Inside ‘On the Record’ and the sexual assault accusations against Russell Simmons

May 26, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

Relief, sadness, hope: These are some of the emotions that Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Sheri Sher each say they’re feeling as On the Record, a documentary detailing their sexual assault allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons, finally becomes available to a larger audience.

The documentary, which arrives on HBO Max on May 27—the same day the streaming service launches—was a subject of controversy when it lost Oprah Winfrey as its executive producer, which in turn lost it Apple TV+ as its original distributor. But the documentary still premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, to multiple standing ovations, before HBO Max eventually picked it up. 

“It’s a relief that it’s finally going to find an audience,” Dixon tells Fortune. “I hope other survivors whose abusers aren’t famous, who may be in industries that have nothing to do with entertainment…hopefully will see their own story and experience affirmed in some way by some of the things that we have gone through.”

Drew Dixon
Drew Dixon’s story is at the center of “On the Record,” the HBO Max documentary detailing her—and other women’s—accusations of sexual assault against music mogul Russell Simmons.

Winfrey, who emphasized her support of the women when she backed away from the film, said in a January interview that her decision was one tied to creative differences. Filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground) don’t seem to have any regrets.

“It was a really wonderful and successful, and I think up until end, extremely healthy and productive collaboration,” Ziering says. “We had nothing but good feelings and were grateful…The film would not be where it is and would not have achieved what it has without [Winfrey, Harpo Productions, and Apple TV+’s] support, input, and effort.”

The film follows Dixon’s journey as she struggles over coming forward with her story about being sexually assaulted by Simmons—during her time as an executive at Def Jam Recordings, which Simmons cofounded—in the 1990s, which was detailed in a December 2017 article in the New York Times. Abrams, an activist and author who briefly worked at Def Jam, and Sher, of pioneering all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, also describe being assaulted on separate occasions by Simmons in the documentary. The three of them are among several women who have spoken in recent years of assaults by Simmons.

“I was literally in the clutches of somebody who has practiced this again and again,” says Dixon of hearing other women’s accounts. “I’ve now met so many of us.”

Sher, who largely kept silent about her own alleged rape for three decades, revealed details of the encounter in a book based on her life. She opted not to use real names, so the book was released as a novel “based on a true story,” she says. “I looked at a lot of these women’s stories, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ The things that they were saying were so similar to what I wrote in my book, and my book was written years ago.”

The film also briefly delves into Dixon’s time working at Arista Records, where she says L.A. Reid retaliated against her professionally when she didn’t return his sexual advances, opting not to sign new artists—like Kanye West—when she tried to bring them on board.

Simmons, who stepped down from his businesses after a November 2017 guest column in the Hollywood Reporter by screenwriter Jenny Lumet accused him of sexual assault, has maintained his innocence. “While I have never been violent, I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades, and I sincerely apologize,” he said in a statement after stepping down. Reid, who left Sony Music Entertainment’s Epic Records in 2017, reportedly did so after allegations of harassment by a female employee.

On the Record notes that neither Simmons nor Reid chose to comment or participate in the documentary. (A legal representative for Simmons did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.) Ziering and Dick, who say they haven’t heard from either camp ahead of the documentary’s streaming debut, are confident in what is shown on-screen.

“We undergo just a very rigorous fact-checking process when we make any of our films. And then of course we vet it ourselves, and then we have it vetted by our attorneys,” says Dick, who points out that HBO attorneys were also involved, while the three women’s stories had been reported on before. “So, we were very very confident that we had examined and corroborated their stories completely.”  

2020 Sundance Film Festival - "On The Record" Premiere
Kirby Dick, Sil Lai Abrams, Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, and Amy Ziering attend the “On the Record” premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25 in Park City, Utah.
Dia Dipasupil—Getty Images

Dixon, Abrams, and Sher all had their own reasons to keep quiet about who they say assaulted them, but Simmons’s power in the hip-hop community was a huge factor, they say, as was what he meant to the subculture as a whole. (“He was like the god to the culture of hip-hop,” Sher says.) As black women, they also had their own perspectives and societal expectations to grapple with.

“We were all known as nurturers in the community from where I grew up in the Bronx,” Sher says. “Women were known as the nurturers, and so for decades of seeing the black man being beat down, arrested for nothing, and through that whole phase of living in the Bronx, of what I witnessed, to come out and [say] you got assaulted…It was more like a ‘How dare you do this to us? We already being beat down.’”

“Black culture was already a subculture of the mainstream culture in the way it was perceived, in the way men were targeted, in the way black people in general were targeted, criminalized, marginalized, infantilized,” says Dixon. “And then hip-hop within the black culture was at the bottom of the totem pole, culturally [in the ’80s and ’90s]. Artistically, there was this idea that it was a passing phase.

“The last thing that I wanted to do was undermine in any way this genre that I loved, that was trying to push itself into the mainstream,” she says, adding that she also didn’t want to call “attention to one man who happens to be violent and dangerous, in a way that I knew would have consequences across the board for so many black men and boys who are innocent.”

“As a feminist, I don’t subscribe to the idea that I need to protect those who harm us. I believe they need to be called out,” says Abrams. “On the flip side, I’m fiercely protective of my people and cognizant of the way in which we are perceived, and not wanting to…add to that by coming forward. But at the same time, I’m very resolute that this is just.”

Going public has had mixed results. The women say they’ve received supportive texts or direct messages on social media from people who seem stunned by what happened to them. But some of those same people will then like posts on Simmons’s public Instagram account, where he continues posting about the music industry, meditation, yoga, veganism, and more.

“They’re hearting it, they’re prayer-hands-ing, emoji-ing it, and they think I don’t know. And I know,” says Dixon, adding that Simmons remains a powerful influence in many areas of entertainment, including television, where he made his mark with Def Comedy Jam.

“I’ve been doing the advocacy work for almost 14 years. People know I’m a survivor. I’ve been on TV, I’ve been on college campuses, I’ve written about it, I’ve done the whole thing. But nobody knew who it was,” says Abrams. “Now it’s different—now they know. ‘Oh, it’s Russell.’ And then you get to see how it’s like the lights go on, and the cockroaches scatter. And it hurts.”

The women are glad to see the film released and believe they are lucky to have their stories told.

“We’re privileged in our own way,” says Abrams. “There are a lot of black women whose stories are never going to be heard, and that’s unfortunate.”

But neither Dixon nor Abrams feel much has changed since they spoke out.

“Nothing that’s happened so far in the world of the entertainment industry that I came from has changed at all,” says Dixon, who left the music business in 2002. “Maybe people are more clandestine about their behavior, maybe they’re less brazen about it, but I have no reason to believe that there has been a shift in behavior or a shift in the tolerance level for it.”

“There have been advances—but for every advance, we see a step back,” Abrams adds.

Still, Dixon says the film’s existence does give her some hope: “It is literally just the beginning of a conversation that we have to have about the music industry and about sexual violence in general and about the vulnerability of black women and the way we are not protected with the kind of reciprocity that we show our men and the way we protect them.”

Sher agrees: “I think this film is going to bring awareness and light.”