by Kevin Powell, special to Utne Reader
Left: Russell Simmons, photo via Wikimedia Commons/Brett Weinstein, cropped; Right: Oprah Winfrey, photo via Wikimedia Commons/vargas2040, cropped.
Cause we're alone now
And I'm singing this song to you
—Donny Hathaway, “A Song for You”
The godfather of hip-hop, Russell Simmons, sits at a table with two elderly White men on either side of him, holding court in the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel, just days before Christmas. The Mercer is an epicenter of power and wealth, less a lobby than an exclusive living room for Simmons and other visitors.
Once you push past the heavy black drapes that separate the outside world from this living room, there are art-deco shelves and tables filled with all kinds of books and high-end magazines; there are immaculately scrubbed white walls and comfortably elegant sofas; and there are young, chic, multicultural staffers rocking all-black gear while attending to the godfather of hip-hop and others milling about.
Simmons, with no security detail, is dining on a vegan burger, a salad, and a glass of water, totally at ease, his toothy grin engraved ear to ear, sporting his usual uniform of a New York Yankees fitted cap, a colorful button-up shirt, chiming prayer beads around his neck, blue jeans, and white-on-white Adidas sneakers. There is a sun-baked glow to Simmons’ copper brown skin, the product of several years of daily yoga and meditation, and every kind of self-care activity at his well-manicured fingertips. Given what is hovering all around Russell Simmons’ life this very moment, his Zen-like state is unbelievably jarring in its calmness.
A child of blue-and-white-collar Queens, New York, Simmons and his journey have been a testimony to the surge of hip-hop, the governing culture on the planet since the early 1980s. His vast and layered business interests have grown to include music, film, management, comedy, finance, television, books, fashion, media, technology, the visual arts, yoga, and poetry. There are few in pop culture who can say they have not been affected by Russell Simmons and his monumental reach.
I count myself among the nation of millions. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I danced to—and worshipped—several of the hip-hop acts Simmons either guided via his firm Rush Management (like his younger brother Joseph’s rap group, Run-DMC), or had on his now-historic record label, Def Jam (like LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy). In the 1990s, I was a senior writer at Vibe magazine, which Quincy Jones owned, and Simmons considered joining as a partner. When I was fired from the publication in 1996, it was Russell Simmons, while having a sidewalk lunch with the writer Nelson George at Greenwich Village’s Time Cafe, who told me to get over the firing and “go franchise yourself.”
In the late 1990s, I wrote cover stories on iconic figures like Lauryn Hill and Chris Rock for Simmons’ One World magazine, although I never interacted with him directly. A year or two later, when I helped produce the very first exhibit on the history of hip-hop, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Brooklyn Museum, it was Russell Simmons who I sat down with, along with the director of the Brooklyn Museum, to get his stamp of approval. And into the 2000s and 2010s I have become both a vegan and a yogi myself, due in no small part to the health-and-wellness preaching of individuals like Russell Simmons. But the only other time I can ever recall interviewing Russell Simmons was during the 1990s, as he was walking on a treadmill in his home in Manhattan. I have no clue who or what that interview was for, and my only recollection is him telling me I should try yoga.
Russell Simmons and I are not friends and have never been. But there has always been mad respect, and through the years, I certainly was in awe of him for curating a soundtrack and a culture that I grew up with, one that provided spaces of expression for me and Black and Brown boys like me from America’s ghettos.
Because no Russell Simmons for hip-hop is like no Rosa Parks for the Civil Rights Movement, like no Frida Kahlo or Jean Michel-Basquiat for avant-garde painters, like no Michael Jordan for basketball or Nike, like no Beatles for innovative song-writing and sonic twists and shouts, like no Meryl Streep for method-inspired actors, like no Kardashians or Jenners for reality television and Instagram, and like no Oprah Winfrey for emotion-packed TV talk shows and teary-eyed confessional interviews.
His presence has been revolutionary and deeply transformative for multiple generations of hip-hop heads, a railway bridge between people and possibilities, making Simmons a very potent and very rich tastemaker in the process. As a matter of fact and keepin’-it-a-hundred mythmaking, Russell Simmons is the walking, breathing logo of manifesting something from nothing, of winning on his own terms—the very definitions of hip-hop.
As Simmons sits there with his vegan burger in the lobby of the Mercer, several people, mostly White, stop to pay their respects, to ask how he has been, to say it is good to see him, to shake or touch his hands. You can tell that these admirers have not encountered Simmons in a long while, or are surprised to see him, by their words, by their body language. That is because the godfather of hip-hop no longer lives in New York, or in America, but has resided, since February of 2018, in Bali, in Indonesia, in Southeast Asia, a nation-state that is a safe and extradition-free haven 9,000 miles away from the allegations of approximately 20 women who have accused Russell Simmons of, among other things, rape.
The allegations began in late 2017, just as the #MeToo movement dramatically shifted conversations around sexism, around manhood, across America, across the universe. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein went down first, fast and hard in October 2017, an avalanche of 80 allegations of rape, sexual harassment, and other sexually oppressive conduct. Mere weeks after Weinstein’s fall from grace, the first wave of Russell Simmons accusers came forth, as published in the New York Times in December 2017.
Say her name: Drew Dixon, a well-regarded music executive who says that in the mid-1990s, Simmons sexually harassed her during her employment at Def Jam Recordings, exposing his erect penis on several occasions, speaking explicitly to her on work calls, and eventually raping her at his Downtown Manhattan apartment. Close friends of Ms. Dixon have corroborated that she immediately told them about these allegations and left Def Jam with a “settlement” of $30,000—only $3,000 of which went to her directly, legal fees swallowing the rest of it.
Say her name: Sherri Hines, also known as pioneering female rapper Sherri Sher of Mercedes Ladies, the first all-women’s rap group. In the early 1980s, Hines says, Simmons pinned her down on a couch in his sparsely furnished new offices and “violated” her sexually, after which she left in tears. Sheri Sher told close friends at the time, but never said anything publicly, for fear of being shunned in the music industry, and because she did not want to bring a Black man down. (Years later, in 2008, Ms. Hines wrote a novel based on the real lives of Mercedes Ladies, which depicts a businessman named “Ronald” who rapes a member of the women’s rap group.)
Say her name: Sil Lai Abrams. A former model and currently a long-time domestic violence awareness activist, she says that she dated Simmons off and on for a few years, from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, but one night, while not in a relationship with him of any kind, he took advantage of the fact that she was drunk, and instead of having his driver take her home, she was brought to his residence. There, Abrams has alleged, Simmons raped her, as she laid on her stomach in his bed. It has been reported and confirmed that she was so distraught about the incident she immediately told close friends; the next day, Abrams says, she downed pills and wine in a suicide attempt.
These three women appear in the soon-to-be-released documentary film On The Record focusing on the allegations around Simmons, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to sold-out crowds. All told, there are numerous allegations and complaints against Russell Simmons: everything from rape to sexual harassment, according to various sources. Most of the allegations fall outside the statute of limitations for sex crimes, which is 21 years for New York State, where much of this is said to have occurred. While the pattern of allegations ranges from the 1980s to the 2010s, many episodes share a common thread: Simmons maneuvering women into compromising spaces like an office or an apartment, alone, where they have no escape route.
However, Simmons’ supporters—ex-wife Kimora Lee Simmons, and about a dozen family members, and his past and present friends, colleagues, and business partners I spoke with—believe that some or all of these women are lying, that Russell Simmons would never be violent toward women. “I have known Russell for over 25 years,” Kimora wrote on Instagram in the aftermath of the allegations. “We were close friends, married, divorced, and have remained friends, co-parents and partners throughout it all. These allegations against him are nothing like the person I have known in all that time. I have known him to be a caring and supportive father and someone who has worked tirelessly to uplift disenfranchised communities.”
I do not know which men are or are not rapists, sexual harassers, abusers, and batterers of women. What I do know is that my friend and fellow activist Tarana Burke coined the term “me too” in the first years of this twenty-first century as she was working with young Black and Latinx girls, and noticed that many of them, barely into their teens, had already been raped by a male figure—a man, a boy, or both. I did not know Tarana was doing this when she and I crossed paths doing relief work in the Deep South in the heartbreaking fog of Hurricane Katrina. By the time actress and singer Alyssa Milano encouraged legions of women to use #MeToo on social media on October 15, 2017, in response to the Weinstein revelations in The New York Times and The New Yorker, hundreds of thousands of women and girls had posted their own responses.
Yet, when Russell Simmons was accused, he employed a different hashtag: #NotMe. The backlash was swift from women, and men sympathetic to women, on Twitter, condemning Simmons for not taking sexual violence against women and girls seriously. What he does own, is his past womanizing: “I'm in this mess because of the amount of whoring I did,” he says to me. “I am one thousand percent comfortable taking responsibility for what I have done, but I absolutely don't want to take responsibility for what I haven't done and that is that I'd never been violent, I've never been forceful, and [it was] never my intention to hurt anyone.”
When #MeToo first exploded, there was no way to predict how many women would step forth to speak of being survivors, to name the men who had assaulted and or harassed them. Dozens upon dozens of men—executives, elected officials, journalists, names like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and Al Franken—have by now been accused of sexual transgression in one form or another. The #MeToo movement has forced a renewed interest in the cases of men like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, and it landed Bill Cosby in jail. “This is going to go on for years,” a famous actress friend told me at the start of the #MeToo movement. “Men being accused and held accountable.”
Perhaps this is why so many men are frightened, in entertainment, in music, in sports, in politics, in corporate America, everywhere—just like some White Americans were scared, during the Civil Rights Movement, as racism was being tested at every turn. Power forever panics under siege.
If we are to be honest, then we must acknowledge that America was founded not just on racism, but also on sexism. There has scarcely been a time from the beginning of this social experiment in “democracy” that our society has granted any women and girls value equal to men and boys—let alone to Black women and girls. The habitual and continuous rape of Black women by White male slave masters and White male overseers was not merely a passing feature of slavery, but a foundational weapon in its arsenal of dehumanizing tactics.
(If you think otherwise, then peep the many colors and complexions of Black folks in this fair land and ask, How did that happen? Rape and sexual violence are tools of control, of oppression, of power gone insane.)
In her film NO! The Rape Documentary, Aishah Shahidah Simmons asserts that Black male slaves consciously and subconsciously absorbed that mindset and began to view Black women and girls as little more than sexual toys, caretakers, or punching bags, just as the White male slave masters and White male overseers did.
This was in spite of the fact that Black women and Black men were kidnapped from Africa together, put at the bottom of those slave ships together, worked in the fields and in the master’s house together, celebrated emancipation together, fled white masks and hanging nooses together, and marched and got water-hosed and clubbed in the head together at civil rights protest after civil rights protest.
Evelyn and Daniel Simmons, Russell’s parents, civil rights workers themselves, were together as they raised him—the middle child—and his two brothers, Danny Jr. and Joseph. But, according to Russell, “my parents fought all the time.” He adds that his mother was fiercely independent, and “was the most nurturing person in my entire life. No one was more supportive of my dreams and my spirit like my mother, no one.” Evelyn, a small woman in stature, worked for the Parks Department in Queens while Daniel Sr. was a history teacher, but her true passions were the arts, as she was both a painter and a poet (Danny Jr. would too become a painter and poet).
College-educated and a dreamer like her son Russell, Evelyn would divorce her husband in the 1970s when Russell was a teenager, on the heels of Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s rights, and the flowering of major Black women writers like Ntozake Shange.
Russell does not know fully why his parents split, but coupled with the sexism and male privilege that all women have endured in this country, and the many movements, from suffrage to equal rights to #MeToo, that have pushed back on those hateful dynamics—imagine being a Black woman who not only has to deal with racism, but also sexism as well? This is why Gloria Steinem, a pioneer for equal rights for women for over 50 years, has said, loudly, that Black women in America are the original feminists. Because Ms. Steinem, and progressive White women like her, are clear that Black women have had to deal with an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of venom and violence because of their skin color and their gender.
Later, as hip-hop was being birthed by poor African-Americans, poor West Indians, and poor Latinx folks in the Bronx, it overlapped with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, neither of which would have happened without Black women front and center, but both of which witnessed men perpetrating sickening sexism and violence against Black women. I can’t begin to articulate the number of Civil Rights-era Black women who have told me of the hate and brutality they endured fighting for a freedom that did not seem to comprise them. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been working on a biography of Tupac Shakur; Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was one of the few women who fought back—and was vilified for it, her contributions minimized by those men who feared and loathed an outspoken woman.
We know there would be no hip-hop being officially born on a muggy August day in 1973 in the South Bronx if Cindy Campbell had not produced the very first event at which her brother Kool Herc deejayed—thereby pre-dating Russell Simmons’ party-promoter hustle by half a decade. But hip-hop would certainly allow and encourage foul behavior toward women and girls, just like rock and roll before it. Giants named David Bowie, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and members of Led Zeppelin have all been accused of an assortment of things, like sex with underage girls, like domestic violence, like rape. Hip-hop is merely the most recent pop culture phenomenon that is representing what has always been there: unapologetic sexism.
I did not know any of this as a boy who fell in love with hip-hop in the late 1970s. But even if you listen closely to that first major hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” it is riddled with sexism and the objectification of women: I can bust you out with my super sperm. From childhood on, we learn much of what we know about manhood from music, from television, from movies, from sports, from male-centered spaces. In a call after he had returned to Bali, Russell Simmons speaks directly to these influences, saying “We grew up watching The Mack, I saw so much stuff, and so many people were living in a culture where they devalued women.”
As a result, young males, generation to generation and culture to culture, were and are clueless about the male policing we do to each other “to prove our manhood,” the sexist or homophobic words we toss at each other like verbal grenades, our brazen grabbing and touching of girls as if their bodies are our playgrounds.
We do not know this is assault. We teach each other there is something wrong with you, sexually, as a boy, as a man, if you do not get sex, if you do not talk or brag about your sexual conquests, whether real or imagined. No, not all of us go on to rape and assault women once we became men, but rape culture lurks all about us, in language and in deed—
Add to this the fact that most of us learned little to nothing about the history and contributions of women and girls in school, in the mass media culture, in our religious or spiritual spaces; it is little surprise that many of us men and boys are entirely clueless about women and girls, about rape culture, about domestic violence, about gender discrimination.
It becomes quite easy, with that enthusiastic ignorance, to blame women and girls for everything, to diss them, to never think twice about how they were treated, in my ‘hoods in my hometown of Jersey City, right through my college years at Rutgers University.
For me it was not until my early twenties in July of 1991, while living with a girlfriend in Brooklyn, that my awakening occurred. How it happened was pitiful and toxic. During an argument, I didn’t like a response from her—and pushed her, in a fit of rage, into the bathroom door. I cannot recall what the argument was about, but I do remember feeling a sense of powerlessness as my girlfriend challenged me, so I responded with violence. She bolted from the apartment barefoot, crying, and screaming. I stood trembling, mortified at what I had done.
The pathetic thing would have been to say she caused me to do it, or that what she said happened did not actually happen. But I could not lie. My single mother had raised me to always tell the truth, and I thought often of her saying to me, to not be like my father. I was never clear what ma meant until that incident. Do not become an abuser. Do not hurt women.
I went for therapy, I consulted both women and men for guidance, I wrote an essay for Essence called “The Sexist in Me,” apologizing for the incident and taking ownership for it. Years later I would apologize to my ex-girlfriend directly, and I have never put my hands on a woman in any un-welcomed manner since that day, but I would be lying if I said I have not said disrespectful and dishonorable things to women since, or that I have not been sexist. Because I have been; I am very clear about that, because all men are either sexist or are easily capable of being sexist instantly.
I struggled mightily, through the 1990s, through the heyday of my years at Vibe, as I participated in a culture that I knew was loaded with disgusting examples of manhood, such as Dr. Dre's savage beating of Dee Barnes, or rappers and crews punching hip-hop journalists who had given them negative reviews, or the bottomless survey of songs that called women every kind of name or curse word imaginable, or depicted every kind of sexual aggression, including rape, gang rape, and domestic violence.
And just like rock and roll before it, sex, drugs, and liquor were as central to our culture as breathing. While this was happening, women in and around the music industry talked. They talked about rumored assaults and harassment by record executives, including Russell Simmons. They talked about rappers with terrible sexual assault reputations. I just was not aware of much of this back then, but now I know, because several anonymous women have said this to me while writing this piece.
“There is not a music industry executive who did not sexually harass me. They used their power, their money, and their resources, and the things that they can offer; they trick us with the glitz and the glamour, and then they use their dicks to try to manipulate the situation. They come off as wanting to help you, but when you do not do what they say,
they take everything away.”
—Black woman (name withheld) who has worked in the entertainment industry for over two decades
This is the culture that spearheaded scenarios of rape and abuse and sexual harassment over and over again, in songs, at concerts, in hotels, in studios, while many of us turned our heads, or enabled it, or acted like it was not happening. Perhaps the most profound thing Tupac Shakur said to me after he was sent to prison for an alleged sexual assault incident with a young woman is that while he maintained his innocence, what he was guilty of was not thinking of her safety as he fell asleep, and as his friends pounced on her.
Louis C.K. Brett Ratner. Dustin Hoffman. George H.W. Bush. Morgan Spurlock. Ben Affleck. Casey Affleck. James Franco. Aziz Ansari. Kevin Spacey. Robert DeNiro. Antonio Brown. Donald Trump.
These are some more names of famous men accused of one sexual misdeed or another. It is an unofficial but very much alive boys club that thrives in the corporate and creative worlds, in academia and entertainment, in politics and media, and that has always been the case. There are long days, longer nights; the divisions between work and play are blurred, and if you suffer from an acute case of male privilege, then you believe that everything is yours to take, including women’s bodies without permission.
This is why the #MeToo movement is necessary. This is why I never thought I would ever see anything like it when I confessed those years back to my own toxic manhood, or as I have worked with men and boys to re-define manhood throughout America and globally. Because there has been a staunch resistance to the truth, an allergic reaction, if you will, to viewing women as our equals.
So we go out of our way to deny their voices, to silence them, to say they want money and fame, that they are haters, that they are trying to destroy men. This is what Russell Simmons says to me time and again during our many interviews. This is what Russell Simmons tells me time and again during our many interviews about the “files” he has on the women accusers.
This is what men do: Men re-assert manhood, if you are Harvey Weinstein or Russell Simmons, to highlight the good things you have done for others, for women, while ignoring the fact that doing great things for others does not preclude monstrous acts. Gangsters and drug dealers give away turkeys at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas, while still damaging the communities they give back to. Because this is about power, and that is what the #MeToo movement is challenging—the unchecked and abusive power of men—just like the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter came to challenge the unchecked and abusive power of White supremacy.
I wonder about all of this as I am now the one sitting next to Russell Simmons with a vegan burger and fries and a glass of water in front of me. Russell casually reaches across me several times to grab a couple of french fries from my stash. I barely eat my burger, because I want to focus on every word he is saying. I have known him for half my life, but I realize I do not know Simmons, do not know what might have happened with him and women behind closed doors, as he keeps talking: “So anyway, then #MeToo happened, I lost my five charities. … I mean I'm happy to live where I live. … So I have a job and purpose, and I'm thrilled where I am. I don't need to ‘come back’ as a lot of men do ...”
I believe the women, Russell Simmons, I believe you raped them, I believe you sexually assaulted them, is what I want to say to him. Then he says “I don't want to be an advocate for men. I want to be an advocate for change. And I certainly want to be an advocate for the shift in consciousness. I think it's more inclusive and has women's energy and in our governance of our planet.” I wonder if he realizes he is in fact an advocate for men only, for toxic manhood, every single time he says the women accusers are only doing this for fame and money, every single time he smears their characters, be it publicly or privately.
I wonder if he realizes that you just cannot skip from women saying you raped or assaulted them to becoming a spiritual guru on Instagram, using that very spiritual practice as a way not to deal with the reality of damage that has been done to these women’s lives.
FROM: Russell Simmons Silence Breakers and Survivors
We are more than victims of rape. We are Black women. We are mothers, daughters, sisters and friends insisting on our right to live and work free from sexual violence and abuse. We will not back down, and we will not be silenced. We are not afraid. When we raised our anguished voices to say, “No! Stop! Don’t!” to Russell Simmons, he ignored us. Now, as we raise our voices in defiance of a culture that protects abusers and their enablers, he has tried to discredit us and to deny our truth. Russell Simmons and his enablers cannot intimidate us, bully us, or ignore us. Unyielding as a force, united in our resolve, we are Black women standing with survivors of all colors and we will not be silenced. #silenceisviolence #ustoo #lifteveryvoice #metoo
When Simmons and I move to a sofa in the Mercer Hotel lobby, I question silently how many men actually know what “consent” means, as discussed in NO! The Rape Documentary and on many college campuses I have visited; that having sex with someone who is drunk or high is rape; that having sex with someone who is saying yes but is drunk or high is rape; that having sex with someone who is sober or high or drunk who says no or maybe or I don’t know is rape; that someone who resists at first, then gives in, does not necessarily give consent, which equals rape.
While the legal terms may vary state to state, morally and spiritually clear consent by a woman is something rarely considered by men of all ages who are later accused of rape.
I ask Russell Simmons what he thinks rape is, and his response is wildly unsettling, naively revealing, and I am both saddened and disgusted that a 62 year old man with his wealth and power would say these words, referencing the polygraph tests he submitted to regarding the accusations: “I think a lot of people are guilty of a lot of things. What we used to call rape was violent. I took all my tests, one of my tests was, I've never been violent. I thought that was the answer. I said no, no. And then the detective thought—and he had been a detective and he had also worked for the FBI and he was one of the best polygraph people in the country. He explained to me what the definition of rape was.”
“What is required now is a much deeper dive on the part of men. Men have to say, What is sexual abuse? What is harassment? What is domestic violence? What happened in my childhood that made me the kind of man who is capable of degrading a woman, demeaning a woman, beating a woman, hurting a woman, raping a woman? What happened in the culture? What was I taught in the culture? What did I learn? Why? Why am I doing this? What's driving me?’”
—Eve Ensler, author of The Apology and playwright of The Vagina Monologues
The fact that he, like many men, still does not know what rape is, speaks volumes about what may have happened to the women who accuse Russell Simmons of that sexually violent act. My mind is a sagging load of emotions as he continues to talk, nervously, about the many allegations against him, about the “files” he has on his accusers that he insists will prove his innocence.
I attempt to tune out some of the things he is saying about the women—about this one having a drug issue, about that one who says she was raped by her father, about her and her and her wanting money and fame—because this is a recurring thing with so many men: to never look inward at themselves, but to instead point fingers outward. This is how power operates inside the music industry, inside any and all spaces where men run things. If men are questioned or prodded, the knee-jerk reaction, time and again, is to say that the woman accusing is wrong, that it cannot possibly be men with the problem, but the women, for even daring to mention ugly and toxic behavior.
On another early evening inside the Mercer Hotel, I am with Russell Simmons and two of his longtime associates. Kevin Leong is Russell’s close friend and creative director and is helping him to reboot the Phat Farm clothing line. Hasaun Muhammad is a confidant, friend, and associate. Both men have hung for about 25 years with Simmons, since the 1990s.
We go riding in Simmons’ super-sized black SUV, to a Uniqlo clothing store, to a cold-pressed juice bar, to a cryotherapy center where he and Leong get a quick treatment, to Simmons’ favorite Indian restaurant. We conclude the night at The Roof, a boisterous sky lounge atop Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel.
Everywhere we stop, people know Russell Simmons, ask him how he is doing, greet him with reverence. He appreciates the love, is thankful for it, as he sips on a glass of red wine at The Roof. But he is ready to go to bed. The man who has been partying and jet-setting for much of his adult life is more interested, the past several years, in rising early, to meditate, to practice yoga, to teach anyone who will join him, about wellness. Meanwhile, I feel as uncomfortable here as I did at the Mercer Hotel, wondering how someone accused of rape and assault and harassment by approximately 20 women could so effortlessly move from place to place, including this lounge, like there are no eyes whatsoever on him. Guilty or not, this is what extraordinary wealth and power, in the hands of a man, look like; no matter the storm, just keep going.
“I have many prayer beads that I use for meditation. They all include the image of the holy sound. In the beginning was vibration and that sound was is ‘ohm.’”
—Russell Simmons, in a text message to me about his daily spiritual practice
I watch Simmons’ regular Instagram Live chats where he leads dedicated followers in meditation, waxes poetic on the wonders of yoga and his vegan lifestyle, proclaims his love for truth, and seems to relish the chance to be his other self, the higher-consciousness self—"Uncle Rush”—who he says he has evolved into. I wonder how Simmons’ soul juggles these two dangerously conflicting realities: the old Russell who is accused by a number of women of rape and sexual harassment; and the new Russell who proclaims he wants to be a part of the women’s movement that will change the world, who is proud of the fact his two teenaged daughters with Kimora, Ming Lee Simmons and Aoki Lee Simmons, ages 19 and 17, know what consent is.
I have spoken with Russell many times over the past two months, in person, by cellphone, and I have read and watched and listened to virtually everything attached to these accusations about him. He mentions his daughters regularly, how proud he is that both are in college, what they mean to him. The last time I spoke with Russell was just a couple of weeks ago, one early morning, now that he is back in Bali after spending time both in New York City and St. Barts during the holiday season.
He sounds very much like a man who is afraid and confused, his spirit broken in some ways because of the documentary film that is coming. Once more, he says the words “I am sorry”—this is in relation to being “insensitive” to one of the accusers, Jenny Lumet—but, still, he maintains he never raped anyone. “You know what Ashley Judd told me?” he says. “I was really upset. I called her because I know she's one of the leaders of the movement. I said, ‘This is crazy. I would never harm anybody.’ She said, ‘Revolution is bloody.’”
“I'm interested in not having my kids think I'm a rapist,” he says. Every time he references his daughters, I think back to something I said a year ago to a group of students at James Madison University in Virginia, where I was a visiting professor: that men need to understand that all women and girls are our daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, nieces. Afterwards, a young woman came up to me and corrected me, rightfully. “It should not matter if men have daughters or see any women as someone close to them,” she said. “We should not have to say that all women are this or that. Women and girls should be honored and respected just because we are human beings.”
The young woman was correct, is correct: Do men value women and girls as human beings, or not? And it is not enough to listen to women when they make statements, when they say they have been raped or hurt in some way. Sexism will not end until men are actively engaged in helping to make it end. That is not to say that men cannot grow, change, or at least begin to re-think and re-define manhood. I think of the crisis that unfolded between Beyoncé and JAY-Z when her video album Lemonade dropped, an undisguised and public challenge from Bey to JAY to do the right thing, due to his cheating and lack of respect for her. Equally important was JAY’s response album, 4:44.
Perhaps with the exception of the evolution of John Lennon from violently abusive boy-band member to grown man proclaiming his love and reverence for Yoko Ono, we’ve rarely seen a male public figure with such a massive platform openly apologize the way JAY did. Between Russell Simmons and the world and Oprah, this is what the women I know, including my mother in her 76 years of life, have been looking for. A humble, genuine apology, an effort to heal, to grow up—to be, as Lizzo’s words are re-remixed, great—especially when we men need to be great.
This, I believe, is what Oprah Winfrey was trying to say as early as 1991, when she featured the rapper Ice-T on an episode of her talk show. It was a combative segment, when guests and audience members went back and forth, talking over and through each other, dissing each other; you can tell by Oprah’s body language and frozen facial expressions that she either hated or strongly disliked hip-hop. I think it no coincidence that through the years hardly any rappers have ever been in her orbit, except for the transcendently wealthy and successful ones, like JAY-Z.
In one infamous episode, Oprah welcomed the cast of the film Crash, then used it as an opportunity to lambast the rapper Ludacris about his lyrics. And there has been a running beef between her and rapper and actor 50 Cent. All of which is why many in the Black and hip-hop communities called foul when Oprah Winfrey announced that she and Apple TV+ were jumping aboard Amy Ziering’s and Kirby Dick’s On The Record documentary featuring at least three of Simmons’ accusers. In a society where Black people in general have been historically dissed just for being Black, it is easy to understand why we are hyper-sensitive to any critiques of, say, Michael Jackson, or Russell Simmons, why we are quick to say What about the White men? as if we Black men should get a pass, just because we are Black, for equally bad behavior.
The way the story goes, Oprah was blown away by a screening of the documentary and instantly jumped on board as executive producer, using her Apple TV+ partnership to leverage distribution. The documentary’s credibility was already high—Ziering and Dick are Oscar-nominated filmmakers—but Oprah’s involvement devastated Simmons, who had considered her a friend. Black people, seemingly spurred from a post by 50 Cent on Instagram, accused the billionaire media mogul of only going after Black men.
A social media pile on followed, with commenters on Instagram and elsewhere questioning Oprah’s allegiance to the Black race, calling her an “Uncle Tom,” and even suggesting she be canceled permanently. An Instagram post by Russell Simmons:
View this post on Instagram
Dearest OPRAH,you have been a shining light to my family and my community. Contributing so much to my life that I couldn’t list a fraction of it in this blog.Ihave given you the gift of meditation and the groundbreaking book”THE POWER OF NOW “we bonded to say the least. This is why it’s so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentry. I have already admitted to being a playboy more (appropriately titled today “womanizer”) sleeping with and putting myself in more compromising situations than almost any man I know. Not 8 or 14 thousand like Warren Beatty or Wilt Chamberlain, but still an embarrassing number. So many that some could reinterpret or reimagine a different recollection of the same experiences. Please note that ur producers said that this upcoming doc was to focus ONLY on 3 hand chosen women. I have refused to get in the mud with any accusers, but let’s acknowledge what i have shared. I have taken and passed nine 3-hour lie detector tests (taken for my daughters), that these stories have been passed on by CNN, NBC, BUZZFEED, NY POST, NY MAG, AND OTHERS. Now that you have reviewed the facts and you SHOULD have learned what I know; that these stories are UNUSABLE and that “hurt people hurt people”. Today I received a call from an old girlfriend from the early 1980s which means that they are using my words/evidence against me and their COMMITMENT/ (all of the claims are 25 to 40 years old) It is impossible to prove what happened 40 years ago, but in my case proof exists of what didn’t happen, mostly signed letters from their own parents, siblings, roommates, band members, interns, and in the case of 2 of your 3 accusers,their own words in their books. Shocking how many people have misused this important powerful revolution for relevance and money. ... In closing, I am guilty of exploiting, supporting, and making the soundtrack for a grossly unequal society, but i have never been violent or forced myself on anyone. Still I am here to help support a necessary shift in power and consciousness. Let us get to work on uplifting humanity and put this moment and old narrative behind us
"Dearest OPRAH,you have been a shining light to my family and my community. Contributing so much to my life that I couldn’t list a fraction of it in this blog.Ihave given you the gift of meditation and the groundbreaking book”THE POWER OF NOW “we bonded to say the least. This is why it’s so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentry. I have already admitted to being a playboy more (appropriately titled today “womanizer”) sleeping with and putting myself in more compromising situations than almost any man I know. Not 8 or 14 thousand like Warren Beatty or Wilt Chamberlain, but still an embarrassing number. So many that some could reinterpret or reimagine a different recollection of the same experiences. Please note that ur producers said that this upcoming doc was to focus ONLY on 3 hand chosen women. I have refused to get in the mud with any accusers, but let’s acknowledge what i have shared. I have taken and passed nine 3-hour lie detector tests (taken for my daughters), that these stories have been passed on by CNN, NBC, BUZZFEED, NY POST, NY MAG, AND OTHERS. Now that you have reviewed the facts and you SHOULD have learned what I know; that these stories are UNUSABLE and that “hurt people hurt people”. Today I received a call from an old girlfriend from the early 1980s which means that they are using my words/evidence against me and their COMMITMENT/ (all of the claims are 25 to 40 years old) It is impossible to prove what happened 40 years ago, but in my case proof exists of what didn’t happen, mostly signed letters from their own parents, siblings, roommates, band members, interns, and in the case of 2 of your 3 accusers,their own words in their books. Shocking how many people have misused this important powerful revolution for relevance and money. ... In closing, I am guilty of exploiting, supporting, and making the soundtrack for a grossly unequal society, but i have never been violent or forced myself on anyone. Still I am here to help support a necessary shift in power and consciousness. Let us get to work on uplifting humanity and put this moment and old narrative behind us."
I talked with Simmons practically every single day for a month, and practically every single day he mentioned that he and Oprah had spoken, both before and after this Instagram post to her.
She was trying to convince Simmons to do an interview with her, and he was trying to convince Oprah to drop out of the film as executive producer, to stop the film completely. She was doing her due diligence by reaching out to the “witnesses” Russell insisted could prove his innocence, and he was doing his due diligence by sending Oprah his “files” on the women accusers, which he insisted, to her, to me, to any who would listen, poked huge holes in their allegations.
Part of this dance between Simmons and Oprah, I believe, stems from Oprah’s controversial interview with Michael Jackson’s accusers around the time of HBO’s Leaving Neverland. Many took to social media and suggested Oprah had crossed the line in supporting White people who were badly shredding the legacy of Michael Jackson without sufficient facts. And there has been a perception for many years that Oprah—the most powerful and influential woman on the planet outside of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama—goes out of her way to cater to White people, while not extending the same treatment to Black people.
The facts make that perception a bit shaky: Be it Oprah’s generous donations to historically Black colleges, her building of a major girls educational and art institution in South Africa, her many private donations to help Black folks of all kinds, and her complete and total embrace of the work of Black writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Ta-Nehisi Coates, it is simply a lie that Oprah Winfrey does nothing for Black people in America or anywhere else.
“The woman is an independent entity. She is one of the few that we have, which means that she has not been bowing to White corporate interests for a long time because she owns her own shit. So what Uncle Tom?”
—Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as A Hip Hop Feminist
But what may be correct is her dislike of hip-hop, the way it has depicted women from the very beginning, and how so few of us in hip-hop culture or the hip-hop industry have been held accountable for our words and deeds, let alone taking responsibility ourselves. We must not forget that Oprah herself was sexually assaulted as a girl, that she herself is a survivor—so part of this work for Oprah, I am sure, is intensely personal. And just because Oprah is a billionaire with power and influence does not mean that she herself still does not carry around the scars, the traumas, of being that young Black girl who was abused, ridiculed, shamed, right into her early adult years. Surely, Oprah’s story is not that different from many Black women, including my mother’s.
Oprah, my mother, an endless line of Black women, generation to generation, have not only had to deal with racism, just like Black men, but also have had to suppress, in the past and in the present, over and over, any conversations about sexism or gender oppression, often out of faithfulness to Black men, because of the ever-looming threat of White supremacy, and even if certain Black men are not loyal to them.
But at what cost to Black women’s bodies, souls, mental health? My grandmother loved my grandfather fiercely to the day he died, but he hit her when he felt like it, cursed her out when he felt like it, and expected her to have babies and raise the children and take care of him, because he, a Black man, had so few places to hold power in this White-male-dominated universe, other than over his wife.
At home, in sports, in entertainment, in hip-hop, we get to be the kings of the world, while not realizing that our very definitions of manhood are eerily the same as those of White men in power—a bootleg definition of White manhood, yes, that is rooted in a reckless disregard for people.
Because of the marriage of racism and sexism, Black women truly are the mules of the world, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her classic and timeless novel Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Black women have never been regarded in the same breath as White women, and that would emphatically include this era of #MeToo. If most of Russell Simmons’ accusers were White women, some believe, he would have been charged with crimes already, and more than likely on his way to prison, like Bill Cosby.
It was known throughout the music industry for two decades—two decades—that R. Kelly was a serial abuser of Black females, particularly young Black girls, but it was dismissed, ignored, joked about, and enabled, because they were Black. Tarana Burke was only acknowledged as the true creator of the #MeToo movement when Black women took to social media in October of 2017 and pushed back on the notion that Alyssa Milano had coined the phrase. Black women are not, and have never been, valued in the way White women are—in America, or on this planet.
Racism has demanded that White women, from slavery forward, represent the standards of beauty, honor, and dignity, that they be the lens through which Black women and other women are viewed. So, yes, Tarana Burke is now widely hailed as the creator of #MeToo, but White women’s stories are still elevated in a way that Black women’s stories are not. Perhaps this is what brought Oprah Winfrey to this film about Russell Simmons and the Black women who are accusing him: In hearing the stories of women like Drew Dixon and Sherri Sher and Sil Lai Abrams, Oprah was also bearing witness to herself on that screen.
But Black men damaged by both racism and sexism will not grasp this, will instantly become reactionary and defensive, will say that Black women are attacking the Black man, that these Black women are traitors to Black men, to the Black race. This is partially because even in this era of #MeToo, the optics suggest that while Black males like R. Kelly and Bill Cosby are in jail or will wind up in jail, White males accused of comparable crimes and misdeeds will not be. In other words, history and current scenarios paint the picture of Black males as the poster children, time and again, for male bad behavior, even if accused White men have lost careers too.
Because we Black males are treated far harsher, condemned far harsher, punished far more severely, in life, and even in death, per Michael Jackson, per Kobe Bryant, while White males who have been accused of similar toxic behavior are either given a pass, or allowed to bounce back, in some form, eventually, in life, in death. That is our perception, what is in our gut, as Black men. Because the image of the Black male as predator, as violent criminal or violent abuser, and so on, is as old as racism itself, and is a very blatant creation of racism.
Are there Black males who truly are rapists, abusers, batterers, child molesters, serial adulterers, murderers, menaces to society? Without question. But the vicious racism of our world makes it nearly impossible for the average Black male to even grapple with sexism, sadly, tragically, and Black women suffer as a result, because “intersectionality” is as foreign to some Black males, and other men of other cultures, as the word sexism.
Meanwhile, as I write this piece, the Harvey Weinstein trial has been unfolding in New York, with additional charges pending in Los Angeles; yet, his insurance company, not him, is paying off a wave of his accusers. Weinstein does his best to solicit sympathy by entering court daily with a walker, appearing to be in feeble health. If Weinstein actually winds up spending a single day in jail, it would come as an astonishment to Black folks of all genders—because even within the era of #MeToo, White male privilege remains alive and well.
“The truth is … truth that he's using power? Absolutely, everywhere. All the time. Did he punish people for not agreeing, not doing it? I'm sure. Some people could've got a part if they had done it. And, some people got a part even if they didn't do it. Right? A lot of that. So, did people sleep their way into parts other people should've got? Yeah, probably. Right? And, did people who don't, who couldn't be any good in the movies get the part? Probably not and probably people are mad because they didn't get what they wanted. I don't know, man. I don't want to defend Harvey Weinstein. Fuck him.”
But it is not just about Harvey Weinstein and White male privilege, it is about male privilege period, including, as Russell Simmons displays above, the privilege of doubting the testimonies of victims, even in the case of someone like a Harvey Weinstein. In other words, either you are a serial rapist and serial abuser, or you are not. Either you stand on the side of women who’ve come forth, and listen and hear them, or you become an accomplice to the oppression of women.
There are no gray areas here. Because Russell Simmons, like Harvey Weinstein, is using the male playbook of men who want to duck or dodge truth while holding firmly to toxic manhood. Thus, what men who refuse to be held accountable are guilty of, at the least, is unapologetic sexism in how they respond to accusations, bullying and intimidating women who have accused them, and even going so far as to harass their associates or family members. So in commenting on Weinstein, is Simmons also commenting on himself?
People are anxious, nervous, scared. Or so it seems. Over the two months that I have been researching and writing this article, there have been a number of individuals who have refused to talk on the record, or who have completely ignored me, including Oprah Winfrey’s office (no reply); the office of the documentary producers Amy Piering and Kirby Dick (no reply); music industry insiders who know either Russell Simmons or his accusers or both (no one wanted to speak on the record); even the New York Police Department.
When I reached out to the person who was the lead detective for the many allegations of rape and sexual violence against Russell Simmons here in New York City, the detective, a White man, responded via a social media platform that he had no comment. I sent another NYPD spokesperson—a Black woman—a Linkedin message about the allegations, and she replied with an email for me to use, and a number for me to call, to make sure they received my email.
When I called the number to see if my email had been received, I was told they had no idea what I was talking about, to call back later, to talk with the Black woman who had sent me their way in the first place. And, finally, the lead woman accuser in the film, Drew Dixon, via her publicist, opted not to be interviewed by me for this piece, either, after agreeing to do so in person, twice, which dejected me.
In more than 30 years as a journalist, I have never worked on any article where so many people either ignored my outreach, or asked to be off the record, or first said yes to an interview then declined.
“I have decided that I will no longer be executive producer on The Untitled Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Documentary, and it will not air on Apple TV+. First and foremost, I want it to be known that I unequivocally believe and support the women. Their stories deserve to be told and heard. In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured, and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision.”
—Oprah Winfrey, in a statement
I was told, privately and by a very reliable source close to the situation, that the Black women in the then-untitled documentary, as well as other Black women who had accused Simmons of various sexual transgressions, felt hurt, confused, scared, and abandoned by Oprah’s decision to pull out of the film. This source said it struck them as bizarre that the same Oprah Winfrey who raved about the documentary and signed on instantly is the same Oprah Winfrey who now says she and the producers “are not aligned in that creative vision.”
In the meantime, the producers went on record in the Los Angeles Times after Oprah’s statement, saying they had no indication whatsoever that she had any issues with the documentary. Then there is the matter of some women, in the film, not being told fully the nature of the film:
“It's news to me that this is a film about Russell Simmons. It was certainly not presented that way to me when I interviewed for it. The producers, what Amy and Kirby said, was that they really wanted to do an exploration of hip-hop culture in this moment of #MeToo, that they were very honest that they are examining the accusations that were brought about by Drew Dixon. I know Drew. So I didn't have any problem. But the fact that this is now like the Russell Simmons film is news to me. I'll be really honest about that, because that's not the way it was presented.”
Again, Russell Simmons was hoping, in his almost daily calls or texts with Oprah Winfrey, that she would look at his files, call his witnesses, and rethink her participation in the film. “America trusts her, she's very important,” he tells me. “A misstep on her part could really hurt the women's movement. And they need her, we need her for that. We need her to lead the women's movement and add some compassion and some understanding to it. We can't afford for her to be seen as just another finger pointer, a man basher.”
But in reality, it is not the place of Russell Simmons or any man to say what a woman should or should not do with her voice, her work, her platform. Nor is it our place as men to say how women should respond to allegations of sexual violence against women by men. Nor do we know if the very personal taunts from 50 Cent and others across social media got to Oprah about her race loyalties.
What we do know, per her statement, is that she had creative differences with the producers, but still believes the women. While it is true Russell Simmons took nine lie detector tests, and passed them all, we also know that the way questions are asked during a lie detector test can affect the results, and that has been scientifically proven.
And what I do know is if several women have said the same man has raped or abused or sexually harassed them, over the course of years, then there is truth somewhere in those many women’s stories, because I do not believe that multiple women would be lying about the same man. What I do know for sure is that 1 out of 3 women and girls on the planet will be the survivors of some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes—over one billion women and girls.
What I do know is that whenever any powerful man, before and during the #MeToo era, has been accused of raping or otherwise injuring a woman or girl, the pattern is always the same: deny, question, and denigrate the character of the accuser; claim, as a man, to be the victim. What I do know is that countless women routinely endure unwanted touching, unwanted comments, unequal pay for equal work, belittlement of their contributions and ideas, attacks on their self-worth, vicious stereotypes, low expectations, ridiculously high standards for certain positions that are not required of men, and a general disregard for their welfare and their safety.
“We actually don't rape ourselves. This has been an issue about men, and I think we can call out men for eternity, but unless men actually change, we're going to be here for as long as the climate crisis allows us to be.”
The justifiable rage of many women in this era of #MeToo is understandable, just as my mother’s lifelong rage toward my now-dead father has been. But is it enough to simply cancel men who engage in any form of sexual violence or harassment, to exile them so they simply disappear? Is “cancel culture” an answer to ending sexism? I do not think so: People are gone, but the system of sexism remains in place for the next rapist, the next abuser, the next harasser, to come along. Imagine if the Civil Rights Movement, led by figures like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. King, among many others, simply canceled White Americans for their physically and emotionally violent racism toward Black people from 1619 onward.
Imagine if there had been no love, no nonviolent protest, no forgiveness, no attempts whatsoever to heal the very wicked disease of racism?
Black people and other people of color then and now have every right to be angry at White America, from the horrors of slavery, to lynching during segregation, to hideous racial murders like that of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin in this century. We have done nothing to deserve this sort of treatment, nonstop, simply because we are Black, just like women have done nothing to deserve rape and harassment and groping and name-calling and more, nonstop, simply because they are women.
Yet I also think about a conference I attended a few months ago in San Francisco, a Women’s Funding Network event that featured 400 participants from across the world. I was invited as a male ally, a male accomplice, to speak about what should be next, for men and boys, during this era of #MeToo. Less important than what I said is what was said to me by many of the women who were trying to figure out what to do in relation to husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and perhaps most critically, their sons.
Just like we must stop expecting Black people and other people of color in America to do the heavy lifting of ending racism, we as men cannot expect women alone to do the heavy lifting of ending sexism and sexist violence.
Very few women I have ever met and talked with and listened to, who have been hurt in some way by men, have ever said to me very directly “I want revenge,” let alone “I want money” or “I want to be famous” or anything else that powerful men so love to attribute to them. Why would any woman willingly subject herself to public scorn and ridicule, as has happened time and again—from Anita Hill to Desiree Washington to the accusers of Harvey Weinstein—for saying, publicly, a man has raped or abused or harassed them? What they want, I have heard over and over, is justice.
Are there false accusations? Without question. Do I know men who have been accused of foul things that they have not done? Without question. Are men and boys I encounter in my work as an activist and public speaker frightened about what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot say? Yes, I have heard this, over and over, always in confidence, because of social media’s power to destroy people with one click, because these men and boys are afraid that they will be accused of something, just because they are men and boys.
I have had grown men say to me they now go out of their way not to even look women in the eyes, at work, on elevators, anywhere, for fear of one allegation or another; that they will no longer argue or debate with a woman for fear of being accused of being disrespectful, abusive, or a typically sexist man. I also have found myself staring down at the floor when it is just a woman and I on an elevator, or some other tight space, knowing I am not that kind of man to harass anyone, but terrified that someone will say it anyway. But we know fear and avoidance are not the solution, are not a solution.
My hope is that men and boys can get to a space of redemption and reconciliation and love and anti-sexist actions as ways to combat and end sexism—as Dr. King and Nelson Mandela both once said about racism—where men and boys can be trained and re-trained on what is possible with a healthy kind of manhood that uplifts, not hurts, and where men and boys can have honest and vulnerable conversations about who we are, how we got here, and where we can go now that #MeToo has shifted everything, forever.
“So, no one feels like they owe anybody silence anymore. And for the Black community in particular who have constantly trafficked in that, making women make the choice between the advancement of the race … or the battle against racism over the battle against patriarchy, as if that is secondary. … If Black men win, then they take care of the community. We've never seen that happen. Between that never happening and this cultural zeitgeist of accountability, it's a real moment for people who have never had to question or think that their behavior was ever going to be called into question or that there would be ramifications about it.”
I do not know what is going to happen to Russell Simmons: if there will be more accusations, if he will ever be charged, if he will ever spend a day in jail. Men like Russell Simmons and Bikram Choudhury and Roman Polanski have left the scenes of their alleged crimes, and live elsewhere, away from America where the accusations occurred.
To be seen as fleeing is not a good look for men, for women, for humanity; meanwhile, these men continue to do their work, they continue to make money in some way, as Simmons is doing with new business ventures in Asia; and they continue to deny they ever did anything wrong, and people around them and people who admire or worship them, continue to never ask the tough questions of them, of ourselves: Why do so many of us ignore or silence the voices of women when they say they have been hurt in some way? Why do we have such a reckless disregard for the lives and sanity of women and girls, for half the world’s population?
You do not have to be a rapist or a batterer or a harasser to be part of the problem. Saying nothing, or acting like the problem does not exist, or blindly blaming the women, makes you just as guilty. I also do not know if a Russell Simmons can be one of the leaders of a hypothetical men’s movement, to help change manhood once and for all, given the huge gaps between what the women accusers are saying and what he is willing to take ownership for. But I do know Oprah Winfrey was right in a text she sent to him, and that Simmons read to me slowly: that it would be “monumental” if someone with his global platform were to speak freely and honestly about everything—
But is that remotely possible, given how revealing and convincing the women are in the film On The Record, and given how damaging that documentary is for Simmons and his claims of total innocence? It is an excellent case study: It is poetically made, handcrafted like the patched-up quilts ancient Black grandmothers fingered together with their souls—inside those patches, stories like those of Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Sheri Sher overlapping, women who refuse to allow men to damage them ever again, just like my mother and countless other mothers will not, ever again.
HBO has purchased On The Record post-Sundance, and you will have to decide for yourself what all this is, was, and could be. But if you watch this film the way I watched it, you wonder how and why Oprah Winfrey would walk away, searching for the real reason, and how and why she could separate herself from these Black women and this film, which is like separating herself from herself. Only Oprah knows the whole truth, and perhaps Russell Simmons, godfather of hip-hop, does too—
And, honestly, this has been the most difficult piece I have ever written in my life. My emotions are bleeding, I have had painfully sleepless nights, as this story has dragged on, and on, and on. As a Black man, I do not ever want to see another Black man go down in a world already seemingly designed for us to fall. But by the same token I do not want to see Black women—or any women of any background—sacrificed just to spare a Black man—or any man of any background—accused of wrongdoing.
This hurts me from all sides, every part of it. I have been a combination of angry and sad, because of the very real and very vivid stories of the many women who’ve come forth, and because Russell Simmons had been a hero of mine, a hero for many of us boys in the ‘hood.
When he made it, we made it. When he dreamed big, we dreamed big. He was us and we were him. I could not have imagined these kinds of allegations against him when I first saw him in person at some New York City event in the early 1990s, when I just stared, because there he was, and I was too timid to greet him. I just stared, hoping whatever magic he had rubbed off on me, a poor boy from the ghetto. Nor could I have imagined, all these years later, that he would be a fallen hero, desperately trying to prove his innocence, thanking me just for listening to him, me, the writer who had found his voice, long ago, because of the culture—our culture—Russell Simmons helped to bring to the entire world
But I believe the women, Russell Simmons, I believe you raped them, I believe you sexually assaulted them ...
So, yes, it would be “monumental” if Russell Simmons were to come forth in the fearless way he came forth with hip-hop. Yes, if he were to encourage other men and boys to do the same. Russell Simmons is still a hero and a godfather of hip-hop to many, but even heroes and godfathers can be very fragile and very afraid and very much in need of healing, too.
Russell said many times in our conversations that “hurt people hurt other people,” and I now wonder if he meant every single one of us, including himself, particularly because of one phone call from Bali where he struggled mightily to talk about his mother, about his father, about their relationship, and he could not recall which of them died first. This man with all he has done professionally and all he is dealing with now personally, in that instance, was reduced back to the young boy he once was.
Hurt people hurt other people—So, alas, what I do know is that real change must occur, and occur very soon, with Russell Simmons, with all of us men, with all of humanity, because women of every race and culture and creed have spoken, are speaking, and they will never be silent again.
Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, public speaker, civil and human rights activist, filmmaker, and the author of 14 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. His 15th book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur.
Left: Kevin Powell self-portrait, Swansea, Wales, in front of birth home of Dylan Thomas.