“Believe women” was the informal tagline of Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s documentaries The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015), about sexual assault in the US military and on college campuses respectively. "Believe Black women" is the unofficial clarion call of On the Record, an exposé of sexual assault in the music industry with a particular focus on the hip-hop community, and the third film in their series. As journalist Bim Adewunmi says in an early scene, “Black women are more likely to be harmed, and less likely to be believed”.
The film leads with the experience of survivor Drew Dixon, a former executive producer at Def Jam Recordings, who was raped by the company’s co-founder Russell Simmons in 1995. In December 2017 four women including Dixon accused hip-hop mogul Simmons of sexual assault and rape in The New York Times. Since, a total of 20 women including writer and activist Sil Lai Abrams and pioneering MC Sheri Sher (formerly of the all-female rap group the Mercedes Ladies) have gone on the record about their experiences of sexual assault at Simmons’ hands. Simmons has denied all allegations, issuing a statement to filmmakers Ziering and Dick that reads: “I have lived my life honourably as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anyone.”
Though the #MeToo movement had begun to enter mainstream media following the Harvey Weinstein scandal that Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke in October 2017, there was little discussion of how Black women factored, or rather, didn’t factor, into the conversation. A series of Black feminist scholars and journalists form the film’s Greek chorus. Talking heads include Michelle Wallace, author of the seminal 1979 text "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman", music journalist Joan Morgan, former Editor-in-Chief of Ebony Kierna Mayo and academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, who created the term "intersectionality" in order to better discuss the overlapping oppressions of race, gender, sexuality and class. These women, alongside the survivors in the film, contextualise and critique the way misogyny and sexual abuse operate within hip-hop culture, and explain why historically, it’s been more difficult for Black women to speak out about it.
“For 22 years, I took it for the team,” Dixon says in the film, explaining that she hadn’t wanted to contribute to existing cultural stereotypes about the violence and machismo of Black male sexuality. Sheri Sher, who was raped by Simmons in 1983, says, “We just did not talk about [that] in our community, because we always wanted to protect our men of colour because we felt they was already beat down by society, beat down by the justice system. You’re taught that. What was I gonna do?”
Over Zoom, Sheri Sher tells VICE that Simmons was “considered God in hip-hop culture”. She feared that if she came out, he’d repudiate her book (her novel Mercedes Ladies was eventually published in 2007). The band had picked their name because they wanted to be thought of as “classy” and to demand respect from their male counterparts. “He was gonna blackball my dreams,” she says. “He was gonna crush my goals.” And he already had, promising The Mercedes Ladies a record deal and then pulling it the day the record was supposed to come out. “But how to excommunicate a forefather who successfully pitched hip-hop to the world as valuable, in every sense of the word?” as critic Doreen St. Felix put it.
In fact, Ziering and Dick don’t linger on Simmons, turning their attention instead to the survivors and their stories. Though the film frames Dixon as its main protagonist, writer, domestic violence activist and former executive assistant at Def Jam, Sil Lai Abrams, is one of its most compelling, commanding voices. Abrams, who was raped by Simmons in 1994, expresses frustration that the media hasn’t always treated her story with care.
“It does matter when you open up a browser and all you see is your perpetrator’s name and you’re somewhere, lost in the discussion.… It’s painful when I see my identity being diminished to that of simply Russell Simmons’ rape accuser,” she says on Zoom. Though Abrams has long incorporated her experiences as a survivor into her career as an activist, she describes the uniquely tortured and “traumatising” journey of attempting to come forward when your perpetrator is famous. “At the same time, I realise the only reason why my voice and my story is being heard right now is because my perpetrator is famous – it’s a double-edged sword.”
Dixon, Abrams and Sheri Sher all walked away from the music industry following the abuses they suffered. Dixon left Def Jam shortly after her assault, going on to join Arista Records until she was forced into self-exile after being sexually harassed by CEO L.A. Reid between 2000 and 2002. Reid denies all allegations but stepped down as president and CEO of Epic Records in May 2017 following another female colleague’s claims of sexual harassment. Dixon enrolled at Harvard Business School, where she met her ex-husband, and dedicated herself to being a mother. Abrams turned away from the glamour of the modelling and entertainment industries she had spent her teens and early twenties working in, and began working full-time as an activist, as well as writing two non-fiction books. Though Sheri Sher remains a called-upon hip-hop pundit who continues to write about her experiences, she now works as a prison officer in the Bronx (“Miss Officer Social Worker”, the inmates call her).
The film asks: what the cost is to the culture, as well as to the individuals’ personal lives, when Black women with a certain point of view are forced into career exile? Dixon was a superstar, joining Def Jam as an A&R executive at age 24 and winning multiple Grammy Awards for her work on productions including the 1995 Method Man and Mary J. Blige duet “I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By”. “I’m still coming to terms with the deep sorrow I have about the loss of my career, the loss of my earning power, and the loss of the records I could’ve made, the artists I could’ve facilitated, the executives I could’ve nurtured,” Dixon says over Zoom.
Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the most influential Black woman in America, had initially signed onto the project as a producer, but withdrew her credit (and the film’s distribution deal with Apple TV+) shortly before the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, claiming “creative differences” and insisting there was “more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured”. Despite the incredible courage and high level of risk required to go on the record, those who speak out continue to be discredited.
On Saturday 6th June, 19 year-old Black Lives Matter organiser and activist Oluwatoyin ‘Toyin’ Salau disappeared after tweeting about being sexually assaulted. A week later, her body was found. “It’s a devastating example of the danger of speaking out when you have been assaulted,” says Abrams of Salau's death, reflecting on the way the film’s release has collided with the current movement for Black lives. “Often the dominant narrative centres around cisgender, heterosexual Black men and the brutality that they experience at the hands of the carceral regime.”
Dixon is inclined to agree, explaining that “it has been the pattern that Black women are always lost in the conversation about Black liberation. We are de-prioritised, and we de-prioritise ourselves because we are so eager to nurture, protect and support our men”. Sheri Sher describes it as fighting two wars – one seen, and one unseen, one heard, and one that has been silenced. Being a survivor and growing up in the Bronx with brothers, she’d seen the blueprint for both. “Enough is enough,” she says. “This is a time of everything being exposed. It’s time for it to come out, and it’s so powerful.”
'On The Record' is available on demand from June 26th.