Welcome guest blogger and one of The HEAL Project’s Advisory Board Members, Elías Krell. Elías is a queer, trans, latinx, white, and indigenous singer songwriter.
I am filled with gratitude for the work that Ignacio Rivera is doing in and as The HEAL Project, and for the invite to guest blog. It is difficult to address a topic like ending childhood sexual abuse in a blog post, so I am going to talk specifically from my experience about the ways past trauma can reemerge while working as an artist. I hope these ideas are useful for people in and outside the arts and that they contribute to a conversation around sexual violence and performance that I wish were more audible.
I am on the advisory board for the HEAL Project, working toward comprehensive sex education reform that keeps racial, gender, sexual, and other forms of justice front and center. My theorizing on childhood sexual abuse (csa) and how it relates to past and present power inequalities is steeped in and informed by my experience as a young woman of color immigrant, and by the fact that all of the men who were (and still are) sexually inappropriate with me as a young person were hetero/cis/sexual white men who were substantially older than me. CSA has specific consequences for those of us who do art as a daily practice and who choose to share it with others. But many people make a living via their bodies; even the most technological jobs require bodies to do the typing, coding, etc. So art makes visible the ways we all inhabit bodies in ways that other activities do not and in ways that have particular stakes for survivors of sexual trauma.
Neurologists have shown that trauma is stored in our bodies on a physical level and that trauma is passed down generationally. The offspring of mice who experienced externally-imposed pain remembered that trauma in their own lives in ways that were measurable and provable. Colonialisms new and old take place through sexual violence, as Andrea Smith tells us in her book Conquest (2005). That means that if we are survivors of csa and if we are a part of a group that has suffered systemic sexual abuse like colonization or slavery, we carry our own trauma and also that of our ancestors in our bodies. The relationship between my white (German/Irish) dad and brown mom (indigenous, Italian, Spanish) in some ways reproduced the inequities that colonialism wrought in Central and North America–my dad was the one ultimately in charge of the way things went, and we all served his desires or were deemed “bad.” These colonial legacies were also reproduced through the sexual violence that older white men imposed on me, and remaining silent about it was my part of the contract. Part of unlearning violence for me has been to recalibrate love, sex, relationships around race and geography in ways that lift up women, brownness, blackness, and Latinidad. But perhaps the biggest way I have healed and found my own voice amidst these legacies of power that flit about in my bones and sinews of my body is through music and performing my music for others.
But it has been anything but an easy road. Unlike art that happens in the privacy of our own homes or object art that is displayed for folks to see apart from the person(s) who made it, performance often puts our bodies on the line. Music performance in particular, I argue, opens us in a way that other forms of performance do not. The ways that soundwaves via music physically move us can opens us and our audiences in a way that makes us more vulnerable. Audiences pay a high price, literally, for the privilege of being moved in this way. But what if you as an artist are dealing with trauma, especially one that is silenced and covered over, like childhood sexual abuse? Everything from the way I open my mouth when I sing, to a lyric that could be interpreted in any number of ways, all make the body visible and audible in ways I can never totally account for beforehand or after.
As survivors of childhood abuse, we can be “triggered” by an event or person in performance, especially because we are probably handling fear and nervousness related to stage performance anyway. I experience these moments as a freezing of my mind and body. I disassociate, or pop out of my body and life, sometimes for days or weeks after the event. Dissociating is not always bad: for many people who work unstimulating 9 to 5 jobs, putting themselves in another place in their mind is how they stay at their job. For me, it’s not so helpful. I write songs around things I need to say… Sure, I could write all sarcastic campy songs—and I love artists who do that—but it’s not really me. It’s my privilege and my right as an inheritor of the work of queer of color artivists before me to resist being shoe-horned into any aesthetic. Queer artists have made incredible art that challenges the autonomy of authenticity as the only way to make art… but the way I happen to make art is tied to sharing my experience of being alive as honestly as I can.
Being the artist I want to be means being present in my body, wherever I am, whoever I am with. It’s one of the ways creativity is truly healing for me and a lot of folks: it feels so good that it brings us to life in a way that we differs from our everyday lives. As someone who experienced csa, my body went from something very foreign to me to an instrument that I am learning to listen to and move with better and better each day, through musical practice. Other people do this through kink and bdsm, through dance, but it can be anything for which you have so much affinity that you can’t help but want to be absolutely in your body when it happens. I think of performance less as showcasing talent (I don’t personally believe talent is a thing) as allowing people to bear witness to the work I’ve done to be in my body, which is another way of saying of being in my life. (I think it’s also why artists who have never struggled much in their life don’t hold my interest for very long).
So how do we become qtpoc artists in white-dominated fields, especially those of us in rural spaces with a dearth of venues and where interpersonal connections are paramount? How do those of us who want to engage the music industry resist the ways it reproduces modern day colonialism through both sound and visuality? How do I not be triggered by older white men who are inappropriate and the fact that 99% of the people who are in positions of power in the music industry are themselves older white men?
One solution I have found after years of struggling with this is that I have decided to avoid spaces that make me feel bad so that I can shore up my energy for the challenges further ahead that I want to approach with an open mind and heart. I decided that what was bad for me was also bad for my art. These people couldn’t have my heart and soul via my art and then disrespect my body and person week after week.
Artists who are in a marginalized position with respect to cis hetero white supremacist ableist patriarchy are, in a sense, making ourselves vulnerable to power on purpose. Because of that, perhaps, it can take a while for us to remember that we do have agency. One of the things I did recently was I decided to stop attending an open mic that was bringing up my trauma on a weekly basis and getting incrementally worse. In one evening alone, I counted eight much older white men who overtly hit on me. One man who was at least eighty years old came and sat next to me one evening and it didn’t even occur to me he was hitting on me until a far piece into the conversation. Because I didn’t act on his interest (but I continued to chat in a friendly way–which is part of my *job* as a musician, so it inherently puts me in an awkward position to be sexualized in this way), he spread a rumor that I was a lesbian. Projects like HEAL help me think about the power dynamics that have been curated throughout history that enable a person over the age of 80 to feel so entitled to a 30-something year old (and I often pass for younger) that he felt justified to make up a lie to explain why I wasn’t interested. The fact that he needed an explanation is power.
Another time, an older white man I had never seen or talked with came up to me and put his hands on my shoulders and started moving them in circles. He told me there was something in my face that he liked. He said some other inappropriate things, and what amazes me in all these interactions is how siloed the rest of the world feels in those moments. I’m surrounded by people I consider friends, and yet they have no idea what is going on. I wish all community spaces were feminist and anti-racist. Without those frames, I risk looking like someone who is ruining the “vibe” of the place if I say anything, which really goes to show how most ostensibly progressive spaces are really only liberatory for certain people in them (in this case white straight men). Many open mics use a welcoming rhetoric. However, this rhetoric is sometimes undercut by coded language and the behavior of attendees. For example, one open mic I attended recently had, “no the spoken word” written in their promotional materials. While this could simply be read as disallowing anything other than music, the genre of spoken word often codes as Black (rather than simply saying “music only”). I have found the proscription against spoken word to be the only regularly disallowed form of performance in open mic settings in New England and I believe it is a way to signal anti-Blackness while purporting to be inclusive. Sexual harassment of queer people of color is another example of how open mic spaces are exclusive.
A friend helped me frame my experiences by (flatteringly) saying that this is what everyone who gets famous has to deal with. But, and I started thinking about how messed up it is that celebrities deal with harassment of all kinds and no one calls it out. Selena Quintanilla was shot by an adoring fan, Sinéad O’Connor gets called crazy for having “daddy issues” without anyone thinking about what her dad did to create those issues. I want to be heard, like anyone, and, I am going to do my best to become the best songwriter I can. If I achieve recognition for this work, is this what I have to look forward to as a queer person of color who moves through the world identified as female?
I have only a partial answer: part of the work of being an artist means trusting that the work will attract the audiences that it speaks to. I look forward to finding audiences who feel sustained by my work, while learning how to not have them feed off my body as sexual object. But one of the most healing aspects of performance is that, as we create our art, we potentially find new communities.
José Muñoz’s talked about the world-making power of performance. Art can create new worlds or speak to one that exists already but is silenced (or both). The best I can hope for, maybe, is to meet my audience while I am still alive, to keep trying to generate the world I want to see through my performance, and to keep connecting with other artists for whom achieving individual recognition is inseparable from community-centered movements toward social justice. I’m always amazed by how many people are covert artists: How many times have you discovered a friend makes art that you didn’t know about? Let’s talk about and celebrate art as a critical and crucial way to heal from trauma. Let’s prove the scientists wrong.
I want to thanks Hyunhee, a new friend who I just found out is also a musician, who proofed this post and offered a lot of really helpful feedback. Thanks to Hyunhee, and Ignacio, and to you for reading. Comments/questions welcome.
Thank you Elías for this thoughtful piece and your contribution in understanding the many ways CSA affects us.