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.


Election redux

It’s undeniable that many of the developments from this Tuesday’s election were disappointing to Democrats and progressive folk around the country. But I must admit that I had to pause this time before announcing another (mostly empty) threat to leave the country entirely, now that I – once again – live in one dark blue county surrounded by a sea of red.* That’s right – put the whiskey down, my friend: Contrary to the mainstream media narrative comparing the GOP takeover of the House and theoretical shutting down of political productivity in Washington to a tsunami, I think there are a few positives to take from Tuesday’s election results.

To be sure, the disappointments are there too, and there are many. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, known best as the lone dissenting voice against the Patriot Act, was blown out of the water by his heavily-financed-by-out-of-state-$$$ Republican competitor Ron Johnson in my home state. Vehemently anti-war and a friend to the LGBT and immigrant communities, Feingold was a unique politician who truly voted with both his heart and mind — not always with his party. He will be missed dearly.

In Iowa, out-of-state, anti-gay dollars to the estimated tune of at least $600,000 squelched any hope of three state Supreme Court judges there to retain their jobs, collapsing under the weight of a far-reaching campaign to oust them following their affirmation of same-sex marriage in 2008. Brian Brown, leader of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the anti-gay organizations that bankrolled the campaign against the judges, is touting their successful campaign as “sending a powerful message to any judge who thinks they can impose gay marriage by judicial fiat against the wishes of the people.” NOM spent, all told, $7 million on this and other races in the name of “protecting marriage,” rendering mixed results but solidifying its status as the leading, most well-funded anti-gay group in the country.

Another important, mostly under-the-radar development is the likely death of net neutrality — a principle that blocks Internet service providers and governments from having too much influence on the Internet as we see it or creating tiers of “premium” access at different price points. Out-of-state funding here contributed to every single one of the 95 House Democrats who stood against net neutrality losing their races. Al Franken has called this the “First Amendment issue of our time” and, given Tuesday’s results, that may not turn out to be too broad of a hyperbole.

It was further saddening to see Penn. Congressman Patrick Murphy lose his race to Mike Fitzpatrick. Murphy was one of the leading voices in the House for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and was growing into a strong ally for LGBT people there on any number of issues. The fact that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann earned over 50 percent of the popular vote statewide for the first time in her re-election is also somewhat troubling. Bachmann has consistently described gay people as having “sexual identity disorders” among any number of troubling positions on a number of social and economic issues. She stands a good shot at becoming the GOP’s Conference Chair.

But there is a glimmer of good news for LGBT activists. For the most part, candidates who campaigned on a fringe perspective, embracing anti-gay rhetoric to be used toward our communities and families, lost. And they did so from coast to coast: Senatorial candidates Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Gubernatorial candidates Carl Paladino and Bill Brady in California and Illinois. I repeat: They all lost.. except for South Carolina’s Senator Jim DeMint, who has said that openly gay and sexually active, unmarried straight teachers should be barred from teaching children.

Perhaps now more than ever, public homophobia has become a political liability, unless you live in South Carolina apparently. But that’s not to say that politicians (both parties included here) are going to march, lock in step, toward endorsing equality for LGBT Americans or any other minority group. It seems just as likely that while public disgust with gay people may wane, that bigotry may continue its shift toward open racism against Muslim Americans and immigrant communities. And chances of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or comprehensive immigration reform passing during the lame-duck Senate session appear incredibly slim.

As of earlier this year, a higher percentage of Americans reported having negative feelings toward Muslims than reported opposing same-sex marriage. And while many politicians who utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric during their campaigns lost their elections – including Angle and Paladino who, notably, were also mentioned two paragraphs above – in Oklahoma, a ballot initiative successfully barred judges from “considering Islamic or international law when making a ruling.”

Indeed, bigotry remains alive and well and it would appear that any checks of the growing corporate influence on our politics, culture and lives will continue to be difficult to come by. It’s funny, over the course of this column those glimmers of “good news” have lost some of their sparkle so.. take that for what you will.

I’ll leave you with a song that feels appropriate as a lullaby to progressives everywhere today: Metric’s Emily Haines’ Winning.

*If you don’t already know, I attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, based in Dane County, one of only a handful of counties that did not vote to elect former president Bush to his second term in 2004, which marked my first time voting in a presidential race.

Dear Mike Huckabee…

I must say, it was a puzzling honor to realize my article – “The ’Ick’ Factor: How Gay Sex Plays in the Equality Debate” – hit your radar following the backlash ignited by your comments in your Ariel Levy-penned New Yorker profile. In fact, my sense of flattery left me feeling like you deserved the benefit of the doubt. Maybe all us sinful gay folk were being a tad harsh on you with their “icky” accusation.

I read the New Yorker article, your statement and all the news stories I could get my grubby mitts on with the hopes of better understanding your position toward LGBT equality and why the “ick factor” had manifested itself, but I’m afraid that I can’t quite wrap my queer head around it.

Yes, you’re partially correct: The “ick factor” is a not new term, and it is not yours. But to say that the term has been co-opted and accepted as an “established notion” to the gays is a complete misrepresentation on your part, having nothing to do with the actions of so-called “same-sex marriage advocates and militants.”

In my piece, the “ick factor” became a sort of catch-all phrase under which I spoke with some community leaders and academics, including Dr. Martha Nussbaum, on their perspectives on the concept. For many of the people I spoke with, the “ick factor” was an idea they had never before heard and many well-established LGBT leaders declined to comment. It is not a commonly uttered phrase among gays and lesbians – just a quick perusal of Google search results will find references to shows like Friends and Sex and the City, diet aids and ice-dancing siblings, colon cancer home-screening and bad ’60s pop songs. No other articles from LGBT media, previous to your PR flap, mention the phrase.

That aside, I cannot understand how the fact that the phrase is not new renders your comment justifiable in the first place, particularly when all the words surrounding it spew injustice.

But this is more important than a discussion about etymology or ethics. Or completing the research you feigned doing yourself. This isn’t about attacking you or raising funds – although you, yourself, have attempted to capitalize on the matter by asking for campaign donations at your statement’s end. And this isn’t even really about the New Yorker statement itself – you yourself have said far worse things previously.

This is about the livelihood of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans – including those you banned from adopting children in Arkansas – and the damage you willfully inflict on our lives with practically every damning word you utter through your bigoted laughter.

This is about your deliberate arrogance to deny full equality for an entire class of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Though we might “ick” you out, Mr. Huckabee, we are here to stay. To consistently condemn us while at the same time calling yourself a Christian is, in my mind, deplorable,  indefensible and hypocritical for a self-described man of faith.

If you’re going to pretend to know our community and the phrases we use, at least do your homework first, Mike.

–Joe Erbentraut

Weddings: How very, very queer

Wow, marriage.

Eee, gay marriage.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Iowa just legalized it, Friday, becoming the third state to do so. And there’s a tiny chance that Vermont might soon follow (though the state’s House vote fell just four votes short of the majority approval needed to squelch the governor’s intended “veto” – but we’ll just have to wait and see on that one..). As expected, the social conservatives are outraged – perhaps with even more fervor than usual given that Iowa is far from a hotbed of liberal thought.

You can almost write your own thought bubbles for these non-fans of not-straight-people marriage: Suddenly, it seems, perhaps it’s not so trendy to be outwardly anti-gay. It feels, at the risk of sounding naively optimistic, that positive momentum might finally be with As more and more state governments begin to take seriously their duty of protecting the rights of minorities (i.e. not putting issues related to minority rights up to majority vote), their greatest fears might just come true: Among them, the defeat of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which President Obama has promised to repeal) and further spreading of state-approved queer unions. A right-wing nightmare, no?

But, as much as I want to throw my hands up in the air and dance wildly to RuPaul remixes, I still can’t help but feel that the Iowan decision – in the grand scheme of things, even if it does encourage similar action in other states – smells of too little, too late. For this is exactly the case for some people. Take, for example, Shirley Tan, a woman who has been in a committed lesbian relationship, mothering twin 12-year-old sons, for the past 23 years, who is on the verge of deportation from California’s Bay Area to the Philippines. If she and partner Jay Mercado were allowed to marry, it would be a non-issue. Instead, Tan (and her family) must argue her right to remain stateside, receiving a two-week emergency stay last week with the help of politicos. Learn more about the story below (and from this San Jose Mercury News article):

In light of the continued inequity in the other 47 U.S. states, activists are rightfully continuing to organize, rally and raise a general stink… But I have to question some of the tactics: Here in Chicago, the homosexual drinking establishment Cocktail has come under some fire for banning bachelorette parties from taking place on its premises. Hung outside of Cocktail is a sign that explains the ban, in addition to offering a statement:

Until same-sex marriage is legal everywhere and same-sex couples are allowed the rights as every heterosexual couple worldwide, we simply do not think it’s fair or just for a female bride-to-be to celebrate her upcoming nuptials here at Cocktail. We are entitled to an opinion, this is ours.

And other bars have followed suit. I have to wonder: Is alienating a (likely) already queer-friendly audience beneficial to the cause? Allies are crucial to any civil rights battle, and though I understand Cocktail’s point-of-view (and the fact that they are acting completely within their right as independent business owners).. I’m simply not sure how this sits with me.

No protest here: RSVP +1.
No protest here: Color me RSVP’ed +1.

On a more personal level, I recently received a wedding invitation to the ceremony of one of my dearest friends, coming up this summer. And I couldn’t help but smile when I thought ahead to the day, and the incredible impact that it will have for my friend. Flaunting a privilege? Rubbing it in? Hardly. I could not be more excited for Sarah and the life that she is building with her fiance. Ya know, happiness and eternal love. That’s all that all of us really want anyway, right?

Ceasing fire

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Twenty-two days after the deadly outbreak of violence in the Middle East began between Israel and the militant Palestinian group, Hamas, a “fragile cease-fire” has finally been pronounced. Most of the Israeli troops on the ground in the Gaza Strip have left and civilians in the war-torn land are left putting the pieces back together from the path of destruction while world leaders renew peace talks. All that’s missing is a “happily ever after” and a ride on a horse-drawn carriage into the sunset and we’d have quite a nice fairytale on our hands.

Obviously, that’s not how war works. All told, over 1300 Palestinians died over the course of the conflict, many of whom were civilians – children, parents, lovers, brothers, sisters – caught in the crossfire of hatred. As men in suits head into their offices to sit around tables and discuss potential paths to peace, I have to wonder what their realistic expectations could be. I have to wonder what a solution to this age-old conflict of faith, life and devotion would look like. And frankly, I draw a blank, a reaction which, judging by the poor media coverage of the region’s past and present conflicts delivered by American mainstream sources, is not too uncommon for my compatriots.

That’s not to say that I’m going to stand by and ignore the fact that the lives of thousands of human beings have been left forever shattered by an arm of American imperialism – Israel. Hamas, obviously, is not without fault in this conflict. But when I look at the extreme one-sidedness of the death-toll and the American response (or lack thereof) to the international outcry against Israel’s continued targeting of civilian locales, I am embarrassed for my country and its continued ability to selectively ignore grave human rights violations by its allies.

No, I am not Muslim, nor am I of Middle Eastern origin. I am not a particularly politically-minded individual and I am as white as the Partridge Family. And perhaps all of this is why, despite criticism from my peers, I feel it is my duty to speak out against willful destruction of humanity. For me, it’s not a question of right vs. wrong, or Israel vs. the Palestinians or any other all-too-simple dichotomy usually summarized by The Bad Guy vs. The Good Guy. It’s simply a question a human decency and respect.

It is with all of this in mind on today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I am cautious with my feelings of optimism accompanying the arrival of human Beacon of Change – President Barack Obama. Optimism and hope are wonderful, but what about equality and justice for all, even those who stand at odds with the status quo of decades of hit-or-miss foreign policy? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Looking for ways to help? Thanks to a friend of a friend, Ameer Kian, below is a list of Palestinian aid and relief organizations that do not have a political affiliation with Hamas or any other organization: