BET Exclusive: Kevin Powell Talks Losing Defamation Suit, His Plans To Appeal, And Pushing Back Against Racist Trolls

In December of 2018, Powell found himself on the losing end of a crippling defamation verdict.

Kevin Powell is not an inconspicuous man. The veteran author and political activist—who first shook the table as a cast member in the 1992 landmark debut season of the MTV reality show The Real World before his game-changing stint as a senior writer at VIBE Magazine, where he helped create a serious mainstream space for hip-hop journalism—has garnered a well-earned reputation as an outspoken lecturer and at times fiery social justice fighter. But the best-selling scribe who has released 13 books, including his critically acclaimed 2015 memoir, The Education of Kevin Powell, now claims that he and his wife, New York choreographer Jinah Parker, are fighting for their personal and professional lives.

In December of 2018, the couple found themselves on the other end of a crippling defamation verdict totaling $210,000, including $75,000 in punitive damages, after a jury found that Powell and Parker launched what has been described as a “reckless campaign” against Minneapolis choreographer April Sellers in a story of mistaken identity.

On October 21, 2017, the couple came across an email making disparaging (and what they believed to be career damaging) claims about Parker’s debut off-off Broadway interpretive dance production SHE, a Choreoplay, in which four women monologize sexual assault and abuse.

“You are being a hypocrite,” said the message from a woman named April Sellers. “How can you present a message via dance on sexual violence, but knowingly choose to marry an admitted woman beater?! Kevin Powell admits that he can relapse into violence. Don’t be deceived and trade your safety for someone who can assault you.”

The blistering comments were no doubt in reference to Powell’s own admitted history of violence against women, of which the three-time New York Congressional candidate has made a core part of his anti-abuse message for well over 20 years. He notes that he has frequently worked with men across the country to end violence against women. “Me, a man who has been a pro-feminist male doing re-defining manhood work since the early 1990s, all over the country, and globally too, as an organizer, as a speaker, as a writer,” Powell tells BET. “April Sellers also happened to post the original hate email to Facebook. Why would someone not a dancer or choreographer, we thought at the time, send such an email?”

So Powell and Parker sent an open letter calling out what they saw as sexist, hateful, and mean-spirited comments made by Sellers, who they tracked down as the owner of April Sellers Dance Collective in Minneapolis. The pair wrote a 1,200 word open letter accusing Sellers of interfering with their marriage and dance production, adding, “For you, as a so-called progressive White woman, to think it’s okay to send a note like that to a Black woman, about her relationship with her Black husband, speaks to a kind of racist privilege and racist condescension deeply steeped in the history of this country.”

The statement was emailed to various Twin City journalists and influential artistic figures and groups. There was only one problem. Powell and Parker had called out the wrong April Sellers.

The real woman behind the Facebook post was actually Cleveland native April Sellers. Powell says that after discovering the mammoth nightmare mix up he and his wife made several attempts to apologize to Sellers, who claimed that her career, reputation and livelihood had been severely destroyed by the letter. A lawsuit went to trial. Sellers won.

“It was not until June of 2018, around the time of our depositions in New York City, that we were finally told there was a different April Sellers, based in Ohio, who signed an affidavit saying she was the person who in fact sent the hate-filled email to Jinah Parker in October of 2017,” explains Powell.

Powell continues: “From June 2018 to right before the trial in December 2018, we offered several times an apology and a retraction. And every single time Aaron Scott, the attorney for April Sellers, rejected it, saying money had to be attached, as much as $200,000-$300,000. Even moments before trial begun, Aaron Scott and April Sellers rejected an offer to accept an apology.”

Scott pushes back. “Absolutely not…they did not reach out to apologize,” Sellers’ legal representative tells BET. “April Sellers started reaching out in November 2017. [Kevin Powell and Jinah Parker] never, to this day, apologized. There was after about eight months of litigation we went to a mediation where there was talk about if you drop the lawsuit we’ll say something nice about you on social media. But there has never been an official apology. It was not until many, many months of going through litigation before there was talk of something that would make April’s life better.”

Kevin Powell remains defiant. In an emotional sit-down, the writer discusses the life-altering impact of the verdict, the damaging impact it has had on him and his wife, Jinah, why they made the initial strong public response, his various attempts to reach out to Sellers, and his plans for an appeal.  

BET: Minnesota dancer and choreographer April Sellers was awarded more than $210,000 after a jury found that you and your wife, Jinah Parker, falsely claimed that she was a racist. What is the status of your appeal? 

Kevin Powell: We certainly feel the decision was very biased because of who we are, because of who I am, we have lost faith in aspects of the legal system, and are exploring all options, including an appeal.

Do you have any regrets making such a serious public charge against Ms. April Sellers? 

We need to clarify which April Sellers you are referring to. We made attempts to resolve this matter short of a lawsuit, but within 30 days of the open letter I sent to April Sellers we received the complaint from her lawyer, Aaron Scott, demanding more than $500,000.  

Have you attempted to reach out to Ms. Sellers with an apology and if not, why? 

Once we received the letter from Ms. Sellers’ lawyer in December of 2017, we were precluded from speaking directly to April Sellers.

Take us back to how the entire incident began. What was your initial issue with the other April Sellers’ original Facebook post? 

We feel the chronology of events needs to be clear, as it has been continuously distorted, in court, and by some media. First, an ugly and hate-filled email was sent to Jinah the weekend of Oct. 20, 2017. It attacked Jinah, it attacked me, it attacked Jinah's work, SHE, a Choreoplay, and it attacked our marriage. It came from someone named April Sellers. We waited two weeks to respond, and only because whoever April Sellers was also happened to post the original hate email to Facebook. I did all of this to protect my wife, please let me be clear about that. Second, I sent the open letter Sat. Nov. 4, with my BCCing it to about 35 people, none of whom ever responded in any form. April Sellers in Minnesota responded that day, and again perhaps a week later. And like the first April Sellers email of Oct. 20, this April Sellers posted to Facebook, a public forum.

Did you have any idea she was the wrong April Sellers?

We did not know what was happening, why this was done twice now, and were frankly scared because I routinely gets death threats, abusive outreach of all kinds, because I have been a public figure since the early 1990s, and because we did not know if this person was emotionally unstable and thus, dangerous. That is why we did not respond. And the next time we heard anything was in late December 2017, from Aaron Scott, April Sellers' lawyer, saying we were being sued for over $500,000.

What was the thrust of Mr. Scott’s letter?

There was no offer [from] April Sellers’ lawyer to make an apology publicly, no offer to make a public retraction, nothing. Just a demand for money. So it is patently false to say that this could have been remedied from the beginning with a simple apology.

And what prompted you to send out an open letter to the Twin Cities arts and media community?  

This situation put me in an emotional place I’d never been before. Someone was attacking my wife of only four months at the time, frightening her, and using me to do it. I guess you can say I acted from an emotional place, which is not the norm for me, not at this stage of my life. I, we, are both very sorry for any pain and embarrassment we caused April Sellers and are willing to do this publicly. But the story being told now is positioned to gain a financial settlement we are unable to pay.

Do you believe you and your wife, Jinah, received a fair trial? 

We had to fire our original attorney, but were able to hire the right attorney, Lee Hutton, just weeks before the trial. We believe that too much damage to our case was done to save it, honestly, by the first attorney. However, this is a case about what is punishable financially. Saying something appears to be racist apparently has more protection than using the N-word.

And it was not lost on us that the judge was a White woman, and 99 percent of the jury were White, with one Asian woman. Not a single Black person was even a part of the jury pool selection. I seriously doubt there would have been a lawsuit against my wife if it were just her. Or if I were not a public figure and, to some, a so-called celebrity.

You mentioned that the fallout following the jury verdict has left you devastated. Explain.  

2018 was the single worst year of my entire life, and my wife would say the same. And we continue to receive hate messages on social media from racist trolls because of the local media coverage and the outcome, finding myself having to constantly block people calling me all kinds of names, including “rapist.” But these messages are coming from angry White males, some using their names, some hiding behind fake names, all because they believe, or have been led to believe, that Black people, a Black man, has done something very bad to a White woman. No matter how you slice it, there is forever a racial overtone throughout this situation.

Are there any misconceptions you would like to correct about the case and about who Kevin Powell is as journalist, husband, and political activist?   

One of the biggest misconceptions is that just because someone is or has been in the public eye, that automatically means they have money. I said this at the trial. The opposing attorney simply saw a person who has been on TV, who does speeches, who writes books, and made this very false assumption of wealth on my part. Meanwhile, I owe the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, I have a $200,000 debt from having to postpone my wife’s theater production in 2018, and even my wife has over $100,000 in student loan debt. I literally borrowed money hours before we had to arrive for the Minnesota trial, just to pay for our plane tickets and hotel and meals in December. At the end of the day I am just an activist and writer whose entire adult life has been dedicated to serving and helping others, to be a truth-teller.

What has this entire journey taught you?

Number one, and no matter what, I choose love over hate any day. This trial represented all of what is happening in the country, and here we were, my wife and I, smack dab in the middle of something foul and toxic. So to me this entire journey is a reminder of the classic case of divide and conquer: progressive person versus progressive people, White woman versus Black wife and Black husband, artist versus artists, activist-educator versus activists-educators, person with no money versus married couple with no money.

Aaron Scott, the lawyer for April Sellers, looked up my name, saw MTV's The Real World, which was made in 1992 and of which the seven cast members received a grand total of $2,000 or so, and no royalties of any kind since. Aaron Scott also saw my books and writings and various speaking engagements and made a very terrible assumption of wealth.

So where are you at now post-verdict?

As I said during the trial, there is a huge difference between being a public figure and being famous. The harsh reality is that we are in the same financial boat as April Sellers before the trial, and we are in the same financial boat as April Sellers after the trial. Yes, we greatly empathize with April Sellers of Minnesota, we would love to apologize to her directly, but two wrongs do not make things right.

This whole thing began with an ugly and hate-filled email to my wife, and here we are all these months later, my wife and I, getting hate-filled emails and social media messages. There are no real winners here in any form, not even close. We all lose when things like this are allowed to fester and rot, instead of what we really need, healing and honest dialogue where people are talking with each other, not at each other.

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