‘Russell Simmons Is Just the Beginning’: Music Industry Braces for #MeToo Impact
The music industry has largely avoided the sexual-harassment and -assault allegations of the #MeToo movement. Many industry professionals feel its time has finally come.
On Thursday, nine more women came forward to accuse music industry mogul Russell Simmons of sexual harassment or assault.
Many of the women claim that Simmons, who cofounded the groundbreaking hip-hop music label Def Jam—home to acts like LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy—before selling it to Universal Music Group for $120 million in 1999, exploited his business stature in order to coerce and/or force them into sex.
There was Natashia Williams-Blach, who told the Los Angeles Times that, after appearing in the Simmons-produced film How to Be a Player, he attempted to force her to perform oral sex. She was 18 and a freshman at UCLA at the time. Drew Dixon, who worked directly under Simmons at Def Jam, alleges that after rejecting his aggressive sexual advances, he raped her in his Manhattan apartment. “I was broken,” she told The New York Times.
In total, 11 women have thus far accused Queens native Simmons, 60, of sexual harassment or assault—the first being former model Keri Claussen Khalighi, who opened up about how, as a 17-year-old model, he forced her to perform oral sex on him in front of his friend and mentee, Brett Ratner, also an alleged sexual predator. After screenwriter Jenny Lumet (the daughter of Sidney) wrote that Simmons sexually assaulted her, he issued a statement reading, “I have never committed any acts of aggression or violence in my life. I would never knowingly cause fear or harm to anyone,” before stepping down from his various business ventures.
Simmons, however, is more of an elder statesman, and hasn’t been a music industry player for quite some time. While #MeToo, the name given for the wave of sexual-harassment or -assault stories that have been shared in the wake of those against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, has claimed the careers of high-profile men in Hollywood, the halls of Congress, and newsrooms, those in the upper ranks of the music industry have largely avoided the brunt of its impact.
“Russell Simmons is just the beginning,” a longtime music industry publicist tells me. “Men have been taking advantage of women in music for a long time.”
The Daily Beast spoke with a half-dozen people in the music industry, from publicists to artists, all of whom are anticipating the anvil to drop at any minute. They have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
“Just look at what happened with Heathcliff,” one artist said, referring to Heathcliff Berru, the founder of Life or Death PR and Management, who early last year was accused of sexual misconduct by a number of people in the music industry, including Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman and Tearist singer Yasmine Kittles. “And he was just a publicist.”
For years, sexual misconduct—in particular statutory rape—was not only permitted, but glamorized in music. Lori Mattix, in late 2015, wrote an op-ed about losing her virginity to David Bowie when she was 14, and few batted an eye; in the book Hammer of the Gods, Led Zeppelin’s former road manager Richard Cole revealed that guitarist Jimmy Page ordered him to kidnap a 14-year-old Mattix from a nightclub. Page is alleged to have kept her hidden away for several years to avoid the long arm of the law. In 1978, rocker Ted Nugent fell hard for 17-year-old Pele Massa, and since she was too young to legally marry, he became her legal guardian. In the 2000 film Almost Famous, a scene where the underage groupie Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, confesses to only being 16 is played for laughs.
On the New York music scene, the East 11th Street nightclub Angels & Kings, cofounded by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, was notorious in the mid-to-late aughts for hosting a mix of emo musicians and underage girls—the MySpace crowd, as it were. It was eventually closed down in 2012 after repeated citations for serving to underage girls.
“I expect a lot more artists to be named,” a music industry veteran says. “Everyone does, really.”
In late October, Alice Glass, the former frontwoman of the group Crystal Castles, accused her bandmate Ethan Kath of a sadistic pattern of manipulation and sexual assault in a searing op-ed (Kath denies the allegations). Brand New singer Jesse Lacey confessed to serial sexual misconduct after a woman wrote on Facebook that, when she was just 15, he demanded nude photos from her and later masturbated in front of her on Skype. Former pop star Melissa Schuman, of the girl-group Dream, alleged in a blog post that she was raped by Backstreet Boy Nick Carter. “I told him that I was a virgin and I didn’t want to have sex. I told him that I was saving myself for my future husband. I said it over and over again,” she wrote.
A few cases served as antecedents for the #MeToo movement in music as well, including that of the pop star Kesha, who for the last several years has been embroiled in a series of lawsuits after accusing superproducer Dr. Luke of sexual and emotional abuse, as well as employment discrimination. In May, L.A. Reid was forced to step down as head of Sony Music Entertainment’s Epic Records after being accused of sexual harassment. Two months later, BuzzFeed published a bombshell exposé accusing R&B singer R. Kelly of running an “abusive cult” compromised of several females, some underage. And in August, Taylor Swift received heaps of praise for her no-bullshit testimony during a civil trial wherein she accused a radio DJ of groping her during a meet-and-greet.
Female musicians abroad have made their voices heard, too. In Australia, over 300 musicians—including Courtney Barnett and The Preatures’ Isabella Manfredi—published an open letter last month in The Industry Observer. Dubbed #MeNoMore, it detailed numerous stories of sexual harassment or assault suffered by women in the music industry with the aim “to create a safe haven for people to share their stories and seek support around sexual harassment in the music industry.” It came on the heels of a similar letter published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter signed by 2,192 women in the Swedish music industry, such as Robyn, Zara Larsson, and The Cardigans’ singer Nina Persson:
“We will no longer be silent. We demand zero tolerance for sexual exploitation or violence. Sexual assault or violence will have consequences in terms of terminations of contracts. The people in power in the industry—it’s your responsibility to make sure that no one is sexually vulnerable at the work place, and you have failed. We will get support from the stories we have shared and listened to. We will continue to listen to each other and support each other. We will put shame back where it belongs—with the perpetrators and the people protecting them. We all speak with one voice and we will not comment the content of this article further. No means no—respect that! We know who you are.”