*Editor’s note: This piece contains incidents of rape and sexual assault. Please read with care.
My lifelong experience in the music and entertainment industries has been one of betrayal and abuse.
It began just weeks before my fifteenth birthday in 1975. I loved Minnie Riperton and had an Afro just like hers and was a budding singer too. Stan* had a copy of Minnie’s album Perfect Angel on a coffee table just feet away from me in his apartment one Sunday evening. This man, who I thought was a music god, was deeply entwined into my family and had been grooming me to trust him. I thought my similarities to Minnie and his ties to my family were enough to mean that I mattered to him. I was wrong. In minutes, he crossed the line from trusted adult to predatory rapist as he led me into his bedroom.
Music meant everything to me back then. I was going to be a singer. I had performed at City Center at Lincoln Center in New York City, had been on tour in the musical Solomon and Sheba in other cities, took private singing and acting lessons after school and would later attend the competitive Music & Art High School in New York City. I had all the opportunities and hope for a successful career and was told I had unique talent. I was a promising young woman.
More than four decades later, the man who raped me is now an enormously successful music talent agent to A-list musicians and actors. Though I told many people in the industry and his rape of me became an open secret from coast to coast, he has faced no professional consequences as a result of his crime. He has used intimidation as his instrument of choice to push back against my truth-telling. I still live in fear of him. Because of this industry's protection of abusers and erasure of survivors, both my career and my love of music were derailed.
I was born into the music industry. My father was a music executive at Capitol Records in California and later helped found Inner City Broadcasting Corporation (ICBC) in 1971 in New York City. ICBC is also where I met Russell Simmons in 1984. Six years later, Simmons would also change my life forever when he violently raped me. For years, I was silent.
But now I’m a Silence Breaker. And like many Black women and men in the Me Too Movement, I wonder: was it worth it to come forward and speak out about being raped?
My journey to break silence began in 2002. I sent a letter to the talent agent predator at the agency where he was a partner. He did not respond. But there was no Time's Up organisation dedicated to protecting survivors, and no echo of Me Too survivors to wrap around me like an army of fierce women smashing patriarchy, or survivor soldiers tweeting in unity. Instead I was utterly and completely alone. Broken. I felt filthy, dirty, used.
The music industry is one of the loudest recording studios of women’s pain—a multi-billion dollar soundproofing so survivors' stories are silenced. Many of us who have been violated have suffered agonizing torment for years, blaming ourselves for our perpetrators' crimes while they thrive seemingly untouched. We carry the damage they inflict on us like weighted rocks, drowning us a little bit at a time over decades. The stronghold of patriarchy asphyxiates the beauty of the most hopeful lives as we are blacklisted in our careers, broken by despair and shame, or driven out of workplaces because the predators rule. As if they are men with golden balls rather than rapists without any conscience. They don’t just use a playbook, they are the authors.
While these famous rapists in hip hop are able to live lavish lives, being raped is financially ruinous for too many survivors. The loss of income due to severe trauma or losing a career is seldom discussed. However, when a survivor comes forward and files a civil lawsuit, the predator says: “It’s a money grab.” I have felt this pain—in 2005, I lost a lucrative and exciting job on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills as a brand ambassador after Simmons came in as a guest. The company wanted to have more contact with him and a deeper business relationship with him after his visit. I couldn’t tell them what he’d done to me and I also couldn’t continue to work at a company that wanted to be connected to him, so I quit. And I blamed myself again. The hard work to reclaim a life is never considered by the rapist. Sexual violence causes a serious talent brain drain.
The music and entertainment industries are failing Black women survivors by creating environments where abusers not only flourish and advance but are shielded from accountability due to the profits these abusers provide—not caring how much more profitable they could be if the survivors they pushed out had been protected and allowed to create and thrive. Patriarchy doesn’t make financial sense because it’s not about money; just like rape, it’s about power, dominating and crushing others.
The lack of accountability in this industry is far reaching. It goes beyond misogyny in the lyrics, it’s in the culture. It’s Snoop Dog walking Black women in dog collars and leashes onto the VMA stage in 2003 only to be embraced by talk show hosts and adoring fans who have forgotten. The degradation and devaluing of women as less human than men persists throughout hip hop culture since its inception. I was there, in the 1980s, ‘90s and into the 2000s, at the industry parties hosted between New York and Los Angeles by the usual suspects, “alleged” predators. These events were hunting grounds, feeding troughs for men to prey on vulnerable girls and women—many of whom were in the music and entertainment industry as well. The faces and names of the men I saw were often the same; their names are more than familiar to us at this point. Then there are their enablers, too many to name, both men and women, all with one goal: to keep the money flowing and the music playing—regardless of the price to the lives of the victims.
When R. Kelly was on trial for rape of a 13-year-old girl in 2008, I remember thinking his career would be over. But 13 years ago this month, he two-stepped his way to an acquittal. It was only after the 2019 docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, where survivors shared their stories of Kelly’s horrific sexual abuse, isolation and brainwashing, that he finally faced consequences. His label RCA dropped him, other artists denounced him and removed their songs with him from streaming platforms, and he’s currently incarcerated, facing 10 charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
That level of accountability in hip hop is rare and could only have been possible because of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement. She has changed the way society looks at sexual violence against Black women and girls. She has been a lighthouse in darkness, a voice to listen to, a beautiful reminder that we need accountability—but also that the survivors' lives matter. That we need to think just as deeply about how survivors are received after they make a difficult revelation of violence; that we are going to be heard. But the process of being heard can be just as detrimental as the initial violence of rape.
Eighteen months ago, I responded to an urgent request by a survivor to participate in a to-be-named documentary that began as a “Me Too” film. I was told it was going to be about multiple survivors, but was misled. The documentary ended up being On the Record, a film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, that centred on another survivor of Russell Simmons, Drew Dixon. I came in at the very end of the filming. I was told that the budget was so low I had to spend my own money to participate. I later learned that other survivors who participated in the film were given expensive gifts and lavished in other ways.
I had a very traumatising experience filming on the all-white set; My trauma was mined by the white directors to get me to retell my story of survival on camera in the most emotional way possible. To have no trauma support on set while I’m being probed with questions to stir up the memories was like being in a rape re-telling hurricane. To be recruited into this environment by another survivor felt like a horrible, re-traumatising betrayal when my story wound up being shortened and edited into a montage of horror stories about Simmons. My life became a footnote in a storyline that was not mine. When I expressed my concerns, I felt like the filmmakers didn’t care, and then I was gaslighted over and over about what I experienced in the course of filming. My trauma felt like a tool for white people to use to gain accolades, to win awards, to use Black women's pain for profit.
And even with all of that, accountability has not happened for Russell Simmons. Before the silence-breaking articles and the documentary, Russell Simmons launched his YouTube channel with a Harriet Tubman rape video “comedy short.” Though he had to remove the video and apologise due to the outcry, his claim that he “would never condone violence against women in any form” continues to be the shield he hides behind, facing no real consequences.
He is rewarded despite more than twenty women’s allegations against him—many of whom were working in music. While he continued his meteoric rise, their careers were ruined or marginalized once violated. He is currently celebrated on Verzuz and platformed by The Breakfast Club, hosted by another man plagued with sexual assault allegations—the survivors left to fend for ourselves. While Simmons denies the many allegations of rape against him, he’s voluntarily stepped down as the face of his companies and fled the country to live in Bali, Indonesia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States for criminal matters.
Telling my own story was not easy, and there are moments that I regret how, and where, and with whom I told. But I and all survivors deserve to tell our story in a way that is safe; that centres us and not our abuse nor our abusers; that shows us in all of our fullness—from the impact of the trauma on our mental health and finances, to the ways we are putting ourselves back together.
Like many survivors, I don’t walk around in my life thinking of myself as “a survivor.” I don’t want to be identified as a rape survivor alone; it’s a part of my life, but it is not my life and it is not the whole of who I am. I’m also a survivor of a rare disease. I’m a writer, a poet, a historian. I’m helping my grandparents’ iconic publishing company, W.W. Norton & Co write a book about their legacy. I’m writing my own memoir. I also recently won two first place awards in poetry, including one about this Me Too experience. I am finishing my first collection of poetry. Being creative feeds my soul. I am full of joy; I love life. I hate injustice and have spent my life fighting against it. For years I’ve focused on volunteer work in animal rights, gathering food for food banks, fundraising, and advocating for unhoused people and senior rights. I am part of a survivors advocacy group to change workplace harassment. For me, service is sanity. You help yourself by helping other people. I know this is what saves me.
Survivors have had no choice but to find ways to save ourselves because this industry and the society that birthed and perpetuates it wouldn’t lift a finger. I will keep speaking out, keep telling my story and keep saying 'Me, Too', hoping other survivors will feel less alone and more empowered to speak. Hoping that we’ll create a world where perpetrators no longer exist, and these stories will never need to be told.
*"Stan" is a pseudonym.