NEEDING TO BE HEARD
In the Post-Weinstein World: Do Black Victims Matter?
The Harvey Weinsteins and Louis C.K.’s of the world have been cast out, but many famous men who stand accused of abusing black women still roam free.
“I slay dragons.”
Rose McGowan tweeted those words along with a link to a New Yorker story about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein hiring private investigators, including ex-Mossad agents, to monitor various actresses/accusers and journalists. In October, amidst rising claims against Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse, and sexual assault, McGowan alleged that the film producer and former chairman of The Weinstein Company raped her. In the weeks following the Weinstein bombshell, McGowan became one of the more outspoken figures regarding the culture of abuse and harassment in Hollywood.
When James Corden made a Weinstein joke at a charity gala, McGowan criticized the comic on Twitter:
“1) THIS IS RICH FAMOUS WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE IN ACTION,” she tweeted. “REPLACE THE WORD ‘WOMEN’ w/the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?”
In making the reckless “N-word” analogy, McGowan’s tweet centered white women and disregarded the misogyny and racism that black women face. The moment was understandably met with disapproval on social media, and McGowan deleted the tweet and apologized.
“And, please, to anyone POC I offended with my stupidity lapse, know that I am profoundly sorry. I hear you.”
But McGowan’s tweets made me think of all the would-be dragon-slaying women I’ve seen on social media, sword in hand, swinging at fire-breathing behemoths of entitled maledom only to have their efforts snuffed out or disregarded. Those women who consistently fight for black victims of famous men have more than a few extra dragons to slay. And their biggest obstacles are those who’d prefer they ignore the beast altogether, and the indifference of powers-that-be that don’t care enough to join the fight at all.
Women like Jamilah Lemieux and Feminista Jones have consistently called for accountability regarding artists like R. Kelly—and they’ve been met with criticism and harassment on social media from those who feel they’re committing an act of racial betrayal. Black people have to contend with the racism of white gatekeepers and disseminators all-too-eager to air out black stars for wrongdoing as white artists are far less vilified for similar scandals. But there is no sovereignty in celebrity, even for a people who have been consistently marginalized in American society. We have to fight harder for our own. As Lady Gaga records with R. Kelly and Sony and Spotify promote Chris Brown, these advocates ask: Why don’t we care about what happens to black girls? And they’re met with outrage or indifference, as the machine churns on.
In June, Brown’s ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran was granted a five-year restraining order against the volatile singer after testifying that Brown had repeatedly threatened violence against her following their 2015 breakup. It was Brown’s second such order; he was under a five-year restraining order after he pleaded guilty to the 2009 beating of his then-girlfriend, pop superstar Rihanna. He’d bragged about being a “stalker” on Instagram back in February, and others spoke about witnessing violent behavior from him towards his former girlfriend.
But Brown’s new album Heartbreak on a Full Moon received heavy promotion from Sony, and Netflix is streaming Brown’s self-produced Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life documentary. After a litany of arrests and charges, Brown’s behavior seems to be regarded as par for the course.
R. Kelly’s name has been linked to underage women, child pornography, sexual abuse, and manipulation since the mid-1990s. In July 2016, a BuzzFeed story reported that Kelly was holding various women against their will at homes in Atlanta and Chicago. The story broke after the parents of one of the women alleged that he’d forced her to cut off contact with her family. BuzzFeed’s Jim DeRogatis reported that the women were required to call him “Daddy” and must ask permission to leave rooms and dress according to his specifications. A former girlfriend spoke to Rolling Stone last month about her alleged experiences with the star.
“I still went to his concerts. We played his music [on the radio],” she says in the piece, reflecting on her support of Kelly while she was a radio DJ. “I didn’t know there were other girls that he had paid off.”
Jones told Rolling Stone that Kelly abused her, saying that the first occurrence happened in 2011 after she asked him about the infamous sex tape that led to his child-pornography trial (Kelly was acquitted in 2008). “I was putting my hand over my face and telling him I was sorry,” Jones says. “He would start kicking me, telling me I was a stupid bitch [and] don’t ever get in his business.”
Chris Brown and R. Kelly collaborated on “Juicy Booty,” a track on Brown’s new album. The song sparked debate as to whether the music industry has held accountable two of its most well-known abusers. These aren’t harrowing stories from yesteryear, delivered to the public via tell-all book or dramatic biopic; these are current figures making headlines for reprehensible behavior even as they dominate the charts. We’re watching this unfold in real time and yet there hasn’t been the kind of reckoning that slayed the dragons of Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, or comedian Louis C.K.
The past several weeks have affirmed DeRogatis’ oft-quoted declaration from a 2013 Village Voice interview: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” he said. “Nobody.”
In October, 19-year old Dieuson Octave, better known as rapper Kodak Black, was formally indicted by a grand jury in Florence County, South Carolina, on charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. According to a warrant, he “forced the victim onto the bed in the room and then onto the floor of the room,” forcefully removing the victim’s underwear, assaulting her orally, and penetrating her without consent. His Project Baby 2 was No. 1 on the Billboard Top Hip-Hop/R&B Album chart in September. His track “Tunnel Vision” was a top 10 hit. Kodak was nominated for Best New Artist at the 2017 MTV VMAs.
Rapper XXXTentacion has become one of the more buzzworthy artists of 2017. A member of XXL’s Freshman Class, he’s also one of the most controversial due to his deeply troubling past. The Florida native (born Jahseh Onfroy) has a violent history that includes armed robbery and bragging about beating a man because he was gay; and according to a police report, on Oct. 16, 2016, Onfroy severely beat his pregnant then-girlfriend.
In September, Pitchfork leaked a 142-page transcript of testimony by XXXTentacion’s reported victim, in which she said that he’d threatened to sodomize her with a barbecue fork; regularly threatened to kill her; head-butted and stomped her while she was in a bathtub; put a knife to her neck; and threatened her with a bottle. She also says he strangled her while she was pregnant. Both the victim’s mother and a police officer corroborated that she’d told them about the incidents when they’d allegedly occurred.
His trial is slated to begin in December, but even before XXX has his day in court, hip-hop fans and media have to take a long, hard look at why he has become one of the more publicized artists of 2017. This young man’s music is being supported by a large audience of mostly white kids who find some kind of vicarious release through his violent imagery; those listeners don’t seem to care about what he’s accused of doing. And when there’s money to be made from white indifference, the industry will gladly make those coins.
His fans argue that his music resonates because of its emotional sincerity. It’s a familiar draw—one that made legends of toxic men from John Lennon to Eminem. But a young man’s pain doesn’t negate that young man being an abusive monster to the most vulnerable people in his life; nor does it excuse an industry that continues to profit from that man’s abusive ideology and image.
As the world continues to cling to every celebrity name that grabs the headlines, I find myself thinking about these men, their victims, and whether anything that has happened will lead to any seismic change in the way the world values non-white women in general and black women in particular. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o penned an op-ed for The New York Times, which ran on Oct. 19. Nyong’o shared experiences with Weinstein where he’d allegedly attempted to massage her after they’d met at an event in Berlin, and culminating in a later incident where he’d propositioned her at a dinner.
“I share all of this now because I know now what I did not know then,” she wrote. “I was part of a growing community of women who were secretly dealing with harassment by Harvey Weinstein. But I also did not know that there was a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him.”
“He was one of the first people I met in the industry, and he told me, ‘This is the way it is.’ And wherever I looked, everyone seemed to be bracing themselves and dealing with him, unchallenged.”
Weinstein’s reps singled out Nyong’o’s comments, specifically, for dismissal. “Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events, but believes Lupita is a brilliant actress and a major force for the industry,” a spokesperson for the producer said in a statement to E! News. “Last year, she sent a personal invitation to Mr. Weinstein to see her in her Broadway show Eclipsed.”
Black women routinely have their pain dismissed. When their abusers are powerful white men, they run the risk of damaging their futures in an industry where they already find themselves at a disadvantage; when the abuser is a powerful black man, they have to face the scorn and derision from their own community who decides they’re stabbing a “successful brother” in the back. It’s a uniquely difficult situation that white women do not have to navigate—nor do black men.
We expect women to be silent. Black women don’t know if their world would care about their experiences; and black men and white women haven’t done anything to quell their skepticism. Our failure to fight with them is an embarrassment to anyone who believes themselves to be “a part of the solution” as it pertains to rape culture, abuse and harassment. We have to do more than just hear; we have to understand and act. Anything else further arms the dragon. We can do better than that.
At the very least, we can do more than offer empty lip service to the women standing with the sword.