First Steps and Consequences

Some (many?) years ago, when working on human trafficking awareness efforts with youth, we used to do an activity in which we would play the song P.I.M.P by 50 Cent. If you are familiar with the song you likely know that it has a very catchy chorus…you can maybe even hear in your head the first few notes of the song. We used the song to show how much the idea of trafficking, of commodification of human bodies, had permeated our culture. The vast majority of youth who participated in the sessions not only recognized the music, but could sing along, at least to the most repetitive parts of the song. But the point of the activity was not a sing-along; we asked folks to refrain from singing and dancing as much as possible and to read the lyrics as the song progressed. It was almost like clockwork – the song would start and people still moved along with the rhythm; as the first verse rang out the movement lessened, and by the final verse the room was still and there were looks of shock on more than one face. Why? Because the song literally walks through a trafficking recruitment process. It highlights how the trafficker (pimp) benefits from the exploitation, all the while caring very little for the person they are exploiting, misusing, and abusing.

We’ve stopped using this activity for many reasons. Obviously, the song is a bit old, so it’s not as familiar to youth now. But I found personal reasons to no longer conduct the activity as well. The song typically accomplished the purpose of the activity. Yet long after the music went quiet and the session ended, typically on my drive home or later that evening while preparing dinner, when I was lost in my thoughts, I would start singing the song in my head. When I noticed this pattern I started to reflect on the impact of this activity – were we accomplishing our intended purpose if people were now thinking about a song in a new light, but also had an earworm that would come into people’s minds involuntarily and  would stick around a lot longer than the concern over the lyrics? It is not always enough to talk about the message behind things. That does not necessarily remove its power or impact. Actual action steps must be taken – like removing an activity from awareness conversations and deleting a song from your playlist.

Sometimes social justice issues appear so big that we don’t know where to begin. All of the recommended actions can seem so overwhelming, and we can feel inadequate, ill-equipped to take even the first small steps. We may feel helpless, even hopeless. We may feel frozen in inaction. Perhaps our survival mechanisms have kicked in and we experience (even just in our heads) a fight, flight or freeze response.

The truth is that sometimes some of the most simple, straightforward efforts can be an inspiring first step that opens up conversation and communicates priorities unlike even more grand actions can.

In September, R.Kelly was found guilty of sexual exploitation of a minor, kidnapping, and racketeering. He also faces additional charges in Minnesota and Illinois. Following the initial verdict, Google terminated his official YouTube channels. This decision came after an assessment that he violated the company’s creator responsibility guidelines, which state that “channels can be removed if the creator is ‘participating in abuse or violence, demonstrating cruelty, or participating in fraudulent/deceptive behavior leading to real world harm.” Several musicians have also quietly removed collaborative pieces on which they worked with R.Kelly.

Unfortunately, while justified consequences of his actions, this was not the broad reaction to this guilty verdict. His music is still available through most streaming platforms and can easily be purchased online/in stores. Not only is the music still available; streaming of his songs substantially increased the week following the guilty verdict and sales of his albums have skyrocketed this year.

One of the simplest steps we can take to stand against sex trafficking and gender-based violence is to refuse to support individuals who have perpetrated such abuse. The music we choose to consume represents the values that we hold dearly. The public individuals that we choose to support, financially and otherwise, shows entire industries what priorities we hold tightly and what is less important. Our money speaks louder than our words.

So perhaps a first step in speaking out about an issue is knowing, as much as possible, the character of individuals we are supporting. And when we find out new information, we make changes – unfollowing on social media, stop buying products, challenging the influence that someone has had in our lives.

We may need to sacrifice something that we enjoy, even love, in our commitment towards a more just, safe world. But that sacrifice will be well worth it.