Especially in the 1990s and 2000s, Diddy was a figure of enormous power, not just in hip-hop but in the business and entertainment worlds writ large. In the past two months, however, four women have sued him, saying he used that influence and wealth to sexually victimize them and avoid any consequences for decades.
Their lawsuits, several of which include brutal and disturbing details, state that Diddy, whose birth name is Sean Combs and who has also publicly gone by Puff Daddy, Puffy, and Love, raped them and, in some cases, trafficked them by coercing them to engage in sex with other men. Together, the cases have redirected public attention toward longstanding allegations of violence against Combs, leading some brands to cut ties with him and Hulu to scrap his upcoming reality show in recent days.
The first suit, filed in November by the singer Cassie, who dated Combs and was signed to his label, alleged that he urged her to have sex with male sex workers while he filmed, and later, that he raped her. In the most recent complaint, a woman identified only as Jane Doe says that in 2003, when she was 17, Combs had her flown on a private jet to New York, where he and two other men gave her drugs and alcohol and gang-raped her. The women have come forward because two New York laws — one of which paved the way for E. Jean Carroll’s successful lawsuit against Donald Trump for sexual abuse and defamation — opened limited windows of time in which people can file civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, even if the statute of limitations has passed. One of those windows closed in late November, explaining the flurry of recent complaints.
Combs has denied the allegations, saying in a statement, “I did not do any of the awful things being alleged. I will fight for my name, my family and for the truth.” A spokesperson for Brafman & Associates, the law firm representing the rapper in the suits, declined Vox’s request for comment.
The cases have captured the public’s attention in part because Combs was such an influential executive and gatekeeper in music and fashion — yet one who had long been the subject of allegations of violence, including arrests. They are among the first major allegations in years against a major figure in the music industry, which many feel has failed to reckon with abuses of power, even at the height of the Me Too movement. Combs is just one of many powerful men who have evaded scrutiny, but whose alleged past conduct is being revisited now with fresh and more critical eyes, in some cases thanks to the landmark New York laws.
Indeed, Combs is now drawing comparisons to R. Kelly, with frequent critic 50 Cent announcing that he will produce a series about Combs in the style of the bombshell docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, with the proceeds going to assault survivors.
Dream Hampton, producer of Surviving R. Kelly, told the Times that an accounting was arriving for the Bad Boy founder. “Puff is done,” she said.
The suits against Combs also show that despite recent backlash, the Me Too movement and the legal and cultural changes that came with it have had an enduring impact. Even if allegations of sexual assault and harassment do not make daily headlines the way they did in 2017, the reckoning is ongoing — and no industry is likely to remain immune forever.
Diddy built an empire across multiple businesses
Combs is a producer and rapper who rose to become an influential figure across music, media, and fashion. He started Bad Boy Records in New York in 1993, when he was in his early 20s, and soon signed Notorious B.I.G., whose two albums helped define New York hip-hop in that era. Bad Boy would grow into a multimillion-dollar business, and Combs would produce iconic ’90s acts from Jodeci to Mary J. Blige. When Biggie was killed in 1997, Combs released a Grammy-winning tribute, “I’ll Be Missing You,” that “helped inaugurate a commercial boom in hip-hop that lasted until the end of the nineties,” according to Michael Specter of the New Yorker.
Combs was also one of the first to blend the worlds of hip-hop, business, and luxury. His fashion label, Sean John, founded in 1998, became known for high-end menswear. He promoted brands of vodka and tequila and hosted exclusive white parties in the Hamptons with guests like Martha Stewart. Though no longer as central a figure as he was in the ’90s, Combs remains a rich and well-connected celebrity: In recent months, he’s held a joint album release and birthday party attended by stars such as Naomi Campbell and Janet Jackson, performed for a sold-out crowd in London, and appeared at the homecoming celebration for his alma mater, Howard University, where he made a surprise $1 million donation.
As Combs built his empire, however, he was also accused of multiple acts of violence. In 1999, he was arrested for beating another executive with a chair, a phone, and a champagne bottle (he had to pay a fine and take an anger management class, according to the New Yorker). The same year, he was involved in a shooting at a club in Manhattan, where he was attending a party with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez; witnesses said they saw him with a gun, but he was ultimately acquitted after a public, much-watched trial.
He has also been accused of threats and violence against women. In a 2019 interview, for example, his ex-girlfriend Gina Huynh said he had thrown a shoe at her and dragged her by the hair. But these reports have not received mainstream public attention — until now.
Singer Cassie filed suit against Diddy in November
In November, Cassie, whose real name is Casandra Ventura, sued Combs, alleging sexual assault and sex trafficking. In the suit, first reported by the New York Times, Ventura said she had experienced years of abuse from Combs, starting soon after she met him in 2005, when she was 19. She said he beat her repeatedly, at one point kicking her in the face, and said that later, in 2018, he raped her. She also said he trafficked her by coercing her to have sex with sex workers in different cities while he filmed and masturbated. She would try to delete the photos and videos afterward, but Combs retained access, she said in the suit, and at one point made her watch a video she thought she had deleted.
Ventura’s suit also said that Combs and his associates used his power and wealth to intimidate her into silence and compliance, with his employees threatening to damage her music career if she spoke out against him. In one particularly shocking detail, Ventura said Combs threatened to blow up the rapper Kid Cudi’s car because Cudi and Ventura were dating; the car later exploded. “This is all true,” a spokesperson for Kid Cudi told the Times of the car exploding.
Through his lawyer, Ben Brafman, Combs had accused Ventura of blackmail. “For the past six months, Mr. Combs has been subjected to Ms. Ventura’s persistent demand of $30 million, under the threat of writing a damaging book about their relationship,” Brafman said in a statement. “Despite withdrawing her initial threat, Ms. Ventura has now resorted to filing a lawsuit riddled with baseless and outrageous lies, aiming to tarnish Mr. Combs’s reputation and seeking a payday.” Ventura’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, said Combs had actually offered Ventura money for her silence, which she had declined.
But Ventura’s decision to come forward publicly opened the floodgates, and more reports of assault and abuse began pouring out.
Three other women say Diddy harmed them
Three other women have filed suit against Combs. In the second suit, Joi Dickerson-Neal says he drugged and raped her in 1991. In the third, Liza Gardner says that in 1990, he coerced her into sex and choked her, causing her to lose consciousness. Jonathan Davis, a lawyer for Combs, said in a statement to the Times that Combs denied these allegations as well: “Because of Mr. Combs’s fame and success, he is an easy target for accusers who attempt to smear him.”
In the most recent suit, the woman identified as Jane Doe says she was a junior in high school when she met then-Bad Boy president Harve Pierre and another Combs associate in Detroit. They convinced her to fly on their jet to New York, the suit says, where they and the rapper gave her drugs and alcohol and then violently raped her.
“Ms. Doe has lived with her memories of this fateful night for 20 years, during which time she has suffered extreme emotional distress that has impacted nearly every aspect of her life and personal relationships,” the suit says. “Given the brave women who have come forward against Ms. Combs and Mr. Pierre in recent weeks, Ms. Doe is doing the same.”
In response to that suit, Combs released a statement denying all reports of violence, calling them “sickening allegations” made “by individuals looking for a quick payday.” Pierre has also denied the allegations, saying in a statement to TMZ that “I have never participated in, witnessed, nor heard of anything like this, ever.”
Is this the music industry’s Me Too moment?
The growing number of reports, and their chilling details, have led companies and influential people in media and business to distance themselves from the rapper. Diageo, the beverage brand with which Combs partnered on vodka and tequila, removed his image from its website. Capital Preparatory Schools, a New York charter school network Combs helped expand, posted a statement on the school’s website saying it was cutting ties with him (though the statement was later removed). Combs also stepped aside as chair of Revolt, a TV network he helped start in 2013.
The cases against Combs are coming to light against a backdrop of other accusations against major figures in music. In November, a woman sued Neil Portnow, former head of the Grammy Awards, saying he had drugged and raped her in 2018. The same month, a former employee sued music executive L.A. “Babyface” Reid, saying he sexually assaulted and harassed her, leading to irrevocable damage to her career in the music industry.
They also occur at a time when Ye, a music and fashion mogul whose career has parallels with Diddy’s, has lost many of his brand partnerships after public antisemitic and racist statements as well as what many say was a years-long pattern of verbal abuse and harassment, which may have been kept quiet in part because his partnership was so lucrative for brands.
While the Me Too movement forced reckonings around sexual assault and harassment in industries from film to media to restaurants in 2017 and 2018, many in the music business felt that its biggest players were relatively unscathed. R. Kelly, for example, faced few consequences until Hampton’s widely watched 2019 docuseries Surviving R. Kelly drew renewed attention to the accusations, despite repeated allegations that he had sex with underage girls, several lawsuits, and even a 2008 criminal trial over child sexual abuse material. Many argued that the reason Kelly was given a pass for so long was that the women coming forward to report abuse by him were Black. In 2021, he was convicted of sex trafficking and sentenced to 30 years in prison; a second, 20-year sentence was added the following year (with all but one year to be served concurrently with the first sentence).
Three women stated publicly in 2017 that another influential music industry figure, Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons, had raped them. Like Kelly, he was the subject of a documentary focusing on the allegations, though he has not faced charges.
Now, Ventura and the other women filing suit are reporting violent rape, intimidation, and abuse by one of the biggest names in music, someone who symbolized the movement of hip-hop into both mainstream and high-end culture. Diddy in his heyday was an icon of power and influence in music, fashion, and business, and the lawsuits filed against him represent a new willingness to call that power to account.
They also serve as a reminder that the Me Too movement has made enduring changes, including influencing law and policy and creating a road map for survivors of assault to come forward and share their stories.