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Kesha’s New Music and Its Impact on Survivors of Sexual Trauma

“If I am alive, why?”

“If I am alive, Why?”

Kesha’s New Music and its impact on survivors of sexual trauma

On July 6th, Kesha released “Praying,” her first in four years following a bitter legal battle with producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke. I remember where I was when I heard it, and the exact way I curled around my kitchen table while I smashed YouTube’s repeat button. As a survivor of sexual trauma, I read the verdict in which a judge dismissed the singer’s sexual assault case in April of 2016 with a heavy heart, realizing that even women with money and power are unlikely to be believed when they face off against their abusers in a court of law. I never believed I would see her make music again, but when I did, I realized that Kesha’s music was the music I had been waiting for. Through the first three singles from her forthcoming album, Rainbow, Kesha provides a series of lenses for assault survivors to see themselves and their individual trajectories toward recovery.

“Praying,” the first single released, is a spiritually-driven power ballad that speaks directly to the moment of turning the corner. Through a cracking voice and a high note that’s spawned reaction videos around the globe, the power in this single isn’t just through its vocals, but through the power in directing the lyrics at her abuser. The weight that these lyrics carry echoes far beyond Kesha’s own struggles—it’s the dead letter in the nightstand that survivors could never send, the hours of roleplaying exercises in therapy. It’s the opportunity to say something to a person who has caused such profound pain, to prove that survivors have voices despite abusers attempts to silence them. I’ll admit: I don’t see myself reflected in “Praying.” I don’t see myself in its hopeful message to the abuser, or in the narrative the singer tells about overcoming the power that abuser had over her. In the eight years since I was raped, I’ve never thought about the revenge of a life well-lived, because my rapist doesn’t even know my name. I doubt he thinks he did anything wrong. For me, a survivor whose chance of acknowledgment from an abuser is next to nothing, there are still days where it feels like what happened to me wasn’t real. Knowing that, the power in “Praying” comes from the light shown on the trauma itself, that if her trauma was real enough to be spoken out loud, maybe mine was too.

Following on the heels of “Praying,” Kesha’s second single, “Woman,” takes a hard right, pridefully striding into place as a contender for 2017’s feminist triumph of the year. The message here is simple, “don’t touch my weave, don’t call me honey.” Held against “Praying,” “Woman” becomes an anthem, not just about the singer’s financial agency, but about bodily autonomy.

To assault survivors, this message is just as powerful as the first single’s message of spirituality and overcoming obstacles. Nuanced narratives surrounding sexual assault are few and far between—Marvel’s Jessica Jones was a welcome, if challenging, breath of fresh air last year—but those narratives that do exist are often centered on the ways in which a survivor is continually haunted or traumatized by their experiences. If fully realized assault narratives are still taboo, then depictions of a life in which an assault survivor can go on to be happy and fulfilled, not in spite of their trauma, but alongside it, seem doubly so. While “Woman” doesn’t explicitly call itself out as a survivor narrative, the context of its release sends a message to survivors that moments of carefree happiness are possible in the complicated, nonlinear process of trauma recovery. More importantly, it breaks the cycle of representation that suggests that once a person has undergone sexual trauma, that trauma becomes the sole defining factor of their identity, and suggests that people are more than their abuse—that I’m more than my abuse.

The third single, “Learn to Let Go,” marries the spirituality of “Praying” with the personal of “Woman,” in what becomes the most direct address of Kesha’s legal struggles. She pens that Dr. Luke is “a boogieman under [her] bed,” telling her she’s “not that strong.” The bouncy, uplifting chorus suggests that the singer shrug off her victimhood and learn to let go. This is a complicated statement to make about trauma, one that begs further examination, but there’s no arguing that the attempt to divorce oneself from the past and unequivocally move on is a coping strategy that some survivors choose to employ, and it’s important to see it represented alongside others. I suspect that, in the long run, this single will endure as one with a larger audience, because it offers a glimpse into the escapism of good pop music where things are allowed to be as simple as “the past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it.” And maybe that’s okay.

So why does this matter? It matters because in the United States, 1 in 5 woman and 1 in 71 men will experience attempted or completed rape (note: these statistics are impossible to measure accurately due to circumstances that keep survivors from reporting). It matters because the culture surrounding rape in popular culture is one where it’s used as a plot device to further its (usually male) protagonist’s quests, or dismissed within an episode with zero regard for the lasting impacts on the people it affects. But most importantly, it matters because, regardless of how Kesha’s ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke plays out, the singer has become a face for assault survivors who speak out against their abusers. Only 34% of rapes are reported, proving that the culture of silence surrounding sexual assault is alive and well. Kesha’s new music matters because it shows an underrepresented community that survivors have voices, voices that can speak to—and speak beyond—their experiences, that there is life after trauma. Her status as a survivor doesn’t mean that her new music is exempt from critique; the time should come when we collectively examine the oversimplification of the message in “Learn to Let Go.” But for the time being, her being allowed to reenter the conversation, to open herself up to that critique, is a victory worth celebrating.

Jacqueline Boucher is a poet and recovering academic who lives and writes in Northern Michigan. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, BOOTH, and other magazines. She can be found on twitter @jacqueboucher.

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