In January at the Sundance Film Festival, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “On The Record,” a searing look at sexual harassment allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons, debuted and received two thunderous standing ovations. The warm reception came after the film was engulfed in a media firestorm, one sparked by Oprah Winfrey’s decision to remove herself from the project as executive producer. That move left “On the Record,” which had been slated to premiere on Apple’s streaming platform, without a distributor. After the Sundance premiere, HBO Max quickly swooped in and acquired the documentary, which will premiere on the streamer on Wednesday.
The film follows former Def Jam Records executive Drew Dixon, who has accused Simmons of rape and sexual harassment. Other Simmons accusers, Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Hines, also share their stories in the doc.
Dixon, Abrams and Hines talked to Variety about Oprah’s departure, Dr. Luke’s recent comeback and the likelihood of the music industry having its own #MeToo movement.
Winfrey said she abandoned the project due to “inconsistencies” in the film. Director Ava DuVernay told the New York Times, “(Oprah’s) got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with. So if she walks away from the film, she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film, then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
What was your reaction to two of the most powerful women in the world – who are African American – saying what they said about the film?
Dixon: I have tremendous respect for Oprah Winfrey and I have tremendous respect for Ava DuVernay. I remain grateful to them for all of their incredible work to move us forward in so many ways. They are entitled to their opinion and I respect their opinions. But Ava has a lot of nerve critiquing the work of another filmmaker — when black women are finally get a chance to tell our story. The film has been thoroughly vetted and verified by many legal teams, including the filmmakers, Harpo, Apple, and HBO Max. I’m eager to find out what ordinary people who aren’t famous, who aren’t tastemakers or gatekeepers, think of the film, because it’s really for them. It’s not for us. It’s not for celebrities. It’s not for insiders. It’s not for the gatekeepers. It’s for other survivors. It’s also for society so we can begin to discuss and comprehend and reconcile this injustice that pervades our culture.
Drew, in the film you make a comment about Biggie Smalls, “I always wonder what would have happened if Biggie had lived. Biggie had my back.” What did you mean by that?
Dixon: Biggie was a friend. I met him before he got his record deal. We both had tremendous ambition to blow up in the rap game, but in different ways. He as an artist and in my case as an executive and music producer. Whenever I got a new job he was one of the first people who would come in to take a meeting with me to try to find a way for us to work together because he respected me as a professional. So I guess my thought is that perhaps I would have collaborated with him in some way once he became a megastar and that might’ve been a place where I could have gotten traction without having to deal with some of the toxic behavior I encountered with other men in the industry. But I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s certainly something that I contemplate from time to time.
Sil Lai, you have said that when you heard that Brett Ratner had been accused of sexual misconduct in November 2017, you knew that Russell Simmons was next. Why?
Abrams: Russell and Brett had a total bromance. Russell loved to take credit for the fact that he put Brett on the map by giving him his first gig directing music videos. They chased women together. They partied together. They were always around each other. Because of their close proximity to each other I thought it was natural that Russell would be next. Then my suspicions were confirmed when Keri Claussen Khalighi came forward weeks after Brett (was accused).
Drew, in the film you talk about your tenure as vice president of A&R at Arista Records and how you rejected then-president and CEO L.A. Reid’s advances. You said that he did not sign artists you asked him to consider like Kanye West and John Legend in order to get back at you for rebuffing him. Reid later signed Kanye when he moved to Island Def Jam Music Group. How did you feel about that?
Dixon: L.A. Reid ended up running the (Def Jam Music) label where Kanye was already one of the biggest stars. So he inherited Kanye and they pretended to be best buds. That was sickening to me. I abandoned my career in music in large part because of him not signing Kanye (at Arista). It was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back for me. It was clear after he did that, that no matter how many hits I made and no matter how many stars I discovered, I could never be anything other than objectified and sexualized within the industry. Years later I had the idea to add Kanye vocals to the song “American Boy” (2007). Because I knew Kanye, I was able to get in touch with him and pull that favor. I hadn’t seen Kanye for many years, but in the studio I asked him if he remembered that audition (at Arista) and that L.A. passed? He indicated in so many words that he would never forget. And that he was always grateful to me for auditioning him. And that was a large part of the reason why he showed up for “American Boy.” That was gratifying to hear.
Why hasn’t the music industry had its own #Metoo movement?
Hines: I grew up in the Bronx and when you grow up in the Bronx you are taught that outing a black man would be looked down upon because of all of the brutality they face on a daily basis for just being black. So there is and was a lot of fear about not getting support from your own community.
Dixon: Someone once told me that the record business is high school with money and that’s true. All of the power brokers are sitting at the same table in the high school cafeteria and they will make a break everyone else in the school/ industry. And they all have each other’s back. That is why you run into these roadblocks. In the music industry they cover for each other and you’re dead in the water if you will not play their game.
Abrams: Music has not had a #Metoo movement because everybody literally and figuratively is in bed with each other. People are sharing sexual partners. They’re sharing management. It is such an incestuous field that when for example, Russell is outed as a predator, you just have to look at the people that are around him and know that they were also a part of it. They were present. They were facilitating. They were silent. They were complicit. And so because there is so much exposure to so many people in power, no one is going to speak because everyone’s got leverage on the other person.
With the news of Dr. Luke’s comeback with Doja Cat hit “Say So,” do you there's still hope for progress in the music industry regarding sexual harassment?
Dixon: We all decided to participate in this film and I hope that when it reaches a broader audience, other people will decide one by one to make a different choice. Whether it’s survivors who decide to come forward or a victim who decides that they will no longer tolerate being victimized because they’re going to tell somebody. I think the change will come when each person decides, whatever their role is in the industry, that they are going to do better.
Abrams: In my opinion, no. The music industry will not have a #MeToo movement. Absolutely not. It’s unfortunate that that is the case, but it is.
You were all very young when you entered into the music business. Looking back do you feel like you were naïve entering an industry that is known to be openly misogynistic?
Hines: I wouldn’t say I was naïve. I just trusted and looked it up to Russell Simmons. My family trusted him.
Abrams: One thousand percent I was naive going into the music industry as a young woman. I didn’t become aware of how toxic the culture really is and was and how endemic patriarchy, sexism and misogyny are in our society until I became a radical black feminist in my forties.
Dixon: I was very aware that I was entering a misogynist culture. What I was naive about was rape culture. I knew that I had to overcome my gender in order to do my job. I thought that if I proved myself professionally that I would clear that hurdle. I was naive enough to believe that I could overcome the misogyny of which I was well aware of by being really good or maybe even better than my male counterparts. What I was naive about is rape culture and the fact that rapists don’t always jump out of alleyways and attack you in the dark of night at knife point. And that is part of why this film is important and the #MeToo movement is important because it’s not just about misogyny. It’s about rape culture and it’s about the way rape really works and the way rape really looks.
Dorothy Carvello, author of “Anything For a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story Of Surviving The Music Industry,” recently wrote a guest column for Variety in which she wrote that when speaking with men in the music industry, “the common theme is they do not understand consent.” Do you also think that men in the record industry don’t understand the word consent?
Dixon: Russell Simmons understood that all three of us were not consenting. All of us fought him. Sheri hit him with a lamp. I begged and pleaded and physically fought. Sil Lai said no before and during. He understood consent. Rape is an abuse of power. Rape is not some misunderstanding. It’s not that they don’t know better, they just don’t care. And they know that the onus will fall on the victim to prove that she didn’t consent and not on them to prove that they understood consent.
How do you feel about the film’s HBO Max release? Are you expecting a backlash?
Hines: I’m getting anxiety closer to the film coming out. My vulnerability and my pain is going to be shown to the world. I wonder how that’s going to look because there is so much more to me.
Abrams: I have a support network in place that I know will check in. But even though I feel a little more prepared than I did going into Sundance, I’m still really afraid because my 25 year-old daughter hasn’t seen the film. But as far as blowback is concerned, Russell and his cronies did their best but they could not stop this film. If by some chance he or anyone starts a campaign of terror against us online, so be it, I’m prepared.
Dixon: We’ve all already lived through the worst-case scenario of losing our distributor and our executive producer right before Sundance and we survived that. I’ll be watching alone in my living room with my cats in quarantine and that’s not what I imagined. I was hoping to be somewhere in the world with Sheri and Sil Lai, which was hugely helpful for me at Sundance. But I believe things happen for a reason and so whatever blowback comes, I believe that I’ll be okay. All of us will be okay on the other side of it.
(NOTE: A profanity was removed from an earlier version of this interview at the request of the subject.)