‘The Black community will hate my guts’

In 1995, Drew Dixon, a dedicated music fan who believed “hip-hop would change the world,” had already worked her way up to her dream job of A&R executive at Def Jam Records by age 24. A rising star in the music industry, she was riding high on the success of the soundtrack for The Show, which she co-executive produced, and the Mary J. Blige/Method Man duet “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need” that had been her idea. Although her boss, music mogul Russell Simmons, had — she alleges — attempted to grope and kiss her and had even exposed himself to her on several occasions, she believed that her hard work would earn his respect and end his harassment as he came to view her as an equal.

But then one night in New York, Dixon says she ran into Simmons on the street while she was getting cab money from an ATM, and he insisted on calling her a company car now that she was a big Def Jam executive. While waiting for the car in his nearby apartment, he allegedly lured her to his bedroom by telling he had a promising new artist’s demo that he wanted her to hear. He told her to get the CD out of stereo in his bedroom, and then came in wearing only a condom and proceed to rape her. (Simmons has denied all accusations of sexual misconduct.)

Dixon didn’t report the alleged assault, because, as she says in the new documentary On the Record, she “didn’t want to let the culture down” and feared the “Black community would hate [her] guts. But she soon left Def Jam for Arista Records, where she worked happily for Clive Davis as vice president of A&R, overseeing hit records for Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana and many others. But when Davis retired in 2000 and Dixon started reporting to L.A. Reid instead, she says she founded herself in another terrible position, with Reid threatening to sabotage her career unless she slept with him. (Reid, who later left to head up Epic Records, left Epic in 2017 amid allegations of sexual harassment by another former employee. In 2018, Reid said of Dixon’s claims: “If I ever did or said anything that was misinterpreted or somehow created an uncomfortable workplace environment I apologize unreservedly.”) In 2002, a disillusioned Dixon decided to attend Harvard Business School and left the music business for good.

In 2017, amid the growing #MeToo movement, Dixon finally broke her silence in an interview with the New York Times; that bombshell became the inspiration for the new documentary On the Record. The film, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground), centers on Dixon’s story, as she was the first Simmons “silence breaker,” but it also features testimony from some of the other 20 women who have come forward with their own testimony of Simmons’s sexual misconduct. The accusers include Sil Lai Abrams, Sherri Hines, Jenny Lumet and Alexia Norton Jones.

It has been a struggle for the directors, Dixon and Dixon’s fellow survivors to get their message to the masses, due to the documentary’s initial executive producer, Oprah Winfrey, withdrawing her support shortly before its release; Winfrey cited “creative differences” and “inconsistencies” in the documentary’s narrative, but her decision reportedly came after Simmons and 50 Cent targeted her and the women who spoke out in the film.

While Winfrey’s sudden public exit from On the Record devastated Dixon and caused a production deal with Apple TV+ to fall apart, the film has since found a home at HBO Max, and Dixon’s story is finally being heard. Below, Dixon speaks to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about her traumatic experience with Simmons, her re-traumatization due to the Winfrey controversy, why it took her 22 years to come forward and why it’s time for Black women to be believed.

Yahoo Entertainment: In your early 20s, you had all this success. You must have had this feeling that you were an equal to these male executives, on the same playing field with them, with a seat at the same boardroom table with them. And you found out that was not the case.

Drew Dixon: That was really the most devastating part of it, was the moment that it happened was literally also at the apex at that point in my career, of my success, I put together a soundtrack for a hip-hop documentary called The Show, and I was the co-executive producer of the album along with Russell. It was the No. 1 R&B album in the country, No. 4 pop album in the country. And I honestly thought I had cleared the hurdle. It’s sort of, to me, analogous to what is called “respectability politics” as a Black person, this idea that if you dress a certain way and talk a certain way and are so overwhelmingly “respectable,” that suddenly somehow that’s going to solve the problem of racism. But it’s really the problem of the other person, and it literally doesn’t matter what you wear or what you say or how you look or how you talk or how you dress. If they are determined to put you in a box and diminish you, it doesn’t matter. But at 24, I didn’t understand that. And I thought that if I could constantly reframe the way Russell saw me and every single interaction and constantly demonstrate my value as an executive, that he would eventually shift and he would stop sort of objectifying me and sexualizing me with his comments and behavior and redirect. And I can then become a peer that he would nurture as sort of like an apprentice and protege.

And for a while, that seemed to be the dynamic you two had.

Yes, but in that particular moment of that interaction that led to the assault, he disarmed me by saying exactly those things: He said that he was so impressed with how well I’d done with the soundtrack and that the parent company was impressed. And could I just come up and get a CD while I waited for a car. And so I literally believed that was I was going to be there for 5 minutes, picking up a demo. That was a part of my job. And so what I’m still processing literally 24 years later, as it relates to my career when it ended, is this loss of that victory that I thought I’d achieved, where I’d been perceived as an equal. I’ve worked a lot on the assault in my therapy, but the loss of my career and the diminishment of my potential is something I’m still actually just coming to terms with. I’d shut that away. So yeah, that was devastating for me, as a woman, to be just invisible, in that way to him.

In the film, you say a demo of a new artist was like “catnip” to you. So he knew what to say to get you to go to his apartment. It’s like your passion was weaponized against you.

Well, it was my job to discover new artists and new songs. The thing that was complicated about the dynamic with Russell Simmons is that he actually did give me opportunities to pursue my ideas creatively and as an executive — as opposed to L.A. Reid, who precluded my ability to even do my job [at Arista Records] unless I would sleep with him. So there was a reason for me to believe that if Russell was giving me something to do creatively, that it was real. … And he said that I would love [the demo]. He was like, “This is going to be your favorite new thing.” It wasn’t until I read the [New York Times] article that I was in that I realized that he set traps for every single one of us. … It literally didn’t dawn on me until after I read the article that there was never a CD; this light bulb went off, and I realized the whole thing was probably a ruse, because there was nothing in the [CD stereo’s] tray. So that is just crushing to me, that that was used against me.

How did you reconcile that someone that you had had positive interactions with, that had given you career opportunities beyond your wildest dreams, had also done something so horrible to you?

I didn’t have a way to integrate that, honestly. And it’s only because I understand now that he hurt so many other women that I’m able to realize that there’s no sort of net/net way to think about this. He’s a bad person. He’s a violent, cruel predator, and he is calculating. He knows what he’s doing is wrong. I think it’s important for people to understand, you know, rapists, aren’t these like shadowy figures with switchblades in alleys. They’re often very capable of being charming and insinuating themselves in a situation so that the victims are gaslighted and feel like it’s their fault. … I finally realize that Russell’s exalted status has been diminishing me and making me small and tormenting me all of these years. It’s hard not to talk about this and think about this as a Black woman in this moment, but sort of like he was my living, breathing Confederate statue. Every single day that he was held up and lionized, canonized, highly regarded in the field where I gave so much, it diminished me. It made me feel worthless, not just that moment, but every moment after that, because I had to pretend that he was a hero. In the same way that it really is important for these statutes that come down, because it has an impact that you don’t realize, now I can honestly talk about what he did to me and how he hurt me.

It was brought up in the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, this idea that Black women are considered almost like traitors if they speak out against a powerful, successful Black man. In the film you say you “took one for the team” by staying silent. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

So when I started working in the music industry in 1992 … I think there had been fewer than five rap albums that had even sold a million records. It was a very marginalized genre. Many people thought it was a fad. They thought it was going to be like disco or something, and it wouldn’t last. Russell Simmons was one of the few people who figured out how to move that genre forward and get traction in the mainstream. And so he was a hero to me, not just because he was a successful music entrepreneur, but because he was really championing this particular genre that I loved. And that was really important and was giving a voice to marginalized members of the Black community in particular. And so the last thing I wanted to do was to undermine the most prominent entrepreneur in hip-hop.

And further, I did not want to do anything to add fuel to the fire of the dangerous mythology that “Black men are violent” — and in particular, sexually predatory. … I am very aware of the dangerous myth around Black men and accusations of sexual violence. … I did not want to create a story that might be the only story that white people consumed about Black people in 1995 and 1996 — that this Black man was a sexual predator — because that would jeopardize the safety of every Black man. So I was trying to manage the narrative, frankly, in the way Black stories are consumed by the white gaze by sort of muffling my own story in order to avoid fueling this fiction. Even though Russell is a violent predator, I didn’t know that the frankly mainstream media could parse and process that information in a way that wouldn’t blow up in the faces of a Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or any other Black man who was vilified and has a target on his back. So that is something that I wrestled with. I still wrestle with it now.

How did you deal with this once you went public with your story?

And I think what helped me to overcome that is when other women came forward. I realized that I was making a trade-off, not just about my own sort of dignity and truth, vis-a-vis the broader importance of protecting the collective of the Black community. I thought, “Wait a minute. Why can’t I have as much compassion for the women in my community as I have for the men, and why can’t we do both?” And that’s what I’m hoping. … There’s a lot of pain among Black women right now, because we’re marginalized in the #MeToo movement. We’re marginalized in the Black Lives Matter movement. And so the question is, where do we go? Where do we belong? Who cares about us? We roll up our sleeves for every single other movement — who rolls up their sleeves for us? And that’s why I’m so grateful to Amy and Kirby, because they have rolled up their sleeves and centered us in this story.

When Oprah Winfrey backed off from supporting the film, that must have felt like a massive betrayal, with her being such a prominent, powerful and respected Black woman.

it was devastating. I’m actually literally working with my therapist on the betrayal trauma around that. I accept her statement that she believes us and, and left the film for creative reasons, but literally what happened with her from December [2019] to January 10 when she exited was the exact fear that I had about coming forward in the first place — where she was called a traitor to the race, where she was accused of hating Black men, not just by Russell Simmons, but also by a prominent rapper 50 Cent. That was excruciating to watch her go through. To see her catching the arrows on our behalf was painful, because I’ve admired her for as long as I’ve known, as a creative professional but also as a Black woman, who’s a survivor and has been so public about it. I was so relieved to know that she’d been involved with the project for so many months and so intimately a part of it. It made me feel so safe. And so when she was attacked … I also felt, “OK, well, if anybody is strong enough to withstand this pressure, it’s Oprah Winfrey.” It never occurred to me in a million years that she would exit. … She exited in the thick of this attack, so I felt totally vulnerable. I was in a fetal position in my bedroom for three days.

Did you fear her exit would discredit the project entirely?

Going to Sundance and not knowing if anybody beyond the people that Sundance would ever see this film, if this entire sort of excruciating journey was going to all sort of be for naught and then we would then be misunderstood for the rest of our lives and the narrative would really just be 50 Cent and Russell Simmons and we wouldn’t even have the benefit of being like redeemed … because if you see the film, it’s not an attack on Black men. We love Black men. I’m raising one. So, yes, it was so excruciating. But I also do believe that standing there with Sheri and Sly and Amy and Kirby and the other amazing women in the film taught me that I don’t need to hide behind Oprah Winfrey. That I’m enough. And any survivor has a story to tell is enough in her own right.

I guess I would say one more thing. … For those who haven’t seen the film, the fact that the most powerful Black woman in the entertainment ultimately capitulated … it literally made the point. The reason I was afraid to speak to the New York Times, the reason I was silent for 22 years, the reason I was afraid to do the film is literally if there was any doubt that my fears were justified, it played itself out exactly according to my fears and what happened between December and January, with the most powerful Black women in entertainment, and one of the most powerful Black men in entertainment. And at the end of the day, the Black man got what he wanted in the sense that she exited the film for her own reasons, for creative differences. But nonetheless, it was so crushing in that moment because it was literally my worst fear come to life.

Do you often wonder how hip-hop music, which can be very misogynistic, might sound today if more women like you got into it, or if you’d stayed in it and hadn’t had your passion for it so cruelly snuffed out?

You know, it’s only with this film that I’m even giving myself permission to reflect on my career. It took almost two years to get me to even go to my storage unit and get my gold and platinum records and any of my old pictures [to use in the film]. I just didn’t want to reflect on that part of my life at all. Now that I finally have, I am realizing that it’s not just that I made hits — I made hits through a lens that was informed by my vantage point as a woman. The duet with Method Man and Mary J. Blige [“You’re All I Need”] moved me because I’m a woman and I was moved that this was an ode to a woman that was so loving. … I get messages now on Instagram now from people who say it was their wedding song.

When I was at Arista, I worked for almost five years for Clive Davis [before L.A. Reid took over];I want to be clear about that. I made many hits working with Clive, and one of the first records I made with Clive was I helped Lauryn Hill connect with Aretha Franklin, and they made “A Rose Is Still a Rose.” That was a song about female empowerment and self-love, and that a man doesn’t have the power to diminish your beauty and your light. I don’t know that a man would have made that record. … I had an influence that I don’t even know that I appreciated before, not just in making hits, but in making a certain kind of hit, always trying to err on the side of empowerment and affirmation and dignity, but also still cool. I think that probably was a loss. I had [a music manager] contact me through Instagram, who said that once I left [the business], there was no one to bring a certain kind of artist in a certain kind of record anymore.

But someone reached out to you via social media because of this film, and that brought you back to the music business, right?

Yes, there was a young woman whose mom read the article in the New York Times who contacted me and asked me to meet with her daughter, Ella Wylde. And I met with her, shocked that they were thinking I could help them. I was like, “You realize I’m totally persona non grata now. So you probably don’t want to be associated with me, but I’ll take the meeting.” I thought she probably wouldn’t be very good and I tried to give her some advice in some way, but she ended up being amazing. … So now I’m working with Ella and we just finished recording “Medicine,” which is the song she played for me [when we first met]. That’s captured in the documentary, the very first time I heard it. I’m raising money now to start a label. That would never have happened if I hadn’t spoken out, which is ironic because I thought this was the final nail in the coffin of me ever having a shot at ever making a record again. It’s amazing to me that the opposite turned out to be true.

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The above interview is taken from a portion of Drew Dixon and Amy Ziering’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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