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Drew Dixon & Sheri Sher: Russell Simmons #SilenceBreakers talk On the Record Documentary, #BlackLivesMatter, and more

In June 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with Drew Dixon and Sheri Sher, two of the Russell Simmons #SilenceBreakers.

How does sexual violence committed against Black women link to the racial injustice faced by Black men? How can we get justice systems to work for women of color? What does feminist hip-hop look like? What did it take to speak out against one of the most powerful men in hip hop? In this episode of At Home With, Drew Dixon and Sheri Sher, two of the Russell Simmons’ #SilenceBreakers cover the making of their new documentary, On The Record, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so much more. Watch the trailer for On the Record. The film is now streaming on HBO Max in the US.

I imagine that it is a day by day, step by step process of healing, some days better than others so I’d like to begin by asking each of you how you are doing? 

Drew: Counterintuitively today is a good day. I think that the upheaval that we are seeing in the world, in response to the killing of George Floyd and the call for Black liberation, gives me hope. I see the film that we participated in at the intersection of that upheaval and of the #MeToo movement.

I am optimistic that if we continue to raise our voices, we can move forward and away from this paradigm of the white supremacist patriarchy that has suffocated Black lives and the autonomy of so many women. So that gives me hope and makes me very proud of the decision to participate in this film and to come forward.

Not every day has been good since I made those decisions but today is a good day. And I feel so much stronger today than I did two years ago when I walked into the New York Times.

Sheri: For me, growing up in the Bronx and dealing with this on a day-to-day basis, every day was a battle for me, as a child onward. But when I came out with my story in 2017, it was a period of healing and I felt that I had support because when this happened to me over 30 years ago, I didn’t know anyone else who he did this to so it was me against the culture. And I thought about who would believe me, when it was me against Russell.

So when I did tell my story in 2017, it was overwhelming because all of these other women were coming out and I felt like I finally had a safety net, like I had support and that my truth was my truth. None of us women knew each other but we had a deeper connection and I wasn’t scared about who would believe me anymore.

Flash forward to Sundance this year, which allowed me to have a forum and to allow this story to be heard and to be healing for other people, other survivors as well. But I feel like this is a time for a reset. This is a time for everything to be rebuilt.

I tell people, don’t be scared because even though this is a storm, there is going to be treasure after this storm. There will be a purpose and we will get through it together.

Drew, you’ve said, that you only decided to speak out after Jenny Lumet, spoke about being assaulted by Russell Simmons. . .that you didn’t want her to ‘twist in the wind’. Interesting turn of phrase there. . . how has this documentary unfolded for you?

Drew: I think Jenny is the first one to use that expression when she told her story in The Hollywood Reporter. By the time her story came out, I’d already spoken to the New York Times off the record. I told them my story but I told them I didn’t want to go on the record.

But when Jenny’s story came out, my texts started blowing up from people who knew me and knew what had happened. I really wanted to stay off the record at that point but then I read that line in Jenny’s piece and I thought “if I don’t go on the record, I am letting her and the other women twist in the wind” and I don’t know her and I don’t know those other women but I believed them.

I also think its important that Black women get the opportunity to be seen and heard in this movement and the only way to be seen and heard is to speak up and take up space. So I realized, I was in this unique position where I could make that choice, and just by virtue of speaking out, I would be another black woman taking up space in this #MeToo movement. So that is really what inspired me to do it.

So a mom at my daughter’s school knew Jodi Kantor at the New York Times and after I had alluded to my #MeToo movement, she offered to introduce me. She and her husband also introduced me to Amy and Kirby who at the time were working on a film about the #MeToo movement generally. Amy and Kirby asked if they could follow me around and film me as I decided if I would go on the record. And I didnt have to sign the release, I could decide later and I thought, you can’t unscramble the egg, if they don’t follow me now, I couldn’t go back and undo it.

I said yes and I felt safer actually because this filmmaking crew was aware of my whereabouts and my process in case something happened where word got back to Russell Simmons or L.A. Reid while I was doing this. I was afraid of them, so that made me feel safer, that I had back up. 

And then it evolved, they continued to film me. I reached out to Sherri separately when I read her story and I asked them to interview her because I thought, this is an opportunity to expand the lens to include another Black woman because I wanted the lens to include as many Black women as we could so it wouldn’t center only on the Weinstein survivors, who are amazing, but that it would be more representative.

About 6 months later the filmmakers came back to me and asked if they could pivot to a film that featured my story and the Russell Simmons story. And I thought about it for two weeks and I originally said no, because it is one thing to be a small part of a documentary about the #MeToo movement foreground white women. I thought that’s their wheelhouse, they’re in entertainment, I’m just gonna be a small part and hopefully, Sherri will be included, but they know how to do that, it’s fine.

But then I thought, these white filmmakers are going to tell the story of this light-skinned woman going up against the king of hip hop and I really wasn’t sure about it. But that began this back and forth with Amy and Kirby where I actually gained a lot of respect for them because it became so clear that they were listening and that they wanted to ensure that everyone else listened.

They wanted to highlight the multiple layers that myself, Sherri, Sil Lai, and others face coming out against a Black man in the context of the persecution of Black men in our society and in the context of Russell Simmons and everything he represents. And from there it just evolved and I am now so proud that this piece of work exists because they are true allies and they gave us the floor to be seen and heard.

At the crux of your experiences, is the abuse of power and the dynamics that play out from that and in this particular instance, for marginalized women. . . .this film makes a point of touching on the generational cycle of abuses that can be dated back to horrors of colonialism. From this perspective, what type of impact has this had in terms of access to justice for women of color in particular?

Sheri: I don’t think there has been any justice done yet. As far as your point to women of color, we are taught to nurture and protect the Black men of our communities. The Black man is always beat down and as women, you didn’t want to beat him down either. That gave a lot of room for women of color to be abused and then stay quiet because we felt like if we said anything we would be going against our Black men.

But the thing is, if the person is a predator and nothing is said, we are breeding a generation of women who have a lot of anxiety and problems in their relationships because you have to be silent and you’re conscious of bringing down a Black man. But when it really is a predator, you have to understand the difference.

What made me come out in the LA Times I felt like I had a duty to the other women that I knew were not lying. I think this film will open up a lot of eyes and make people see what is really going on because it needs to stop. I know a lot of women of color who suffer in silence because we won’t have support from our community. 

So by reporting sexual abuse you can also be rejected by the very thing that makes up much of your identity, in this case the Black community. From your knowledge what are some of the things that happen to women in this predicament? How do you heal?

Drew: It was so important to me in the film to talk about my experience visiting Ghana. I went with my dad and a group of Howard University professors, less than a year after I was raped. And I was struck by this cannonball in the courtyard and the express purpose of this cannonball was to chain the ankle of the enslaved women to the cannonball so they could be raped.

I believe the rape served multiple purposes, it systematically broke down the spirit of the women and of the men. But it was also in the economic interest of the slave trader. More than half of the women, if I remember correctly, who arrived in North America were pregnant at the end of the middle passage. So this was a bonus free asset for the slave trader.

I believe Black women, and I’m not saying that there aren’t other marginalized groups of women are as vulnerable as we are, but we are the only group of women for who it was an economically good business decision to rape us. You didn’t even have to be a sadist, you might just be short on money. Your wife might even tell you, you need to go impregnate that slave because we are running low.

For what other group of women is that true for hundreds of years? So we were raped as a good business decision and to be broken down. And the men at St. George’s castle who tried to defend us were put in a cell called the condemned cell, which is the size of the space under a dining room table and when you visit it and they shut the door and turn off the lights, you see scratch marks on the wall.

That is where the men who tried to defend the Black women were taken to die. Taken to die. To me, that is all you need to know about how Black men and women ended up where we are today. The condemned cell still exists in our mind as a community, blocking out the view of the suffering of our own women so that our own men who aren’t safe themselves in this country, don’t defend us.

Or they don’t defend us in the way we need to be defended to be free. And it’s because they are not free, because none of us are free.

I hope that as we have this conversation about the long overdue liberation of Black people in the world, we can also unlock that condemned cell so that we aren’t perpetuating the same dynamic that was used to absolutely crush the institution of our community.

So that we can go out as a community, as a collective that’s healthier, that’s not enabling the abuse of our little girls and our little boys. Let’s break that cycle so that we can be stronger as we face the headwinds in society that are now roiling our globe. We are the ones that can least afford to go out hobbled in the world.

Let’s eradicate the truly malignant actors and come together, united and stronger, drawing a line about what we will and won’t tolerate for our own people so that we have a fighting chance.

What do you think needs to change so that people feel safe coming forward?

Sheri: I think right now, what needs to change, is we need to create space for women from all backgrounds to feel safe coming out. They need to see someone who looks like them come out. Take your power back because all these years your power was taken. That was what happened to me.

I knew I was born with greatness but I had a fear that Russell was going to block me or stop me if I went for my dreams. I felt powerless but then I had to take my power back by telling my story. Don’t let anybody have power over you. You are meant to be something.

When more women of color can come out and tell their stories, it will give us all more strength because we will see people like us taking their power back. 

Drew: I think Sheri is absolutely right. Just by the sheer fact that we are sitting here, having this conversation, having come forward, having finally broken our silence, that is the beginning of the watershed that needs to happen. Hopefully it will encourage other women to come forward and feel like they are not alone and that they have a right to be seen and heard and protected. 

But I also think that it is the enablers, the people who think they’re innocent. The good guys who think they’re not doing anything wrong because they’re not raping and they’re not harassing anyone. But they’re standing on the sidelines. They’re silent. They’re laughing off jokes that create a toxic environment that allows the dynamic to fester, which ultimately leads to something that happens in five minutes behind a closed door.

Those people need to get off the sidelines. The people who think that they are innocent, that don’t have a responsibility here, their fingerprints are on this decades long pattern of behavior by Russell Simmons as well. The good guys who turned a blind eye to rumors or stood silent when those of us came forward with our stories.

Some people would reach out to me privately via text but then they would comment on social media in support of Russell Simmons. I think that people have to pick a side. They have to decide, are you okay enabling a rapist or are you on the side of Black women and girls?

Without the enablers, it can’t possibly go on and on and on. You need more than just an abuser and a victim, you need a system to give that abuser the room to maneuver over a period of time unchecked for the kind of abuse we experience to persist. 

Sheri, you were at the forefront of women in the hip hop industry with the 1st all- female rap group, Mercedes Ladies. . .if we’re to talk about feminist hip-hop, what would it look like? But also how do power dynamics shape what styles of hip-hop are resourced and centered? 

Sheri: So me and three girls used to run up to the park and we would see all the originals like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, all of them on every corner. So we used to go up there and see MC Sha-Rock and Lisa Lee, so you would see females supporting the men and then you had some single female rappers as part of a male group.

But we thought we should start an all girls group. So we started recruiting other girls and we were lucky because we had some support with equipment and then our name started to get more popular as we kept battling the men. I mean we would be sabotaged for shows, by the time to get paid came around, all the men would get paid and then when it was our turn there would be no money left.

You can read more about the journey of all of this in my book. And even though we didn’t get the glitter and gold, we made a mark in hip hop history. 

Now I see more female artists coming out now but it sometimes still feels like the music industry doesn’t make enough space for all of them at once.

Drew: I’m thinking of this from the standpoint of a record executive and how important it is to have women in those rooms and women with integrity in those rooms. Women who are going to draw the line and men with integrity.

I am realizing now as I look back on my career, how important it is who makes the decisions and who shapes the art. I remember a conversation I had with Russell when I was about 23 and I had just gotten to Def Jam. One was when Biggie came to my office with a Junior Mafia demo and he brought Lil Kim and I called Russell so excited to tell him about this awesome group and how great Lil Kim was and before I could say anything he said “women don’t sell rap records, it’s not going to happen.”

He shut down Biggie and said he wasn’t a star. Now I understand who he is, I didn’t understand who he was then. He shut down the opportunity for me to sign on a female rapper and those choices make a difference.

Another conversation that I’ve reflected on through the lens of what I now know about who he is was a conversation we had at a meeting about an album with female rappers (Boss and D). We were talking about the album and Russell wanted the cover of the album to be a picture of her holding a gun and the only question he had was, should she be holding the gun pointing to her head or her mouth, as if she was going to kill herself.

I said, excuse me, D is an empowered rapper and I think it is crazy that she is suicidal on the cover of the album, how about she isn’t holding a gun and pointing it at anything. Why do we have to tease her as suicidal, her album isn’t even about that?

I was drowned out as usual and I thought about why no one else had anything to say about this. But all of these things were about my eyes and my ears as a woman.

That is why you need a woman in the room. It isn’t radical, it is just women fighting for women to be centered in a way that is not degrading or sexualized but is about our talent. 

In light of BlackLivesMatter and slogans of ‘My Skin Isn’t A Crime’ ‘No justice, No peace’ and knowing that violence perpetuates violence the process towards healing within the Black community demands that both these grave injustices racial and intra-racial, are worked on in tandem. How do you see this happening?

Drew: I think we have an opportunity to have nuanced conversations finally and also to have intra-racial conversations. I’m hoping that we have the capacity as a people to have the intra-racial conversation about how we need to stop harming ourselves by brushing this abuse and toxic behavior under the rug, at the same time that we have the external interracial conversations with allies who are finally interested in joining our struggle to push us forward.

While we also do the hard work internally to unpack the ways in which we are carrying around that condemned cell in our heads and oppressing ourselves by ignoring the pain and suffering that we are enduring internally as Black women and excusing as Black men, so that we have a real shot here at moving forward.

I hope we can talk and chew gum at the same time here and do both, talk about rape and racism. I always say I am a survivor of both and we need to talk about both.

Sheri: I agree with Drew. It feels so empowering to see people joining together from so many backgrounds in these protests and in this moment. It is people finally recognizing that we all have to live on this planet together and we need to work together to protect each other. 

Drew: I just hope that white people finally understand that they are not free either. They are not free to challenge the status quo. Amy Cooper may have felt like she was powerful that day in Central Park because she could deputize herself, she could invoke her privilege to put this man’s very life on the line because she didn’t want to put her dog on the leash. But I hope she realizes at some point that she would not have been safe if she was calling the police to report a rape by a white man.

And as long as that 75 year old peaceful protester in Buffalo could be pushed to the ground, so violently, white people aren’t free either. Because if they speak up about the injustice we experience, they’re in the firing line too. So they aren’t free either.

Because it really is not a just system to begin with.  None of us are free until all of us are free.


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