On the Record — a bombshell documentary in which a large group of women allege that the “godfather of hip-hop” and Def Jam record label founder Russell Simmons sexually assaulted or raped them — wound up on a strange and baffling journey to its HBO Max release. Not long before its Sundance premiere in January, Oprah Winfrey rescinded her support for the film (on which she was serving as executive producer) while reiterating her support for the women who appear in it.
Many of On the Record’s allegations previously appeared in a 2017 New York Times article, and the reasons for Winfrey’s sudden withdrawal from the project remain confusing, months later. Once Winfrey stepped away, that meant the film would no longer be released on Apple TV+ as part of her programming slate. The film was forced to seek out a new distributor, which it found in HBO.
But no matter this strange turn of events, On the Record is absolutely damning of Simmons, who continues to insist he did not commit the crimes he’s accused of. Directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, the film is at its best when exploring the reasons that women in America, and particularly black women, often hesitate to accuse a powerful black man of a crime like sexual assault.
On the Record’s main subject is Drew Dixon, who was a rising star and record executive at Def Jam in the 1990s when, she alleges, Simmons harassed her, exposed himself to her at the office, and eventually raped her at his home. Later she joined Arista Records, where she alleges she was harassed by president and CEO L.A. Reid.
In the film, Dixon is joined by a chorus of voices, mostly black women, whose stories about Simmons are shockingly similar to Dixon’s. Among them are Sherri Hines (who also goes by Sheri Sher), a co-founder of the first female hip-hop group, the Bronx-based Mercedes Ladies, and activist and former Def Jam employee Sil Lai Abrams, both of whom allege that Simmons raped them.
I had a frank conversation with Dixon, Hines, and Abrams by phone in May, in which they talked about women who “disappear,” what’s missing from the Me Too movement, and what young women and men can do to stay safe in a world where they may be even more vulnerable to predators today. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
I first saw On the Record before its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In rewatching it this week, I was struck by how forcefully you all make the case that we’ve lost so much art and creativity from women who “disappeared,” who left their industries, because of assault and abuse from men like Russell Simmons. The film feels a little bit like you’re taking back space you lost. Is that something you’re trying to do?
The answer is yes. We’re all doing the opposite of disappearing in this moment, having finally found a safe space in the Me Too moment — however fleeting this moment may be — to come forward after decades in each of our cases, navigating around the pain and the fallout for us, in terms of our livelihoods in the industries we were navigating as young, professional women. So yes, we are doing the opposite of disappearing in this moment.
But we’re never going to get those 25 or 30 years back. In some ways, that’s something I’m grieving really for the first time, because in the moment, I just kept going. I kept going after the rape. I went to Arista Records, and I worked for Clive [Davis], and I made more hit records. And then when I was harassed, I felt that the whole idea that I would overcome this misogynist industry by virtue of my work ethic and talent had been misguided and naive. And I left.
I convinced myself that I was fine, that I was happy being a stay-at-home mom, which in many ways I have been. But I’ve given up a huge part of who I am in order to live with that. I’m just now confronting the magnitude of my own loss, professionally and financially. I had this trajectory. I had this track record. And had this not happened — if I had been a man, if I hadn’t been sexualized and objectified by two of the biggest gatekeepers in the black music industry — all signs pointed to the fact that I would have been their peer by now. I’m still grieving what I’ve lost.
And so while I am trying to reconcile the trauma and shine a light on sexual violence and the unique obstacles faced by black women who are victims of sexual violence, it doesn’t make up for what I lost. I’m never going to get that back.
When it happened to me 30-plus years ago, I kind of drowned it out, or tried to drown it out. I only shared it with people who were around when it happened. I did not out him, or go to the police, or nothing like that, because he was bringing our hip-hop culture into the major leagues, and I thought that would be a bad move for me. So I just kept going on, as far as starting the first female DJ rap group, doing all kind of things with the group, just trying to [keep] everything out of my head and move on after we did the record deal with him, and he did us not good on the record deal. I kept moving on. I was doing stuff for different magazines because they wanted to know about Mercedes Ladies, and at the time the group had broken up.
From there, I went and I did Hip-Hop Divas, the book that Vibe Magazine put out, which was with Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, and all of them, and so they asked me would I come and do a feature about Mercedes Ladies, so I did that. That’s how I hooked up with Vibe Magazine.
I said, “Hey, I’ve been writing a journey since I was, like, 15 and hip-hop, a journey with Mercedes Ladies, and I thought it’d be dope for a book.”
When they read it, they was like, “We love this. You should finish it.” I was like, “I ain’t go to college or nothing, y’all have people to finish it.” They was like, “Well, you’re going to finish it because we read it and it’s so true, and reading your journey is like we was there.” So from that, I got my book published.
And once I got the book published, before I got it published, I had a choice to make. The choice was, do you want this to be an autobiography and use Russell’s name to blow it up? Or do you want it to be a novel based on a true story? I chose the novel, because he was very big at that time, and I thought it would take away from the essence of what I wanted my journey and my story to be about — first scene of hip-hop. I didn’t want it to overshadow my talent. So I chose it to be a novel.
From there, the book came out, I started doing college tours, I was doing panels, I was just doing stuff, plus I was working. I started working at Bronx Criminal, and [was] out here still trying to push my dreams and have the book published. I just kept doing what I was doing after the book was published. [Mercedes Ladies was published in 2008.]
… When the story broke with Russell, people came out, everybody, in 2017, everybody was like, “Oh, she’s doing this to make money off her book.” What nobody understood I was still working a job and I wasn’t making a dime, other than the college stuff and all these things, but I wasn’t making any money.
Since I was little, I always had this determination to be something, you know? I was raised by a single parent of 11 kids from the Bronx. I was just determined. Never used [Simmons’s] name to do anything. So when this came in 2017, it started bringing attention to the book and everything else. But when the documentary came, I was so happy that we had a platform where I can tell my story, and somebody gave the platform to us.
As a black woman growing up, I never really felt I had resources or support, even though I wrote about it. I wanted to show even though I was victimized, I didn’t want to be looked at as a victim. I’m a victor. And when the documentary came out, I saw myself on the screen, and I just felt like I’m exposing my vulnerability and stuff like that to the world now. I’m so much more that I accomplished, and that this man did not stop me.
Russell, whatever you did, you didn’t stop me. I’m still standing and I’m still going. That’s the point I always wanted to come across. So this here was facing my fears, with the documentary coming out.
Sil Lai Abrams
I’m very conflicted. I’m very conflicted about this.
I honestly thought that I would be past the talking-about-him phase, because it’s been a two-and-a-half-year journey of talking about him and another man who assaulted me later.
I don’t want to be known as “Russell Simmons rape survivor,” “Russell Simmons rape accuser.” But that, for the time being, is how I have been framed by the media — and also by my peer group, if we’re really going to be honest. The lack of support, literally observing your peer circle subside, it’s so profoundly sad and disappointing and angering.
… When I think about [participating in] the documentary, I’m thinking, well, there’s two different effects that are happening simultaneously. On one hand, from a movement perspective, you are participating in a project which can enable a greater dialogue and understanding of the challenges that black women face when we come forward with our stories of sexual victimization, and to be in a film that does more than just talk about the assault but also explores larger things related to the continued suppression, marginalization, and erasure of black women from the larger anti-sexual violence movement. That’s incredibly important. And it is a privilege to be in this space.
At the same time, there is a part of me that mourns the fact that I no longer have the anonymity that was afforded to me in my work as an activist. I’ve had a successful career in the advocacy space, specifically focusing on issues on media representation, sexual violence, and domestic violence. Once I said the name of the men who hurt me, everything changed, and I was no longer … my value is no longer seen in my expertise, and the work I’ve done for the past 13 some-odd years. My value now has been tokenized as “the ex-model who says that Russell raped her,” and that’s hurtful.
But you’ve got to give to get. I don’t know what’s going to come out of this, but I do know that continuing the work in the advocacy space is something that I am committed to. But I damn well sure don’t want it to be walking into spaces and to be exclusively known as, “Oh, she’s one of Russell’s victims.”
… Black people have been disappearing forever. Before there were cellphone cameras, black people were dying in incidents of extrajudicial police violence all the time, and we knew about it, as black people. But “mainstream” America had no idea.
So we were able to capture those stories on film, on those cameras, and show the rest of the world what we’ve been living with the whole entire time. Black people jumped off the boat in the Middle Passage and we will never know how many there were, we will never know what their stories were, we will never know what their pain was, we will never know what their life trajectory could have been. They are at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean today. They are invisible to us.
I have tried to re-create my family history as part of my son’s history assignment using Ancestry.com, and you can’t even really track your family as a black person, because it’s just like “Girl Slave,” “Boy Slave,” “Estimated Age.” Like, you can’t even really find yourself. We disappear before 1865, even in Ancestry.com, and we are invisible in so many ways still, 400 years into our journey in this country.
So making ourselves seen is an act of resistance as black people. This film embodies the correction that has to happen for us all to be seen. It’s not going to correct what happened to us as young, professional women with our whole lives ahead of us. It’s never going to make up for the fact that so many of our counterparts have risen to the tops of their various professions and we have been marginalized and cast aside. That is heartbreaking and cannot be corrected.
But one thing that we can correct by telling the true story … we are correcting the erasure, to use Sil Lai’s word, of black lives, black stories, in the way that happens across every sector of our culture as we see playing out again and again in so many different ways.
Sil Lai Abrams
It just hit me right now that … what Drew embodies, what I embody, what Sherri embodies is where we go [when we “disappear”] and why. What you’re seeing is the process — the process of the push-out, the violence that precedes it, and that the reason why there’s an overrepresentation of men in the workplace is not by accident; it’s by design.
For those of us who could have been, there generally is a very serious reason why we’re not. That’s what this film does.
When people say, “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” You have conversations, you say, “Hey, you remember so-and-so who used to work at that label? Whatever happened to that person?” What we’re doing is showing what unfortunately happens across so many industries and to so many black women.
How many of us have been forced out because of the fact that we have experienced sexual violence and end up blacklisted just because of what we embody?
On the Record starts with one question: What is missing from Me Too? And that’s what you’re pointing to. The answer you give in the film is “black women’s voices.” What else is missing from Me Too?
One thing that’s very tricky about taking on the status quo and addressing a culture as pervasive as rape culture is in the entertainment industry: It’s tricky to find allies who are not adjacent to the powers that be, who will really stand with you when you want to rock the boat and not just change the window treatment, when you really want to fundamentally shift the way we move and the way we treat other, and not just, in a performative way, call out one or two people and then revert back to the way things were. I don’t see any traction in terms of a true shift that’s not just performative.
I think that’s what’s missing, something structural that’s happening to really move the ball forward, and I’m hoping that this film may create some momentum toward that kind of change. Because right now I feel the change is superficial. And a lot of the people who are positioning themselves as allies and advocates of the change are also adjacent to the abusers and are trying to hedge their bets. I think until that shifts, we’re going to be running in place.
Sil Lai Abrams
Successful movements are grassroots movements, and the reason why they are successful is because they’re so disruptive. But there is a relationship between media and social movements, and social movements need media in order to amplify their message, and the news needs social movements to give stories, to be able to tell stories.
Me Too was a very disruptive force in the media industry. For the first time, those barriers that had been in existence were tumbling, and the perpetrators didn’t even know what to do. They were just folding. “Okay, I did it.” “All right, well, I’m stepping down.” It was time.
But there’s always a corporatization of a social movement. It happens time and time again. And once you get significant dollars from individuals or corporations who have a vested interest in maintaining the structures that your movement intends to dismantle, you’re going to hit a roadblock. That’s what has happened. Structural change cannot occur without financial independence.
And quite frankly, the media has lost interest in our story, which was disruptive, because they started to get conflated with all the lawsuits and the pushback, and news organizations were terrified. Look, there’s the news cycle. It’s on to the next.
Unfortunately, I feel that we’ve had an opening, and we’ve done as much as we can, I think, from a movement perspective. We’re now back to the incremental changes that are occurring behind the scenes on a policy level, occasionally on a social level. There’s certainly greater discussion about consent, and people are very cognizant of the abuse that exists within Hollywood and, to some extent, the music industry — the rampant sexual abuse and harassment.
But let’s be clear: That’s always been whispered about. The casting couch was legendary; it’s just now “regular people” are aware of it. I believe that our story is coming in at the tail end of a comet, and it remains to be seen what the impact is, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction.
Will we see structural change? I don’t know.
I think it’s unreasonable to expect that the hierarchy that has itself been implicated in this culture is going to also fundamentally tear itself down and remake itself. The hierarchy, somewhere along the way, decided, okay, R. Kelly is expendable, but Russell Simmons is not. Harvey Weinstein, okay, fine, there’s so much evidence, fine, he’s expendable, but maybe, for some reason, Louis C.K. is not. Donald Trump is not. The hierarchy is now becoming its own gatekeeper, deciding how much “radical transformation” it’s willing to tolerate, which story is going to be permitted, and which silence breaker is going to be silenced.
Now, it’s not really a movement at that point, which is why it’s so important for just the individual survivors to keep speaking out. It’s why we all — as terrified as we were when we lost our executive producer and our distribution partner — all got on those planes and showed up at Sundance and stood there at the premiere and said we were grateful to Amy [Ziering] and Kirby [Dick] for being such great allies. Because if we don’t hold the space for more survivors to be seen and heard, I promise you, the hierarchy [is eager] for this Category 5 hurricane to pass over and move on.
I’ve been thinking a lot about power structures and vulnerability in light of what’s going on in the world right now, with the pandemic and people losing their jobs. It seems to me that some people who were vulnerable before this — young women and men, people who are economically insecure — are going to be even more vulnerable to abusive work situations and assault in the workplace, because they’re so afraid of losing their jobs. There aren’t other jobs to get. What would you say to someone who is graduating into this world and thinking about protecting themselves in the workplace? And how can workplaces guard against letting predators have more rein since they have more influence over people’s job security?
I can really speak on that. You don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you don’t know where your next apartment is coming from, you get an eviction notice, and when you’re growing up, you have to go into adult thinking right away, because it’s just what you’re born into, and so you go into survival mode. For people right now that don’t have that kind of support, they don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s a fair [worry].
My mom told us that you never look at the problem, you never think about it, you just keep moving no matter what the situation is. I would say to them, in every storm, there is a treasure in it. It could be a treasure from your growth of learning and that you made it through. And believe me, everything’s not gonna be roses. But at least you’re gonna know how to deal with something that came at you at such an important part of your life.
What you gotta understand is that the big thing here is called fear. Fear is just gonna hold you back from being the greatness that you was meant to be.
So understand, we’re all gonna have to face giants. Don’t let this make you feel that there’s no hope or that there’s nothing for you.
I might add something that I tell my 13-year-old son and my 15-year-old daughter, which is to trust your gut. Just trust your gut. Because if it feels wrong, [it’s easy to] talk yourself out of it, and you talk yourself into overcoming a weird feeling and you keep going, it’s gonna keep feeling wrong. That’s how grooming works. You’re going to find yourself so far out to sea that you don’t even know what normal is anymore. You don’t know what your center is anymore.
I think that’s especially important as we’re working virtually. I really do feel for these young people entering a world that is turned upside-down, in the way that it is right now.
One thing that worries me is that abuse, it flourishes in the darkness, it flourishes in the corners. Abusers are counting on the fact that we’re so repulsed [by what they do that we] talk about it in the kitchen but we won’t talk about the handsy uncle in front of the kids. And by not talking about it in front of the kids, we’re giving the handsy uncle or the cousin or the soccer coach or the piano teacher or whoever it is, the preacher, whoever, we’re giving them more room to maneuver. We’re talking about all of the other things that young people should do to keep themselves safe, and then when it comes to sexually abusive behavior, that’s the thing we want to whisper about.
We need to not whisper about it. If a young person encounters something that feels weird, validate it, affirm it, and say something, tell somebody, maybe even email yourself, keep track of it, keep a journal, don’t allow it to drip.
I just believe that the exposure of it, the conversation — it’s just so powerful. And I think we need to be more intentional than ever, because we are now living in this odd virtual world, where people may feel more desperate and they may be less seen. Be that much more aware, that much more vigilant, and that much more vocal about anything that feels off. Trust yourself, tell somebody, draw a line.
Sil Lai Abrams
God, if I knew the answer. [Laughs.] Oh, my God. Oh, my Lord. I’d be sitting on a huge consulting business.
I think what Drew mentioned is definitely a huge part of it. I simply don’t have the mental capacity to mind-map dismantling a toxic work environment and still keeping your job, how one does that. Because, unfortunately, the nail that protrudes is the one that’s hammered down. That is how it works in traditional work environments.
There is a lot for young people to be concerned about — that’s your point about, because of the scarcity of jobs, young people being in a more vulnerable position and maybe more likely to tolerate sexually inappropriate behavior, or straight-up assault. I want to say that my generation, other generations — women have always dealt with this. I sat there with my daughter, and I talked to her. You’ve got to give your kids that talk.
If I can flip it and say there is an opportunity with a lot of people who are going to be working at home. You have a double-edged sword. For those who are being victimized within the home, it puts them at greater risk of exposure. There are people much more well-versed in this area who are working to address that, and it is not an easy fix. Not in the middle of a pandemic, because we can’t even address it effectively outside of it.
But I’ve heard a number of business leaders stating that they will be transitioning to a work-at-home model over the next decade. There will be some protection for people that we didn’t have, because we were forced to be in an office environment that was highly sexualized, with nowhere to escape.
This is not to say that — like in the case of Russell, who used his home as his workspace — that you will be protected and shielded from it. But I think there is something to be said … look, I would have loved to have not had to sit in an office with a bunch of men, listening to them tell raunchy stories and speak terribly about women, and also make passes at me, and be able to work from home as a young single mother. That would have saved me on child care and that would have saved me from having to deal with that.
I have one idea. I was reflecting on the question, and I think I do I have one little piece of advice that I think might be an actionable item. I think about what Russell Simmons did to me, and I think about the way L.A. Reid harassed and isolated me professionally; neither one of them [could have done that unless someone] enabled them.
So anyone who thinks they’ve done enough for the Me Too movement, or that they’ve prevented sexual violence by not being a rapist, or by not being an abuser themselves: You are wrong. You have not done enough. Intervene. Be an ally. Look out for the signs. If you see somebody in your workplace being objectified, sexualized, or even isolated so that she is now stuck and relying on somebody who clearly wants something from her that has nothing to do with her job, intervene. Insert yourself into that interaction and change the dynamic. Don’t laugh off the sexual joke. Don’t turn a blind eye to the incremental violations of his or her space because you are a part of the problem. Do not kid yourself.
It’s like the person sitting on his or her front porch drinking mint juleps during slavery in the South while brutality was happening all around them. They are part of the problem.
So if you’re drinking your mint julep while this behavior is happening all around you, I have something you can do that is more than just not being a rapist: You can actually be an ally. Intervene. Speak up. Say something. Extend a hand to somebody to help them move forward in a way that does not compromise their integrity. Very few people did that for me, and it would have made all the difference.
On the Record is now streaming on HBO Max.