Russell Simmons revolutionized the culture, but now it doesn’t matter
Recent sexual assault charges reveal the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame
The accusers include model Keri Claussen Khalighi. She says she begged for help as Simmons coerced her to have oral sex. Musician Sherri Hines accuses the author and Def Jam Recordings founder of throwing her on a couch and raping her. Tina Baker, a lawyer, says that Simmons, who managed her career at the time, invited her to his apartment, where he held her down and raped her. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet says that Simmons coerced her into sex after having his driver take them to Simmons’ place without her consent. Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam A&R executive and daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, accused Simmons of sexual abuse and also says former Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid sexually harassed her. (Reid stepped down from his position at Epic in May amid sexual misconduct allegations.)
The allegations against Simmons span from 1983 to 2016. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core,” he wrote to The New York Times, “and all of my relations have been consensual.”
Since the initial allegations were made public at the end of November, Simmons has stepped down from all of his companies. HBO comedy series has removed him from All Def Comedy. The New York Police Department is now opening an investigation, as seven of the alleged incidents occurred in New York City.
Any stories about Simmons up to two weeks ago would have had a totally different first paragraph. Before the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Simmons’ story would have started with his immeasurable contributions to black culture and, by proxy, American culture. With Def Jam, Simmons helped take hip-hop from street corners to Wall Street. His visionary approach to the music business is largely responsible for making rap music the pop culture juggernaut it is today.
Beyond that, his Def Comedy Jam launched the careers of comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who are of course now household names. The debacle of his RushCard debit card, in which thousands of customers were locked out of their accounts over a weekend and unable to access funds, was a stain on his otherwise good reputation. All of these accomplishments, and more, used to be Simmons’ resounding legacy.
Used to be, because none of that matters anymore. While the fruits of Simmons’ cultural labor are spread across global pop culture to this day and beyond, none of those contributions would be equal to the cost from the painful toll he’s accused of inflicting on women over the course of the past three decades. The road to greatness isn’t worth a damn if that road is paved with pain and violence toward women.
So we’re left with the idea that one of the main architects of the current musical landscape — in September, Nielsen reported that the combined genre of hip-hop and rhythm and blues is No. 1, for the first time, in overall consumption — has allegedly victimized women along the way. These women were managers, artists, journalists, all who — who knows, but — could perhaps have made even larger impact on the culture.
Simmons has always been a role model for what creativity, business acumen and hard work can do, how one person’s brilliance can transform the world. Now, he may be another example of the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame.
There will be a push — as always, and especially when black female victims are involved — to litigate just how much sexual assault is acceptable in relation to a particular artist’s contribution to popular culture. R. Kelly defenders love bringing up that his music is just too iconic to discard. Bill Cosby defenders protest that their love for The Cosby Show is just too much to sacrifice, no matter his charges. The same goes for less-discussed accused transgressors: We revere Martin despite the allegations that the titular star sexually harassed Tisha Campbell. What about Dr. Dre? Floyd Mayweather? Mike Tyson?
Where is the line, and what will be left if every man who abuses a woman is exiled from his respective level of achievement? The fact is, art will survive. Brilliance is an infinitely replenishable resource that women who are free from the anxiety and trauma of violence are more than capable of providing. The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide. The question should be how much better would the world be if everyone were free to create in a world where sexual assault and violence didn’t exist. Isn’t that more valuable than a few great albums and TV shows?