Kesha, the young woman who became synonymous with glittery party-pop of the millennium, trudged through the valley of the shadow of death and reemerged as beautiful as ever. Through two full-length albums, 2010’s debut Animal and 2012’s sophomore climb Warrior, and two EPs, Cannibal and Deconstructed, the wild child of so-Cal staked her claim with hit after hit. And then things went dark. Embroiled in a legal battle with her abuser and producer Dr. Luke, she was all but locked away from the world, haunted by her own demons and unable to even hear herself breathing ⎯⎯ much less scream out in agony.
With her new single, the haunting piano anthem “Praying,” and such new cuts as “Learn to Let Go” and “Woman,” she makes one of the most impressive comebacks in pop music history. Her new album, Rainbow (out today), vividly paints her story, from tragedy to triumph. She doesn’t play games either: she addresses each and every terrible memory through her painstaking and raw songwriting. It’s exactly what the industry needs right now, pure honesty, and with a little nudge from Kesha, sexual abuse survivors across the world can feel empowered to reclaim their lives.
Below, I reflect upon my own abuse as a child from a dusty, slow-crawling small town in West Virginia. Rainbow, poised to be one of the year’s most compelling, rich sets, has already been crucial to my healing. Here’s my story.
I don’t recall the first time I ever heard “Tik Tok.” I was working as a busboy at a local Red Lobster, which was nestled high among the piles of dirt, gravel and burgeoning metropolitan shopping center and overlooked the sprawling city of Morgantown, West Virginia. The scattered, autotune-heavy club banger defined that summer. 2009. There was not a party or rave I crashed that wasn’t blasting it ⎯⎯ the beats pounding against a cloud of tequila shots, fruity drinks and the no-fucks attitude of some 20-something know-it-all.
I was hooked to her music (which goes vastly underrated, by the way, especially if you take a look at some of her deep cuts, like “The Harold Song”) and her shameless rockstar demeanor. Outside of her major radio hits, from “We R Who We R” to “Die Young,” I followed her career rather rabidly over the next eight years. “I know I’m not perfect / I know I got issues / I know that I’ve got a sordid past / And, yeah, some bad tattoos,” she breathes into the mic on “Love into Light,” a precursor to where her true artistic ambitions lied. There was something just so damn mesmerizing about her voice; whether she was rapping hard about getting crunk or sending up a prayer into the starry night sky, you felt every word she uttered.
Maybe. Just maybe. Getting lost in her voice was my way of burying the trauma I never faced ⎯⎯ until now.
“We both know all the truth I could tell” hit me savagely, as if barbed wire were being drug over my skin and ripping with it huge chunks of muscle and tissues. When I heard “Praying” the first time, I was sent into a psychological rage. The memory came flooding back whether I wanted it to or not. Even now, whenever Kesha crescendos into the “when I’m finished, they won’t even know your name” screech, that moment ⎯⎯ I’m thankful it only happened once ⎯⎯ plays over and over and over again. I can’t make it stop. But God must have known I was ready to face it…
I remember his body on top of mine. His breathing ebbed and flowed with the heat of his hips. His porcelain flesh lay like a matching dish next to mine. I couldn’t have been more than four at the time. Wide-eyed, wild-haired, a scavenger of innocence and beanie babies. The sofa was a cool emerald green, draped gracefully with a milky-white floral sheet of pinks, blues and yellows, and a couple matching throw pillows were tossed about. He heaved several times, rubbing the skin bright red, and then let go and faded away. I won’t speak of what led up to the molestation: even writing this now, I can’t believe how stunningly twisted it was. That freckle-faced demon was someone I trusted with my life, and he took everything away from me. I know I had bolted the fucking door to that part of my life, left feeling hardened and cold, but “Praying” brought back all those emotions. I began unpacking the events of that warm spring day with caution, and subsequently, a weight has slowly slipped from my shoulders.
But there’s more.
Around the same time as the abuse, I went camping with my father and sister on the banks of the Greenbrier River. The campsite was well-worn but welcoming. The charred embers of the fire from the night before still glowed a light orange, smoke curling through the breeze. For three days, we took hearty swims in the murky waters below, roasted smores and hotdogs, scampered through the trees and down various well-worn trails and snoozed underneath the twinkling heavens. It was an innocent enough of a trip ⎯⎯ but it would come in handy when the right amount of pressure was placed on my impressionable four-year-old mind. Sometime later, things got even more confusing. My mom noticed something severely off about my behavior, and so, she took me to a mental health clinic, specifically servicing women and children.
I had to confront my abuse, but you have to know something else about my childhood: I was exposed to a barrage of verbal, physical and mental abuse (never directed at me but loved ones around me). So, being open and honest was not exactly rewarded. Thus, I concocted an elaborate story…with the campsite as the backdrop. To be frank here: I falsely accused my father of touching me in my sleep. I could face my fears without having to face the truth. My parents were tangled in an obscene custody battle at the time, and looking back, my mom’s intentions might not have been the most pure.
At those visits to the clinic, whenever I was feeling up for it, I had to reenact what had happened to me with cloth dolls. A dad doll, a sister doll, a kid doll. I was terrified. My pulse quickly escalated. My palms grew sweaty. My eyes darted from the conservatively-dressed psychiatrist to my mother, who perched on the edge of her seat, as if instructing me to tell her the story I had imagined in my head. The story was hard to remember at first, but each retelling got easier. The lies flew from my lips. And I began to believe it. I guess that’s when reality and fantasy first began bending together. All of it. All the disgusting details. Blaming myself for it, never processing it and certainly never recovering from it. It was awash in blurred recollections I couldn’t quite place.
Years passed. I had all but forgotten about that moment which didn’t seem real anymore. It was no longer tangible and only seemed to be someone else’s story I had inadvertently acquired. So, I never moved on from it.
The time is now, though, and it’s all thanks to Kesha Rose Sebert.
Kesha’s abuse first came to light in 2014. A report from TMZ reads: “Kesha claims Dr. Luke was abusive towards her almost from the get-go — when she signed on with him at 18 — and made repeated sexual advances toward her. She claims he would force her to use drugs and alcohol to remove her defenses.” The abuse, which included Dr. Luke telling her she was “not that talented” and “a fat f***ing refrigerator,” led to depression and an eating disorder. The legal battlefield only got bloodier from there, with her mother Pebe Sebert filing additional charges and Dr. Luke launching his own suit against Kesha’s lawyers for implications he raped Lady Gaga and a number of other countersuits.
The sensational headlines aren’t important. The centerpiece here is how strong Kesha remained throughout the entire process, even when she broke down in tears when the New York judge dismissed her claims of sexual abuse and gender violence. Out of tragedy, she rose like a phoenix from the ashes ⎯⎯ tattered, bruised but far more capable than she could have ever imagined. That’s what makes a survivor. The abuse doesn’t define who you are; it’s what comes after. “I think it’s time to practise what I preach. Exorcise the demons inside of me. Got to learn to let it go,” she howls on “Learnt to Let Go,” an anthemic Rainbow deep cut. “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it,” she urges the listener to choose redemption over resentment. That’s the only way one can truly be free. You take away an abuser’s power, and you give yourself the ability to really live.
20 million women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. One in six boys and one in four girls have been abused, bringing the total of abused children to 1.8 million. 35.8 percent of all adolescents are abused between the ages of 12 and 17. And that’s barely scratching the surface. The statistics (the cold, hard facts) alone are staggering.
What is even more staggering is the stigma surrounding abuse. Too often, victims are shamed, berated and pushed even further into depression by society. Thus, they are less likely to come forward. With Kesha, Lady Gaga and now Taylor Swift using their platforms to confront their own abusers, they give a voice to the rest of us. It certainly doesn’t alleviate the pain, but it can be empowering in many ways. Firstly, and most importantly, you realize it wasn’t your fault ⎯⎯ it is never your fault ⎯⎯ and that is the first step to recovery. Secondly, being honest about what happened, even writing it down, can be cathartic. Thirdly, forgiving yourself for ever baring a single ounce of blame can often allow yourself to find inner peace. It might take years to undergo this process ⎯⎯ I mean, damn, it took me nearly 30 ⎯⎯ but when you do, you come out absolutely thriving.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline free in the US at: 800-656-4673. For other resources and information, head over to RAINN.