Commentary: Kelly Rowland and the Power of Talking About Abuse

How the singer's song "Dirty Laundry" adds a much needed personal perspective to domestic violence. 

Posted: 05/21/2013 03:32 PM EDT

Superstar Kelly Rowland shocked the world recently with the release of the autobiographical song “Dirty Laundry,” where she chronicles her struggles during a physically abusive relationship. Rowland sings:

While my sister was on stage, killing it like a motherf**ker

I was enraged, feeling it like a motherf**ker

Bird in a cage, you would never know what I was dealing with

Went our separate ways, but I was happy she was killing it

Bittersweet, she was up, I was down

No lie, I feel good for her, but what do I do now?

Forget the records

Off the record, I was going through some bulls**t

Post-survivor, she on fire, who wanna hear my bulls**t?

Meanwhile, this nigga putting his hands on me

I swear y’all don’t know the half of this industry.

Rowland’s lyrics reference a relationship in 2003, at the same time that Beyoncé was riding high on the success of her solo debut album, Dangerously in Love. Rowland’s candor in singing about domestic abuse is shocking in the way that Rihanna releasing a song about the same struggle isn’t, and yet both personal stories about overcoming abuse are critically important.

Rowland’s image throughout her career with Destiny’s Child and beyond has been very much clean cut and meticulously manufactured by the Mathew Knowles management machine.  Rowland’s recent departure from the “perfect” image that she has created over the course of more than a decade not only illustrates her personal bravery and maturity as an artist, but also shows that personal stories about violence against women are necessary in the fight to end it. 

In many ways “Dirty Laundry” isn’t the appropriate title for this song, as Kelly herself isn’t the one with the dirty past. Her abuser holds all that baggage. The shame and blame that victims feel is evident in the song and it’s the personal perspective that acts as a powerful mechanism to connect with her fans.

In the same way that actress Angelina Jolie demonstrated the power of the first-person account of struggle — in Jolie’s case it was a preventative double mastectomy to prevent cancer — Rowland is demonstrating that anyone can be the victim of abuse. Abuse does not discriminate just because you are rich and famous

Rowland’s account of her own abuse reflects certain symptoms that many survivors face — being isolated from friends and family, and feelings of guilt and self-blame. It also shows that in many instances it may take the survivor years to be strong enough to talk about their experiences openly. 

Personal storytelling is scary. Many survivors risk negative responses and sometimes even re-victimization in the form of victim blaming, often from family members and friends.

“There's nothing like a first-person story to cut through rhetoric and spin and just take the conversation to a real level,” Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes and herself a survivor of sexual assault, told BET.com. “I also think of it as modeling: If I can stand up and talk about something in which there's a lot of cultural silence around, it makes it easier for others to do the same. The more cracks we make in a taboo by breaking it ourselves, the less hold it has over all of us,” says Friedman.

Annie Clark, a survivor and one of the leaders of the national movement against sexual assault of college campuses, told BET.com, “We know that nationally 1 in 4 women in college are survivors, but when we neglect to acknowledge the people and stories behind the statistics, individual survivors are isolated, silenced and blamed.”

As a rape survivor who has spoken about my experience publicly, I applaud Kelly Rowland for her courage and honesty. I tell my story because I know there are other women too afraid to come forward and society needs to know that the statistics are real and include people they know. 

Rowland used her celebrity platform to speak up and out and to tell her personal story of abuse; Here’s hoping that more survivors, women and men, will use her example, and open up about their own trials. The power of the personal story is a critical component to ending gender-based violence and the damaging stigma that survivors live with throughout their lifetimes.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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 (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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