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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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.

On Lena Waithe and the Danger of Pinning Your Creative Authenticity to Your Activism

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas.

When it was announced that rising actor Jason Mitchell—known for his performances in Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound and The Chi—had not only been released from his contract as a series regular on The Chi but was removed from an upcoming Netflix film (and dropped by his agent and manager), the initial response was a consensus: For him to get shunned by the industry this swiftly, whatever offenses he’s accused of must have been beyond the pale.

Even more surprising was that many of the alleged offenses happened on the set of The Chi, the brainchild of self-professed Time’s Up activist Lena Waithe, who hasgone on record stating “If you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I’ll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”

As we now know, the forcefulness of her language belies the truth of what happened on set. Tiffany Boone, who played Mitchell’s character’s girlfriend Jerrika, endured harassment for the first two seasons of the show to the point that her fiancé had to come on set whenever she shot scenes with Mitchell. And at least one other actress filed complaints—as well as Ayanna Floyd Davis, the showrunner for season two. It took 10 days, however, for Waithe herself to speak on the record about the accusations and fallout—choosing the platform of a 40-minute phone interview with Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club.

It comes off as a curiously intentional decision when you consider that in the window between the public discovery about Mitchell and her one-on-one with Charlamagne, Waithe guest hosted an episode an of Jimmy Kimmel Live, replete with a viral kiss with Halle Berry, with nary a mention of the crisis existing on the set of her show.

Despite work by multiple organizations and public figures to get the harassment of black women covered on a national scale and Waithe’s own self-avowed affiliation with national organizations with Hollywood ties, when it came time to address issues within her own purview, it became an “in-house” discussion. And one with a moderator who has had his own problematic past with black women.

In The Breakfast Club interview, when asked about the measures she took upon being made aware that Boone endured harassment in the first season, Waithe stressed that she took action by placing women of color in positions of power, a tactic that would seem to only expose more women to Mitchell’s alleged abuse. (And in hindsight did, considering Davis filed complaints of her own.)

Placing figureheads as a countermeasure isn’t a controlling agent for behavior nor is it accountability—it’s a toothless symbolism without any reasonable expectation of change. These certainly aren’t recommended practices (pdf) in the Leading With Transparency guidelines provided by the Time’s Up organization on navigating sexual harassment in the workplace. Given the pile of quicksand Davis walked into, it’s no wonder she was unable to stem the chronic harassment from recurring and even being directed her way, a point Waithe seemed to omit when discussing her regrets of “trusting someone else to do my job.”

When it comes to the matter of Waithe’s job within the universe of The Chi and in the activist-minded cultural space she simultaneously wants to inhabit, there are some blatant contradictions—seemingly borne out of a desire to exist both in the world of the haves and the have nots. In the same breath that we are informed she ensured that the season two staff was helmed by black women, she insisted that despite being the creator and executive producer with multiple writing credits and an Emmy to her name, she didn’t have much influence in the firing decisions—a sentiment she reiterates at the 15:30 mark of the video, when defending her choice to allow Boone to leave as opposed to lobbying for Mitchell’s departure: “I’m not in control over who really stays or who goes in the show…the truth is, there’s a world in which I can say it’s me or Jason, and they may take Jason.”

It’s an incongruous juxtaposition that recurs throughout the conversation, rendering it difficult to parse through the true nature of Waithe’s position. Starting at 6:25, for example, there’s a protracted discussion in which she proudly establishes herself as both being regularly on set on her shows, making sure it is a safe space for women during sensitive moments, before adjusting her position around 8:45 to that of a boss with too many employees to manage all of the comings and goings and needing to delegate it out to trusted individuals.

In regard to Boone’s season two return, the initial disclosure was that by the time Waithe was made privy to the situation, both Boone and Mitchell had come to an agreement and were willing to work together again, only for Waithe to mention that she sat with Boone and implored her to “give me an opportunity to change your environment.” This act seems innocuous on its face, but adjusts the level of involvement she purportedly has. These statements were made one right after the other—13:35 minutes in—making it difficult to comprehend exactly what Waithe knew and when.

To date, we still don’t know the specifics of all the allegations against Mitchell—Waithe alleges not to know them herself—and they are frankly irrelevant. While the specifics will certainly leak in due time, if Mitchell did create an unsafe working environment for several women, many of them black, that is reason enough to hold him accountable immediately.

For Lena, the palpable disappointment of many of her fans lies in the fact that she seems to be incapable of divorcing her need to protect her brand as an advocate and champion for the marginalized from providing clear accountability on the failures that endangered multiple women on the show. When she had her own opportunity to “lead with transparency,” she instead chose to sidestep, displacing as much blame as possible to another woman—who also endured harassment—while also subtly victim-blaming as justification for her failure to act in a truly productive manner.

In a piece I wrote a while ago on cancel culture and public apologies, linguist Edwin Battistella explained how the initial apologies are almost always guided by self-interest, stating “people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”

In many ways, this describes what is playing out with Waithe now. In expecting her identity and political capital to bolster her through this PR moment, she forgot that her political capital is tied to whether or not she truly upholds the rubric of the moral fabric that she claims to stand behind. This incident was a failure in that regard—an exercise in extemporaneous self-defense as opposed to empathy and clarity.

Near the end of The Breakfast Club interview, Waithe states to Charlamagne, “Hollywood needs to be a safe space for black women and I think we all need to do better about that.” The sentiment is a beautifully worded logical fallacy, pointing the finger back at the world before allowing anyone to hold her accountable for her clear failings as the name and advocate behind this project. It would truly be unfortunate if that in all the women Lena failed here, the last one would be herself.