In December 2017, two months after sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein came to light, former music industry executive Drew Dixon went public with her story accusing hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of rape. When the documentary On The Record, which recounts her story and decision to come forward, debuts May 27 on HBO Max, it lands at a different moment on the #MeToo trajectory.
Weinstein now sits in prison after being sentenced to a 23-year term. But three of the women featured in the film—Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher—who each accuse Simmons of rape (he has denied the claims), in separate interviews with Billboard question whether the systemic sexism in the music industry has changed since their experiences in the ’90s. (Billboard reached out to Simmons for comment on the documentary and did not receive answers by press time.)
“The music industry people in my life have been conspicuously silent or they’ve been conspicuously careful about communicating with me in a way that no one could see or track,” says Dixon, who in the documentary also alleges encounters of sexual harassment by L.A. Reid that she says blunted her career.
“A lot of people in the industry have sent me private messages on social media and emails offering support. And then I see them liking and commenting and praying for Russell all over his Instagram and praying for L.A. Reid all over his Instagram, I guess assuming I won’t notice. I think a lot of people are trying to have it both ways. They want to check the box and check in with me, but publicly they’re absolutely still with Russell and L.A. Reid and the people who have the power. And the men have the power.”
Abrams, who served as executive assistant to the evp of marketing and promotions at Def Jam in 1992, believes the situation likely has worsened. “If anything, I would imagine that there are a lot more of NDAs and payoffs occurring,” she says. “If you look at the center of what’s occurring in our society and how sexual violence is being treated… this petering out of coverage and voices around sexual violence… If change is not occurring in more moderate work environments, I don’t have any reason to believe that over in the music industry things have shifted.”
While the accusers in the film didn’t publicly share their stories for decades, the women in On the Record tell Billboard a number executives in music and ancillary industries knew about their situations early on. Dixon says she told two music execs at Arista (one of whom she still considers her “protector”) about it so they wouldn’t be caught off-guard by a lawsuit she was filing against Simmons over sexual harassment and unpaid expenses.
The suit, she says, stemmed from Def Jam’s refusal to pay outstanding expenses on a credit card. “It was totally business expenses from Def Jam and they were just ignoring me,” Dixon says. “So ultimately I told my record industry lawyer. Once I explained to him why I’d quit suddenly without submitting my expenses, he said, ‘Drew, this isn’t a music industry issue, this is a sexual harassment and assault issue.'” Dixon ultimately settled for a sum that covered the bill plus legal fees, and not a penny more.
Of their response, she says, “They said they were kind of surprised I’d survived in such a tough environment and wondered how I survived in that environment—not that they’d speculated anything specifically along those lines had happened,” she recounts. “They told me they were glad I was at Arista and supported me and, you know… there was nothing else… I don’t know. That was that.”
Stories of abject silence are hardly new. In a recent interview with Britain’s The Sunday Times, Alanis Morissette asserted the pervasive abuse of women in music hasn’t been brought to light because so many are afraid to speak out against those who’ve committed sexual misconduct. “Almost every woman in the music industry has been assaulted, harassed, raped,” Morissette is quoted in the Times article. “It’s just so normalized.”
Referencing that article, Dixon tells Billboard, “I think the music industry is holding its breath and biding its time and hoping this Category 5 storm blows over. This is why this film is so important, because we can’t just go back to the status quo. It’s not only devastating to women like me who are victims of abuse. It’s devastating to the business when an otherwise productive executive abandons her career, or an otherwise talented artist like Sheri abandons her career because the only way to get from point A to point B professionally is to cross paths with a sexual predator. This is not a black music problem. This is a music industry problem.”
Sher, a founding member of the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, details a complicated relationship with Simmons, who initially championed her career when she found little support elsewhere. When she began to pen her 2008 book about Mercedes Ladies, Sher says she sought advice from her editor and other people in the industry about whether to include her account of Simmons raping her. After telling her editor about Simmons, he said, “You have a choice to make.”
Ultimately Sher elected to tell the story as a novel, absent the Simmons account. “In my heart, I knew Russell was too powerful of a man and he was going to blackball the things I was trying to do with my book. I was working on a script, I had all of that going and I thought if I blew him up that would have stopped all of that because he was too well-respected in the game,” she says.
“Russell is considered a god in hip-hop. People were like, ‘I don’t think you should blow up Russell.’ It’s like, ‘How dare you come out and speak out on him and black men.’ This is the way we were raised up. That’s why a lot of us don’t come out with our stories because, who’s going to care? Nobody’s going to listen. And then you’re going to be looked down on. We don’t have the support.”
The notion of black women calling out black men is fraught with complication, as Abrams tells Billboard. “Quite frankly, no one thought #MeToo would ever land in hip-hop because you have the double layer of the protectionism of the art form, and the insular nature of the industry and the dominance of men there,” Abrams says. “And then it fits within the nexus of the black community, which is another space where we don’t talk about and address gender violence.” Abrams currently is enrolled at Bryn Mawr College studying political science and sociology.
It’s a lens that came strongly into focus in days before On the Record premiered at Sundance in January when Oprah Winfrey, who’d signed on as an executive producer, abruptly backed out. Winfrey—who maintains she believes Dixon, Abrams and Sher—initially cited creative differences with the directors. But Simmons and his supporters publicly pushed her to abandon the film, and she acknowledged that pressure to The New York Times: “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said of Simmons. The film went on to debut to a standing ovation at the film festival.
Ironically, it’s precisely this kind of scenario that empowered Dixon to collaborate with the film’s directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the team behind docs The Hunting Ground, about rape on American college campuses, and The Invisible War, about rape in the military.
“The filmmakers are white filmmakers who kind of stumbled upon the double bind when they asked me to consider being a main subject of a documentary and I told them I really was reluctant because I didn’t want the black community to ostracize me. That’s not something they’d thought about because they’re not black,” Dixon says.
“When they realized how absolutely terrified I was specifically of the blowback in the black community, that’s when they realized this specific double bind had to be part of the film. That’s why I ultimately agreed… The opportunity to even have the conversation of the double bind was more important of my own anxiety of being in the middle of the conversation.”
Abrams says she believes Simmons, in particular, became vulnerable to exposure—he has been accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women to date—explicitly because he has become “less black.”
“Russell has over the course of time distanced himself from black culture. He’s kind of in his own lane, where because of his celebrity and his wealth and his variety of business interests, he’s seen as a businessman who happens to be black,” she says. “I think that is what made him vulnerable in a way in which other moguls, and certainly we can presume there are others who have not been named who have also committed sexual violence, are not.”
Dixon in On the Record alleges that after label head Clive Davis departed Arista and Reid took the reins, Reid began sexually harassing her both publicly and privately. When Dixon rebuffed his advances, she says Reid started passing on artists she brought to him—Kanye West and John Legend, among them—effectively leaving her no path forward at the label. She hung up the promise of her career and left the music business.
In a statement to The New York Times after accusations of sexual harassment hit, Reid said, “I’m proud of my track record promoting, supporting and uplifting women at every company I’ve ever run. That notwithstanding, if I have ever said anything capable of being misinterpreted, I apologize unreservedly.”
Only recently, after coming forward with her story, has Dixon begun to feel the pull of what she loved most about the industry—developing talent. She set up 9th Floor Music and signed as her first act a young artist named Ella Wylde, who appears in the documentary and for whom Dixon was on track to help land a major label deal.
“She had a great audition. The person I met with extended the meeting and brought in another [executive] because the audition was going so well. I think the A&R person who came into the meeting didn’t quite realize who I was and what my history was. She even asked me, sort of casually when she figured out my dates at Arista, if I knew L.A. Reid. I just said I did and dropped it. So she clearly didn’t know at the time,” Dixon says. “But then I never heard from her again.”
Wylde’s song “Medicine” will be released via Spotify and other digital channels this week. “I’m just doing it on my own,” Dixon says. “I hope the audience embraces it. I don’t know that the industry will embrace me or Ella; I just don’t know.”
What she does know, is how the industry can begin to right the ship. “Above all, it’s the enablers,” Dixon says. “The women and men that know untoward things are happening, and they turn a blind eye and do not extend a hand when they see someone struggling. I wish someone had extended a hand to me. I hope people will step up and draw a line. That would be a place to start.”