HBO’s “On The Record” Asks: Will You Believe The Black Women Of Hip-Hop?
On the Record, the new HBO Max documentary about sexual assault allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, is a powerful — and complicated — look at what’s at stake for black women who come forward with claims of sexual abuse.
Drew Dixon, once a promising A&R executive at Def Jam and Arista Records, could have been a household name by now. An early champion of artists like The Notorious B.I.G., John Legend, and Kanye West, she had always boasted a passion for hip-hop and an impressive ear for talent. Why she never became a full-fledged industry legend is revealed in On the Record, a new HBO Max documentary out now that follows Dixon and other women who claim that hip-hop legend and business mogul Russell Simmons sexually assaulted them. To date, at least 20 women have accused Simmons of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Simmons has vehemently denied all allegations. Simmons’ publicist did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News in time for publication.
Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaking duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground), the film has been mired in controversy from the start. Oprah Winfrey signed onto the project in December 2019, much to the criticism of Simmons and his supporters (including rapper 50 Cent, who said he “doesn’t understand why Oprah is going after black men”). But on January 10, Winfrey withdrew as co-executive producer of the project ahead of its Sundance premiere, citing creative differences and concerns about “inconsistencies in the stories.” The film’s distribution deal with Apple TV+ — which has a multiyear, content partnership with Winfrey — was also pulled, leaving the film in limbo, to potentially never be seen by a wider audience. Still, in an appearance on CBS This Morning on January 21, Winfrey dismissed the idea that her backing off was an exoneration for Simmons, saying, “I stand with the women. I support the women. And I do hope people will see the film... Make your own decisions about it.”
Audiences at Sundance did have their own takeaways, made clear with multiple standing ovations. A Variety review said the film “plunges deeper than perhaps any #MeToo narrative we’ve seen” while Entertainment Weekly called it “brutal, heartbreaking, and — with or without Oprah’s co-sign — utterly necessary.” The documentary’s fate was unclear throughout the festival’s duration, but on February 3, WarnerMedia’s new streaming platform HBO Max announced it had acquired the film.
Given the subject matter, not to mention the newness of HBO Max, it’s hard to predict definitively whether On the Record will make the waves the films’ participants are hoping for. A wide release via streaming may very well serve as a litmus test for whether the #MeToo movement (in its current, popular state) truly serves women of color. Meanwhile, some people have been skeptical about whether two white filmmakers can validly portray the story of alleged black sexual assault survivors (or whether it’s their business to attempt it in the first place). The drama around the documentary’s release, as well as the controversy over the film’s contents, isn’t surprising; together they highlight the complex barriers that black women face in fighting sexual violence within their community and in the public eye — and what, in the midst of that fight, has been lost.
Early in the film, Dixon walks the streets of now-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, stomping grounds she shared with the late Christopher Wallace (rapper Notorious B.I.G.). “I always wonder what would’ve happened if Biggie had lived,” she says. “I feel like Biggie had my back.”
It’s a moment I pointed out over the phone to Dixon when we spoke earlier this month, due to the fact that, while Biggie — like Simmons — was an immense, influential, and beloved talent, he was also allegedly violent with his former romantic partner and fellow rapper Lil’ Kim. She responded thoughtfully: “The contrast between my experience with [Biggie] as a friend and the experience that other people had with him in terms of domestic violence makes the point that this isn't binary. People have different aspects of their personality. And in Russell's case, there are many people that have had interactions with him that I'm sure are completely delightful, productive, benign, harmless, and they never saw the side of him that I saw that night.”
In On the Record as well as her New York Times story, Dixon discusses how she had grown accustomed to brushing off Simmons’ advances while working at Def Jam Records. She alleges he had verbally come on to her, tried to kiss her, and eventually began exposing his penis to her in private — all acts for which he’d apologize following each incident. “I thought that he was like this tragic, ADD puppy dog that I just had to keep retraining,” says Dixon in the film. At the time, she was solely focused on proving herself professionally, curating a platinum-selling soundtrack and helping to produce a Grammy-winning hit. And her decision to brush off Simmons’ behavior seemed to be par for course in the burgeoning world of hip-hop at the time. “When things went awry, if things were uncomfortable, if they were misogynist, if they were sexist, you didn’t get a lot of sympathy for that,” explains hip-hop feminist and author Joan Morgan in the documentary. “That was considered the price of admission.”
“There are many people that have had interactions with him that I'm sure are completely delightful, productive, benign, harmless, and they never saw the side of him that I saw that night.”
But one late night in 1995, according to Dixon, Simmons’ come-ons became much more sinister. As Dixon was heading home, Simmons encouraged her to wait for a car back at his apartment, so she could grab a promising demo he had waiting there. A fervent hip-hop lover, the potential to discover new music was “like catnip” for Dixon. But there was no actual demo; instead, Simmons allegedly “violently tackled and raped” her, despite her fighting and saying no. A week later, the 24-year-old submitted a handwritten letter of resignation from her dream job. For years, Dixon told me, she thought she was “the only person he’d tricked into being alone with him and then raped.”
Author, activist, and former model Sil Lai Abrams had also worked at Def Jam Records, but a few years earlier as an executive assistant, in 1992. She and Simmons even casually dated, according to Abrams. But in 1994, while Abrams was in a committed relationship with another man (and had told Simmons as much), Simmons allegedly raped her when she was too drunk to consent. In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter story on Abrams’ claims, Simmons denied he had raped her and claims to have "passed a lie detector test answering 'No' to questions about whether he had assaulted, raped or forced anyone to have sex, including Ms. Abrams." Abrams says in the documentary that she left that night traumatized and, the next day, took 18 prescription sleeping pills before kissing her 3-year-old son goodbye. She was then rushed to the ER.
For many, the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017 felt like a watershed moment. But just over a decade before it became a Hollywood-friendly hashtag, it was founded by Tarana Burke, a black activist and sexual assault survivor interviewed in On the Record. And according to Anita Hill, that empowering cultural shift we saw three years ago could have occurred even earlier had she been taken more seriously in 1991, when testifying about alleged sexual harassment from Clarence Thomas. Facing an all-white-male panel led by Joe Biden, Hill was put through the wringer, her moral character unfairly questioned in attempts to discredit her. And so she became a cautionary tale.
“I remember my senior year at Stanford, watching the Anita Hill hearings. I was like, Well, that didn’t go very well for her. He’s in the Supreme Court now. I’m never going to do that,” says Dixon in the documentary. “And I remember Desiree Washington, who was the pageant winner who was raped by Mike Tyson. And the black community was not kind to her.”
Victim-blaming remains a pervasive response to stories of sexual assault survivors, but the issues facing black women — who have been deemed less innocent, more promiscuous, and “unrapeable” — are thornier. Many of Weinstein’s alleged victims were privileged, attractive white women and still subject to skepticism. “If this docile and sweet and innocent and pure [white woman] can still get questioned and not believed and discounted, what do you think is happening to black women in America when we come forward with stories about sexual violence?” asks writer Shanita Hubbard in the film.
Black women are more likely to be raped than other women overall, yet less likely to report and less likely to be believed.
Indeed, black women are more likely to be raped than other women overall, yet less likely to report and less likely to be believed, not to mention less likely to have their perpetrators arrested, prosecuted — and if it gets this far — convicted or punished. And while the stats are bleak enough, if perpetrators come from their community, black women face an added dilemma: what duties they have to protect their own.
“Your responsibility to muffle your screams is greater than his responsibility not to do it in the first place,” says legal scholar and civil rights advocate Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in the film. Many black women don’t want to hurt these men they collectively call their brothers (and, in the case of the accused Simmons, “Uncle Rush”). This impulse toward preservation goes beyond a broad, familylike kinship: When the criminal justice system is notoriously vicious to black men — and incarcerates them disproportionately — engaging with it seems out of the question.
Historically, black men have too often been wrongly targeted as being violent threats and/or rapists, despite the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ consistent finding that white men commit the majority of acts of sexual violence. “We’re gonna add fuel to the fire, the myth of the sexually aggressive black man? I don’t want to do that. I wanted Russell to be a hero too,” Dixon says in On the Record. “For 22 years, I took it for the team. Russell Simmons is the king of hip-hop, and I was proud of him for that… I didn’t want to let the culture down. I love the culture. I loved Russell too.”
If people seem especially protective of Simmons’ name and legacy, it’s because of his foundational role in bringing hip-hop to larger audiences through his label Def Jam Records; for years Russell Simmons was an essential ambassador for the genre. One of the women featured in On the Record, Sheri Sher, was born and raised in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. Raised in an 11-kid household by a struggling single mom, the 14-year-old found an escape from a volatile home life in hip-hop. She fondly recalls jams at 63 Park — a concrete schoolyard — amid the “hood-famous” likes of Grandmaster Flash, the L Brothers, and DJ Kool Herc. “What made me fall in love with it more was the things being rapped,” Sheri Sher (she goes by her stage name) told me on the phone from her Harlem home. “You were able to tell about what you're going through on the mic. And everybody understood it. It was just a happy vibe.”
“For 22 years, I took it for the team. Russell Simmons is the king of hip-hop, and I was proud of him for that… I didn’t want to let the culture down. I love the culture. I loved Russell too.”
Sheri Sher became a founding member of the legendary Mercedes Ladies, the first-ever all-women hip-hop/DJ group. For a time, Simmons was considering managing the girls. In 1983, when Sheri Sher was 17, Simmons invited her to his office and allegedly raped her on his couch. “He was pinning me down, and I was trying to fight him and he had his way,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. (“These new stories range from the patently untrue to frivolous and hurtful claims,” Simmons told the Times at the time. “I want to restate categorically what I have said previously: I have never been violent or abusive to any women in any way at any time in my entire life.”) The teen left crying and told a few people close to her, but otherwise kept quiet for decades; she didn’t want it to overshadow or kill her hip-hop goals.
Some might argue that Simmons’ alleged treatment of these women is also endemic in hip-hop. (Though Simmons says his sexual encounters have all been consensual, even he admits to being a womanizer in the past.) But that argument assumes a narrow, stereotypical understanding of what hip-hop involves compared to what it has actually been — an expressive art for the overlooked, rooted in struggle, pride, and resilience.
There’s a danger in thinking that misogyny is only limited to hip-hop. On the Record serves up tracks by the Beatles, Tom Jones, and the Rolling Stones (whose song “Some Girls” includes the lyric “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night”) to prove how misogyny and sexism have been baked into popular music throughout modern history. Hip-hop has simply mirrored society at large, and therefore the white patriarchal power structures we’re accustomed to.
Still, hip-hop has so far failed massively in holding its allegedly abusive men accountable — an especially egregious failure when considering black women are often the ones being hurt. While it’s undoubtedly male-dominated, black women have long been central to its architecture and progress, as both adherents and artists. And over the past few years in particular, despite odds and barriers, women have begun to dominate the field.
When four black women solo artists just recently broke ground at the top of the US charts, the feat was both triumphant and overdue. And it’s worth questioning — though perhaps impossible to answer — whether these types of milestones might have happened earlier if hip-hop were a more supportive, respectful, and safe environment for women. Cardi B, another historymaker, spoke to Cosmopolitan in 2018 about harassment pre-fame: “When I was trying to be a [video] vixen, people were like, ‘You want to be on the cover of this magazine?’ Then they pull their dicks out.” (“These producers and directors, they’re not woke, they’re scared,” she added, regarding certain men publicly voicing their support of #MeToo.)
On the Record laments the cultural contributions we’ve missed out on. Neither Dixon nor Sheri Sher lost their love of hip-hop or ambition within it following their alleged assaults; they say they were silent partly because they wanted to stay in the game. But they dimmed themselves and their truth in doing so. Though Sheri Sher published a book on the Mercedes Ladies, she told me she called it a novel instead of a straight-up autobiography, as she was concerned that otherwise Simmons would blackball her or overshadow the project. (In one of the book’s chapters, main character Shelly Shel is sexually assaulted by a powerful businessman named Ron.)
Dixon went on to work under Clive Davis at Arista Records — a positive experience. But when Davis retired, L.A. Reid took over and Dixon said he harassed her, treating her with hostility when she rebuffed his advances. (Reid denied this claim to the filmmakers, calling Dixon’s allegations “unfounded, not true, and represent a complete misrepresentation and fabrication of any facts or events alleged therein as having occurred.”) Demoralized, Dixon eventually quit the music industry altogether to go to Harvard Business School. (Reid left Sony abruptly 15 years later amid sexual harassment allegations.) Abrams also quit fashion after Simmons allegedly raped her: “I didn’t want to do anything where I would see people who were adjacent to this man.”
"When people get out for those kinds of reasons, I think that us, as the public, we suffer because we don’t know what they could’ve produced or what they could have brought,” says former A&R executive Miguel Mojica in the film. Adds writer and former Ebony editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo in the film, “We lose — we all lose — when brilliant women go away.”
On the Record does a lot of heavy lifting — and some critics have suggested that it’s perhaps too much for one film to carry. But this aspect seems fitting when the film is largely about the onerous burden placed upon black women when dealing with issues of sexual violence. And what the documentary does particularly well is focus on the women and their journey, rather than centralizing Simmons.
Right before her story in the Hollywood Reporter went live in 2018, Abrams googled herself and screenshotted the results. She wanted a way to remember her digital footprint before she’d be forever linked to the men she’s accused of sexual assault: Simmons and the entertainment host A.J. Calloway. (Calloway, whose lawyer said the allegations are “patently false” in February 2019, parted ways with Warner Bros. last July after the company investigated multiple misconduct claims against the former Extra host.) She said the loss of her old identity is something she still mourns. “I knew that coming forward, all of the work that I've done to establish myself as a credible advocate and activist for survivors of gender violence would become secondary to the identities of the perpetrators,” Abrams told me.
What the documentary does particularly well is focus on the women and their journey, rather than centralizing Simmons.
She also refuted the common claim that accusing a famous man of sexual assault is a beneficial or lucrative move. “As a matter of fact, you lose money as a result, and that’s certainly been the case for me,” said Abrams, who says she had approximately 300 speaking engagements over the course of her career prior to coming forward, and none since.
“What I did not anticipate was that I would have a new relationship with this information. Essentially, I had to process it for the first time. It was like unmetabolized information,” says Dixon in the film. After her story broke, the mother of two says she sought a divorce upon realizing she still had to process her trauma and new identity. “It was literally like pressing ‘play’ on a movie that I had paused 22 years ago, in the middle of the scariest scene.”
It’s hard to ignore how projects like On the Record have the potential to retraumatize and mistreat survivors; there’s the anxiety over sharing one of the most harrowing moments of your life with the world, as well as the neverending press days where journalists and writers, like myself, repeatedly ask you to revisit those moments. (The fact that I conducted these deeply personal interviews while each woman was in quarantine — possibly making the experience even more emotionally draining and isolating — was not lost on me.) And it seems Hollywood is still navigating how to best tell #MeToo narratives. Surviving R. Kelly, for example, was called “deeply flawed” and “ham-handed and sensationalized,” with Vulture noting the tabloidesque docuseries was “too interested in the particulars of what R. Kelly did to these women’s bodies to fully care about their humanity.” But while On the Record unpacks and examines trauma, its methods don’t feel exploitative; the film focuses on reckoning and finding paths forward rather than mining shock value or salacious details.
And though having white filmmakers frame this topic is perhaps a contentious, imperfect approach — Ziering admits some of the subjects even had reservations about this aspect early on — it might also have been a necessity: “A lot of this is about power, right? And ecosystems of power. All of us have kept our stories to ourselves for decades. And there are people within that ecosystem who knew our story, and some of those people are filmmakers — it’s an entertainment industry story after all. But nobody told our story because the people who knew our story were subject to the same ecosystem,” Dixon said, answering an audience question after the Sundance premiere. “And to me, this is where allies matter. Allies who are not subject to that same dynamic. They have traction that they can use to pull you forward, centering you with deference — which they did — to tell the story because they are not subject to the same incoming that even powerful black people are subject to. And so, to me, this is why the filmmakers are white, because they don’t have the same vulnerability.” In considering this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the first person to publicly accuse Simmons of sexual assault was model Keri Claussen Khalighi — a white woman. (He denied Khalighi’s claim, saying whatever transpired “occurred with her full consent and participation.”)
“It is my hope that those who see this film and who may be on the fence about reporting an act of violence, of telling their story to someone they trust, that they are inspired to know that there is life after.”
By providing a safe space for these women to share their stories, identities are clearly changed in ways painful and raw, but in positive ways too. Abrams hopes that her story serves as a message to alleged perpetrators (and potential perpetrators) that what happens in private can become public and bring consequences, irrespective of whether or not they end up incarcerated. She also sees it as an act of service for survivors.
“When you speak up and tell your story, it takes away the power that perpetrators have of weaponizing your internal shame against you. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I did nothing wrong so I will not carry that burden,” said Abrams. “It is my hope that those who see this film and who may be on the fence about reporting an act of violence, of telling their story to someone they trust, that they are inspired to know that there is life after.”
When Sheri Sher came forward with her story, she likened it to being finally healed from a virus; she felt “powerful, fearless.” Dixon also felt a sense of liberation. “As soon as I told the world that I was a woman who was raped by Russell Simmons, I stopped being defined by that for myself,” she told me, acknowledging the irony. “So I'm actually no longer the woman who was raped by Russell Simmons. I'm Drew Dixon living my life.”
Time will tell whether Simmons faces any major consequences. But hope remains that On the Record can contribute to a wider societal shift, pushing for accountability and encouraging meaningful allyship. There’s a beautiful solidarity to be witnessed among the people — mostly black women — who participated in the documentary, many of whom took considerable personal and professional risks to be featured. They’ve come together for the sake of supporting each other, generously sharing their lives and knowledge with the world. And sure, maybe that’s arguably quid pro quo for a documentary, but the stakes feel particularly high here. With the release of On the Record and its potential ensuing dialogue, this is a chance to — finally — begin to do right by black women everywhere. ●
Sandi Rankaduwa is a Sri Lankan Canadian writer, comedian, and filmmaker who’s written for the Believer, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed Reader, and elsewhere. She's a recipient of the BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship as well as the Doc Accelerator Fellowship at Hot Docs, and she splits her time between Brooklyn and Halifax.