The Brave Women Who Exposed Russell Simmons’ Abuse Talk Oprah, #MeToo, and the Price of Speaking Out
Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher talk to Marlow Stern about their new documentary “On the Record” and the cost of coming forward.
The activist and educator Barbara Smith once wrote, “Black women, whose experience is unique, are seldom recognized as a particular social-cultural entity and are seldom thought to be important enough for serious scholarly consideration.” That is why On the Record, a new documentary centering the experiences of the black women who came forward to accuse Russell Simmons—“the godfather of hip-hop”—of rape, is so profound and necessary.
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s film confronts the burden of these women by placing their stories in context. Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined “intersectionality”), Tarana Burke (founder of #MeToo), and Kierna Mayo (former editor of Ebony) underscore the power of their testimony by wrestling with the history of false allegations against black men, the iniquities of the criminal justice system, and the erasure of black women’s pain.
Thirteen women have come forward to accuse Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, with a net worth in the hundreds of millions, of sexual harassment or assault. On the Record mainly focuses on three of the accusers; Drew Dixon, who says Simmons raped her in 1995 while she was a rising A&R executive at Def Jam; Sil Lai Abrams, a domestic-violence activist and ex-Def Jam assistant, who says Simmons raped her in his apartment in 1994; and Sheri Sher, founding member of the first all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, who says Simmons raped her at his New York office in 1983. Their accounts are harrowing, infuriating, and convincing.
But they were nearly drowned out when executive producer Oprah Winfrey backed out of the project in January of this year following pressure from Simmons and 50 Cent, taking the film’s Apple TV+ distribution deal with her (Winfrey claims the film wasn’t up to snuff). Thankfully, following a rapturous reception at Sundance, On the Record was acquired by HBO Max, and is now streaming on the nascent service, granting these survivors the vast forum that they deserve.
Here, Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Sheri Sher open up about going On the Record.
THE OPRAH OF IT ALL
Drew Dixon: “What happened in December when the attacks on Oprah Winfrey began, and what culminated in January with her departure and the exit of our distribution with Apple TV+, was a trauma. It’s a trauma I think we’re all still unpacking. I would say for myself, it was my worst fear come to life when I agreed to become a part of this documentary in the first place. It was my worst fear when I came forward in The New York Times that the black community would turn on me and misconstrue my decision to come forward about a violent rapist as something that was undermining our community, and undermining black men who I know very well have a target on their back and are falsely accused of sexual violence in devastating ways. You can look at the Central Park Five, you can look at Emmett Till, you can look lynchings. I have a black son, I’m a black woman, I love black men, and so that was my greatest fear.
“I hated to see Oprah in the crosshairs of that attack. I also felt protected by her. I admire her so much for so many reasons, and I think in some ways I was hoping to hide behind her as this powerful survivor with so many resources that I just don’t have, and for her to exit right before the film was coming out in its first public forum at Sundance was terrifying, but I also think, in hindsight, it made us all stronger, because we got on those planes, flew to Park City, and confronted the unknown outcome of the film. We didn’t know at the premiere whether the film would be seen by anyone other than the people at Sundance, and the fact that we stood there together shoulder-to-shoulder as survivors hoping this film would reach other survivors—black women who are not famous, and survivors across the community and the culture—and we had the strength to stand there in the face of the unknown, I know for me that made me stronger. It made me realize that my story and my strength is enough, Sheri’s story and her strength is enough, Sil Lai’s story and her strength is enough, and that any survivor has the strength within themselves to stand up. I have no idea what happened. I have to take [Oprah] at her word that she had creative differences, that she wasn’t pressured, and that she exited for business and creative reasons. As disappointing as that is, I accept that—and I accept her explanation.”
Sil Lai Abrams: “I have had a difficult time when it comes to the press of getting my story out, so this repeated trauma of the attempted silencing of my voice, it was another layer of trauma on top of the last two-plus years where I have been dealing with the fallout of my decision to come forward, and to share my story. As a result, I had less confidence than perhaps Sheri or Drew did in the film having a smooth ride to distribution and to streaming. When news of the film inadvertently leaked in advance, and Russell and 50 Cent started their campaign against Oprah, I told Amy and Kirby that as huge an influencer and content creator and shaper that Oprah is, had they asked me in advance what my thoughts were, I would have warned them that she was vulnerable to attack because there was already this huge base of Michael Jackson fans who were very angry about her choosing to host a talk about Leaving Neverland.
“As a businessperson, it’s [Oprah’s] prerogative to decide which projects she participates in and which projects she doesn’t, and I know that the cut that I saw prior to this final cut, which I just watched, is different. Is that grounds to leave a project? Only Oprah can speak to that. I’m aware of some of the dynamics but I wasn’t on the calls. So when word broke right before Sundance I wasn’t surprised.”
THE BURDEN OF SOLIDARITY
Sheri Sher: “It is a heavier burden for black women to come forward. A lot of black women are raised to be nurturers, and growing up in the Bronx, you’re taught to protect the black men in the community because they’re already being beaten down by justice, by economics, because of the color of their skin. You’re supposed to protect them. And for you to come out and make an allegation, the culture thinks, Why are you trying to take down one of our black men? How dare you try to take down this man who’s already being beaten down. That’s why black women like us are scared to come out. We’re scared of the backlash, we won’t have the resources or support, and there is this ‘bro code’ in hip-hop. It made it a struggle to break into the hip-hop arena as a female in the first place.”
Drew Dixon: “I’ve known my whole life that the image of black men in the white gaze is distorted, and has always been distorted in a dangerous way, with dangerous consequences. The mythology of predatory black men, of violent black men, of dangerous black men, has cost the lives and liberty of so many of our brothers and sons. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. The Central Park Five. And I understood that. And I understood that if I came forward about Russell Simmons, and if I gave the white mainstream culture another example that they could chew on of a black man who really is predatory and dangerous and violent, that I was inadvertently running a risk of putting a target on the backs of all the black men I love who are innocent, who aren’t hurting anybody, who are just trying to live their lives and go jogging. Understanding the distorted white gaze, I didn’t want to amplify that distortion by adding a narrative that would reinforce that dangerous mythology, so I made a choice to muzzle my own scream not just in solidarity to my race, but also to protect my men and boys from the misconception that could cost someone I love his life. That’s why we do it. That’s why we stay silent.”
HIP-HOP & MISOGYNY
Sil Lai Abrams: “Rape culture and misogyny go hand-in-hand. We can go online, we can have conversations with our family members, and how often have we heard: What did she do to make this happen? Whether we’re talking about domestic violence or sexual assault, it’s always incumbent on the survivor or victim to explain why the perpetrator did what he did. One thing which I believe exacerbates the issue within hip-hop, but also within entertainment as a whole, is that so much of business is based upon relationships and who you know. One could argue that is the case with any industry but it’s even more intense because, let’s say you’re a medical doctor. Sure, you can have a mentor who jumps in and helps you get into a quality school, but there’s a rigorous residency that follows years and years of training and education before someone can practice medicine. Entertainment—and music specifically—is one of those arenas where you don’t necessarily have to be particularly talented or even that smart, you just need to have a killer instinct and know the right people. And once you’re in, so long as you maintain those relationships, you’re virtually guaranteed to keep on working because so much of the work is subjective. With that being said, because Russell is the godfather of hip-hop, and is so connected to so many people, it’s improbable that people will break rank with him because he’s helped make a tremendous amount of people wealthy, and helped create an entirely new industry through the genre of hip-hop.”
Sheri Sher: “I had the first female DJ hip-hop group in history, and my incident happened around that time. After that, I did tell people and people were aware of what he did, but it wasn’t the right timing because we’re talking about thirty-plus years ago. When this happened to me, I was shocked. I could have called the police but I didn’t, because Russell Simmons was bringing hip-hop into the major leagues for the Bronx, and he was considered God to hip-hop culture. So I kept silent for all of those years. And I didn’t want my book [in 2006] to be about blowing Russell up, because it would have take the essence away from my story about the first females of hip-hop. I didn’t want that to overshadow my story.”
Drew Dixon: “The vast majority of the men that I worked with and encountered in my career in the rap-music industry were totally appropriate, respectful, and professional. Hip-hop did not invent sexism, toxic male behavior, toxic masculinity, or rape culture. Toxic masculinity is something that hip-hop borrowed from mainstream American culture, and so it does exist in rock-and-roll, country music, and politics at large. The president of the United States has been credibly accused of rape by multiple women and he still sits in the Oval Office. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with a credible claim and she couldn’t be whiter, and she couldn’t be more compelling, and yet Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court twenty-five-plus years after Anita Hill was ignored. This is not just hip-hop. This is everywhere. We live with it all the time.”
Sil Lai Abrams: “50 Cent and Snoop are both well-known misogynists. That is something that we know. That they would speak up and make a public declaration of support via Russell by attacking Oprah and Gayle King? That’s what you do. Russell and 50 are friends. If you recall, there was a whole issue that arose when 50 Cent posted memes about Terry Crews and his alleged assault by Adam Venit challenging his manhood, and Russell is on 50’s Instagram laughing. They both got called out for that. How is that funny? When is sexual assault funny? And this is coming from the yogi? Another man’s victimization is fodder for fun? That’s what you do to men? Well, you see what you do to women.”
Drew Dixon: “Even in the wake of coming forward, there are so many people in the music industry who have sent me private messages of support—they’ve sent me direct messages on social media, or texted me their support, and they publicly support Russell Simmons’ Instagram account. They like every single comment, they send him their support again and again, and they don’t think I see that. I see it. This is how this goes on. It’s no different than the people who sat on their front porches on plantations in the South and drank their mint juleps thinking that they weren’t necessarily part of their brutality all around them, or the people who watched their neighbors carted away in the Holocaust and thought that they were innocent because their hands weren’t actually on the harm being done, but the harm doesn’t go on and persist and scale without the people who are otherwise good people enabling it. That’s what’s happened for so long in the hip-hop industry, in the music industry at large, in America at large, and that’s why these conversations are so important. We have to smoke it out so that the culture changes, the policy changes, and the legislation changes. That’s what I hope happens.”
A PRICE PAID
Sheri Sher: “It’s been an awakening process for me, a healing process, and one where I’ve faced my fears and have not been afraid to go after things that I have passions for. I realized that I was iffy about a lot of things. Even though I would go forward with it, it still was in the back of my head: Is this giant going to crash down things I’ve worked so hard for? That virus that was in me, that this man was going to blackball my book and blackball my career, for so many years I let that hold me back. But for this to be coming out, there’s no more fear there. I showed my vulnerability to the whole world. I faced the fear in me, that giant, and feel so much more in control.”
Sil Lai Abrams: “I never wanted my identity to be tied to someone famous. I wanted my work to be built on the efforts that I put forth, and be based upon the knowledge base I’d accumulated and my expertise. Now that people know the names of the perpetrators, everything’s shifted, and with respect to my work, it’s done—for the time being—because there are a lot of people who have a hard time believing that Russell is capable of this, or even if they thought he might be capable, they resent the fact that I broke code with the black community in naming him, and, as someone tweeted at me recently, that I’m ‘acting as an agent of white supremacy by trying to harm a black man.’
“I knew the day my story came out in The Hollywood Reporter that it would change my identity, at least to the public, and I would no longer be known as Sil Lai Abrams, nationally-recognized domestic-violence activist, and I would be seen as Sil Lai Abrams: Russell Simmons rape accuser. The night before my story broke, I googled my name and took a screenshot—which I still have—of all the results from the first page of what come up about my name, and it was all about my work. Now, for pages and pages, the only thing up is about the men who assaulted me. And that is a tragedy.”
Drew Dixon: “Going on the record shattered me into millions of tiny, broken pieces after 22 years of constructing a narrative for my life that did not include the moniker ‘rape victim.’ I worked very hard to exclude that part of my identity in the way that I saw myself, and in the way that I wanted to be seen by the world. And suddenly, that narrative was shattered—and I was shattered. And then I started to rebuild myself, and I included the rape-victim reality of who I am, and realized that I’m stronger than I ever thought it was. It transformed my life, and it continues to transform my life. It’s a healing process but it’s been a really gut-wrenchingly painful process too.”