‘If you are a rape survivor, you are a crime scene. Your life is a crime scene.” The speaker is the remarkable Drew Dixon, the supremely articulate and charismatic woman whose story is the keynote of this powerful documentary, from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, about sexual violence and misogyny in the music business – and also about the way the experiences of women of colour have tended to be marginalised and erased from the #MeToo conversation.
In the 90s, Dixon became a top executive at Def Jam records in New York, reporting to the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Her flair for spotting and nurturing talent meant that Dixon played a major but unacknowledged part in shaping the hip-hop scene at that time. But she tells how one night in 1995, Russell Simmons invited her up to his apartment, on the pretext that he was going to play her a demo, and raped her. From that moment, says Dixon, she shut down emotionally. But her ordeal was to continue: she was later sexually harassed at Arista Records by its CEO, LA Reid, who impeded her career because she refused to submit to his demands.
After years of silence, Dixon spoke out about Simmons to the New York Times in 2017, and other African-American women recounted sickeningly similar experiences, including writer Sil Lai Abrams and movie producer Jenny Lumet, both interviewed here. (Simmons denies these claims – which would make his solemn pronouncements on veganism and yoga look entirely grotesque – and has moved to Bali, Indonesia where there is spiritual balm and no extradition treaty with the United States. Reid responded to Dixon’s accusations by saying: “If I have ever said anything capable of being misinterpreted, I apologise unreservedly.”)
The film is forthright and intelligent on the difficulties and complexities involved in the discussion. It notes that despite the flagrant sexist imagery in the hip-hop music videos of the time, the genre did not invent sexism – illustrated by some wince-inducing clips of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Tom Jones. And the survivors felt an almost tragic loyalty to a scene that was under the shadow of white condescension. Dixon – with some courage – says this was partly why she stayed quiet for so long: “For 22 years, I took it for the team. I didn’t want to let the culture down.”
There is a chilling resonance with the Harvey Weinstein case: not simply the recognisable details that emerge from the women’s testimonies but the way Simmons encouraged a gratitude-stricken cult of personality to grow around him. But there is also a chilling non-resonance with Weinstein: no legal action was brought, and the women did not get their day in court, without which there might not be complete closure. Yet speaking out goes a long way.
On the Record is available on digital platforms from 26 June.