Mute Them All | Reacting to ‘Muted’ by Tami Charles and Discussing the Business of Exploitation

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Warning: This blog has major spoilers for Muted by Tami Charles, as well as a discussion of rape/sexual assault, pedophilia, murder, body shaming, gaslighting, manipulation/exploitation, mentions of underage drinking and smoking, and emotional and physical abuse.

“I liked / the perfectly / imperfect / broken / hidden pieces of us. / And for me, / that was enough.”

Since it’s National Poetry Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Lesbian Visibility Day, it felt like the perfect time to finally read Tami Charles’ Muted. This “ripped-from-the-headlines” YA novel centers on seventeen-year-old, Afro-Latina, Denver Lafleur and her desire to become an R&B superstar along with her best friends and fellow bandmates, Dali and Shak. In an effort to help their girl group succeed, they find themselves swept up into the lavish lifestyle of famous R&B singer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. However, the limelight is not quite as shiny as it seems, and the girls are soon pulled apart and pressured into a life they think is meant for them. Their “whatever it takes” mentality is pushed to its limits, and the man who is supposed to make their dreams come true turns out to be a monster lurking in plain sight.

Going into this novel, I knew it would break me— and boy did it. I audibly sobbed, gasped, and was completely engrossed in Denver’s narrative, which is told in verse. I am a huge fan of verse novels, and Tami Charles does a great job not only capturing the voices of the Black and Brown girls in her story but also conveying a sense of urgency and emotion. I especially love how Denver’s yearning to be out, for her friend Dali, and to claim her voice is portrayed because it is still so real how people must love in secret. Even for the word ‘lesbian’ to be used in the book meant a lot to me because it can sometimes be seen as an ugly or taboo word in larger society. I just respect the way that Denver repeats that the love she feels is, and never has been, a ‘phase.’ Nevertheless, it was still sad to read about Denver’s repressed feelings; I hope for more stories representing Black girl joy and their experiences accomplishing their dreams. 

Muted is a story of exploitation, abuse, manipulation, ambition, friendship, love, heartbreak, and how one’s passion can be stripped of all its essence and turned into something ugly. This book was a fast read for me, and even at points when I was so overcome with sadness or worry that I had to put it down for a moment, I couldn’t stop reading until I got to the end. Each new revelation intensified the narrative to the point that I couldn’t believe what I’d just read as I revisited certain lines in shock and awe. The characters Miguel/Meat and Marissa were so frustrating, but I couldn’t entirely wrap my head around the way that Marissa was a victim turned accomplice. However, I know this is as real an aspect of the plot as any other detail, which again, is devastating. So often are women written off as “hoes,” “groupies,” “thirsty,” and whatever other words can be used to demean them. There are not enough voices calling out the extremely wealthy men who fold these women, their fans, into their lives just to spit them back out broken and oftentimes mistreated in multiple ways. It is especially disturbing that we’ve become desensitized to how frequently men in entertainment are seen with younger women who are belittled to “arm candy” or the latest in a string of girlfriends. 

It is so valuable for teens to recognize patterns, red flags, and the many ways that adults can manipulate situations to harm them. It is equally imperative that the adults in their lives be beacons of safety. Women are taught from a young age to be vigilant in making sure not to portray themselves as “easy,” when in reality we need to check men and teach them that women’s bodies are not built solely for their pleasure. Despite what the Bible or any other book may state, I do not exist to compliment any man. I like that Charles has the character Shak in the story as the first person to see Merc for who he is, but her connection to religion and lack of participation in drinking and smoking may lead to the idea that Dali and Denver are being ‘active’ participants in their abuse. However, this is soooo important for readers to see, and Charles handles it well. The message is clear: no matter what someone is wearing or indulging in, there is no excuse for sexual assault or rape. 

Denver’s aspirations and love for music are so palpable that it made the ending of this novel totally heart-shattering. She is body-shamed, starved, raped, beaten, and isolated, and I will forever hold her character in my heart. I loved her beautiful narration as she spoke with her father and revealed every devastating detail. The family dynamics shown from Shak, Dali, and Denver’s respective relationships were impactful because they portray how teen girls can feel so guarded that they become secretive. I personally felt so connected to the characters that I need to know what happens to Dali in the aftermath of all that occurs on the very last pages of the book. 

Merc Ellis is a stand-in for any number of musicians who use their charm, money, and celebrity to get what they want from people. There are countless men in the music industry who have been abusive and/or were “dating” underage girls—and it’s time to MUTE them all. To name a few: R. Kelly, Prince, Chris Brown, Nas, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre, Elvis, Aerosmith, Tupac, Robin Thicke, T.I., Tyga, and lastly, anybody else who will stand by and support these abusers. No one can say when it’s time to “get over” these men’s abuse of power. Regardless of their popularity or impact, that is exactly why they must be held accountable: they should not be the ones influencing our younger generations.  

While reading this novel I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experience when reading Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown. While these two books are different in their own right, they seem to each convey the very clear statement that enough is enough. Muted is Charles’ first novel, and she knocked it out of the park; she’s definitely an insta-buy author for me!

PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro

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