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18 June 2020updated 14 Sep 2021 2:14pm

On the Record: a deft exploration of abuse in the music industry

Drew Dixon's experiences with Russell Simmons show how racism has helped to silence black rape victims.

By Ryan Gilbey

Drew Dixon had many responsibilities as a young executive at the hip-hop label Def Jam in New York during the 1990s, but one of her minor duties was designated hailer of cabs. Drivers would never fail to stop for this woman, with her light skin tone – perhaps some of them even took her for white. Once the taxi was stationary, she would beckon to her darker-skinned clients nearby ­– Method Man, Redman, whoever – and they would pile into the back of the vehicle, instead of watching cab after cab zoom by in a yellow blur. Such are the benefits of what she jokingly calls “light privilege”.

But that privilege didn’t help her much when she went public two-and-a-half years ago with claims that she had been raped and sexually assaulted in 1995 by Def Jam’s co-founder, the industry mogul Russell Simmons. In Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On the Record, Dixon admits she had assumed that #MeToo was a revolution to which women of colour were not invited. Multiple accusations eventually surfaced against her alleged rapist, but Dixon was only moved to add her voice after Simmons ­– who had by then moved into the wellness racket with books such as Success Through Stillness and The Happy Vegan – made a strenuous public denial.

What makes Dixon’s experience arguably more nebulous, and her bravery even more staggering, is the lawless nature of the music industry. This is Dick and Ziering’s third documentary about sexual harassment, and the grounds covered in their earlier films ­– the US military in The Invisible War and US college campuses in The Hunting Ground – did at least operate within institutional frameworks, however dysfunctional. Hip-hop, though, is the Wild West. Misogyny is “baked in” to that genre, as Sil Lai Abrams, another former Def Jam employee who claims she was raped by Simmons, puts it – though the film is careful to include a brief playlist (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Tom Jones) proving that popular music has been disparaging women since its inception.

The film deftly shows how the complexities of racism have played a part in silencing BAME victims of sexual abuse. The unwillingness of black women to report these attacks is linked to the suspicion that they will be seen as traitors: “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon says. “I love the culture.” To report sexual abuse is to risk stepping into several traps at once. Dream Hampton, who made the documentary Surviving R Kelly, has said that black women are shut down because “the victimhood of black men in the criminal justice system supersedes all other harm”. There’s the risk of fuelling the white myth of the black sexual predator, which has been used to justify any amount of lynchings. And the picture identifies the pernicious lie that a black woman can’t make accusations of rape, since there isn’t anything she won’t stoop to doing with her body. This is gaslighting on the level of an entire race and gender.

On the Record has had troubles of its own: its former executive producer, Oprah Winfrey, abandoned the documentary earlier this year citing inconsistencies in interviewees’ accounts. Winfrey denied that Simmons’s numerous attempts, both public and private, to pressure her into dropping out played any part in the decision.

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The film may not have at its disposal the expansive canvas of Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour OJ: Made in America and nor does it include any testimony, even the disguised sort (as The Hunting Ground did), from any alleged abusers. But it demonstrates forcefully how a complex interplay of social and historical factors might have resulted in a situation where Simmons felt confident enough to lure Dixon to his apartment to listen to a hot new demo CD – she was Def Jam’s A&R director at the time, after all – and, once there, to rape her with impunity. Unable to work with him any longer following the alleged incident, she moved to Arista Records: out of the frying pan, into the fire.

What comes through tenderly on screen is Dixon’s innate ability to elevate the musicians around her. Hearing a track on Method Man’s album Tical, she recognised it instantly as a “hip-hop sonnet” and developed the song into a Grammy-winning, million-selling duet with Mary J Blige (“I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By”). Dixon is rendered vivid again by recalling the thrill of her own creativity. Whereas what Simmons did to her was the opposite: a repudiation of her value: “I was trash,” she says. “Nothing about me mattered.”

She spent the longest time after the attack wondering what was on the CD which Simmons had been so desperate to play her on that night in his apartment. And then it struck her: there was no CD. All those years she had been daydreaming about that magic demo and what she had missed out on. Now there is just a chasm where music, and her love of it, used to be.

“On the Record” is available to stream from 26 June.

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This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis