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Reproductive Justice in the Music Industry Has a Long Way 2 Go

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December 26, 2023

CW: This article mentions sexual assault and violence.

On Thursday, November 16, 2023 R&B singer Cassie Ventura filed a lawsuit against rapper and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs, suing him for a decade-long pattern of emotional, physcal and sexual abuse, beginning when Cassie was 19 years old. The New York Times reports that in addition to sexually exploiting Cassie, Diddy asserted “an extraordinary level of command of her life,” that involved micromanaging her career and becoming extremely violent during the relationship and post break-up. 

In a statement about the lawsuit Cassie voiced, “‘after years in silence and darkness, I am finally ready to tell my story, and to speak up on behalf of myself and for the benefit of other women who face violence and abuse in their relationships.’” The lawsuit was settled one day after it was brought to court, to which Cassie responded, “I have decided to resolve this matter amicably on terms that I have some level of control.” 

While Cassie’s lawsuit was resolved quickly, many Black female celebrities who’ve been victims of sexual assault in front of the world never receive any sort of justice. There are countless examples of acts of abuse being swept under the rug, even when the abusers themselves have admitted it to their crimes─especially in the music industry. @Darkest.hue on Instagram began a series on her page: “It Takes an Industry: Hip-Hop  is long overdue for its ‘Me Too’ reckoning,” in which she lists some of the lyrics that serve as confessions to sexual assault by rappers and singers, like “Put molly in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / took her home and I enjoyed ain’t even know it” (Rick Ross feature; “U.O.E.N.O”; 2013). 

One of the most well known examples of sexual exploitation in the Hip Hop/R&B scene is the case of Robert “R” Kelly and his relationship with the late singer, Aaliyah Haughton. R. Kelly took Aaliyah under his wing at just 12 years old, and produced her first studio album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” when she was 14. The album was released three months before illegally marrying Aaliyah at age 27. Throughout their marriage and after its annulment in 1995, R. Kelly was sexually and emotionally abusive towards Aaliyah and other underage girls of color. In 2019, the Netflix docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” featured now adult women who bravely shared their horrific experiences with the R&B mogul as teenagers. R. Kelly was arrested in July 2019, six months after the series’ first season. He remains imprisoned at Granville Correctional Institution in North Carolina.

Another case of exploitation in the music industry is less discussed, perhaps due to the success and respect this family has earned in the spotlight. The Carters, Beyoncé Knowles and Sean “Jay-Z” Carter,  met at age 18 and age 30, respectively. They supposedly did not start dating until Beyoncé was 19, but this is still a sizable age gap to pursue a serious relationship with a much younger woman at the beginning of her career. In recent years Jay-Z has been criticized for giving Russell Simmons, “who stands accused of sexually assaulting at least 13 women,” a platform on TIDAL, Jay-Z’s streaming service.

Why do Black men in the music industry constantly get away with abusing Black and brown girls─be it physical, sexual, emotional, or otherwise─and for most without any major damage to their careers until years later, if at all? 

Despite victims coming forward with evidence of his sex crimes, R. Kelly was acquitted for years until the release of “Surviving R. Kelly.” In the documentary people close to him even admit to having covered up his spending time with minors, therefore allowing the abuse to continue. This is a phenomenon known as “toxic loyalty,” in which “attempts at holding artists accountable are usually met with fierce protest from their extremely loyal and influential industry friends.” @Darkest.hue explains that toxic loyalty comes from “a combination of extreme regard for the accused, disregard for Black women, and fear of potentially being exposed for similar violent behavior.” 

In the case of Cassie and Diddy, although the matter was settled in court swiftly, we can’t forget that this abuse went on for years. Cassie’s decision to finally come forward with her story should not be minimized simply because Diddy compensated her financially. The trauma she experienced and the efforts it has taken for her to recover do not go away when the case does. Aaliyah was not alive to see the conviction of her abuser. The women who survived R. Kelly’s exploitation now face the pressure of healing in front of the world.  

There is so much misogynoir─originally defined by Moya Bailey “as the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces”─in media industries that goes unchecked until legality is involved. Or maybe until there is just enough pressure on the perpetrator in the public eye that he finally has to respond, if not confess, to his crimes. Misogynoir is allowed and swallowed right up until it negatively impacts the abuser. The reality is that Black men are defended in the music industry far more than Black women are protected. 

There comes a point where it’s not just about “separating the art from the artist,” when the “art” in question is reflective of hating Black women. Instead of celebrating reproductive justice wins in court, we need to focus on how to prevent such abuse from happening in the first place. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem, within the music industry and beyond it, when it comes to believing in and holding space for Black women’s trauma. Freedom from sexual assault, abuse, and invisible “victimhood” are goals the music industry should aim for to protect Black female entertainers, as they form the cultural backbone of artistry. To respect and honor their birthright to bodily autonomy is to address misogynoir in the entertainment world. Honestly, true reproductive justice in the industry has a long way to go