Does the NAACP Need to Improve Its Own Image?
What does the R. Kelly Image Award nomination say for the NAACP? Sadly, it's just another mis-step from a faltering organization.
By John Lee
Once upon a time, the NAACP was at the forefront of legal, political and societal progress in race relations in this country. Once upon a time, the grand old organization policed pop culture as well as city hall, speaking out against questionable entertainment, picketing movies that deamned black people.
Boy, have things changed.
Questionable agendas, invisible initiatives, and vacant quotes are the hallmark of today's NAACP. A quick glance at their website shows that their slate of "Activities for the Week" has been blank for months. Perhaps more unsettling to many, the organization seems to bestow its annual "Image" awards less upon artists who make a difference in the lives of African Americans than on just about any old celebrity who happens to be black "” and hey, who cares if some of the nominees present just about the worst "image" anyone can image. R. Kelly, anyone?
The Image Awards, which air tonight on Fox, represent a cash-generation vehicle for the NAACP, which guilts stars into participating "” the stars get exposure and a nifty award, the NAACP profits by selling the show to networks and from the sponsorship dollars from Disney, Blockbuster and Sprint. As with many of the smaller music award shows, the winners are usually negotiated ahead of time to arrange performances that help promote the show.
The NAACP came in for some criticism when R. Kelly, the R&B superstar whose penchant for pubescent philandering has become a matter of public record, was nominated for an Image Award (album of the year for his The Chocolate Factory). There isn't really an adequate defense to mount for rewarding a man who is accused of urinating in 13-year-old girls' mouths. But NAACP Chairman Kwesi Mfume anemically defended the action, saying, "It is not he [Kelly] that is being nominated; it is the album by him." Who is supposed to pick up the award? Do they expect the CD or 12-inch is going to walk up on stage to accept it? This, we'd like to see.
But of course, we won't be able to "” the NAACP Image Award went not to Kelly but to fellow nominee Luther Vandross, for his album Dances With My Father. Whew.
While not directly indicting R. Kelly, Mfume released a follow-up statement outlining that future nominations for Image awards will be generated internally in order avoid this situation. The blame, they imply, lies with the processes of letting the broader NAACP membership to nominate artists for the awards. If this is true, it illustrates a serious problem with what we assumed to be progressive black intellectual capital at work under the auspices of the venerable NAACP. Who knew that the civil rights movement could be co-opted by being star-struck? Let's hope Jim Crow doesn't start a rock act.
Mfume was reluctant to name R. Kelly directly, probably from reserved position that R. Kelly hasn't been convicted of a crime as of yet, yet the statement is tacit admission that the NAACP flubbed. Winners are selected by the NAACP board, so there was no chance the embarrassment would go further, but even the nomination gives him legitimacy and threatens to make his transgression a non-issue. The organization needs to go one step further and actually rebuke artists who have a negative image.
R. Kelly, although not convicted, trails a series of troubling events. His documented relationship with Aliyaah started when the singer was still a minor. In attempt to give the appearance of legality, they were quickly married and a record label deal was orchestrated for her family "” a deal that was rescinded after her untimely death. The charges against him paint a picture of a man who chooses victims from families he knows, families who have economic needs. The money he pays them offsets their outrage at the loss of their daughters' innocence. Kelly has actually taken to calling himself the Pied Piper, in apparent mockery of the charges against him. In the old days, this type of behavior could ruin careers; now it seems to be a boon. Unmolested by boycotts, Kelly has enjoyed increased success after the accusations began. He graced the cover of nearly all the urban music magazines this year, as though he is a conquering hero.
This year's controversy over R. Kelly's nomination echoes an earlier mis-step in NAACP Award history "” when, in 1997, the organization bestowed honors upon the Church of Scientology for its literacy programs and the prestigiously named W.E.B. Du Bois leadership award to the quasi church's founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard. Formerly a science fiction writer, Hubbard created the creed that believes in Galactic Councils and using voltmeters to get rid of alien spirits attached to our bodies. One of the most visible black scientologists is Isaac Hayes, who credits Scientology with resituating his career, but Scientology is not notable for its racial progressiveness; before his death Hubbard was known to mention his disdain for black people, which probably wasn't factored into his posthumous award.
There is no doubt that the NAACP has an illustrious history. But it's been about two decades since the NAACP has been anything but an empty vessel for B-grade bureaucrats who stared at Civil Rights Leader posters too long in school. Lacking any real direction or initiatives, the organization is now best known for producing an anemic awards show. How the mighty have fallen.