You Don’t Know the Real Tessa Thompson, and That’s by Design

Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s December/January 2021 issue.

Over dinner at Bar Centrale, a Theater District haunt in New York City, Tessa Thompson is discussing the scope of her work and how she processes it. Typical interview fare. Then comes the unexpected analogy to Sisqó. Back in the ’90s, she was visiting her dad, Chocolate Genius Inc. musician Marc Anthony Thompson, at a hotel when she realized that the R&B star and his group, Dru Hill, were staying there too. The famed “In My Bed” quartet had rolled up in an SUV blaring their tunes at full volume. “It was cool,” Thompson says, admiring the levels of self-affirmation. “I don’t typically Sisqó around the things I’m in. If I watch them, I’ve got like one viewing, you know?”

No matter; the rest of the world has its eyes locked on Thompson, 38, even if she has become adept at blocking out the collective glare. (In truth, she considers herself “an analog girl in a digital world” — à la Erykah Badu — and secretly wishes she could throw her phone in a lake somewhere.) The growing curiosity that swirls around her is a by-product of her undeniable talent, diverse filmography — the Marvel superheroine Valkyrie; a civil rights leader in Selma; a defiant artist-activist in Sorry to Bother You; a calculating boss lady turned robot in Westworld; a woman born out of Janelle Monáe’s vagina pants in the music video “Pynk” — and her ability to transmit an IDGAF attitude when it comes to any speculation about her personal life or style choices.

Tessa Thompson
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The Cost of Essential Work for Black Women

Originally published for Essence Magazine in digital and print in the September 2021 issue.

On any given day, Deatric Edie is at one of her three jobs managing fast-food establishments. A 42-year-old mother of four, she has been working in the service industry since she was 16—starting at Papa John’s and later adding McDonald’s and Wendy’s to her work day. The routine seems unfathomable. But with salaries, respectively, of nearly $10, $8.65 (the current minimum wage in Florida) and $11, she cannot take care of her family on one job.

Clocking in full shifts at each job, Edie barely has time to sleep or see her children, who are all in their teens and twenties, or her 7-month-old grandchild. She catches as much rest as she can during mandated breaks and by sneaking furtive naps in the bathroom. “My whole life is dedicated to working.” Her jobs are all run by franchise owners, who have not offered her paid sick leave. They have also actively maneuvered to eliminate as many opportunities for overtime as possible. Having had to take unpaid time off from June to August after a COVID infection—a leave she was forced to cut short in order to keep her McDonald’s job—she is now fighting an eviction notice. “My children and I once lived in my car for a year and a half, maybe longer than that,” she says. “I don’t want to have to go through that again.” 

In 2019, one of her sons encouraged her to get involved in the Fight for $15, which organizes workers locally and nationally to increase the federal minimum wage. Since then, she has advocated in the streets and door-to-door to raise support for a livable wage and safe working conditions. These needs only became more critical as the pandemic worsened. Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) were in limited supply. Not only were coworkers clocking in with positive COVID diagnoses, but customers were becoming increasingly hostile to CDC regulations.

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Angélique Kidjo Is Tapping the Next Generation to Speak Truth to Power

Originally published for Rolling Stone on May 21, 2021

One day in 1992, Angélique Kidjo walked into a magazine editor’s office and found herself being introduced over the phone to one of her all-time favorite artists.

“Someone said, ‘Mrs. Kidjo, Mr. Brown wants to talk to you,’” she recalls. In stunned disbelief, she replied, “Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa.” But it really was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, asking to talk to her.

“I almost dropped the phone,” she continues. “He was speaking, and I couldn’t understand, so I started singing. He picked up the song and I would do the bassline, I would do the guitar, I would do the drums — just like, crazy stuff.”

It’s just one of a sea of stories of Kidjo meeting and collaborating with all-time greats across generations. Over the course of her three-decade long career, Kidjo, 60, has dipped into the vast well of legendary artists and performers across the black diaspora — taking inspiration from South African artist and activist Miriam Makeba, Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz, Aretha Franklin, and many more. She has collaborated with many of the African continent’s greatest legends, from the bluesy stylings of Boubacar Traoré to Manu Dibango’s Cameroonian jazz saxophone lyricism.

After a storied career of paying her respects through endless innovation within black sonic canons, she has the distinct honor of being exalted on the level of the artists she adores, with young artists throughout the international black community often referring to her as “Ma” or grande soeur. Now, she is paying that respect forward wherever possible — including rounding out her latest album, Mother Nature, with collaborative features from emerging young artistic voices in the African continent and its diaspora, ranging from Nigerian star Burna Boy to Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang .

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Black Excellence Has Arrived on The Real Housewives of New York City

Originally published for The Cut on May 19, 2021

In the premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City’s 13th season, cast member Leah McSweeney waits patiently in Central Park as a petite Black woman strides into view sporting a mask adorned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the names Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey, and Raymond, also known as the Exonerated Five, who were convicted and later vacated of the aggravated assault and rape of a young white woman in Central Park. McSweeney would later go on to introduce the woman from the scene to Sonja Morgan as “Black-girl magic personified” and proceed to request her presence at the infamously anachronistic Morgan townhouse for brunch. Eboni K. Williams has made her grand entrance into the Real Housewives franchise, and true to the messaging in her debut book, Pretty Powerful, she is using all of the available tools at her disposal to make her mark.

“Everything I seek is owed to me,” Williams states unabashedly. “I also make it my first business to be worthy of everything — to show up in a capacity of unadulterated, unimpeachable excellence.” That conviction has brought her to a place where she feels she can set her own terms, introducing the New York Housewives to someone else’s experiences for the first time, as opposed to merely having them endure a culture shock.

Being the first to accomplish something is not an unfamiliar feeling for Williams: Her life and career have been punctuated by firsts, from being the first Black woman at her law firm to the first to host an early prime-time show on Fox News. “We all start connections, start conversations, and start developing ideas about one another before we utter a word,” Williams points out, doubling down on the ethos of Pretty Powerful, which emphasizes that the choice between substance and appearance is a false one. “I had a lot of intentionality around what I was trying to convey to this new group of friends and women, from the Central Park scene where I wear the Exonerated Five on my chest to the bold pink blazer-dress in Sonja Morgan’s townhouse, where I’m conveying femininity but also strength.” Her sartorial references are all crafted with an objective in mind, down to her donning a Howard sweatshirt in the distinctive pink-and-green color scheme associated with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a nod to the historically Black organization’s founding chapter as well as a subtle acknowledgment of Vice-President Kamala Harris, all reinforcing the central theme in her book: “an awareness and leveraging of how we package and present our femininity as an aesthetic that is uniquely authentic and impactful.”

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Tarana Burke Is Just Trying to Do Her Work

Originally published for The Cut on May 10, 2021.

In October of 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Since then, the term Me Too has taken on many forms: a viral hashtag, shorthand for a Hollywood reckoning, and a tongue-in-cheek barb. When she tweeted those words nearly four years ago, Milano didn’t know that a woman from the South Bronx had already invited survivors of sexual abuse to say “Me Too.”

Back then, Tarana Burke, a survivor herself, was working as an organizer and nonprofit leader in Selma, Alabama. In 2006, she’d founded the organization Just Be Inc., which focuses primarily on helping young girls of color who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation. It was in 2006 that she wrote “me too” on a MySpace page, emphasizing the notion that mass healing, particularly for Black girls, is a radical act of love, empathy, and community care.

Despite Me Too’s origins, many have wondered when Black women’s experiences would receive the same level of attention as high-profile exposés. #MuteRKelly was the culmination of a decade-long effort; and despite testimony from Beverly JohnsonBill Cosby’s reckoning was positioned as a response to white women’s accusations. The initial open letter from the Hollywood-led initiative Time’s Up was overwhelmingly signed by white women.

In recent years, however, multiple Black women have chosen to bravely come into the spotlight and share their stories. Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Jenny Lumet, and others boldly detailed their traumatic experiences with alleged serial predator Russell Simmons in interviews, reported exposés, and the award-nominated On the RecordFKA Twigs alleged that Shia LaBeouf abused her during their relationship, setting a new precedent by filing a tort claim with the intent of donating any damages to domestic violence charities. Rapper T.I. and wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris are facing allegations of sexual assault and facilitating abuse after dozens of messages surfaced on Instagram (the two have not been charged with any crime, and have denied all wrongdoing). Alleah Taylor was introduced to the world while fighting for her life after she was allegedly brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, former Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Chad Wheeler. Despite these horrors making it into the mainstream, there’s still a lack of intersectional analysis and acknowledgment of the nuanced differences for nonwhite survivors. And meanwhile, the public awaits a magical watershed moment for Black survivors.

As the movement continues to confront the harm exacted on Black lives, the question lingers: How do we establish a framework to protect Black survivors, particularly those who aren’t established public figures? The Cut spoke with Tarana Burke about the current state of Me Too, recent headlines about gendered violence in the Black community, and the effort to create anti-carceral community tools and networks of support for working-class Black women.

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Aya Nakamura – AYA

This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.

Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.

Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.

The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.

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Sil Lai Abrams Talks Russell Simmons & ‘On the Record’ Doc

This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.

For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood ReporterAbrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.

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How Megan Thee Stallion, Flo Milli, and Saweetie Dominated 2020

Originally published for Teen Vogue on August 18, 2020.

On March 6, Megan Thee Stallion released Suga, her third extended play project packed with nine bass-heavy tracks about rough sex, making money, and self-love. Anchored by the standout tracks “Savage” and “Captain Hook,” Megan delivered a tongue-in-cheek ode to unrepentant sexual pleasure while switching between rhyme schemes fast enough to give you whiplash.

What would follow was a year filled with women rapping about sexual agency and ensuring that they remain on the foreground of the conversation around hip-hop culture. City Girls, Saweetie, Flo Milli, Doja Cat, and Mulatto all released new music within a four-month span in 2020 as well. Megan’s two major hit songs: “Savage Remix” with Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B broke records. When taking account of 2020’s music distinctiveness, it should be heralded as a year when female rappers took laps around their contemporaries, one hit song after another.

Make no mistake: The power construct in music is still heavily informed by the cishet male gatekeepers of the hip-hop industry. As a genre that historically has served as a magnifying glass for the surrounding environment, patriarchy — and misogynoir in turn — has always received a platform.

But artists like Megan and Cardi B are leveraging their varied skills with a forceful reconstruction of the lascivious Jezebel stereotype that has long been affixed to Black women — removing the shame and immorality from sexual desire and highlighting the transactional power that has always existed. There is a wide range of women’s skill and talent to choose from who are centering their own pleasure and autonomy in a genre that has used the strip club as a litmus test for marketing viability of new songs for the better part of the current millennium.

Doja Cat quickly rose from her novelty single “Moo” off her debut album Amala into a bonafide international star, with singles such as “Juicy,” “Rules,” and “CyberSex,” exploring body positivity, sexual pleasure, and female agency — landing her a coveted feature from Nicki Minaj on the remix Billboard charting single “Say So” in May. Rapper Saweetie, for her part, has navigated the sweet spot of harnessing early 2000s nostalgia while still centering her agency in the song, flipping Petey Pablo’s classic crunk hit “Freek-A-Leek,” “My Type,” and more recently “Tap In.”

Simultaneously, Alabama rapper Flo Milli has quickly risen to relevance, being welcomed into the new vanguard of rappers — with co-signs from The City Girls and Missy Elliott — with her irreverent new project, aptly titled Ho, Why is You Here. Leaning into a brash, bratty timbre with lines that thrust you right into her unrepentant aesthetic, the 20-year-old’s music is as enjoyable as it is clever. “In the Party” and “Beef Flomix” respectively, and have become such cult hits that they can have been found as backing tracks in “fancams” within stan culture; her standout single “Weak” transposes the homonymous SWV track, repurposing it into a dismissive anthem about the failings of men. Her album follows suit accordingly, as each track grows more insolent and cocksure than the last.

The women’s posse is making a comeback too: the Thot Box (Remix) is a collective of up and coming women emcees (Chinese Kitty, Dream Doll, Young MA, Dreezy, and Mulatto) flexing their muscles in response to misogynoir. Cardi B, for her part, has alluded to working on a Ladies’ Night inspired song for her upcoming album.

But how does this moment in rap fit into the greater canon of women’s place in hip-hop history?

The conversation around female artists having agency and sermonizing the power of their sexuality is nothing new. At just 20 years old, a young Kimberly Jones stood alongside her childhood friends Notorious B.I.G. and other label mates in Junior M.A.F.I.A. In a taut 4’11 package, the video for the single “Get Money” off of the group’s debut album, Conspiracy, panned over to a brown-skinned Lil’ Kim, reclining in a salon chair donning a fur, gold chain, and a strapless red dress, while she delivers line after line of erotic haymakers, flexing her sexual power and agency under a mind-blowing flow. Not long after, Lil’ Kim’s career shot into the next gear, with her own debut album, Hardcore, serving as a cultural anchor and template for a new era of women in rap.

As Kim said in the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, “I was supposed to be the girl that was cute and made the guys look good, but I liked being vulgar and explicit sometimes because it made me feel free.”

This disruption was not without significant backlash — as the infamous quote goes, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Coming out of the era dominated by of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and the graphic language reserved for the Biggies and the Jay-Zs of the world, many viewed Kim’s content as oversexed, lewd, and anti-feminist, as opposed to a complement to the content that the other women were producing, similarly to how the Rapsodys and Nonames of the contemporary era are positioned.

Fast forward to present day and the raunchiness that shocked the charts with Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, Foxy Brown’s Ill Na NaMissy and Trina’s “One Minute Man,” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” is still just as subversive — but far less uncommon. A whole new class of young women are rising to the occasion of inverting the norms of male objectification for their benefit in their music. As scholar and authority of hip-hop feminism, Joan Morgan writes in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships — and we accommodate accordingly.”

In the 90s, Lil’ Kim redefined the “alpha” role in hip hop music — and in contemporary times, we see an ascendance of that same perspective, to an overwhelmingly positive reception by the artists’ receptive fanbases, which is a welcome change of circumstances from decades ago. That re-centering of erotic power through women going bar for bar with each other or standing on their own, far from eradicates the industry-standard hip-hop misogyny that still runs rampant, but it allows for having a choice in your relationship with intimacy in hip-hop and power dynamics that is far more expansive than just the cishet male’s perspective.

‘The Breakfast Club’ Calls Itself “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show” — Maybe It’s Time We Listen

This was originally published for OkayPlayer on June 16, 2020.

When Power 105.1’s lynchpin morning show The Breakfast Club ⁠— hosted by Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee ⁠— launched in December 2010, Hot 97 was still the Number 1 “urban contemporary” radio station in New York City, standing strong atop the shoulders of legends such as Angie Martinez and Funkmaster Flex. Nine months after its launch, the show had not gained much ground, teetering on the brink of dissolution.

It was a fateful morning call from jack-of-all-industries Willie “Ray J” Norwood Jr breathlessly recounting his distorted perspective of an altercation with Fabolous in Las Vegas the night before that turned their fortunes around. Quotables about “disrespecting the money team” became entrenched in urban radio lore, reaffirming a tried and true lesson that helped build some of the biggest empires in radio, including that of Charlamagne’s longtime mentor Wendy Williams — controversy and sensationalism obtain views, whether they love or hate it. 

Since having Ray J as their first breakout guest, The Breakfast Club‘s Rolodex of guests have expanded in niche and pedigree as they have cemented themselves as the number 1 morning show in urban contemporary media in the greater New York area. Their roster of guests has ranged from artists promoting their latest release to Democratic primary candidates looking to use the iHeartMedia syndicated Breakfast Club as a hip platform to speak to target demographics for voter turnout. The rubric for programming, however, has continued to adhere to a golden rule: information and accessibility may be a benefit of their now-prominent platform, but it is only secondary to entertainment at all costs ⁠— no matter the potential harms of the communities that they purportedly aim to entertain. Donning the moniker “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show,” The Breakfast Club continues to maintain cultural currency by trading in this virality and adopting the ethos of “it’s provocative, it gets the people going,” that is embodied in the show’s most polarizing host Charlamagne, infamous for pushing the most lecherous shock jock commentary on guests (particularly women) to the point he has become inextricable from the Breakfast Club brand. 

One such notable example of that ethos took place in 2016 with the planned appearance of Tomi Lahren ⁠— at the time a quickly rising upstart in conservative media ⁠— on the airwaves of Black urban radio’s preeminent morning show, barely a month after Donald Trump had been elected into office. Despite the booking being canceled by Lahren’s team due to the overwhelming backlash over her appearance on The Daily Show, Charlamagne persisted in engaging a social outing with her, retorting: “Do you want diplomacy or do you want division? I’m talking to Tomi because I care about the rhetoric that comes out of her mouth because she has influence — and the narrative she paints about movements like [Black Lives Matter] is dangerous. The same way people can hit her up on social media and tell her how wrong she is, I can meet with her and tell her the same things.” It’s a curious logic that manipulates the need to embrace the neoliberal need for compromise and continuous discourse, which will always be at odds with the irreconcilable truth of conservative media’s foundational ethos of unshakeable moral conviction. 

The argument fails to hold muster when she was heralded by Charlamagne as a template that other women in media should aspire to, writing in a since-deleted tweet: “would be dope if a young black or Hispanic ‘WOKE’ woman used social media to create a Platform to be a voice like Tomi Lahren did.” Strangely enough, such a declaration operates in the same rhetoric often associated through the conservative right media, wild conjecture with no material basis, in fact, dismissing context that allows for specific circumstances — in Lahren’s case, her backing by Glenn Beck’s network, TheBlaze. When roundly presented with a bevy of women’s voices that already exist, he addressed it on the radio show, asking with bewilderment, “…how do we amplify their voices?”

Another such transgression involved comedian and recording artist Lil Duval. The garish 3-minute sequence detailed violence against trans women to raucous laughter and mild chiding about “political correctness,” barely a week after writer, director, producer, and trans activist Janet Mock appeared on the show. At one point, DJ Envy says, “I love when Duval is up here, he be acting a fool,” mere moments after intentionally presenting Mock’s book in Duval’s field of vision, leading to Mock being forcefully misgendered on live air. As Mock said herself in an essay response, “On a black program that often advocates for the safety and lives of black people, its hosts laughed as their guest advocated for the murder of black trans women who are black people, too!” 

In a self-assessment of their accountability, not only were the malicious messages redistributed, but the collective also refused to accept any complicity in material harms, soliciting viewer feedback to affirm themselves, and only opening the trans community to further derogatory comments to be said on-air. Instead of truly assessing their responsibility to the Black communities they serve, the discussion diverted into whether or not they should be held to the offense over something a guest said and has refused to apologize for, ignoring media’s responsibility in framing, directing, and guiding discussions. Since then, Duval has appeared on the Breakfast Club twice more, unfettered.  

In a repetition of the animus behind Lahren’s presence, a more recent incident involved a highly-publicized interview with Rush Limbaugh amid one of the biggest nationwide fights for transformative accountability of the state-sanctioned death of Black lives lost through police brutality. In an echo of the rationale for inviting Lahren four years prior, grounds were presented on the basis of introducing Limbaugh’s platform to the gravity of the Black community’s plight. The rhetoric hit all of the predictable points: circling around the drain around white privilege; white supremacy; and explaining how individual Black accomplishments don’t dismantle systemic issues — all in the shadow of George Floyd’s memory. While Charlamagne — who would later say the discussion was a “corporate” decision from iHeartMedia  — may have insisted, “I’m not letting nobody politicize black pain,” a pre-taped segment that inevitably devolves into discourse for discourse’s sake does exactly that. The segment forced audiences to endure a tête-à-tête over the “liberal, political constructs” that Limbaugh categorically rejects. As Toni Morrison is famously quoted as saying, “racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” There was no substantive reason to engage in this exercise in masochism. However, for the Black audiences that consume the show and are overwhelmed by the delicate choreography that is just existing at the moment, being confronted by that dismissal in yet another space that is primarily sectioned off for them extends beyond unproductive and into firmly counter-revolutionary.

Most recently, the platform extended a friendly invitation to “godfather of hip-hop” Russell Simmons, currently under scrutiny for multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment as several of his survivors tell their stories in the documentary On the Record. Warmly greeted with the honorific “Uncle Russ,” he is granted an unfettered and largely unchallenged space to push his counter-narrative on the largest urban platform from his remote enclave in Bali. Safe from any extradition laws, Simmons insisted that his bevy of romantic relationships with women in Hollywood that have transitioned into extended platonic relationships – in addition to his inclusive hiring practices – inoculate him from criticism. When pressed, he parried with “I really don’t think we should be relitigating 30-year-old stories that had never been told,” a statement that is incorrect considering his accusers — Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, and Sil Lai Abrams — have alluded to the stories in public in various capacities. He alleged that “any investigative reporter would tell you that those stories would have been printed,” dismissing the thorough work of the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter investigative teams. Perhaps most troubling about this interview was that it was allowed to be co-led by Charlamagne tha God, a man with his own documented history of admitted gendered domestic violence of his very own. As of yet, none of the women featured in the documentary have been invited to speak their own truth to power on the platform. (Ed note: Sil Lai Abrams appeared on The Breakfast Club for an interview with Angela Yee the day after this post was published.)

Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Breakfast Club’s contracts are slated to end at the close of the year, rounding out a strong 10-year run. Rumors have persisted that Charlamagne, who has gone on to publish a New York Times bestseller, have a top-rated podcast, several TV shows, and a spinoff interview platform of his own, is unlikely to return, ending the reign of the brand by default. At this moment in time, it may be for the best. The aim of Black media platforms shouldn’t be to replicate the harmful norms and standards of their mainstream counterparts. It should be to set a new one that centers Black issues and content in a meaningful and thoughtful manner. The Breakfast Club has shown that they want to lead the market but not lead the conversation, and when times are more tumultuous than ever, to accept that as an adequate approach to media is a disservice to the increasingly scarce platforms that serve our communities. 

In a 2016 profile for VultureCharlamagne said that there were two critical things to have a finger on to stay on top in the social-media era: “How to keep a conversation going and when to change it.” The trio has made skillful mastery of the former in the annals of their Tribeca Studio. However, on the latter, change commonly seems to come after reprisal and not from a place of thought leadership. Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but the burden of desiring to be the preeminent space for courting heavily trafficked conversations throughout different subsections of the Black community comes with a remit to stay on the vanguard of those conversations with empathy and care. Until that becomes the established priority, they will continue to be challenged on the merits of their programming.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to allegations against Charlamagne tha God. Since we do not have additional reporting to add to this case, and instead linked to a Daily Beast article published on July 26, 2018, we have removed the wording from the piece. 

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

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.