Nearly three years ago, I was a part of what’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most: I was a part of a musical performance onstage during the 88th Academy Awards—with Lady Gaga. I have complicated feelings about the incident, which I wrote previously unpacked at The Establishment, but recent events have added another layer of ~feels~ to the whole situation.
The Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly came out during my last few days in Kenya, which already had me in a vulnerable state. After a terrible year, spending time with family in a land where I can blend in and also be seen was helpful. As my return to America approached, the thoughts in my head loomed, “Am I ready to go back to America, where my Black womanhood invites a different vulnerability through our invisbility?” The growing pit in my stomach said the answer I didn’t want to admit: absolutely not.
I didn’t rush to watch Surviving R. Kelly, but I felt the cultural reverberations of the documentary halfway across the globe whenever I hopped onto social media. One of the major things that I learned was that Lady Gaga was among a number of artists who declined an invitation to be a part of the documentary. I always felt a bit uneasy about her 2013 collaboration with R. Kelly—especially when his history of abusing girls and women has long hit the national stage—especially after sharing a powerful moment on the Oscars stage.
I’ll admit I was really upset when I first read she declined to appear. I started to wonder if I’ll regret getting the matching tattoo to commemorate the Oscars moment. I was afraid it’ll foster resentment because it’d just be another reminder that the country I live in doesn’t care about survivors like me.
Fortunately, she didn’t keep quiet and did offer an explanation and apology. However, as I wrote on both Twitter and Facebook, her statements leave a lot to be desired. As a Black woman who has dedicated her life to anti-rape activism and has included Lady Gaga’s art as part of my healing process, I think her statement completely falls short.
Meeting Lady Gaga at the Oscars
I’m one of the 50 survivors who joined LG on stage for her performance of “Til It Happens to You.” I remember how both she and her parents were so kind to us. Gaga herself shared some of her own doubts and struggles as a survivor. It taught me a bitter truth (or rather it made me even more convinced of it): trauma is the great equalizer. PTSD doesn’t case how much money is in the bank or how many adoring fans you have around the world; the extreme trauma of assault affects us all. And even the seemingly most confident survivor is still a survivor who grew up in a world where we are taught to blame and hate ourselves—and other victims. Empathy (and himpathy) comes more easily and is expected. It is codified and exemplified in many strata of our society.
Discovering and listening to Lady Gaga’s music during my time at Tufts University is one of the few pleasant memories I have associated with my time there. I would listen to her albums over and over. They were a comfort to me. I blasted it I walked or drove across/around campus because it provided a fake confidence that helped me temporarily overcome my PTSD-induced agoraphobia. I memorized and sang song lyrics with my friends when strategizing about a feminist blog post or visiting The Rainbow House. It felt like an amazing moment of serendipity for the same trauma that led me to voraciously consume your music led to me meeting you one day.
The invisibility of survivors like me
Black survivors’ experiences of sexual assault are much different from that of white and other races. One of the differences is that we are ridiculously underrepresented when it comes to sexual assault prevention, response, and media. The needs for white (affluent/middle-class, cisgender, straight) women are front and center in spite of fact that Black women are sexually assaulted at higher rates—on college campuses, too.
Your outspokenness about your own trauma and support of other survivors like Kesha and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has been great to see. Yet I can’t help but think that they’re both white women who are deemed more credible and get more support. I think about the many years that have passed since you participated in your own version of himpathy to defend your previous decision. It’s a lot easier to discredit black women and girls—and the price we pay as a result of the continued blame and invisibility is heavy.
Don’t “all lives matter” us—make your support of Black women and girls explicit
Lady Gaga’s statement is more than what many men who have supported and/or collaborated R. Kelly has done, but I am still disappointed. I think Gaga’s history as a survivor and her platform would have provided a powerful moment for Black survivors. We’re either ignored or technically included while practice shows no acknowledgement or concern for the unique challenges we face and subsequent needs.
So, yes, it’s great that Gaga expressed support for people “of all races,” she could have explicitly said you support Black survivors. The invisibility of our survivor status and the avoidance of acknowledging our unique needs is central the R. Kelly story. His long history of predation (largely with impunity) is directly connected to the devaluation of Black bodies. The complacency of the music industry cannot be extracted from lack of concern rich white male company executives have for poor, vulnerable, Black girls and women. To challenge the rape culture that has allowed R. Kelly to thrive is to also challenge the inherent racism connected to it, too.
Black women and girls know we’re not valued. What about some affirmation?
Part of what made the transition back the United States so difficult is the weight of knowing that we’re not valued. I keep seeing that Malcolm X quote, “The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” making the rounds in between stories of our high maternity rates, depressing assault statistics and victim-blaming rhetoric within the Black community. When we are represented, it’s often connected to trauma: a reflection of the widespread neglect we face in day-to-day life on both a micro and macro scale.
Words of affirmation are important. They’re helpful. Perhaps I was hoping for too much when I expected it from Lady Gaga.