Attendees at a conversation in East Oakland about rape culture and abusive relationships. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

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In an art studio in East Oakland two weeks ago, midway though a heavy group conversation about the elements of rape culture, the seductive bassline of the strip-club anthem “Rake It Up” suddenly came blasting through the window.

The majority of attendees — around 40 people — laughed at the irony. And then got back to the discussion, called to order by a talented photographer named Deario “Chose” Austin, a skilled vocalist named Vivian Allen, a seasoned emcee named Ajman Thrower and a hardworking music producer named Mark Weiner (a.k.a. Mars Today).

As the talk about navigating unhealthy relationships evolved from a venting session to a solution-based conversation, I took down every note I could. Quotes. Thoughts. Experiences. Suggestions. I left the discussion with two things in mind:

1. I have a lot to learn.
2. These discussions should continue.

Attendees at a conversation in East Oakland about rape culture and abusive relationships.
Attendees at a conversation in East Oakland about rape culture and abusive relationships. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

The discussion of “rape culture” isn’t new in Oakland. We’re talking about a place that spawns the majority of sex trafficking crimes in the state — recently encompassing the Oakland Police Department in a high-profile scandal. Where elected officials and nonprofit groups have campaigns combating sex trafficking. Where there are billboards (!) fighting the issue. I mean, the word “bitch” is branded in our lexicon by one of our most popular musical icons (who, incidentally, made the song “Freaky Tales,” which “Rake It Up” samples). You think I haven’t been to meeting or two about the misogynistic culture that exists in Oakland?

But while discussing the elements of rape culture isn’t new around these parts, those conversations aren’t often held by artists. Schools, religious groups, and/or elected officials usually orchestrate these events. For a handful of artists to leverage their social clout, and invite fans of their work to discuss something that doesn’t necessarily coincide with their brand, was moving.

The majority of people in the room, too, were artists in some way or form. Some of the more thought-provoking statements I heard that evening:

“I grew up not wanting to listen to R&B music because I thought that it’d make me gay.”

“It doesn’t matter that she’s a stripper, just got off the pole and just clocked out — if she says no, don’t touch her.”

“Rape doesn’t wear a face, it’s not just one situation, it’s not just someone hiding in the bushes… it happens inside of families, schools and where people are supposed to be safe.”

“We’ve got to respect a man who stands up for women; go dumb for the right shit!”

“Art can help you move past the difficultly in explicitly stating something.”

“Men being raped is real.” 

“Consent protects the man too, because nowadays women will say you’ve raped them when you haven’t.”

“A lot of men have maternal energy, hide it, and then lash out on women.”

“We need a culture of accountability — it starts with us first.” 

Attendees at a conversation in East Oakland about rape culture and abusive relationships.
Attendees at a conversation in East Oakland about rape culture and abusive relationships. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

“Artists neglect the fact that it’s our responsibility to express our options on these kind of things,” Vivian told me during a phone call the following day. “We’re obligated to speak on these things.”

After talking to Vivian, I called Chose to debrief, asking him if he believes these discussions will change anything. “It’s comparable to how African-Americans handle police brutality; with time it can change, as long as we’re doing something about it,” Chose told me. “As long as the conversation is going on, and we’re holding people accountable.”

But it’s not a simple conquest. There are issues we face beyond holding your homeboys accountable. There are early seeds of it planted in us from the time we learn to socialize. Growing up in Oakland, I learned the game where you grabbed a girl’s butt and ran — even before I learned how to spell rape, let alone knew what it was.

It takes a dominant culture to conquer a dominant culture. I’d argue that the majority of people in that room — black and brown young people from Oakland, the South, Mexico, India and Fiji — know about someone’s culture intentionally destroying their own. There are entire industries built around rape culture. This country was founded on rape culture. How do we change that? Art? Organizing? Forming a new dominant culture to overthrow the old?

I don’t know if it’s possible, but one thing is sure: until we openly confront it, we can’t do anything about it. And this conversation was a baby step in the right direction. Hopefully there’ll be more to come, because Oakland needs it; the world needs it.

Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of ‘OG Told Me,’ a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.

A Discussion With Oakland Artists About Rape Culture 3 October,2017KQED Arts