incredible singer’s substance abuse issues and eating disorders feel incredibly tone-deaf and abusive in their own right. Shouldn’t we have known better? Well, we didn’t. But at that time, Winehouse was everyone’s favorite go-to punchline and mockery — track marks were just as important as the cat eye for any complete Amy Winehouse Halloween costume.

Even after Winehouse died in 2011, we didn’t take responsibility for how we — as a culture happily gobbling up every piece of gossipy tabloid trash tossed into our mouths — all but certainly contributed to this young woman’s demise at the age of just 27. And, in the curious case of Kanye West, we arguably are doing it again.

Look, I’m not going to defend Kanye West’s misogyny. Nor his defense of a certain high-profile alleged rapist. But West’s outbursts have become so extreme and so commonplace so as to clearly suggest there’s more to the story than just some publicity-seeking rich rapper. But instead, we happily share the latest hot take on the latest Kanye incident and shake our heads: “Can you believe this guy? Who the f*** does he think he is?!”

We’re not asking the questions we should be of one of the music industry’s most innovating rappers of all time. Questions like, “Is he OK? Is he getting the help he might need? Is he surrounded by people who will see to it he gets that help, should he need it, before it’s too late?”

As Amy made painfully clear, money doesn’t buy happiness. And it doesn’t buy health. And just because an artist seems to have every tool in their box to overcome whatever challenge they are facing, not everyone is so lucky.

And not everyone is brave or savvy enough to do what they need to do to face their demons. In a interview taped last year for ABC’s Nightline show, Australian pop music genius Sia sat down to explain why she has taken the unusual approach to not exposing her face in interviews, live performances or videos.

In the interview, she explains that, in 2010, she reached a breaking point where she was struggling with her budding status as a celebrity and touring musician, and how she turned to substance abuse to cope. Not exposing her face has made it possible for her to go about her life in a way that works for her.

I couldn’t help but think back to April of that year, when I was lucky enough to interview Sia over the phone for EDGE Media, an LGBT-focused news website, amid what appears will be her final proper concert tour.

Over the phone from the back of her tour bus, Sia described how she’s “scared of people” and becoming “a bit messy, shaky and anxious.” The response struck me as a bit strange and I delved further, but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel guilty that I didn’t feel more concerned for her wellbeing. I felt detached from it, an observer, even as she articulated her feelings of unhappiness:

“When I’m doing jazz hands for these thousands of people I don’t know but for some reason have become important to me, I don’t have any energy left over for my friends or family. I used to be entertaining in my private life, the class clown and the heart of the party. I was silly and would bring everyone costumes to have fun and play board games. But I have no energy for that anymore. I’m exhausted. And that’s not really OK with me. I’ve decided that I really want to give the people I love and am close to more of my energy while working out what’s best for me in the long term.”

Sia was able to figure out a way to go about her career in a way that was healthy for her.

But people like me didn’t help her do that. People like me probably aren’t concerned for ‘Ye either, just like they weren’t for Amy. Maybe we should be.

Playing favorites, or resisting “best of”: 2010 edition

Every December, a personal dilemma arrives: The “best of 2010” music list. To make one or not? Such lists often feel stifling, sometimes bullying, and I don’t particularly feel justified in claiming the decidedly dubious title of “tastemaker.” Last year, I chose to, instead, create a mix honoring some of my favorite musical discoveries of 2009 and did not make my personal list public. This year, instead, I created a series of 8tracks mixes to accompany a brief essay here on the blog (while I still reserve the right to devote a blog to my favorite discoveries of ’10, too!) While this still feels weirdly preachy, I welcome you to indulge my selections for what they’re worth (not much!) and possibly even discover something you may have never heard before — the best part of being a music junkie, in my book.

My personal favorite albums of 2010:

1. Titus Andronicus – The Monitorlisten to the top 10
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
3. Twin Shadow – Forget
4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
5. Jonsi – Go
6. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
7. Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
8. Owen Pallett – Heartland
9. Glasser – Ring
10. Marnie Stern – s/t
11. Local Natives – Gorilla Manorlisten to #11-21
12. Lower Dens – Twin-Hand Movement
13. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
14. Robyn – Body Talk
15. Wild Nothing – Gemini
16. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
17. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
18. The National – High Violet
19. Menomena – Mines
20. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
21. Dessa – A Badly Broken Code
22. Sharon Van Etten – Epiclisten to the rest
23. Matthew Dear – Black City
24. Beach Fossils – s/t
25. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
26. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
27. No Age – Everything In Between
28. Foals – Total Life Forever
29. S. Carey – All We Grow
**Girls – Broken Dreams Club
**Active Child – Curtis Lane
**Generationals – Trust

Honorable mentions: Warpaint – The Fool, PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station, Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Eternal Summers – Silver

2010 was a great year for music, and as such, I must add one important caveat to this list: I was fortunate enough to see several of the acts listed below live in concert and those experiences surely colored my enjoyment of their recorded material ever since. LCD Soundsystem and Titus Andronicus at Pitchfork, Twin Shadow at Schubas, Jonsi at the Vic, Local Natives at the Metro and Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall were all fan-freaking-tastic (if not brilliant, in the case of some) live shows that really spoke truth to the power of each of their albums released this year. On the flip side, I didn’t so much jive with either Sleigh Bells’ or Best Coast’s sets at Pitchfork this summer, and it soured me on their albums. I have a feeling that, were my economic situation different, had I seen a few of the other acts on this list in concert – namely Janelle Monae, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens – they likely would have been higher, but such is life.

What I really loved about albums like Titus, Jonsi and LCD’s releases were that they were able to take huge, grandiose things — in the case of Titus and LCD, some pretty epic songs; with Titus, a nerdy historical concept; with Jonsi, some pretty epic instrumentation — and made it work. They made it near-perfection, in my mind. Other albums – like Joanna’s and Sufjan’s – also had lofty ambitions and have some really glimmering moments, but on the whole, I think both suffered from their lack of editing.

The opposite extreme of the spectrum: Somewhat simple, often brief music, also really stood out to me this year. The Lower Dens’ debut album, as well as Carey and Van Etten’s, provided us with a much-needed break from the grandiose. Their voices are endearingly raw at times and it all adds up to so much more than the sum of each song’s parts.

All of these albums helped me through the difficult times this year and if you haven’t heard any of the above artists before, I’d highly recommend you check out the mixes and if you like what you hear, head out and buy their album, see their show the next time they’re in town and tell your friends about what you’re listening to. I highly doubt you’ll regret it.

Table scraps.. SSION’s American Dream

When I was preparing to interview Cody Critcheloe, brainchild of the band SSION and the film BOY, I didn’t exactly know what to expect from the unpredictable, sex-charged performer.

That’s actually a complete lie. I went into my phone interview with Critcheloe, meant to preview his band’s New Year’s Eve appearance at Berlin Nightclub, feeling prepared for pretty much anything. I’d seen all the videos, read other reviews and caught up on the performer’s blog and Twitter – an increasingly interesting source for question ideas with public figure-types.

So, when I called Critcheloe at 11 a.m. just a few days after Christmas, I launched confidently into asking the performer about his stage show, working with Peaches, touring with Gossip and being a “lesbian at heart” – clearly we had a nice little bond going, at least as good of one you could expect from a half-hour-long interview.

Eventually, I’d asked Critcheloe what he made of the (then recent) controversy another black-eyeliner-wearer, one Adam Lambert, had encountered – a topic I’m currently touching on in a longer piece that should be out next week. While some of the conversation that followed made it to the final story, the bulk of it did not.

Here’s what went down somewhere between his passing me off to his “girlfriend,” whom I talked to for a few minutes, and the somewhat-fragmented stream of consciousness brought into action by my question. Somewhere along the line we went from American Idol to Critcheloe’s own American Dream.

Cody Critcheloe: It seems like whenever there are extravagant gay male pop stars – someone like Boy George – it’s shocking to people, and they say, “He’s such a fag.” And no one picked up on it! Even my dad loved Boy George growing up … But I think it’s different for Adam Lambert because he chose the route of American Idol as his path. You have a whole different audience looking at you and critiquing you. He set himself up for being abused. It’d be different if he started out in shitty nightclubs and worked his way up. I think people would say that’s part of his thing if that had happened. It’s sad.

Me: How does your family feel about what you do?

Critcheloe: They’re not really aware, and I think they’re confused by it. I don’t go home and talk about it either. First of all, they’re not interested, second of all, why explain it? They know I make music and make art, but I’m not sure they know how it all comes together. Having people like [Lady] Gaga or Adam Lambert in the public eye does give them an idea of what I’m doing, even if it’s a really mundane, pathetic version of it.

Me: Do you have a day job that you balance with the band?

Critcheloe: I’ve been really lucky in some ways because I haven’t had to work a day job since May, so that’s been incredible. But at the same time, that also means I have to work really hard and am always constantly a bit nervous this could stop at any point … But I’m a really fucking shitty waiter. I’m shitty at everything but singing, it just comes to me. The goal is to work comfortable and do the things you want to do. That’s the biggest perk that comes with being famous, with more exposure comes the ability to do the things you love and be paid to do it.

Me: It’s refreshing that you’re more upfront about that than most musicians are.

Critcheloe: Well, I come from a middle-class family and I don’t give a shit that I’m totally 100 percent American. I want nice things and I want to work. I’m only happy when I’m working. I want to be creative and work on interesting projects. The only people who diss the American Dream are the people who have enough money to diss it. I don’t give a shit. I want a nice car and nice things.

Enjoy SSION’s video for Bullshit below.

Previous scraps: A trip to the zoo with Kevin Chamberlin | Dragonette and the conundrum of cool

Give a listen to… 10 in ’10

Though originally tempted to join the club of “best-music-of-2009” blog writers, I decided, given the fact this post is arriving already two weeks into ’10, to instead take the opportunity to give a shout-out to some of my favorite artist discoveries of the year. These are musicians who have graced many-a mix CD of mine and gotten me through a number of stressful deadline-meeting sessions. Here are 10(ish) of my new-ish-found favorites to given a listen to in ’10.

If you like what you hear of these musicians, Google them, go to their show, buy their tunes. And tell them I sent you.

I had to start this list with an artist who was really more of a re-discovery in 2009 than a newfound treasure. I must admit that when I first heard Mirah’s tunes several years back, I wasn’t overly moved by the folksy-woodsy queer jams. But (a)spera, Mirah’s newly-released album from this past year, is magnificent and has been greatly overlooked by many of the blogosphere’s lists-that-be. The album combines deeply personal lyrics with swelling string orchestrations and deserves to be held in the same – if not higher – company as some of the other, newer ladies-of-weird who shone this past year.

Local Natives
These California boys are a very recent find, as I was tipped off by the Guardian’s profile last month. This track – off the yet-to-be-released Gorilla Manor – is the first track of theirs I heard. I was immediately struck by the wintry piece of harmonious heaven, and later impressed by their use of unusual, African-esque percussive rhythms to break up their beautiful vocal glissandos. Their sound is slightly reminiscent of Justin Vernon on uppers. On vacation in LA. In fast-forward. Or Fleet Foxes, but actually good.

Golden Silvers
One of the biggest joys of no longer being unemployed – probably my biggest accomplishment of the past year – was the ability to buy music again, and my vinyl collection has since swelled. One of the first albums I picked up with my bits of discretionary income was True Romance from Golden Silvers, a band that belies easy classification. I’d already heard one track – the pleading “Please Venus” – via a blog, but the full record – which is a lovely hue of lavender – took my appreciation for the band to a new level. Their music is flamboyantly poptastic to be certain, but its psychodelic vibe felt surprisingly refreshing on first listen. Despite holding a certain retroness to it, their sound grows more addictive with each listen.

Bombay Bicycle Club
Another Brit pop outfit that rocked my headphones this past year is Bombay Bicycle Club. This track, off their endearingly-titled “I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Off,” is particularly pleasing, and has become a staple of my frequent mixes made for friends. It plays well as a transition song between the opening, upbeat first-third of a mix and the more introspective, slower middle-third, indicative of the band’s successful combination of soul-searching lyrics (like “I’m not whole / I’m not whole / Oh, you waste it all”) with undeniably catchy instrumentation. Other tracks on their debut go into unexpected, more experimental directions, proving this is a band whose next move is never predictable. What is it about Brit boys and their mastery of the pop music machine – and my heart?

Ramona Falls
Ramona Falls, the solo project of Menomena’s Portland-based Brent Knopf, at times feels like a psychiatrist’s exercise. But that’s OK. Intuit, the debut album looking inside the songwriter’s head, is not exactly an optimistic creation, but proved both ambitious and delicious to this listener’s ear. This track is particularly epic with its bleak lyrics –  “My heart wants just to know that it exists / My heart wants just to know” – and slow-building, then quietly-dissipating  guitar and percussion. Other songs bring in haunting piano and plenty of unusual structures. Even if he could be in need of a good pharmacist, Knopf is clearly a musical prodigy, and his debut solo effort is remarkable.

Lightning Dust
Speaking of the structure of a mix CD – this is the portion of the list dedicated to those aforementioned introspective songs that usually compromise the middle section. And the Canadian band Lightning Dust could not fit better anywhere else on this list. I was first clued into the project of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber and Joshua Wells by Carrie Brownstein via NPR’s All Songs Considered, and the hype she lent their music was clearly well-deserved. Their album, Infinite Light, is one of my favorites of this past year. The songs are laden with nostalgia, desire and a quiet sense of optimism shining just under the surface of their sparse musical creations.

My Gold Mask
Naturally, this list would not be complete without at least one local contribution, and My Gold Mask are one of the hottest bands to watch in the Windy City. I first came across this duo after having a few too many vodka-sodas at the Decibelle kickoff party at Berlin last October. Playing after French electro-singer-songwriter Emilie Simon, the couple blasted into their set with an energy – and surprising amount of sound – that could not be ignored. The release party for their A Thousand Voices EP last weekend at the Hideout was sold-out and equally impressive. Her presence is particularly transfixing, similar to an early Karen O.

Given this Montreal band’s previous roots – including former members of the Unicorns and Arcade Fire – it is not surprising that their sound is a feast for the ears, at least if you dig somewhat dark vaudevillian, cabaret pop stylings. Their self-titled debut – out last year – is another that I was surprised did not make more best-of-’09 lists. The album combines bizarre, often grim lyrics with song structures that land all over the map but never, never bore. So get a clue – har – and give this band a listen.

Ellie Goulding
If you haven’t yet jumped on the Ellie Goulding bandwagon, you are, frankly, running out of time before takeoff. Goulding has found herself near the top of most Brit critics’ ones-to-watch lists in recent weeks, and the accolades are well-deserved. Her voice has that incredible quality that hipster remix-creating DJs and pop audiences alike fall in love with. Her EP was fantastic and her other endeavors – including vocals for Starsmith’s beautiful remix of Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” – have only furthered the case for her impending stardom. Her debut album – Lights – is out in March. (And this track features another adorable Brit, Frankmusik, who narrowly missed this list. He’s like Cher’s bi-curious electro-baby.)

Chew Lips
These exciting Kitsune darlings from South London are also remix-friendly and more than ready to boil over with just a bit more time to simmer. Their electronic creations combine somewhat sinister lyrics with sleek production. They represent a lot of styles that are catching on right now, without being too much of any particular musical trend to remain enticingly fresh. This is electro-pop at its finest – keep an eye out for their debut album – Unicorn – out this month.

Cold Cave
I realize this Philly-based project – led by the former hardcore head Wesley Eisold – makes eleven, but I couldn’t bring myself to narrow the list down any further. And technically, Cold Cave’s sound is so derivative-at-times (see: “Love Comes Close,” New Order) that it nearly fits into the category of “re-discovery.” But this stuff – based in synth beats, feedback and distortion – is so solid that I really couldn’t care more that the sound may not be the most original.