On the Record Attempts to Set the Record Straight for Black Women in Hip-Hop

Culture Features/Columns Gender Music Race

This was originally published on June 11, 2020 for Pitchfork.


The documentary On the Record opens by asking a question: “What is missing from #MeToo?” In the nearly three years since the hashtag went viral, the phrase has become a de facto movement, a derisive verb, and a platform for high-profile survivors in the entertainment industry and beyond. But despite originating from Tarana Burke, a Black woman, #MeToo has failed to provide a platform for the unique circumstances of Black women who dare to speak truth to power. They are frequently silenced, dismissed, or ignored, either pressured into racial solidarity or stigmatized by a hypersexual jezebel trope that justifies a higher burden of credibility. As Burke herself readily admits in the film, “A lot of Black women felt disconnected from #MeToo initially.”

On the Record attempts to reconcile with that painful truth, honing in on the experiences of Black women in the nascence of the hip-hop industry, and the impresario at the heart of it all, Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. The film centers around some of Simmons’ many survivors—mainly A&R executive Drew Dixon, as well as journalist Sil Lai Abrams and rapper Sheri Sher—and their journeys to come forward with their stories in the press. Every exposé that emerges is the result of an arduous process of reopening painful memories, ceaseless vetting and verification, and devastating fallout for the survivors. Presented side by side with the rise of Def Jam and hip-hop, On the Record shows the emotional toll of Black women’s trauma being perceived as an accepted cost of doing business. While filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s ambitious attempts to address so many critical threads of conversation about sexual assault, hip-hop, and Black women leave some nuances better served than others, the introduction of this film into the zeitgeist is an essential and welcome addition to a long-overdue conversation.

There was a brief period of time when this story almost never made it to the general public. On the Record lost distribution with Apple TV+ just two weeks before its premiere at Sundance Film Festival this past winter, after executive producer Oprah Winfrey pulled her support. It was soon revealed that while Simmons had pressured Winfrey, she had her own apprehensions about the doc and Dixon’s story. The premiere went from a triumphant moment of acknowledgement for Black survivors into a fight to avoid obscurity and erasure. Had HBO—the same network where Simmons once aired his iconic Def Comedy Jam series—not selected On the Record for their recent HBO Max rollout, the documentary could have easily collapsed into an urban legend, sustained by a whisper network of participants and early viewers.

Drew Dixon anchors the film as a former A&R executive who quickly rose in prominence during Def Jam’s early ’90s heyday. She played a fundamental role in amplifying artists and staying on the vanguard of trends at Def Jam, reshaping Method Man’s “All I Need” into a groundbreaking duet with Mary J. Blige. After her alleged 1995 rape at the hands of Simmons, she almost immediately moved over to Arista Records to work under the mentorship of legendary music exec Clive Davis, only to be sexually harassed by his replacement, L.A. Reid. She was trying to sign John Legend and Kanye West to Arista when her relationship with Reid completely deteriorated, after she continually rebuffed his advances.

As Dixon details her rise and fall in the industry, a familiar narrative comes into focus: her seat at the table came with the proviso of a heightened threshold for indecency, an expectation that she compartmentalize and minimize incidents like Simmons repeatedly exposing himself to her. It was an environment where women’s boundaries were not respected, and ultimately Dixon’s assault and harassment caused her to leave the industry altogether. Now it is difficult for her to disentangle music from trauma; she avoids engaging with some of the songs she helped make into hits. In the film, after her story becomes public in The New York Times, she nervously sits with her daughter waiting to hear what the (noticeably measured) response will be on Hot 97. “For 22 years, I took it for the team,” she says, adding, “I loved Russell, too.”

Since On the Record closely follows Dixon’s journey to come forward, Sheri Sher and Sil Lai Abrams don’t receive nearly as much screen time as they should. Sher, a member of the first all-female rap group, the Mercedes Ladies, only has around five minutes of screen time despite her crucial perspective: that of the women artists who fought for respect for their skills, only to be dismissed and treated as sex objects by the industry. Similar to Dixon, there’s an implication in the film that Sher’s alleged 1983 rape by Simmons and subsequent diminishment in the field represented a loss for the music world: Despite being hip-hop pioneers in the South Bronx, the Mercedes Ladies never released any official music or got a record deal.

For her part, journalist and activist Sil Lai Abrams offers a brief but agonizing account of the spiral that followed her 1994 sexual assault, when she was still working as a model and enmeshed in the music industry. Abrams first told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018 that she’d had an intermittent sexual relationship with Simmons that she clearly ended before her alleged rape, but On the Record doesn’t properly delve into the nuances of the situation, or the disorienting nature of sexual assault at the hands of a past intimate partner. Detailing a complicated survivor story is brave in and of itself, but as many Black women implicitly know, the mere allusion to a survivor’s sexual desires is often exploited, used to subtly reinforce a pervasive subconscious notion of the “cultural impossibility for Black women to be raped,” to quote seminal hip-hop feminist Dr. Joan Morgan in the film. Parsing all that out would have brought valuable new depth to the conversation.

The end of On the Record includes brief vignettes of other women’s stories, faces that fade into each other and echo fragments of the previous person’s trauma. The segment effectively highlights the magnitude of Simmons’ reach and harm in his heyday; there are women in fashion publicity, screenwriting, and modeling who detail various degrees of sexual and physical assault at his hands. In merely chronicling the scope of these allegations, the film’s focus shifts away from Black women in hip-hop. There is no easy choice to make here: A documentary that is tasked with accomplishing so much in the way of investigative, emotive, and pedagogical work, that is inherently intertwined with Simmons’ vast legacy, will have more to untangle than can easily be accomplished in just 95 minutes.

Along the way, experts and academics bring context to the overarching issue of misogynoir in hip-hop culture. Though misogyny against Black women is historically tied to the genre, its transition from a subculture to a mainstream market in the ’90s was accompanied by its aesthetic shift—a hypersexualization of Black women that hadn’t been as dominant in rap visuals previously. As the film draws connections to women who’ve dared to accuse Black men in the public eye, from Anita Hill to Desiree Washington, a robust picture emerges of how a white supremacist patriarchal construct is absorbed, echoed, and distilled for entertainment purposes, with the full expectation that Black women in the space stand in lockstep. While a bit didactic, these historical threads serve as an important reminder that the toxic expectation of race loyalty persists in highly visible spaces across movements, industries, and generations. Solidarity with Black men is the name of the game, and yet again Black women are the collateral damage.

It would be a disservice to imply that the problems detailed in On the Record are contained to the early years of hip-hop. Just last month, Chris Stylezz, the host of the Roc Nation-affiliated hip-hop party D’ussé Palooza, was confronted with dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct and assault, resulting in his termination and a new wave of discourse about the industry’s exploitative, gendered power imbalance. Charlamagne tha God, who continues to be the face of “The Breakfast Club,” arguably hip-hop’s biggest syndicated radio show, previously admitted to domestic abuse and faces credible allegations of rape against him. (He was even allowed to help lead the first high-profile interview of Simmons in months.) Despite the collective efforts to #MuteRKelly, not to mention the 22 federal criminal charges against the singer, his musical legacy still looms large in certain spaces, like on the popular Verzuz Instagram Live series. The calculus of acknowledging the pain of Black girls and women is still determined by how much it offsets the accepted threshold for collective sacrifice. As long as a legacy is critical enough to “the culture,” mechanisms are in place to protect abusers—positioning them as the victims, and the victims as living crime scenes.

Currently, Simmons resides in Bali, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. With the full support of his family, he has been engaging in an exculpatory tour of self-promotion via his unfettered social media presence, flipping #MeToo into #NotMe and posting open letters decrying the willful assassination of his character. Just yesterday morning, he used his “Breakfast Club” appearance to gaslight survivors, call out “toxic femininity,” and namedrop famous Black women who’ve had positive interactions with him, in some veiled attempt to inoculate himself from claims of assault. “I really don’t think we should be relitigating 30-year-old stories that had never been told,” Simmons said. Despite stepping down from his companies and philanthropic endeavors, his presence online as a wellness guru remains more or less unchallenged, while various friends in entertainment have stuck by his side. Is the man who sold rap to the world too big to be canceled? The answer remains to be seen, but hip-hop needs this reckoning—not just for Simmons’ survivors, but for all the Black women who’ve silenced themselves for the greater cause.

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