A lot of people in my community have been rightly thrilled by the release of Candace Robert’s new song “Hello Ed Lee”, a beautiful and theatrical parody piece calling out the mayor of San Francisco for selling out to developers and tech companies (and most recently the Super Bowl) while turning away from the 7,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets every night and the dwindling numbers of Black and brown residents (and, I would add, the growing numbers of Black and brown prisoners). Candace has obviously put a lot of heart, energy, and political reflection into making music that speaks to many people who might not otherwise have been listening, and I have so much love and respect for that work.
And yet some lingering feelings of hurt and bitterness have held me back from sharing in the excitement.
The last time I saw a Candace Roberts video I was at a small indie cinema space in the Mission, sitting in a pretty mixed group of radical queer and trans people watching films a lot of our friends had made. “Not My City Anymore” pulled me in immediately with its fanfare and campy aesthetic, but I quickly shut down as I saw a radical critique of tech invasion in San Francisco relying primarily on survivor shaming and anti sex-worker mantras.
I don’t write this in anger to call out the people who collaborated to create this video, but in the interest of growth and the hopes of tearing the threads of these narratives out of radical discourse so we can actually move toward liberation that includes survivors of sexual assault and also includes sex workers.
In the song, the city of San Francisco is a woman named “Fran”, who becomes the focus of the song in the first chorus when Candace describes techies raping her, with the words:
“They beat Fran down and smashed her face into dirt
They slowly bent her over, ripping off her skirt”
I am the first to call out tech workers for being complicit in and even active defenders of the gentrification of San Francisco, but comparing the yuppie infiltration of the city to rape is pretty objectionable. Rape is not a metaphor. It is an awful misogynist act that at least a third of all women/trans* people (though likely more) experience that can be deeply deeply traumatizing.
What it definitely is not is a fundamental altering of the person being raped that makes them undesirable and alienating (as San Francisco has become for many). In the song Candace describes being forced to watch, not while this person is assaulted, violated, raped, but rather while she “became what she’s not”. The act of rape is itself buried while the fundamental change to the woman being raped becomes the central focus.
“Fran lost the light in her eyes, I never thought her a quitter
But she’s been pimped til she’s dry to the highest bidder”
These next lines, paired with a video portrayal of Candace with her head in a techie’s crotch while a bunch of men force her down, suddenly turn Fran into a sex worker. But she is framed as a victim of sexual violence rather than an autonomous person hustling to survive just as all of us do. Capitalism forces all of us to sell our time and labor, a force intensified by White Supremacy, gentrification, and the housing crisis no doubt, but sex work is so often singled out as the greater form of violation, when in fact many sex workers are able to carve out employment situations that allow for significantly greater autonomy. Victimizing sex workers is a tired trope that ends up accelerating the criminalization of women/trans* workers in the name of “liberation”.
“So Fran’s not Fran anymore, you kicked your whore to the door”
Rape is not a metaphor. There is no liberation in seeing survivors of rape as fundamentally altered for the worse. There is no liberation in calling sex workers “victims”.
And rape is not a metaphor.
What is happening to San Francisco is not rape. What is happening to San Francisco is gentrification. We don’t need to compare it to rape to make the point. White Supremacy and class war are the real forces that are re-making San Francisco, and we have to be willing to talk about that, especially as white activists who want so desperately to believe we are innocent. We aren’t. And the truth is the city of San Francisco was never yours and it never will be. It is Ramytush Ohlone land and it has been home to Black and Asian and Chicanx people for a long time. And these people were targeted for eviction and displacement long before they began to set their sights on our art studios and punk houses.
I’m glad Candace Roberts is talking about the changes that are happening in San Francisco. I love the creative energy that has brought these lyrics to the ears of so many who would not listen before. I appreciate the work that has gone into developing this analysis, but the truth is that Candace and I are both late to the conversation and have a lot of catching up to do. And as I first watched this video in the little cinema with so many dear friends and watched them beam and clap for this song, I felt myself grow apart from people who should be my comrades, yet again.
We can do better.
We have to do better.