Lady Gaga Is Not Our Advocate
In the aftermath of Surviving R. Kelly, Lady Gaga shows us that the advocate for sexual assault survivors that she purported to be — is not someone who actually exists.
UPDATE: January 10. 2019. After the publishing of this essay, Lady Gaga unfollowed R. Kelly on Twitter and issued a public apology for her work on Do What U Want (With My Body) collaboration. Terry Richardson, whom she still follows, is not mentioned.
Disclaimer: The following essay was not written by a sewer pidgeon. It, therefore, does not engage with victim blaming of any kind or form. None of the following content will attempt to victim blame any survivors for their experiences with sexual assault. In addition, the word “alleged” has not been used with intention as it is a common tool leveraged to cast doubt on the stories of sexual assault survivors. Both R. Kelly and Terry Richardson, mentioned in this article, despite dozens of testimonies that report otherwise, deny that they’ve done anything wrong.
I think we think that survival means that we are thriving. But that is not what it means. Survival means that we are holding our heads above water so that we may not drown. When you have survived horrible cruelty you need time, space, and community to heal. You need time, space, and community to begin to learn again just how much you matter. Being a survivor does not automatically make you an advocate for others who have survived. It takes work, unlearning, and confronting those who remind of us our past harms in order to truly thrive; in order to hold the capacity and the courage to stand up for others we may never meet out of a principle of honoring the safety, protection, and well-being of survivors all over the world. We are not obligated to do that work, but if we so choose it we are tasked with a responsibility to do it and do it well; to confront our failings along the way, and to grow so that we may soar. This is a lifetime commitment. It is not the drive-thru at Wendy’s.
Last week, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly premiered on Lifetime. The six-part docu-series, which is Dream Hampton’s detailed look at R.Kelly’s 30-year history of sexual abuse against Black girls and Black women, was met with ripples across the digital universe. Timelines were filled with Black women sharing their own experiences as sexual assault survivors; compassionless R. Kelly fans attempting to defend R. Kelly’s assault as merely alleged and rumored, and celebrities like Chance The Rapper calling his past work with the singer a “mistake.” In an interview featured in the documentary, Chance told Cassius’, Jamilah Lemieux,
“Maybe I didn’t care because I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were Black women. Usually, niggas that get in trouble for shit like this on their magnitude of celebrity, it’s light-skinned women or white women. That’s when it’s a big story.”
The docu-series, featuring interviews that included R. Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly, #MeToo Founder, Tarana Burke, R&B Singer, Sparkle and members of Kelly’s family and inner circle, offers us a detailed perspective of Kelly’s systemic web of pedophilia and sexual assault. But the story doesn’t end there.
When producer, filmmaker, and executive producer Dream Hampton shared the names of celebrities who declined to be interviewed for the docu-series with Shadow and Act, the list of declines returned with some names that fans found shocking and others that seemed run of the mill including that of Questlove, Jay-Z, Dave Chappelle, Mary J. Blige, Lil Kim, and Erykah Badu. I clamored to read the names in an attempt to try to understand why or how these pillars of Black celebrity could or would say no to showing up for Black women and girls; whose stories we have been trying to hear and tell since I was a child in the 90s growing up on the Southside of Chicago. I hated that I already knew the answer. I hated that I already knew their silence was because they felt what Chance had articulated, but were refusing to admit — that they just did not value the safety of these Black women over the reputation of who they pointed to as their abuser: R. Kelly. The confusion and disappointment that erupted when that news broke was and is still palpable. On January 4, 2019, John Legend tweeted in response to fans calling him a hero for participating in the docu-series (when most celebrities declined) by saying,
“To everyone telling me how courageous I am for appearing in the doc, it didn’t feel risky at all,” wrote Legend. “ I believe these women and don’t give a fuck about protecting a serial child rapist. Easy decision.”
What additionally stood out among the list of declines is the name of one celebrity in particular who in past years has not only publicly shared their experiences as a sexual assault survivor, but who has also stood out as a self-proclaimed advocate for survivors the world-over, and that is of Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga during many a late night talk show and press release proclaimed herself an advocate for sexual assault survivors, but the fact is what she actually does — tells a different story. In October 2017, Gaga along with former Vice-President Joe Biden announced their sexual assault prevention campaign It’s On Us. On her Instagram page, dated October 25, 2017, Lady Gaga wrote,
“#ItsOnUs to intervene if we witness, have the knowledge of, or are told by someone that sexual violence has occurred,” wrote Gaga. “@ItOnUs 🇺🇸 and if we stick together, we can help women, as well as men, survive these traumatic events by being advocates.”
This announcement of the Its On Us campaign came four years after Gaga released a song with R. Kelly creepily titled, “Do What U Want (With My Body)” a song released five years after R. Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography trial that centered around a sex tape showing him assaulting and then urinating on a 14-year-old Black girl. During a 2013 press conference in Japan, a journalist asks Gaga why she chose to work with Kelly after his child pornography trial, and she responds by defending him, saying,
“R Kelly and I have sometimes, very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us.”
The explicit implication here being, “I don’t believe these Black girls.” The last time I checked, Gaga has never been on trial for endangering the lives of and assaulting Black children and Black women on multiple occasions, but the point is not only that Gaga did a song with the man in 2013. She released that song with R. Kelly with an accompanying music video directed by Terry Richardson, a photographer who after years of sexual assault allegations dating back from the early 2000s, was finally dropped by Condé Nast in 2017. In the Do What U Want music video, later scrapped by Gaga out of fear of backlash because of Richardson’s involvement, Gaga, posing as a patient, asks Kelly, acting as a doctor, if she’ll ever be able to walk again, to which Kelly replies: “Yes, if you let me do whatever I want with your body. I’m putting you under, and when you wake up, you’re going to be pregnant.” What!
For those of you reading this and arguing that this past song and video produced with two sexual abusers is just that — in the past; you have to understand something. As of the writing of this article, Lady Gaga still follows both R. Kelly and Richardson on Twitter. I could not imagine seeing anyone as an advocate for sexual assault survivors who continues to support the careers of sexual abusers in such a public way. I could not imagine a counselor or a mentor or a friend of mine following my abuser on Instagram or Facebook and still calling them a supporter of my healing, an advocate for speaking out against sexual assault. What then is even the point of telling survivors to speak out? Is it so that we can follow their abusers on social? Is it so we can triple their music sales? Because in what world does that behavior help to confront, stop, and disrupt sexual assault in any way or form? Here’s the answer: it doesn’t. It only helps to perpetuate their abuse.
What then is even the point of telling survivors to speak out? Is it so that we can follow their abusers on social?
The fact is that white women with celebrity are allowed to selectively choose when and where they will stand for survivors of abuse and when and where they will selectively choose to stand with sexual abusers (I’m looking at you, Lena Dunham), and this is one of the most violent things you could ever do to a fellow survivor. Because to tell a person that you believe them and that their stories matter and then to turn around and support perpetrators of their sexual assault with no attempt to acknowledge your past failings as a self-defined advocate for survivors is the epitome of white feminism and cishet patriarchy. It is the epitome of gaslighting behavior. It is violence.
When asked, Lady Gaga declined to participate in the Surviving R. Kelly docu-series, but just fours years ago, Gaga agrees to participate in The Hunting Ground, the 2015 Emmy award nominated documentary about sexual assault across college campuses. I saw the documentary when it came out and found it compelling and unblinking in its tackling of the high incidence rate and erasure of sexual assault on college campuses around the nation. It is also a documentary which overwhelmingly tells the stories of white survivors. Gaga co-wrote the ballad Til It Happens To You, featured in that documentary and stood proudly onstage at the Oscars in 2016 alongside dozens of survivors of sexual abuse.
Gaga took on a role that she defined and chose for herself. She took on a position as an advocate and told us watching that it was on us together to stand up, to believe survivors, and to speak out against sexual assault no matter what. And then, when it came time to disrupt the perpetually diminished and erased experiences of Black women and girls: Black sexual assault survivors — she turned her back on us and showed us that her advocacy is one that is colored by a selective honoring of the lives of survivors that she deems to be worthy. Gaga has demonstrated the type of support that centers only the stories of white girls and women survivors, and even within this context also sets their experiences aside when powerful, influential white men like Terry Richardson are involved. It’s not just that Gaga did that song after the trial, defended R. Kelly in a 2013 interview and then in 2017 after announcing her sexual assault prevention campaign, issued no apologies for having supported a man who repeatedly abused young, Black girls. It is that she has continued to support both R. Kelly and Richardson through silent complicity. Even after being called to apologize many times, she never has, and I’m beginning to think she never will. If there is one thing that Lady Gaga made explicitly clear, it is that is on us.
It is on us to listen to Black survivors.
It is on us to listen to Black women and girls.
It is on us to value their stories.
It is on us to value their lives.
It is that it is on us to do this work without her.