Drew Dixon—the central figure in the new documentary film “On the Record,” who served as the A&R executive for Def Jam Records in the 1990s—recounts in an interview with Ms. a specific time she challenged rap mogul and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. He was debating whether to depict on an album cover a female rapper pointing a gun to her head or in her mouth.
“As we went around the room, the question became ‘in her mouth or at her head?’” Dixon recalls. “When it got to me, I was like, ‘How about neither?’ [Everyone] looked at me like I had three heads! One thing that I think is great about a female rapper is that she’s standing next to these male rappers, and she’s holding her own. Why should she be suicidal? She’s empowered!”
This would not be the only time Dixon—a then young college graduate and hip-hop enthusiast in her 20s—would champion women within the music industry as she scouted new talent and coordinated hit records. She advocated for the inclusion of rapper Lil’ Kim when Simmons didn’t think female rappers were bankable, while signing Biggie Smalls and Junior M.A.F.I.A.
She recognized the Black love story in Method Man’s rap lyrics and suggested a duet with soul singer Mary J. Blige for the Grammy-winning mega-hit “I’ll Be There For You/ You’re All I Need To Get By.”
Later, when she worked at Arista Records, she convinced Clive Davis to replace a male producer with singer-rapper Lauryn Hill on “A Rose is Still a Rose” for Aretha Franklin—which Hill wrote and produced and also directed its music video.
So, when Dixon confides that she left Def Jam because of sexual assault at the hands of Simmons—and later left Arista Records when L.A. Reid, who had replaced Davis, created a hostile work environment from constant sexual harassment—we must grapple with the questions put forth in the film by Kierna Mayo, former editor of the hip-hop magazine The Source:
“What do we lose when women [like Dixon] are pushed out? She was creating magic when she was only in her 20s. What more could she have done if she hadn’t left?”
“It was a loss for me and women like me,” Dixon admitted to Ms., “women who were not afraid to advocate for a more responsible, less toxic perspective.”
“On the Record” Gives Voice to Survivors
“On the Record”—which premieres on HBO Max on Wednesday, May 27—is the latest film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the filmmakers behind “The Hunting Ground,” about rapes on college campuses, and “The Invisible War” about sexual violence in the U.S. military.
Again giving voice to women survivors—this time, those who have accused Russell Simmons of sexual assault—this film is sure to be compared to dream hampton’s game-changing “Surviving R. Kelly,” which debuted on Lifetime in 2019 and had a tremendous impact, including leading to new charges against the R&B singer. While “On the Record” also focuses on the survivors of another powerful Black man in music, Dixon and other survivors—including Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher, who both also interviewed with Ms.—caution that this story should not be reduced to “Surviving Russell Simmons.”
“I left the industry because I was tired of the misogyny,” said Sil Lai Abrams, a former executive assistant and model who is currently a journalist, anti-violence activist, and McBride Scholar at Bryn Mawr College. “I was tired of the constant harassment.”
Abrams’s testimony in the film mirrors the experiences of Dixon and other survivors, suggesting a pattern of behavior from Simmons who has been accused of assault by 20 different women.
Abrams is also the one to comment in the film on the number of light-skinned, “conventionally attractive” women who crossed paths with Simmons—including Jenny Lumet, screenwriter, actor and the granddaughter of Lena Horne, whose public accusation propelled Dixon forward with her own story. In a riveting conversation in the documentary, Lumet, Dixon and Abrams address their privilege in a colorist system.
“I hope brown and dark-skinned women understand that their stories are not being excluded intentionally,” Abrams told Ms. “If we juxtapose R. Kelly and Russell Simmons, a lot of [Kelly’s victims] were darker-skinned, a lot came from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. They were children—girls really. His hunting ground was very specific.
“Russell’s hunting ground was the playground of a wealthy playboy. And what do you typically find in those circles? You find women like the ones represented in the film. [Being light-skinned], we just happen to be the unlucky women he had a specific preference for.”
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The women in these circles may benefit from color and class privilege—but other women like Bronx native Sheri Sher, a founding member of the first all-female rap group Mercedes Ladies, also entered into Simmons’s orbit, specifically hoping to fulfill the dreams she and her group had nurtured in wanting to ascend from the periphery of hip-hop street culture to the potential mainstream success that signing with Simmons’s label promised.
In the film, Sher describes how she was assaulted when she was alone in Simmons’s office, hoping to discuss his dismissal of her group. Writing the book Mercedes Ladies about her experiences in hip-hop, Sher told Ms. she was careful not to outright name him because of his power.
“It’s the whole culture, you know, where everybody’s not snitching,” she explained, about remaining silent about her assault. “You just didn’t say anything, especially because someone like Russell was considered God in the [hip-hop] community. He took hip-hop and brought it to the light, he brought it to the world.”
Dixon—the daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt whose middle-class background differs from Sher—nonetheless shared the same concerns in the film. As a lover of hip-hop, she too remained silent because she “didn’t want to let the culture down.”
Dixon also points to the backlash that Black women faced in their communities when speaking out against Black male perpetrators, and the film explores this sentiment with footage from the Anita Hill congressional hearings against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, as well as footage of Desiree Washington, who had accused boxing champion Mike Tyson of rape.
To the film’s credit—assisted by commentary from renowned Black feminists like Tarana Burke, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Joan Morgan and Michele Wallace—this dilemma is given more complexity and depth, including a recognition of the history of sexual violence against Black women that began during the transatlantic slave trade and the lynching of Black men, who were presumed to be sexual predators. With such a volatile history, breaking the silence on rape within Black communities is still a major hurdle.
“I would love to see our community not fall back on historical acts of state-sanctioned violence and use it as a shield to protect Black perpetrators of sexual violence from being held accountable,” Abrams said.
“I would love to see our stories believed with the same passion and fervor that Black women support and believe men when they say they have been victims of police brutality and violence. We do not question them; we rally behind them because we understand the abuse of power. The same thing exists for Black women, and unfortunately a majority of their perpetrators are Black men.”
This problem of course paints cultures like hip-hop as deeply entrenched in what Moya Bailey calls “misogynoir.” However, “On the Record” is careful to draw parallels between other pop music forms, from rock to heavy metal, which perpetrate the same level of misogyny and misogynoir. Certainly, Dixon believes the prevalent hyper-sexualization of Black women in hip-hop music was tolerated by the dominant culture in ways it would not have been if white women were the ones primarily displayed in rap videos.
“Hip-hop as an originally Black art form is more vulnerable to criticism,” Dixon acknowledged. “But rape culture is pervasive—it’s something that the music industry inherited from the broader culture. Black music certainly did not create this, but I do think that because the music industry is casual and adjacent to party culture and nightlife, it’s also a very informal industry, and there’s no human resources department. By the time the audience decides [on a hit], someone else has already invested millions in resources, so there’s a lot of power in the hands of certain people—and overwhelmingly those are men.”
It is that unchecked power that eventually derailed the progress of women artists like Sher and drove out women executives like Dixon and Abrams. Dixon, whose legacy includes her work with Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”—the last album by a Black woman to win an Album-of-the-Year Grammy—eventually left Arista Records in 2002. Incidentally, Hill’s “Damnable Heresies” is included on the film’s soundtrack.
“It is not a coincidence that both Lauryn Hill and I found the music industry unsustainable for us as creative women,” Dixon admitted, when asked about their simultaneous withdrawal from the music scene.
“We did not have identical experiences, but she and I have talked about it quite a bit and both felt that we were exploited in different ways and were expected often to disappear into the background while the men next to us appropriated our creativity, our drive, our insight in many ways. For both of us, this was hurtful and damaging and really soul-crushing.”
“Acknowledging the Struggles of Those Who Came Before”
Currently women rappers are dominating the music scene, and Sher is encouraged by dynamic chart-toppers like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Lizzo and Nicki Minaj, who are more than proving their bankability in today’s popular culture—contrary to what Simmons, according to Dixon, once believed. Indeed, their bold and sexy personas have flipped the script of the eye-candy video girl that hip-hop had marketed to the masses decades earlier. They have transformed her status from object into subject.
“I’m glad to see more women on top,” said Sher. “I think it’s very powerful.”
The story of these women’s success, however, is incomplete without also acknowledging the struggles of those who came before them, whose stories are just now beginning to be told.
It wasn’t until 2017—when the allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo hashtag and subsequent movement—that Sher, Dixon, Abrams and others found the courage to come forward about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of powerful men. At least, for Sher, a friend convinced her to tell her story.
“[Simmons] did this to me 30-plus years ago,” Sher told Ms. “And I had to be silent because of his power. When others came forward, I was like, wow, so I wasn’t crazy! I felt it was time [to tell what happened] because these women are not lying.”
Dixon too felt empowered when she realized she wasn’t alone and that she could finally be free from the burden of silence once she said “out loud” what had happened to her.
“What has been so transformational for me following my #MeToo moment was the connection I made with other survivors,” she shared with Ms. “It was really a sisterhood—not a sisterhood you would really ask for, but there was this incredible, affirming experience that comes from knowing that it wasn’t just you and that it wasn’t something that you did wrong. It has been a healing experience to know them.”
These survivors now hope their testimonies and the film will offer healing for others who have their own #MeToo experience, whether they come forward or not, and who can safely do so. This is especially urgent for Black women, whose voices in the #MeToo movement are often marginalized.
“I do not want to see us continue to have to choose between our gender or our race,” Abrams suggests. “This is not some covert operation created by white feminists to destroy the Black community, and Black men specifically. This is a legitimate threat to our safety and a violation of our right to bodily autonomy.”