Rahsaan Patterson was just a child when he got his big break with a part on Kids Incorporated, but it wasn't until many years and a transition to a music career later that he revealed — first to his family, and then to the public — the sexual abuse he endured beginning at age 6.
Now, with four albums to his name, he's partnered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to raise awareness about the issue, which he says too often goes unaddressed in the black community. At a recent event in Washington, D.C., Patterson performed his new single, "Don't Touch Me," the proceeds of which will go to the organization's work supporting survivors of sexual violence.
The Root talked to Patterson about his childhood, his unique role as a black man speaking out about sexual abuse and why he's on a mission against silence and shame.
The Root: You've said you were sexually abused when you were 6 and you weren't able to share it with your family until you were 18. Why was that?
Rahsaan Patterson: There was a feeling of powerlessness. In my case, it was violent and there was bullying attached to it. It created the fear of "Don't tell anybody, or I'll really hurt you." It was an ongoing thing, and it happened in church, often.
TR: When you were on Kids Incorporated, were you still being abused at that time?
RP: I was 10 years old at that point, so, yes, it would still occur then.
TR: How does your experience going public with your story of sexual abuse compare to your experience coming out as gay?
RP: The stigma of being an openly gay black male in the music industry has its stigmas and effects, but I really am not focused on that. People will always have their opinions, and there will be people who despise it and look down, but I am who I am. But my purpose is to live the best life I can live.
As far as the sexual abuse, I've absolutely been supported. A lot of people have written me and sent me messages on Facebook and such and expressed their gratitude for my having the courage to speak out. It's allowed them to confront their families and expose their truest purpose. I'm here for those who are at a place in their own lives when they're ready to go into the issue and really focus on it.
TR: When and why did you decide to speak publicly about the abuse that happened to you?
Once that statement was made, there were people who took offense to that, because they thought I was using it as an excuse for my sexuality, which was not the case at all. It wasn't a cause-and-effect thing — I simply decided to be honest about both in one interview … I don't think people really considered the reality that when people are abused at such a young age, it kind of sets them on a path that they didn't get to discover on their own.
TR: You've said that child sexual abuse being in the news was one inspiration for your song, "Don't Touch Me." Was that a reference to Eddie Long's story? The Penn State child sex abuse scandal?
RP: The more news that makes its way to the public, the more the issue is brought to the forefront. The important part is to know that people don't just wake up and [abuse children]. When something happens to someone, particularly as a child, when there is no healing involved and no message of prevention or just a conversation to make the child feel safe, the person has to live with that. It eventually festers and messes with one's mental and spiritual well-being. When you go to church and the bishop is potentially sleeping with boys, it's contradictory to the word [of God].
Things keep being revealed [about sexual abuse of children], and it's in the forefront of everyone's mind for, like, the first month, but what are people doing after that? You tweet about it for two weeks, but then what?
TR: Was your dissatisfaction with the public's response to news of child sexual abuse part of what inspired your partnership with RAINN?
RP: Yes, I met with them last year and this song solidifies the affiliation. RAINN presents people with a safe haven for being able to come to them and express whatever has happened to them. In the middle of the night sometimes they get calls from someone 70 years old to express what happened to them. It's a place for people to feel safe to begin a healing process.
TR: You're the only black male celebrity currently associated with RAINN. Is it unusual for black men to talk publicly about sexual abuse?
RP: Absolutely. Coming forward is an issue for males in general. And then there's the black males … it's unfortunate … that's an issue that I think really needs to be honed in on and focused on. For those of us who do reveal [sexual abuse] when others turn a blind eye to it, that's more rejection and shame that the person feels. It doesn't do any good for us as black families to avoid the truth of what's happening in our churches, our lives and our families.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.