Ron Savage grew up in the poverty-stricken Castle Hill section of the Bronx in the 1970s. On the streets, gang violence was a fixture of day-to-day life. At home, he lived in fear of his dad, a drunk who terrorized him and his sister and abused their mother.
One of the few respites he had was the neighborhood hip-hop party, thrown regularly at the Center, a community space in the Bronx River Houses. DJs played breakbeats from soul, funk, rock, and Latin records while b-boys danced and MCs rhymed. The parties drew droves of people, especially teenagers.
It was at one of these parties, in 1979, that Savage met Afrika Bambaataa, the mysterious and eccentric visionary who, alongside DJ Kool Herc and DJ Jazzy Jay, is considered one of hip-hop's founding figures. A longtime resident of the Bronx River Houses and former warlord of the gang the Black Spades, Bambaataa, among others, identified the four pillars of the nascent subculture—b-boying, MCing, DJing, and graffiti writing—later adding to it a fifth: knowledge. In a few years, he would release "Planet Rock," widely credited with launching him and the Universal Zulu Nation—the hip-hop and African American advocacy organization he conceived of in 1973—to international stardom. Today, the Zulu Nation counts hip-hop royalty like Nas, Lil Wayne, and Big Boi as affiliates, in addition to younger rappers like Joey Bada$ and Freddie Gibbs. Acclaimed TV series The Get Down—not to mention countless documentaries and a recent showcase at Cornell University—credit Bambaataa with uniting a divided neighborhood, offering a way out of gang life, and helping to launch a movement that would place African American art forms at the center of global popular culture.
"To me, he was cool. He was like a god," Savage, now 50, told me. "It was like, 'This is the guy I had always heard about.' Everybody knew who Afrika Bambaataa was back then."
Savage immersed himself in this new world. He began carrying records to parties for Bambaataa's partner, DJ Jazzy Jay. He loved how Bambaataa gave him and the other neighborhood kids special attention and remembers how the DJ would buy all the kids burgers from White Castle after getting paid for a gig.
"He was a father figure to me," Savage recalled. "I looked up to him as someone doing something positive. I looked at him as a role model, because the role model I looked up to in my house was an alcoholic. I used to see my father always arguing and fighting with my mother, and I didn't see that in Bam. So that's how I had the attachment to him."
Savage said the attachment brought him very close—too close—to Bambaataa. In late March, Savage made headlines when he became the first of a series of men to accuse Bambaataa in the media of sexual abuse. In back-to-back interviews, first with controversial radio host DJ Star on his YouTube channel, the Star Chamber, and later in the New York Daily News, he graphically described how Bambaataa allegedly molested him when he was just 15. Since his accusations came out, at least three more men have accused Bambaataa of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers. Meanwhile, Bambaataa is at-large, his whereabouts unknown.
The accusers, three of whom spoke extensively to me for this story, claim that these accounts of alleged abuse have been common knowledge in the Bronx River community and beyond since the early 80s, including among many of Bambaataa's closest friends and Zulu soldiers. They tell of a decades-long cover-up by the Zulu Nation and a hidden network of victims whose lives were allegedly haunted by death threats, suicides, drug abuse, and violence. Beneath the disturbing headlines, two questions remain: How could the Zulu Nation have known about this for years, as the accusers and others claim, yet never done anything to stop it? And how did Bambaataa—a man universally hailed for decades as a musical pioneer and community hero—manage to evade public scrutiny for more than 30 years?
Back in the mid 70s, the South Bronx epitomized urban decay. The Cross Bronx Expressway, completed a decade earlier, had cut the area in half; by the 60s and 70s, property values had plummeted, racial tensions ran high, and more than 20 percent of the population—mostly middle class and white—had fled. Murder rates tripled, and arsons ravaged entire neighborhoods. President Carter called a 1977 visit to the neighborhood "sobering," and President Reagan compared it to London after the Blitz of World War II.
Amid the poverty and chaos, street gangs with names like the Black Spades, the Savage Nomads, the Seven Immortals, and the Savage Skulls sprang up to take charge. While the gangs provided protection for local residents and gave aimless young men with no opportunity a purpose and sense of belonging, they quickly became notorious for running drug, prostitution, and theft rackets, and engaging in staggering episodes of bloody urban warfare.
Bambaataa, a member of the Black Spades, decided in 1973 to create an organization that would offer an alternative to the gangs that were wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. He called it the Universal Zulu Nation, named after the 1964 war film Zulu and inspired by the Afrocentric and Black Power ideologies that emerged in the late 60s. Members were required to follow a strict moral code focused on self-improvement, closeness to God, community service, and universal equality. Bambaataa called those who succeeded "King" or "Queen," as a show of respect to improve self-esteem.
Over the next few decades, the organization expanded its activities, which now include planting communal gardens, running neighborhood-watch patrols and after-school programs, organizing urban-reclamation projects, and even providing free legal services to members. Zulus also threw hip-hop block parties and promoted and managed concerts for the genre's earliest artists, especially Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force. Today, the Zulu Nation has dozens of active chapters across the US, as well as in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, France, Honduras, New Zealand, Australia, and Belgium, among other countries.
In 1982, Bambaataa struck gold with "Planet Rock," a futuristic electro-rap track that was fueled by TR-808 drum beats and spacey synthesizers. It became a massive local club hit and then a global sensation, one that would open the door for rappers and electronic-music producers across the world. The success of "Planet Rock" made the Zulu Nation a lucrative entertainment business, while an affiliated security arm called the Zulu Warriors provided additional jobs for members. The Zulu Warriors handle concert and VIP security and have been responsible for protecting dozens of artists for years, including Jay Z, Nas, Busta Rhymes, A$AP Ferg, Lauryn Hill, and others.
Savage joined the Baby Zulus, an apprentice group for future Zulus, earned the Zulu nickname "Bee-Stinger" (which he keeps today), and became a "crate boy," an unpaid position that entailed carrying records and gear for Zulu DJs. It was a goal for many poor, disenfranchised kids in the neighborhood.
"Crate boys are pretty common in hip-hop—apprentice DJs trying to learn the craft or looking for a career in the music industry," Steven Hager, a hip-hop historian and former New York Daily News and Village Voice reporter, told me in an email interview. "But nobody cultivated or recruited them like Bam."
Savage loved being part of the Zulus, hanging out at the Center parties and having a front-row seat to the birth of hip-hop. But in 1980, just two years before Bambaataa's career really took off with "Planet Rock," everything changed. One day that year, when Savage was 15, he said Bambaataa sent a cab to Adlai E. Stevenson High School on Lafayette Avenue to pick him up. Savage, a freshman, ditched class, got in the cab, and was driven to Bambaataa's house in the Baychester section of the Bronx. Inside the house, Savage was met by Bambaataa and another man, who Savage wouldn't identify.
"There was a guy there, and Bam said that I could watch TV in the room. When I went in the room, there was a photo book... on the bed," Savage recalled. "It [had pictures of] other people's penises, other guys."
Bambaataa, he said, came into the room, saw him looking at the book, and asked him if he knew how to "jerk off." According to Savage, Bambaataa told the teenager to pull out his penis and proceeded to manually stimulate him. Bambaataa also took out his penis and had Savage do the same to him, Savage said.
After they were finished, the second man came into the bedroom with his penis out. Savage said he was "scared" and ran out of the house, crying. As he ran through the Bronx streets sobbing, a woman noticed he was upset and picked him up.
"She told me to get in her car, and she drove me back to my school," he remembered.
Savage didn't tell anyone about the incident at the time. Just a day or two later, a similar scenario unfolded when Bambaataa stopped by Savage's Castle Hill house. He said the two engaged in oral sex in his car and later at a house. Bambaataa would abuse him at least four or five more times, Savage said.
The molestation stopped, Savage says, when he began to pretend he wasn't around when Bambaataa would show up at his house. In the years that followed, he withdrew from friends and family, cut ties with Bambaataa, and sank into a deep depression. As he got older, his depression worsened. He cut himself with scissors and attempted suicide multiple times, once by overdosing on pills.
"I was angry with myself," he said. "I used to gaze out my window and blame myself."
In his 20s, Savage worked for Strong City Records and Dick Scott Entertainment, becoming a music manager and promoter for German dance group Snap!, rap group Showbiz & AG, and beatbox pioneer Doug E. Fresh. He was later employed as a security guard and turned to political activism with a focus on education, and in 2006, he became an elected member of the New York State Democratic Committee. Savage said that though he would remain a member of the Zulu Nation, after the last alleged molestation, he never spoke with Bambaataa again. He explained that the alleged abuse severely impacted his relationships with women and is behind intimacy issues he says he still has today.
"It fucked me up, man," Savage said. "The question that always bothered me was, Why me? That's what I've always wanted to ask [Bambaataa]. It damaged me."
"Bam was like your uncle who paid your way through college, but molested you."—Hassan Campbell
Like Savage, Hassan "Poppy" Campbell, 39, grew up in a dysfunctional home and was surrounded by poverty and drug and alcohol addiction. He described life in the hardscrabble Bronx River Houses by saying: "One day you're at a party; the next day you're getting shot at, or you're on welfare." Campbell, who is a decade younger than Savage, was also drawn to Bambaataa. In the late 80s, when he was just 12 or 13, Campbell began hanging out with the Zulus and, like Savage, immersed himself in the burgeoning b-boy culture.
Campbell lived in the Bronx River Houses with his mother and five siblings. His mom, he said, was "abusive" and suffered from mental illness. Like Savage, Campbell said the parties at the Center provided a healthy distraction from the chaos at home. He often fought with his mother and would run away, sometimes staying at Bambaataa's house when he had nowhere else to go. He too called Bambaataa a "father figure."
"He took care of me," Campbell said. "He made sure I had everything I needed. And he made sure my mom had everything she needed.
"Bam was like the godfather," he added. "A lot of parents in our community were on drugs, and Bam took advantage of that."
That trust took an insidious turn, he said, when he was just 13. Campbell said another man had previously molested him, which "made it easier for Bam to molest me."
He described a story very similar to Savage's: It began with Bambaataa showing him a book of pictures of naked men engaged in sex acts. The pornography viewing escalated to touching and, later, oral sex. The alleged abuse, he said, was "constant" and went on for years.
"This wasn't no onetime thing," he said. "This was an ongoing thing for several years."
Campbell kept the alleged abuse secret. He said it eventually stopped when he "broke away" from Bambaataa in his late teens and turned his anger toward the gangs and criminals on the Bronx streets.
"I started acting like a wild animal," he said.
He recalled the way the anger festered and the devastating effects it had on his life. Campbell told me that he became a criminal as a teenager and started carrying guns. In 1993, he was charged with second-degree murder for the killing of a Bronx man. He went on the run but was caught and arrested in Connecticut in 1994. His co-defendant was found not guilty, and Campbell pleaded out to assault, landing him a three-year sentence.
Bambaataa, he said, "took care" of him while he was in jail and when he was released.
"When I came home from jail, Bam took me shopping and stuff like that," he recalled. "Bam was like your uncle who paid your way through college, but molested you."
According to Campbell, he was locked up again for parole violations and attempted murder, and in 2000 was charged with shooting three people in the Bronx, in a case he claimed was dismissed. He said he was charged in a Bronx River murder in 2004 and spent a month in jail before that case was also dismissed.
"He said, You don't have to be gay to have that done to you. He did it, and I ended up telling him to stop. I didn't tell anyone until I was 30."—Troy
Another alleged victim who stepped forward after Savage was a 51-year-old former Bronx resident who asked that only his first name, Troy, be used for this article. Troy, who also spoke out to the Daily News in April, told a tale that is similar to that of Savage and Campbell. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his mother and other relatives in the Bronx River Houses. He joined the Zulus for camaraderie and protection in the late 70s and got to know Bambaataa from hanging out at block parties. He looked up to and trusted Bambaataa—so much so that when he was 13, he decided to seek dating advice from the star DJ. In 1978, Troy was on his way to see his new girlfriend when he decided to stop by Bambaataa's house to get tips on what to do when it came time to be alone with her.
"I figured I'd go see Bam because he was like an older brother," Troy told me. "He said, 'You know about getting head and all that?' At that age, you don't think about stuff like that. Well, at least I didn't."
The hip-hop icon, Troy said, showed him a book with pictures of naked boys and then performed oral sex on him.
"I remember him showing me a book of penises," Troy recalled. "He said, 'You don't have to be gay to have that done to you.' He did it, and I ended up telling him to stop. I didn't tell anyone until I was 30."
Now a married father of three adult children, Troy moved out of the neighborhood to live with his dad shortly after the alleged incident and immersed himself in martial arts. He moved out of New York altogether in 1989 and joined the US Army.
"A lot of guys went down a negative path," he said. "It didn't do that to me. I was really angry, but I got into martial arts. That's how I dealt with it."
All three alleged victims and several other people interviewed for this story said that for years there were rumors both in local black communities in the Bronx and in the broader hip-hop community about Bambaataa being sexually involved with teenage boys. But he managed to escape widespread scrutiny, even after the first allegations started to publicly surface.
Author and blogger Khalil Amani, a Colorado-based writer for DJ Kay Slay's Straight Stuntin Magazine, was the first to publicly allege sexual misconduct by Bambaataa. Amani, the author of a book about homophobia and homosexuality in the rap industry, wrote an article in April 2013 claiming that Bambaataa was stabbed by a man he had allegedly sexually assaulted. The story, which was picked up by the Drop and other hip-hop sites, claimed that Bambaataa had drugged a man and performed oral sex on him without his consent. According to Amani's report, the man woke up, realized what was happening, and stabbed Bambaataa. A top Zulu member, reportedly with Bambaataa at the time, was also allegedly cut with the knife.
The article angered members of the Zulu Nation, who Amani said asked Kay Slay to have it taken down. Amani removed the article a day or two after it was first posted, but he then decided to put it back up about a week later, prompting threats. It's still up on Amani's website.
"I got a few threats," Amani told me. "One guy was Zulu from here in Colorado. He said, 'You know you can be touched, right? You're right down the street. You can be touched.' The Zulu Nation is very intimidating."
Campbell and Savage both said they too have intimate knowledge of the reported stabbing incident, corroborating Amani's account. Campbell told me he visited Bambaataa at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and that Bambaataa, who was recovering from a knife wound to the stomach, told Campbell about the incident. He then gave Campbell a picture of the alleged assailant and asked him to seek revenge, Campbell said.
"I was at the hospital [after] he got stabbed," he told me. "I was one of the first soldiers that he called to deal with the situation. He lied and told everybody he never got stabbed when he had 100 people [waiting for him] outside the hospital." In interviews with Allhiphop.com, Zulu officials denied the stabbing and said Bambaataa was being treated for chest pains.
Campbell said that the story, as Bambaataa told it to him, was as follows: The alleged assailant took a cab to Bambaataa's house in New Rochelle the day of the incident. Bambaataa claimed that the man was "acting weird" and walking around the house. The Zulu leader with Bambaataa at the time was eating a sandwich when he heard Bambaataa screaming in the next room. He ran in to see what was going on and saw the man with the knife and Bambaataa bleeding from a stomach wound. The man with the knife then slashed the Zulu leader in the stomach and ran out of the house.
Campbell added that he later saw a bandage on Bambaataa's stomach, and that he spoke about the incident with the other Zulu leader who had been there. He said he also spoke with the alleged assailant's brother, who told him that his brother had stabbed Bambaataa because he had been "date raped."
On the day of the reported stabbing, Savage said he too was told about the incident, this time during a phone call with the Zulu leader who was with Bambaataa when it happened.
"He just said, 'Bam got stabbed,'" Savage said of the phone conversation. "And he said that he [also] got sliced."
While the incident further fueled rumors in the Bronx and in the hip-hop community of Bambaataa's questionable behavior, the mainstream media never reported it; no criminal charges ever came about, and the story went away. But the rumors about Bambaataa's alleged sexual abuse picked up again in 2014, with the publication of Savage's book, Impulse Urges & Fantasies, a memoir of his life as a music executive and activist, in which he reported being molested by a "Hip Hop DJ that he and everyone else looked up to." He didn't, however, name Bambaataa as the perpetrator.
About a year later, Campbell posted a video on his personal Facebook page accusing Bambaataa of molesting him. Campbell said that "it created a shitstorm" in the community, but that he quickly removed it after getting an angry phone call from a top Zulu security official. According to Campbell, days after he posted the original video, he met with Bambaataa and several top Zulu council members. Campbell said Bambaataa "apologized" to him and promised to make amends by stepping down from the Zulu Nation and buying a tombstone for a Zulu member who had been a friend of Campbell. Bambaataa fulfilled neither of those promises, Campbell said.
"He was crying," Campbell recalled. "He apologized. He tried to say that he wasn't doing that to no more kids. But I know he was lying."
After the meeting, Campbell agreed to keep the video off his Facebook page and stay quiet about the accusations. He said he was "embarrassed" and "just wanted the situation to go away." He also acknowledged he wanted to protect the Zulu Nation, as well as his own job as a Zulu Warriors security guard.
"It was putting food on the table for a lot of guys," Campbell said of the Zulu entertainment business. "Everybody piggybacks off of Bam. They live off him. They get income off of [him]. They're not going to bite the hand that feeds them."
While Campbell's video caused a stir in the community, Bambaataa had dodged yet another bullet. But when Savage appeared on DJ Star's YouTube channel, the Star Chamber, on March 29, 2016, the story finally reached a mass audience.
The next day, two top Zulu lieutenants pressured Savage to recant, issuing veiled threats in intimidating conversations that were captured on audiotape by Savage, copies of which I obtained. One of those Zulu leaders, an associate of Ice-T named Mickey Bentson, acknowledged, when I called him in July, that he had pressured Savage because he didn't want the Zulu Nation "brand" damaged. Bentson also said, among other things, "Suck my dick, fag." A publicist for Ice-T described Bentson only as the rapper's "friend" and said: "Ice doesn't have any comment on this matter." Savage said he also received a call from a third Zulu official within a day or so of going public, in which he was allegedly offered $50,000 to retract his statements.
Something else happened in the days after Savage's story went public: Campbell said his 2015 Facebook video mysteriously resurfaced on the web, followed by alleged death threats from Zulus.
"I had got a phone call saying, 'Be careful, because brothers is talking about moving on you about the Ron Savage situation and that video,'" Campbell told me. "Somebody called me and told me to watch my back. They were supposed to be moving on me, killing me or whatever."
Campbell said he called Bambaataa after receiving the threat, told him he felt unsafe, and wanted him to provide security. But Bambaataa, still in charge of the Zulu Nation, brushed off the threats. So Campbell went public, first to DJ Star and then to the Daily News.
"I had no choice," he said. "I don't know why my video came back up, but it did, and when it came back up, there was a lot of tension here and a lot of threats being passed around. Somebody told me that certain people were talking about killing me because they feel like I was behind Ron Savage doing what he did."
Campbell said he feared for his life after the story of his alleged abuse broke and insists he has since been in touch with other victims who "are scared to death to come out," including the family of a British man who claimed to have been molested by Bambaataa in the UK, but has since committed suicide. My attempts to locate the victim's family were unsuccessful. Among those close to the scandal, there are stories swirling around about other alleged victims in the US and Britain who committed suicide or died of drug overdoses. Campbell said he believes there are dozens of victims and has also been in touch with an alleged victim from Brazil.
Shamsideen Shariyf Ali Bey, a man claiming to be Bambaataa's bodyguard, also came forward and told DJ Star in May that Bambaataa traveled with "hundreds" of teenage boys over the years, including many who shared hotel rooms with the Zulu founder. Ali Bey, an original Black Spade member and active Zulu also known as Lord Shariyf, said he told Zulu council members in 2007 about alleged child sex abuse by Bambaataa, but nothing was done.
"He's a pedophile," Ali Bey told DJ Star. "There are many instances that I saw young boys in and out of his room... I can say I've walked in on stuff where I say, 'What the fuck is going on?'"
After going public, both Campbell and Savage came under attack by the Zulu Nation, which issued a public statement in April accusing Savage of being "mentally challenged" and calling Campbell a "liar" and, bizarrely, a "government paid police informant." The same statement also claimed the accusations were a "government sponsored media attack" and part of a "racist" anti-hip-hop campaign by New York authorities. Bambaataa, who in a story in XXL Magazine initially claimed to not even know his accusers, issued his own statement in April denying the abuse and calling the allegations "cowardly" and "baseless." Since the statement and a few subsequent media interviews, he hasn't been heard from publicly.
A lot of the people from the community don't publicly speak out about Bam because there is a fear there. Bam, he's always been strong. He has an army with him.—Hassan Campbell
The question most often asked when these types of allegations finally surface is why the accusers didn't come forward earlier.
According to Wendy Murphy—a veteran sex-crimes prosecutor, national victims' rights advocate, and professor at New England Law in Boston—it often comes down to fear. Sex-abuse victims are frequently scared for a variety of reasons, including being ostracized from a particular group or being re-victimized by the justice system.
"Victims also often worry that the abuser will retaliate, and they don't think the legal system will treat them fairly," Murphy told me. "It often takes time for victims to reach the point where they feel empowered to tell what happened. For child victims, delayed reporting is even more common, because they are easy to silence—especially when the offender is a trusted adult."
For those close to the Bambaataa scandal, the situation was compounded by stark economic realities and a fear of intimidation and violence.
"These are people from lower-income areas who didn't have shit, and all of a sudden they were eating off of this new thing called hip-hop, and it was a way to get out of that pressure cooker," DJ Star, who broke the Bambaataa story and has covered hip-hop for decades, told me. "The reality is the Zulu Nation came out of a gang... If you had the mind-set not to tell, not to speak up, not to talk to police, and you have a gang that can terrorize the entire state of New York, you're dealing with a very powerful entity that can make your life a living hell."
With its combination of extremely vulnerable alleged victims and a powerful regime looming over them, the Bambaataa case bears a number of parallels to the Catholic Church scandal, in which pedophile priests usually targeted young boys, often from low-income broken homes. The church ignored the epidemic for decades, if not centuries, shuttling accused priests to and from parishes and paying off victims to avoid detection. Since the scandal broke in the early 2000s—prompted by dogged reporting by the Boston Globe, dramatized in the Academy Award–winning film Spotlight—it has become a case study in systemic corruption and its role in enabling pedophilia.
"Bam took the kids who were struggling—the kids who didn't have good parents and had nothing," said one longtime DJ associate of Bambaataa's, who requested anonymity. "It's all about the money. These guys [in Zulu Nation] are on the payroll—doing security, carrying equipment. A lot of them have felony records. They can't get other jobs. They needed that paycheck. So they would keep quiet."
And just as the church shielded pedophile priests for decades, those involved with or close to the Bambaataa scandal alleged that top leaders of the Zulu Nation did exactly the same thing, by protecting the music icon—and the organization—at all costs.
"In the African American community, and as a matter of fact in every community, child molestation is like a secret. Nobody wants to touch it," Campbell said. "We're taught to be quiet about it. So that's pretty much what the situation is."
He added: "A lot of the people from the community don't publicly speak out about Bam because there's a fear there. Bam, he's always been strong. He has an army with him. He had the most dangerous soldiers around him."
Authorities have said nothing about the Bambaataa scandal publicly. A New York Police Department source told me there is no active investigation because there have been no allegations that would fall within the statute of limitations. In New York, the statute of limitations on child sex abuse expires when the victim turns 23, a law Savage is seeking to have changed. In June, he was part of a contingent of sex abuse survivors who marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to press the New York State Assembly to change the law, but lawmakers tabled the proposal. Savage has pledged to continue the fight.
Meanwhile, the scandal has sharply divided the hip-hop underground. Rap pioneer KRS-One, a longtime friend and ally of Bambaataa, has been excoriated on social media and in hip-hop forums for publicly supporting Bambaataa, including by Savage, who, in an interview with Allhiphop.com, called the iconic MC "worse than any Catholic priest" and pushed for a boycott of his music. KRS-One, much like some members of the Zulu Nation, has blasted the accusers for trying to tear down Bambaataa and tarnish his legacy. KRS-One has gone so far as to say, in an appearance in Birmingham, England, that "anyone who has a problem with Afrika Bambaataa should quit hip-hop." DJ Kool Herc, another lifelong associate of Bambaataa, also would not criticize him, telling me: "I'm very much aware of the matter. I'm not fair-weather, though. He's a friend of mine. His organization has an internal dispute. That's it."
Other rappers have weighed in against Bambaataa. Lord Jamar, an activist, actor, and rapper—he is a member of the politically and socially conscious hip-hop group Brand Nubian—criticized Bambaataa in an interview with Vlad TV for lying about knowing Savage and said that rumors about Bambaataa being gay have persisted for 20 years. Rapper and activist Talib Kweli, a member of the hip-hop duo Black Star, tweeted that he was "disappointed" in the Zulu Nation's handling of the scandal. Arthur Baker, an electro and hip-hop pioneer who helped produce "Planet Rock," knew little of the scandal, but said "obviously it damages [Bambaataa's] legacy."
"I feel good that I spoke up. But I wish I had the courage to come out when I was younger, so I could have saved other kids."—Ron Savage
While the Zulu Nation's initial response was to attack the alleged victims, the organization has since reversed course. In May, more than a month after Savage first spoke out publicly, the group excommunicated Bambaataa and several other top leaders. In a long public statement issued a few weeks after the announcement of the leadership change, the Zulu Nation made a heartfelt public apology to Savage and Campbell for "unjust and inexcusable attacks on their characters."
"We extend our deepest and most sincere apologies to the many people who have been hurt by the actions of Afrika Bambaataa and the subsequent poor response of our organization to allegations leveled against him," the statement read. "To the survivors of apparent sexual molestation by Bambaataa, both those who have come forward and others who have not, we are sorry for what you endured and extend our thanks to those who have spoken out for your bravery in bringing to light that which most of us were sadly unaware of, and others chose not to disclose."
Zulu King EL One, the current spokesman for the Zulu Nation chapter in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, criticized the ex-members who intimidated and lashed out at alleged victims.
"You can't go and threaten someone. These are members of our organization," Zulu King EL One said in a phone interview we conducted. "We don't want to deal with anyone who has caused harm to the organization or said things against the victims. You have to respect the victims 100 percent."
He added that the embattled organization was planning a massive leadership meeting in September to discuss how it could move forward from the scandal.
"It's critical to lay all the cards on the table and get all the emotions out," he explained. "It's been an emotional roller coaster, because we're dealing with the founder of our organization who many of us looked up to for years. It's disappointing to know that someone you may have looked up to... could not be the man who you thought he was."
Still, it appears Bambaataa isn't truly finished trying to run the Zulu Nation. In a recording of a two-hour conference call that took place on August 14—a copy of which Campbell gave me, and which Zulu King EL One confirmed as authentic—a voice that both Campbell and Zulu King EL One identified as Bambaataa's is heard speaking with several longtime top Zulu leaders. Though he is no longer the group's leader or, technically, a member of the group at all, he offered his thoughts about how the Zulu Nation should move beyond the scandal and who should lead it.
"I'm not looking for people that just want to be hip-hop," says Bambaataa, who on the call refers to himself as "the African man." "I've had enough of that. We need business-minded people. See who really knows government. Not just coming around here because they know hip-hop and want to do hip-hop."
However, a Zulu member named Cashus D from the Midwest Region cuts him off, angrily telling Bambaataa he has no business being on the call.
"I ain't messing with this," Cashus says. "Bam, you got to get out the way... If you want the Zulus to thrive, you got to get out the way."
After Cashus reprimanded him, Bambaataa didn't speak again on the call.
In an email to me, Zulu King EL One said that most of the new leadership was not on the call and that most of the organization's leaders "refuse to participate in anything related to Afrika Bambaataa."
"Some leaders may have a close relationship with Bam and look to include him in efforts to move forward," Zulu King EL One said. "The leadership overall does not want nothing to do with Bambaataa unless it pertains to him being honest with us and seeking help. He can't be the cure for the UZN [Universal Zulu Nation] ills when he is the one who has caused this pain."
There are also signs that the Bronx River community where Savage, Campbell, and Troy grew up is beginning to address wounds from the scandal. In August, a meeting focused on sexual-abuse awareness and victim support was held at the Bronx River Houses with members of the Association of Black Psychologists, the National Association of Black Social Workers, and Black Psychiatrists of America.
The scandal comes amid a renewed mainstream interest in old-school hip-hop and the genre's roots, fueled partly by the success of Baz Luhrmann's new Netflix series, The Get Down, the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, and a slew of documentaries, including Ice-T's Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap and Shan Nicholson's chronicle of gang culture in the Bronx, Rubble Kings, in which Bambaataa plays a prominent role. And while Bambaataa's brand has certainly taken an irreparable hit from the accusations, his impact on pop culture continues. Most recently, he was a consultant, along with many of hip-hop's founding figures, on The Get Down. (Emails to Luhrmann's attorney were not returned.) Bambaataa's massive memorabilia and record collection remains at Cornell University, where he's been a visiting scholar. But Sirius XM Radio's Backspin channel, which for years aired his ZuluBeatz mix show, has canceled it, a spokeswoman said.
Still, unlike the scandals surrounding black icons like Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, the media has largely ignored the Bambaataa case. Part of that is probably due to Bambaataa's fading celebrity, but it also could stem from another unfortunately common fact of newsroom decisions: The alleged victims are from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, where despair and tragedy are often taken as a fact of life. And some say there are racial elements at play as well.
Meanwhile, no one I interviewed for this article seems to know exactly where Bambaataa is, or at least they won't say so publicly. Some speculate that he is hiding in the UK. Others say Chicago or Connecticut. Bambaataa's attorney, Vivian K. Tozaki, declined to comment for this story. My attempts to reach Bambaataa through Tozaki and social-media channels were unsuccessful. Zulu King EL One said of Bambaataa: "He's just completely fallen off the radar—he's kind of just disappeared."
On a recent, scorching day in East Harlem, the scene at Poor Richard's Playground on 109th Street and Third Avenue felt like a throwback to hip-hop's scruffy beginnings. Poppers and lockers practiced their moves on the tarmac. Young men worked up a sweat playing handball. Over at the DJ stand, DJ Jazzy Jay—the groundbreaking turntablist who released the first record with the iconic logo of Rick Rubin's Def Jam Records—took his turn at the decks.
Held every Thursday in playgrounds across the Bronx, the park jams are modeled after the legendary original throwdowns at the Center. They are like a living, breathing museum of hip-hop history, attracting a who's who of the genre's formative years, many of whom are members or affiliates of the Zulu Nation. Bambaataa attended the park jams for years but has been conspicuously absent since the allegations surfaced.
Savage, dressed in a fuchsia polo, pressed gray denims, and sleek gray Nikes, smiled, laughed, and bobbed his head as Jazzy Jay dropped a dusty breakbeat groove from the Meters. He said he was unfazed by the Zulus and Black Spades, some of whom are longtime friends of Bambaataa's and are angry with him and the others for going public. Savage was at ease, called the Zulus there his "friends," and said he harbored no ill will toward the organization as a whole. Like the other two alleged victims I interviewed for this piece, he said he's not considering any legal action against Bambaataa but would like an acknowledgement and an apology.
Since making his accusations public, Savage said he's made it his mission to help protect a new generation of kids in the Bronx. He spoke about working with an organization called ULULY that focuses on utilizing hip-hop in education, and has launched a new awareness campaign for child sex abuse that he's seeking to have implemented in New York schools.
Nearby, some children splashed in a water fountain. "I feel good that I spoke up," Savage said. "But I wish I had the courage to come out when I was younger, so I could have saved other kids."
This article was originally published on THUMP.