Brian McKnight is the Friday night headliner at this year's Artscape festival.
Brian McKnight is the Friday night headliner at this year's Artscape festival. (Handout)

For the past seven years, Darnella Parks and her entire family — from toddler nieces to her 84-year-old grandmother — have attended Artscape. They come for the crafts, the food and, most of all, the live entertainment.

But this year, the 33-year-old Towson resident and her family are skipping Friday's opening night — not because of the heat or the crowds, but because of the music.

Brian McKnight, the 16-time Grammy nominee who for years built a reputation as a clean-cut, R&B ladies' man, is scheduled to take Artscape's main stage Friday night. But lately he's been making headlines for an out-of-character, sexually explicit song, "If Ur Ready to Learn," in which he offers women his extensive knowledge of the female reproductive system.

"Why bring him amid all of this [controversy]? We want to go to Artscape and have a good time," Parks said. "He kind of disgusted me."

The video for "If Ur Ready to Learn," released in late April, quickly spread online, and some longtime fans were offended and perplexed. Suddenly, Artscape's decision to book McKnight became a contentious topic online, catching the attention of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the nonprofit organization responsible for the family-friendly Artscape, billed as the country's largest free arts festival.

After Artscape received backlash for the lyrics of Washington rapper Wale's performance in 2010, events director Sheila Goodwin said, the festival wanted to avoid another controversy and immediately contacted McKnight's manager.

"Of course we were concerned," Goodwin said. McKnight's "management confirmed he would never play that song in concert. Never."

McKnight was booked for the city's annual three-day event a week before the release of his controversial song, according to 24-7 Entertainment talent buyer Paul Manna.

In a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun, McKnight said the song was a parody of the raunchy R&B topping the charts today. But because McKnight sang the song with no indication it was a satire, the joke, for many, was lost in translation.

"If I learned anything from this experiment, it's that people aren't very smart and they take themselves very seriously," McKnight said.

McKnight, who later filmed a second video for the song with the Will Ferrell-owned Funny or Die website, says he will never perform "If Ur Ready to Learn" in concert, including his set at Artscape. He also won't perform "YouPorn Anthem," the more-graphic follow-up song he wrote as a commercial for the adult website of the same name.

"Even though people have been asking for it during shows, 'If Ur Ready to Learn' is a song that's musically incredible to me, but it should only be used in the bedroom," said McKnight, who also said it's one of the cleverest things he's ever written.

The lyrics of "If Ur Ready to Learn" — many of which can't be printed here — are sexually explicit and blunt, a jarring detour for a singer responsible for the modern slow-dance standard "Back at One" and other PG-rated love songs.

"The things you don't know about your physiology, you don't have to be ashamed," McKnight sings. It's a song about female anatomy and how McKnight can be the woman's teacher. The second verse is sung from the perspective of a vibrator, according to McKnight.

Artscape is standing by the decision to book McKnight. Goodwin says the festival had pursued McKnight as a performer for years.

"We've been trying to get him and this year the price was right," she said. "He's a great adult contemporary urban act. He'd be great to have on any bill."

Not everyone agrees.

In a letter to The Sun published online last month, Baltimore resident Brad Smith said he and his family would not attend this year's Artscape unless McKnight's performance was canceled, and that he would "advis[e] everyone I know to do the same."

"Why in the world anyone would think this man to be an appropriate musical act for a wonderful family event like Artscape is beyond me, but it's clear that it is absolutely irresponsible and unacceptable for Artscape's organizers to retain Brian McKnight's 'talents' in any way," Smith wrote.

Although Parks says the "tacky" song didn't personally offend her, she believes promoting McKnight for an event targeting families and children sends the wrong message to the community.

"I'm offended by [Artscape] bringing him," she said.

Smith, Parks and some others are vocal, but their view also appears to be in the minority. Ellise Griffin, a 30-year-old from Mount Vernon who regularly attends Artscape, says she considers McKnight a good choice for the event.

"Despite his most recent songs, which I think are hilarious, he's an excellent writer and singer," Griffin said. "He fits with who's going to be there. They generally have performers that don't have outrageous hits but they're names you recognize."

Some have suggested McKnight's recent, sexually charged output has been an attempt to grab headlines, but McKnight balks at the idea.

"People talk about relevance, but do you think I care about relevance?" he said. "I don't have to talk about my stats." McKnight has multiplatinum albums, but none released since 2003 has sold more than 500,000 copies.

McKnight, who says he's "not very serious about much of anything," considers the controversy to be proof of his sense of humor.

"When Funny or Die called me, it was more validation to myself that I guess I am as funny as I thought," he said. "These are guys who I think are comedic geniuses."

For Parks, McKnight's joke completely missed the mark. It, along with McKnight's defense of the song in interviews and on Twitter, changed her opinion of the singer.

"I had some vision in my mind of the type of person he was, and now that I've seen a little look into his personality, I think he's just creepy," Parks said.


If you go

Artscape runs 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday in the area surrounding the intersection of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. R&B singer Brian McKnight headlines the main stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Clutch, a Germantown-based rock band, performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The Rebirth Brass Band, which won a Grammy this year, closes out the festival at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For details, including a full lineup and photos, go to baltimoresun.com/artscape.