I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tavis Smiley, whose experience in public life has been mixed as of late.    Let’s be real: Smiley’s spat with Obama hasn’t worked in his favor, and the Wells Fargo thing really hurt his stock value.  In spite of recent challenges he’s experienced over the past two years, he remains a meaningful and relevant leader in the African American community.  The voices of intelligent, principled and focused black men are among the most important in our world.

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One area where Tavis and I may always disagree is just how far you go in order to make money.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a capitalist and I can fully appreciate the value of compassionate business models when it comes to providing good financial fuel for well-intended activism.  But when engaged in activism that is theoretically tailored for the enhancement of African American lives, ethical boundaries must always be applied.

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Working with R. Kelly to release a book is an uncomfortable crossing of the boundaries of conscientious decision-making.  Yes, we know that R. Kelly was found not guilty of having sex with a minor, but the details of his case were incredibly disturbing.  Also, the fact that he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt does not imply that he was innocent of what he is accused of doing to that little girl.

I am sure that the amount of money that Smiley stands to make on R. Kelly’s name is significant.  I am sure that he has an explanation for this decision.  But whatever that explanation may be, Smiley must be sure to understand that with every questionable business decision, his credibility as a righteous activist within the African American community is going to get just a tad bit weaker.  I don’t stand here saying that Smiley must be perfect, but the truth is that signing R. Kelly right after being connected to a company accused of predatory lending in the black community doesn’t look good for anyone.

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I wish both Smiley and Kelly success in their endeavors, but as a father of three  young women, you’ll never see me condoning R. Kelly’s choices.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  For more information, please visit