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 Reporter. Abrams 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.
The 50-year-old is one of the main subjects of HBO Max’s recently released documentary On The Record, which documents the precarious experiences of Black women in hip-hop, and the toxic influence of one of its so-called “godfathers.” Def Jam’s Russell Simmons played an instrumental role in the genre’s rise — he’s also been publicly accused of sexual assault or impropriety by at least 20 women. (The accusations span women who he associated with in the late ’80s and early ’90s up until present day — the most recent woman came forward 2018). The documentary, created by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, is an attempt to extend empathy and validation to Black women like Sil Lai Abrams, and fellow survivors Drew Dixon, a record label executive, and Sheri Sher, a member of the Mercedes Ladies, hip-hop’s first all-female rap group — and recenter Black women’s contributions in the entertainment industry at large. Like other documentaries made in the post Me Too era (for example, Surviving R. Kelly), the film exposes the unique consequences that befall Black women who dare come forward.
But its release has been stymied by several bumps in the road. In January, Oprah Winfrey, the film’s original distributor, walked away from the project just two weeks before it was slated to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival after persistent social media pressure from Simmons himself. (Simmons has consistently denied all of the allegations against him, stating “all of my relations have been consensual.”) In June, Simmons was invited on Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club” to discuss the allegations levied against him. “It adds insult to injury that they would provide Russell the space to retraumatize us,” Abrams says.
She spoke to the Cut about her journey, going public, the fallout from Simmons’s “Breakfast Club” interview, and her path forward as a survivor. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to the decision to name Russell Simmons publicly as the person who assaulted you?
I wrote about two men that assaulted me in my first book, which was published in 2007. I thought, “You could put names.” And then I said, “Absolutely not.” Karrine Steffans’s book came out maybe a year or two before mine did, and at that time, there was a trend of these exposés from Black women around the industry naming Black men and talking about their exploits. I have always been committed to the underlying issues that Black women face that continue to keep us marginalized, dehumanized, and violated. There was no way that I would invoke his name or any famous person’s name. He took away from the work and I knew that.
I did a Google search of my name the night before the Hollywood Reporter piece dropped, and I have it saved on my computer. Every so often, I look at it and I mourn being someone who was known for her work and not by the harm that was inflicted on her by a serial predator. I’m just reduced to “Russell Simmons’s rape accuser,” and that is yet another act of violence. Erasure is violent. When I first came out, my name was used; years later, I’m now just an accuser? Before, it was “Sil Lai Abrams, writer and activist accuses”; now it’s just, “Russell Simmons’s accuser.” Who the hell wants that?
What was your reaction to hearing that “The Breakfast Club” invited Russell Simmons to be a guest on the show?
Abrams: My immediate reaction was stunned disbelief. Charlamagne himself has a history of alleged violence against Black women. [Charlamagne, AKA Lenard Larry McKelvey, was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in 2001, and pled guilty to the lesser charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor]. But still, it still really struck me as incredibly tone deaf. I was incensed — I couldn’t really sleep. I woke up early, and at 6 a.m. began tweeting about it. It was disheartening. I didn’t have great expectations of “The Breakfast Club”; they’re radio personalities, not journalists. But at the same time, can you not read the room? Russell is the Harvey Weinstein of the hip-hop world. And it was a terrible miscalculation on Russell’s part to think that he could try and control the narrative the way that he has done from behind the scenes for so long.
Even if these are gossipy outlets, they’re still also covering powerful protests and issues that impact our communities. So rape and sexual violence, workplace harassment, serial predation of women — of Black women — should be worthy of being covered on these specific types of platforms. But they refuse to do it because they’re beholden to Russell. I hope that “The Breakfast Club” will think twice before they make a decision to bring on another serial predator of Black women or any people.
Part of Simmons’s response to the allegations has been to bring up his relationship to lots of famous Black women — seemingly to inoculate himself from critique. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Russell, as part of his campaign, regularly invokes his daughters. He is a father — constantly on social media with his children to create this persona of a loving, doting man who therefore couldn’t be capable of sexual assault. But having daughters is not a vaccination against abusive, violent behavior towards women.
When he brings up [women he’s supposedly dated] like Stacey Dash or Robin Givens, my question is, “Did you ask for their consent before trying to use them as a shield?” He said that he stays friends with women that he dated. Well, I was his friend after we dated and he raped me. So that’s completely irrelevant. He promised me that we would be friends forever before raping me hours later.
Even on social media, Russell chooses to use images of women that some people really look up to who are still his friends — even after all these allegations — as a way to signal to the world, “You see, I’m a good guy because Tamika Mallory is still my friend. See, I’m a good guy because Valeisha Butterfield Jones is still my friend.” In those cases, he is making it very clear, as are these women.
He responded to Jenny Lumet’s [an actress and screenwriter who accused Simmons of sexual assault in 1991] report by saying, “I believe her, but I also passed nine [lie detector] tests because I believe me.” It was infuriating that he would basically say, “I’m sorry that you felt that I raped you but I misread your signal.” But then he goes on to insinuate that the rest of us are lodging these complaints or allegations against him because some of us want to be “famous or infamous.”
I would like to disabuse anybody who’s reading this of the idea that a survivor will come forward and accuse a wealthy and famous perpetrator for clout. Particularly if you’re a Black woman, you will essentially be banished and blacklisted from many Black spaces, especially if you are someone — which the majority of his victims that have come forward are — positioned or working within fashion, entertainment, or other related industries. You can’t escape him, he’s ubiquitous.
What happened after Oprah walked away from the project?
I felt so bad for Drew. She is the main focus of this film — and he was so specific in trying to take her out, my heart broke for her. He also later tried to discredit me, alleging that I was upset that he never took me on a proper date.He will stoop to any level to try and attack the credibility of his accusers, and that’s textbook.
Eventually he says that Oprah pulled out because it didn’t meet journalistic standards. Oprah specifically mentioned inconsistencies that needed to be addressed, but she believed Drew, she believed all of us. Oprah is a mega, mega mogul who said that she departed the film over creative differences and that she believes us. That’s it. [He tried to] use another Black woman as a shield; a woman who made it explicitly known that she believes all of us.
That was just [how he used] the former girlfriends, the former co-workers, and, by extension, Angela Yee. Because, by Angela participating and not pushing back, she is tacitly approving or accepting of [his] misbehavior,in my opinion.
How do you feel about the solidarity that’s been shown to you and the other survivors in the time since the documentary has been released?
People finally saw us. The Black community finally stepped forward and said, “No.” When the film came out — this entire time, the community collectively, as we’ve seen with R. Kelly, for example, has not rallied behind us. But this egregious and blatant act of misogynoir united us, and that was something incredibly moving to see. In a way, I’m kind of grateful that Russell is such an inept communications strategist, and that “The Breakfast Club” chose to have him on. I didn’t choose him, you know, the rape — he chose me, and he just happens to be famous.
When I think about all people who are subject to sexual violence — Black women, in particular, that I’m referring to here — they deal with this within the confines of their communities and their families and their homes, in their schools. There’s terrorism that you experience when you come forward. When you remember the Nate Parker rape case with his co-writer of Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin — how they terrorized that woman on campus and she left. To have your rapist go on this platform and retraumatize you like that — I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But what has come out of this painful, traumatizing experience is evidence now that the tide has changed. Russell knows, based upon the comments and response to him being on the show on Twitter, that he’s been canceled. While he still holds power, he still holds his money, he can still do his yoga videos, he can still fly in people to visit him at his new home in Bali, he is not immune from inquiry. We the people are letting him know exactly how we feel about what he’s done, and the documentary, I hope, makes it perfectly clear the type of person he really is, outside of any positive things that he has done over the years for certain individuals or segments of the population.
You mentioned cancel culture. So, I wanted to know if you had any thoughts about that kind of current backlash — the toxicity or the harmfulness of cancel culture?
We live in a democratic society with free speech. At times, that speech is weaponized and harms innocent people, and that is one of the consequences of power. But what we’re talking about here, generally with cancel culture, is someone does something that that society deems as unacceptable. Transphobic comments, a stream of racist tweets, whatever it is — they get called out and essentially they’re canceled. Is it toxic? Some people might say that it is. But also, “cancel culture” a lot of times doesn’t stick. We say that someone’s canceled, but they’re never truly canceled. They’re just in time-out, particularly with people that we love in our community, with our icons. They say something stupid or insensitive or sexist. They get called out, they go away, they come back, because we’re very forgiving people. But in this case, and in the case of the #MuteRKelly movement, that may be the only opportunity to raise awareness, and to achieve some type of social sanction against bad actors in our community that continue to perpetrate harm against those that they may profess to care about.
How do you and the other survivors move forward? What would you like to see in the future?
Abrams: I can’t speak for what Sheri, Drew, and the other survivors want. I can say that, for myself, I want to get out of Simmons’s shadow and eventually emerge. Like Anita Hill, for example, where she’s no longer defined by Clarence Thomas. I would like to continue to do work in the community, to elevate the stories and the issues that impact Black women and girls. To be of service to those who need it, and really to try and — to the best of my ability — to support Black women and girls who don’t feel safe to come forward, and encourage them to speak and seek whatever help they may need. Even if it’s just to be able to admit to themselves that, in fact, they were assaulted. That is an incredibly powerful first step. It’s okay to be a survivor of sexual assault. That it’s something that happened to you, but it doesn’t define you. We don’t need to carry the shame and the stigma of the assault. We completely push that off our shoulders and place it onto the shoulders where it belongs — on the perpetrators. That is my hope.