Afrika Bambaataa Sexual Abuse Allegations: What's Been Said, Disputed & What's Next
For the past three decades, Afrika Bambaataa has been recognized around the globe as a pioneer and early icon of the hip-hop movement that swept the music landscape. His seminal 1982 single "Planet Rock" with the Soulsonic Force pushed the boundaries of what rap could sound like, and the Universal Zulu Nation -- which he founded and helped spread in the 1970s and 1980s -- became an influential organization designed to protect and promote hip-hop culture. Bambaataa's legendary record collection became part of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection in 2013.
But that esteemed reputation has come under scrutiny since March 30, when 50-year-old former New York State Democratic Committee Member Ronald Savage told radio host Star that Bambaataa molested him multiple times in the 1980s when he was a teenager, a revelation that was included in his 2014 self-published book, Impulse, Urges and Fantasies.
Bambaataa repeatedly and forcefully denied these allegations. In the weeks following, three more men have come forward alleging similar sexual abuse, an alleged former bodyguard supported the claims, and the Zulu Nation distanced itself from its longtime leader, announcing the removal of Bambaataa from its organization in a press release May 6. As the controversy continues to roil, Billboard breaks it down.
Ronald Savage, who grew up in the Bronx and was a member of the Zulu Nation who went by the name Bee Stinger, first published his book in Sept. 2014, but it wasn't until late March, following an interview on Shot 97 by former Hot 97 DJ Star, that the allegations hit the mainstream. In an interview published April 9 by the New York Daily News, Savage described a history of sexual abuse that began when he was a teenager and Bambaataa was in his early twenties. In total, Savage estimated he was abused five times, leading to emotional and intimacy issues that affected the rest of his life.
On April 16, the Daily News identified three more men -- 39-year-old Hassan Campbell, a 51-year-old man identified only as Troy and a 50-year-old man who requested anonymity -- that came forward with similar stories of being sexually assaulted by Bambaataa in their teens in the 1980s; Campbell was quoted as calling the rapper a "pervert" by the paper. And Shamsideen Shariyf Ali Bey, who identified himself as a former bodyguard for Bambaataa, told Star in an interview in early May that "hundreds" of boys came in contact with Bambaataa in some way. "I can say I’ve walked in on stuff where I say, what the fuck is going on," he alleged. "He travels with late teens. Those are the ones he takes overseas with him. When I went with him on tour in the states, I would stay in one room and he would have boys in the room with him."
Afrika Bambaataa's Response
Bambaataa's attorneys have denied the allegations at every turn, first through lawyer Vivian Kimi Tozaki, who said in a statement, "The statements show a reckless disregard for the truth, were published with knowledge of their falsity, and are being made by a lesser-known person seeking publicity... Valuable cultural resources, such as Afrika Bambaataa’s good name and time, should never be used to assist a mediocre person’s asinine quest for social media popularity and superficial gain."
Following Savage's interview with the News, Bambaataa released a statement to Rolling Stone calling the allegations "baseless" and "negligent." "I, Afrika Bambaataa, want to take this opportunity at the advice of my legal counsel to personally deny any and all allegations of any type of sexual molestation of anyone," he wrote. "These allegations are baseless and are a cowardly attempt to tarnish my reputation and legacy in hip-hop at this time. This negligent attack on my character will not stop me from continuing my battle and standing up against the violence in our communities, the violence in the nation and the violence worldwide."
On April 25, following the further accusations from the three additional men, Bambaataa called in to the Ed Lover Show to again deny the accusations, saying he was exploring a defamation suit against those who came forward and denying knowing them. "It’s people that’s trying to sell a book," he says, referring to Savage's book. "Making up false accusations of me. Trying to get in sensationalism just to gain publicity... A lot of lies, and it could be me today and you tomorrow. I completely deny all types of accusations.”
The Zulu Nation's Reaction
Until recently, the Zulu Nation was forceful in its support for Bambaataa, releasing several statements in his defense. The first, obtained by XXL on March 31 from the International Spokesperson for the Universal Zulu Nation King Kamonzi, called Savage's claims "rumors, slander and outright lies." "Abuse is a real issue in our society and for Mr. Savage to use this as a selling point for a book is parasitic and insensitive to all the true childhood victims of abuse," the statement reads in part. "That is why Mr. Savage owes not only Bambaataa/Zulu Nation an apology but all children who have been victims of abuse." Days later, executive director of the Nation's community affairs King Bro. Shep released a further statement accusing Star and the Daily News of being paid and controlled by the U.S. government as part of a long-standing "media assault" on the Zulu Nation.
But last week, the Zulu Nation changed its tone on the matter, explaining it "is currently under new leadership by the International and Regional U.S. Zulu Leaders. This will involve a significant restructure and will feature an in-depth re-assessment of how the organization will function to better serve our communities. As part of this restructure ALL accused parties and those accused of covering up the current allegations of child molestation have been removed and have stepped down from their current positions."
The statement continued by acknowledging the position the Nation found itself in is a "difficult" one. "As an organization we are in a very difficult position because we are being asked to condemn one of our founders based on testimony through social media alone. We cannot do this. We also cannot dismiss the comments of parties asserting they have been harmed. We have a duty to search for truth." And most recently, Hip Hop Chess Federation founder Adisa Banjoko stepped down from the Zulu Nation, saying, "He has personally helped me and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I do not want to defend a child predator."
The Nation's move was condemned by Bambaataa's new lawyer Charles Tucker, Jr., who released a new statement to Rolling Stone on May 7. "Bambaataa has not been part of the leadership for years," Tucker said. "At the end of day we still have unsubstantiated claims from alleged victims who all have seemed to be more focused on self promotion, sensationalism, revenge and some form of payment. There can't be a cover-up from acts that never occurred... There was never a pursuit for any kind of justice in this and it stinks all the way around. The agendas of those involved are quite clear, Zulu Nation will continue to do the great work that they do and Bambaataa will continue to work tirelessly combatting all forms of violence and giving a voice to those real victims of violence in communities across the nation of who many in the media seems to have forgotten about."
What Happens Next
From the first mention of these allegations, a police investigation was never possible due to the statute of limitations in New York, which does not allow child sex abuse victims from seeking criminal or civil penalties after the age of 23. But Savage has contended that his goal is not to seek financial compensation, but to push to amend the statute itself. “I think the statute of limitations is unfair for victims,” he told the Daily News April 9. “It took me all of these years to speak about this. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed.”
To that end, he has aligned himself with Assemblywoman Margaret Markey's Child Victims Act, which seeks to extend the statute of limitations and impose a one-year window to revive claims from victims older than 23. The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the New York State Assembly.
As for any legal action from Bambaataa against his accusers, his attorney Tucker says that is unlikely at the present time. "For lack of a better term, we are now living in an age of the court of public opinion," Tucker tells Billboard. "There are no criminal complaints, there are no civil complaints, and there have never been any criminal complaints or civil complaints." Request for comment from the Universal Zulu Nation went unreturned as of press time.