no monster will keep you safe at night

last week i made myself watch the ‘surviving r kelly’ documentary. i knew it was coming, and i knew it would not be easy to contend with. i have deep respect for the work of dream hampton, and i know her to be uncompromising and unflinching in her commitment to justice, especially for Black women and girls.

i wanted to watch the phenomenon as it unfolded in the public sphere, to be part of the collective experience. i also didn’t want to watch it alone, because i am a survivor and i have learned the hard way that if i am not careful, my own feelings of terror and shame can put me down in a hole where there is no bottom. watching it with others, hearing how we all gasped together, whispering ‘no’, shouting ‘oh my god’ at the most egregious reveals, crying together as these victims claimed their place as survivors, as survivors moved towards the light by telling their stories in a way that will make it harder for other girls to stumble into the dark place from which they – and we – are finally emerging.

what became crystal clear to me as i was watching the documentary was how capitalism was the river running through it. offering vulnerable people money, opportunity and stability in exchange for sexual favors, access and loyalty (their own, or that of their wives, sisters, daughters, sons) is a well worn practice.

the most terrifying story told in the film concerns a girl who was 12 when she met r kelly, 14 when she was filmed in a sex act with him, 21 when he was acquitted of child pornography (with the child and her parents ((including her dad who is credited as a guitar player on subsequent r kelly albums)) all denying it was her in the video, while her aunt, childhood best friend and high school coach all vouch that it is her), and the shocking news that, to date, she is still living with r kelly and ‘training’ his new victims.

what became clear to me was that one way the collective can do what law enforcement has failed to is by financially starving r kelly out of his hole.

to this end, i decided to make a playlist that covered some of the sexy territory r kelly has occupied with stomach-turning consistency. even when we knew the songs were about girls who could not possibly consent, people still played his music, requested it, were intimate to it.

for years i have left dance floors when r kelly’s music is played, and not streamed or played it on my own devices. i have been in an effort to decolonize and defang the things that i watch, listen to, read – trying to reprogram myself to feel power and wholeness inside a structure designed to make me feel incomplete, imperfect, and like there was something i needed to change or buy in order to be desirable.

after seeing the series, i wanted to be a small contribution to the collective effort to mute r kelly. if we stop listening, if we cut away at his income, he will not be able to continue paying the small army of people it takes to entrap and monitor these girls, to keep them in various homes around the country. muting r kelly is the most transformative path possible for accountability right now. so far, no matter what people say, r kelly has been able to use money from so many of us still buying concert tickets and streaming the music, and he has been able to enslave girl children for sexual abuse, both denying and flaunting his behavior without stopping the harm.

i want to explore, as carefully as possible, one thing that has happened since i posted the playlist. i populated the playlist with songs i know of and those suggested by others through social media. mostly people have been like ‘thank you! i needed this!’, and i even got a few testimonials from people who copulated to the playlist and vouch for its sexiness. whoop.

but a few people have responded by identifying other artists on the list as potential predators, explaining why they probably shouldn’t be on there.

when drake was 23 he pulled a girl up on stage and did lots of things with her before learning she was 17 (which some outlets have pointed out is ‘legal’ in colorado, where he was, though i am not sure what means in this context – she can drink, so she’s legally gropable?) and continued expressing attraction to her while saying this is how he gets in trouble. more recently he’s been developing a friendship with a young tv actress which many people have raised an eyebrow at, because we remember aaliyah…and generally have no reason to trust our favorite light skinned ho with any young ingenue.

miguel allegedly groped a fan’s breast during a photo and autograph moment backstage.

jaheim mistreated women.

prince groomed his young wife for years before they got together.

these facts are shared in a variety of ways – some just helpful, wanting to make sure i know. but some people seem almost gleeful, to have found another monster, and to then watch my next moves, will i align with a monster or what?

i have been very curious about my own reactions: it was easy not to put jaheim on the playlist, it was impossible to pull prince off of it. i have felt grateful for some of the news, annoyed by some of the news, and everything in between. in general this is true for my feelings during a lot of this last year of #metoo. sometimes it is easy to feel appalled, sometimes i feel a shrug in me, a question around the veracity of the stories or the intentions in bringing them forward. i sometimes feel shame at this wide range of responses, but i also want to get into why it exists.

of course on one level there is the very simple part of this…i don’t want to give up any artist i love, i don’t want to part with the art.

but then there is the other piece – i think there are monsters everywhere. it doesn’t make me feel better to identify someone else’s monstrous behavior, to show it. i am not particularly interested in the harm – i am interested in the healing.

i am a survivor, i know the terror that lives in the body when you have been touched the wrong way, hurt, sexually. i was hurt by people i knew and people i didn’t, by those with clear power over me and those who had none…well, none except the normilization of men claiming any part of a woman at any time, most recently embodied by our current president.

i have been in a relationship that i (and my partner at the time) realized was abusive. i have felt the shame of surviving, the shame of having gotten into such a situation. for that reason, i want to be the kind of person who says ‘trust survivors’ with ease.

but i have seen other things. i have seen unwell minds twist reality. i have seen opportunists weaponize every interaction. i have seen masterful manipulators at work, i have seen hurt people lead those who love them away from their wounds with misdirection, to cause more harm instead of generating healing. for this reason, i pay attention to patterns, to details, to my gut. i encourage others to navigate in this way.

and i have seen how mutable my own memories are, how i have to trust what i am learning to feel more than what my mind offers me for narratives on why i feel certain things.

so…my goal was not, and is never, to make any playlist that pretends there is purity, that there are all these good people and just one or two bad apples. my goal is help boycott r kelly’s music so that he cannot afford to upkeep his harm.

it is becoming easier daily to recognize r kelly as a monster we have grown up with. we know he was sexually harmed as a child by older family members, we know he can’t read, we know he has been involved in harming young girls (or, as one survivior put it, ‘weak minded women’) his entire career. but the things he has done are not unique to him.

dream has created an opportunity to tell this story and change it. to look at RCA and say, why do you support this? to look at every person who can play/stream music in the world, and say – don’t these girls matter to you?

but the desire to stop r kelly’s harmful patterns is not just about him. it’s about stopping the sexualizing of young girls, of young people. to stop the pattern of breaking young people’s sense of self and healthy sexuality during formative years. to stop his harm and start his healing.

no monster will keep us safe at night, and no individual accountability will create the new conditions we actually need – we have to widen our gaze to take in all of the community that keeps predatory behavior normalized and protected. r kelly, yes. and the jurors that acquit him. the parents who stuffed their daughters thru the tiny door of possible innocence offered by that acquittal. the brother, the staff people, the hundreds of people over the years that protected (and continue to protect) r kelly.

we all have people in our own families, schools, churches and workplaces that have passed off sexual predation as a harmless activity of men, as a spoil of masculinity. sexual harm, sexualizing young people, childhood sexual abuse – this is the water we are swimming in. #metoo is not just a grown up problem; it is, devastatingly, all about childhood, and how we protect it, how we raise sexually healthy and empowered generations. i am grateful to explore some of this in pleasure activism (out on ak press, february 2019), and grateful that my woe dani mcclain gives this a lot of space in her forthcoming book We Live for the We.

at the same time, we have to be cautious not to come up with a one size fits all response. sexual harm is not separate from us, and it isn’t uniform. it is extremely personal, it is fraught with shame and secrecy, and it can be a weapon.

if our approach to someone else causing sexual harm is gleeful finger pointing, and pushing people out of our lives and communities with a smile on our faces, then we will never actually disrupt the cycle of harm. when we approach sexual harm as if it is only in the realm of monsters, we miss the way it is our earthly burden, the way the roots of it grow under every aspect of human society, perhaps since we came into existence. this might be our first flaw and our greatest evolution. we all have to change.

and if we try to clump all levels of sexual harm together as one offense, we encourage those who have caused all manner of harm not to come forward, apologize, not to change.

the work is harder. the work is to listen to survivors and follow their lead, but from a place of being in community. we have to hold space for the complexity of everyone involved, and the belief that everyone can and will change, hopefully for the healthier. the work is to feel for what is authentic and true. the work is to notice each time we try to normalize something violent. and to have good boundaries around sex and permission and bodies in our own lives. the work is to make sure the children we are raising and loving are protected from the brainwashing and culture-washing that many of us fell prey to, whether or not we were overtly assaulted.

ultimately the work of ending childhood sexual abuse and patriarchal sexual assault is liberatory, not purgatory.

90 days

jasmine abdullah richards was sentenced today to 90 days in jail.

for lynching.

she is the first black person ever convicted of felony lynching. it is an outrageous charge. i keep seeking other words for this convergence of feelings, but only outrage comes close to accuracy.

this is a moment every black person, particularly those participating in visionary organizing and protest to assert that our lives matter, need to internalize. this is our 90 days.

it is more than an individual punishment, it is a test of our interconnectedness, our alertness, our attention.

we must practice sustaining this story and our connection to jasmine beyond the life span of a meme or trend.

tonight i rocked the babies to sleep and somewhere in there i too drifted – it was a long day and i was not really awake or asleep, suspended between tired and responsible, listening and dreaming.

it is so much we are expected to hold, it is easy to drift away from what we most care about, most long for.

today there was an unaccountable young rapist in my face, electoral extremes as part of my social media feed celebrated a woman presidential nominee and part complained of shady election mishaps. i wore purple all day for Prince’s first birthday as an ancestor. there’s so much all at once. so we drift.

but jasmine is one of our freedom fighters. her captivity is tied to our liberation.

when the news came this afternoon i felt relief that it wasn’t four years, and anger that it was even one day.

the nibblings, who were my reaponsibility today, noticed my emotions and asked me what i could do. and i thought about it.

of course continue my work, we always continue to fight our local-global fight in so many ways. but i kept coming back to the words jasmine shouted in the courtroom, echoing assata across time: it is also our work now to “love each other and protect each other”. what can i do to love and protect jasmine?

i mapped out 90 days on the calendar. it ends on my birthday in september. it’s three months. this amount of time has already flown by twice this year. for jasmine’s sake I hope it flies by now.

what leapt to mind was a spiritual commitment to keep my attention on her every day until she is free. to not let her fall away from my heart as the changes keep coming. to think of her, to feel these 90 days with her.

so i reached out to some friends – i have been in a practice of shifting my relationship to sugar with a group of other social justice beloveds. five of us (so far) have committed to being in collective practice over the next 90 days, in jasmine’s name. we will practice with our bodies (mostly abstaining from added sugars, one person is cutting out caffeine, one is also doing a 12 sun salutation yoga practice, another is doing a practice of free dance) to stay mindful of jasmine’s revolutionary work during this time, and to ensure that we feel these next 90 days.

i am sharing this here as an invitation. how will you #standwithjasmine?

update:

– lena gardner offered the tag #solidaritywithjasmine

– we’re up to 91 people now!

– Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism joined!

– Malcolm X Grassroots Movement joined!

– there’s a facebook group for those who want to join, just let me know if you want the invite! <3

love is becoming a safe word

love
is becoming a safe word
one i use
precisely
when the risk is greater
than my courage

and i mean
slow down with me
and i mean
take my hand
and i mean
i want time with you
to see you whole

from this miraculous portion
we call a life
i want to give you truth
i want you to see me
off stage
and outside of wonder

love is becoming a safe word

i can taste the near-loves
with discernment
and say
oh that is unparalleled desire
oh that is a broken bowl who senses the gold in me
oh that is a new sibling
and
oh that is the future

and moving through
fields like curtains
i find what love is:
reflections of my self
that make me uncompromising

i find what love is:
a house where the windows
are gone
and the doors are all open
and i feel contained
and content

i feel what love is:
growing from gut heart
intelligence
to the edges of my body
an ecstatic yes
to who i have been
am
and am becoming

saying absolutely no
smiling visceral yes
showing this, not that
a very specific please
and so much thank you
all this love in action
gives me more of my life

and with this
aliveness
i write more poems
i grieve with my whole memory
i rage from the root
i care with no bitter edges
i accept what is
i surround myself with
sweetness, and excellence
and i create
with each next breath

and it is all delicious
it is all exquisite
it is all opening
it is all
love

Lemonade Screening: A Step by Step Guide

tonight Celeste Faison and i hosted a screening of Beyoncé’s Lemonade at Sole Space in Oakland. before during and after people reached out to us asking if we would do it again or if we could stream it or bring it to them. and the truth is it was so beyond incredible and healing – and very much a live experience! so i wanted to share how we did it as a template – here’s how to create your own Beyoncé Lemonade Church:

1) realize you need a communal experience of this gift. not everyone does, but if you do? don’t deny yourself.

2) logistics!

– find a place that can hold big emotions (we were at Sole Space, where we also mourned Prince and sang Purple Rain for hours two nights ago, where the first Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategy events happened, where many many community events have blossomed).
– make sure you have a screen or sizeable blank wall
– a projector (this should be screening in theaters, bigger the better)
good speakers
– figure out which of your friends was Ready and has tidal.
– load the film beforehand so you don’t experience any unnecessary crises during the screening. if need be, withhold the wifi code from everyone, or demand they go on airplane mode cause this is a meditation and a journey.

3) create an invite that articulates who you are calling into conversation and ritual with you.

here is our invite:

Come gather to watch Lemonade and get your entire life at Sole Space and be in conversation about this blessing.

For: those who have been grieving Prince, who are feeling fragile and grateful for black art, who find this offering from Beyoncé a gift. There is so much room for other conversations around this work, so do honor our celebratory space for this one.

adrienne maree brown and Celeste Faison will host this love in, and continue the work of the album to center the voices and hearts of black women in a shared experience of this masterpiece.

We wanted to be very clear with our invitation: this space is for black women to have a moment together to process this gift from Beyoncé.

beyonce lemonade 6
photo credit destiny webster

All are welcome, but we ask that you self assess ahead of time and make sure you understand what ‘black women centered space’ is and why it is important that we just get to hear from each other right now. if you are like ‘what is that?’ or ‘why black space?’ or ‘all responses to lemonade matter’, then we can totally do a workshop for you at another time 🙂

(helpful reading related to this)

With black and purple love!

Get in formation.

i could imagine screenings for:
– side chicks, humans who have cheated on other humans and folks who practice intentional nonmonogamy
– black men!!
– black girls
– everybody

4. provide appropriate refreshments – you don’t want anyone to fall out for the wrong reason.

we offered purple lemonade to honor this complex moment of grieving Prince and celebrating Beyoncé, with options to spike it (rum, tequila, etc).

we also served popcorn because it’s cinema.

5. begin with a brief welcome that reiterates your invitation. if you came to praise, let it show so folks know they have permission to really feel what’s coming.

beyonce lemonade 5

6. start on time. Virgo respeck.

beyonce lemonade 2

7. throw in some centering breaths, because you about to go through an experience together and it is always great to center in collective space.

we used a breath i just learned from someone who isn’t even in the beyhive, the breath is called brahmani pranayama, named for a Black Bee (!!!) where you inhale through the nose and exhale with a buzz. yup.

8. play the visual album of Lemonade and let it take you where you need to go.

with your own behavior as a host, embody and encourage testifying between songs and rapt silence during warsan shire and beyoncé’s poetry. there will inevitably be people seeing it for the first time so don’t let them miss any of it!

folks will think they are done by the end of ‘don’t hurt yourself’, but then serena will appear. and when you think it’s about to end, She will come with the freedom song. i am just saying this is not an emotional sprint.

9. when the visual album finishes, shift the room structure into a circle, and place 4 chairs in the center.

10. start a conversation – we just went up as hosts and testified for a while.

beyonce lemonade 7
photo credit valerie troutt

open space for people to respond. reiterate at the beginning of the talk back time if your invitation is specific.

ex: all are welcome in this space to love and support this moment, but these chairs are for black women, as we are trying to take these clear instructions from the queen, and those are the voices we needed to prioritize tonight.

we invited folks to keep it short, but testimony has it’s own time.

11. hold the people in the circle for whatever they may need. this album evokes a lot of emotion – around relationships, around betrayal and heartbreak, around being used and unappreciated, around the blackness we have been gifted – and that we have been denied, around the rituals and spirits we need. help people move through the confession of being slow to the hive or ‘not even being a Bey fan’ but being in tears.

beyonce lemonade 3
photo credit jocelyn kay

we offered blessings to young people, received blessings from our elders, laid on hands and called in ancestors, offered love for those struggling through this pain, called in fat and disabled bodies for the next evolution, generated compassion and sisterhood for all of us who have been Beckys, and scream-leapt through a ton of testimonial and ecstatic praise for our own strength, transformation, resilience and vision as black women.

we spoke of orishas and transformative justice and forgiveness and shame and loving ourselves and open relationships and queer love and black excellence and Prince and complexity and solidarity and intergenerational healing and so much more.

12. when someone speaks their truth, affirm them. when someone takes a risk, welcome it. do this enough times and something larger than any one person will come in the room, and when you feel it, praise dancing and sangin of all kinds is the only right move. take however long this takes.

13. close with the oldest voice in the room.

our circle closed with elder enid pickett, who spoke right after her healing/weeping daughter sierra pickett. enid told us the code was in each other’s faces.

then she asked us, (you want to click through this time) ‘what kind of ancestor are you going to be?’ that question was so undeniable that we paired up and we asked it of each other.

and we asked, ‘how do you have to change now to become that?’

there were tears and there was great laughter.

14. sing a song to close the circle.

we sang:

oh i love being black
oh i love being black
love the color of my skin
it’s the skin that i’m in

oh i love being black
oh i love being black
love the texture of my hair
and i wear it everywhere

oh i love being black

15. end with three more brahmani breaths and buzz joyfully into the night.

beyonce lemonade 9
photo credit danielle drake-burnett

beyonce lemonade 8

prince grief snippets

(written over a few hours of denying, raging, listening, singing along with, dancing, crying, and mostly just feeling – Prince)

what do you mean Prince is gone?

what…

Prince taught me how to be who i am still becoming.

he was every. single. thing.

Prince taught me to stretch between genders, and then beyond the binary of gender, in how i love and understand myself, in how i understand my desire, my holiness.

to embody raunch and devotion in equal measure.

to be unapologetically sexy, a small man or big woman, to induce desire and discomfort, taking the center of everyone’s attention with transparent seductions in a society that demonizes nature and the sensual world.

to be political and humane with my curiosity and my resources. to seek guidance and teachers and collaborators all around me.

to have diva-high standards, and to offer my opinion with a pursed lip and raised brow. to be shady as an art form.

to wear more eyeliner.

to love god and pleasure in the same breath, with the same song, with the same dance. to believe different things over time, but always claim myself as a child of the divine.

to be generous with time and support for those in my field who please me, to mentor and partner with and uplift talent.

to take the lower harmony sometimes, even if you can hit the upper range.

that it’s ok, in fact it’s my right, to be vulnerable and controversial and personal in the public realm and still have a private life.

to grace the world with the exquisite gift of a perfect falsetto whenever the moment calls for it.

and mostly to be different, to offer the world a joyful rejection of the normal, the appropriate, the mediocre.

what do you mean Prince is gone at 57?

and now what’s rushing to my mind are the memories.

oh so much time spent feeling private and shared desire listening to his music alone, while making love, while falling in love. he is a lover to me, to so many of us.

how i dreamt of Prince, how he awakened me, taught me new ways to move.

that road trip with my family where the song ‘head’ came on and i blushed in the dark as the guitar expressed the right way to do things, while my dad, who “doesn’t really hear lyrics”, just effusively praised the funk.

with my college roommate Adriana, turning our dorm room into ‘erotic city’.

the first, and best, michael vs prince party, celebrating my homey Evans.

seeing Prince in his first concert at madison square garden after the label fuckery, on the musicology tour, with my besties Sofia and Janine. how i fell out multiple times during both the old songs and the new ones, touched so intimately by his presence, up in the nosebleed section.

purple rain live.

best show.

best.

then hearing that he had heard my little freedom song, and liked it. wanting to crawl to another dimension where i could even handle that.

and actually every party – every single party of any worth at all – that i have ever been to.

every friendship i take seriously has had a Prince component.

every lover.

in my entire life.

no. no no…too many things are coming, too many aspects of my life.
with all due respect to death, fuck this.

i found out about his impossible passing just before i had to facilitate the closing plenary of the just giving conference. unbeknownst to me one of the conference co-chairs, samantha harvey, found a quote from Prince, and we closed with his words:

“When you don’t talk down to your audience, then they can grow with you. I give them a lot of credit to be able to hang with me this long, because I’ve gone through a lot of changes, but they’ve allowed me to grow, and thus we can tackle some serious subjects and try to just be better human beings, all of us.”

finally, i love so much of his songbook. ‘adore’ is a perfect best song ever. but so is ‘the beautiful ones’. and so is ‘purple rain’. and ‘call my name’, ‘diamonds and pearls’. ‘nothing compares to you.’ no – there are actually too many to even start down this path. let me stop.

but i was recently moved by the sci-fi imaginings and poetics of Art Official Age. i offer up the lyrics to ‘Way Back Home’, which i am playing on repeat:

I never wanted a typical life
Scripted role, huh a trophy wife
All I ever wanted, to be left alone
See my bed’s made up at night
‘Cause in my dreams I roam
Just trying to find, trying to find
My way back, back home

So many reasons why
There’s so many reasons why
I don’t belong here
But now that I am I
Without fear I am
Gonna conquer with no fear
Until I find my way back home

Most people in this world are born dead
But I was born alive
(I was born with this dream)
With a dream outside my head
That I could find my way back home
My, my, way way back home

Is this the way?

Power to the ones who could raise a child like me
The path was set
But if you look the truth will set us free
I’ve heard about those happy endings
But it’s still a mystery
Lemme tell you about me
I’m happiest when I can see
My way back home
Can you see
My way back, my way back home