On the Record and the Women Hip-Hop Sacrifices
“I know it’s easy to wonder what any woman in her right mind would be doing with hip-hop,” the scholar and music journalist Joan Morgan wrote in a 1995 issue of Vibe magazine. “But there was sweetness in the beginning ... Perhaps it was because we were being acknowledged as part of a whole.”Morgan, who later coined the term “hip-hop feminism,” is among the many black women who appear in the new HBO Max documentary, On the Record. The film focuses chiefly on Drew Dixon, a former music executive who worked with the Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons in the ’90s and publicly accused him of rape in December 2017. (Simmons, who has now been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 16 women, has denied all allegations of assault. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core and all of my relations have been consensual,” he said in a statement to The New York Times responding to the accounts shared by Dixon and three other women, two of whom also accused him of rape.) On the Record, for which Simmons declined to be interviewed, recounts the experiences that Dixon and two other black women—Sil Lai Abrams and Alexia Norton Jones—say they had with the rap mogul.On the Record renders these individual stories, especially Dixon’s, all the more wrenching by showing how they’re tied to patterns within the industry. These women’s pain, the film argues, isn’t just deep and personal; it’s also a symptom of the pernicious sexism that routinely forces women out of music. Like other recent #MeToo documentaries, its target is a broken system. But where Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and Surviving R. Kelly each brings together a chorus of voices to recount the alleged actions of one man, On the Record primarily zeroes in on one story. Its subject may be Simmons, but the film spends most of its runtime focused on Dixon.The documentary begins its story well before the alleged assaults, following Dixon’s early career and showcasing the passion and drive of an eager young woman. Raised in Washington, D.C., as the daughter of local politicians, Dixon said she became enamored of hip-hop because it “combined two things that I love—activism and this sense of [community] pride—with music.” The film portrays her as a woman who got to experience the “sweetness” of seeing herself as part of hip-hop’s whole.Before detailing the events that ultimately pushed her out of the entertainment business, the documentary establishes Dixon as a formidable talent. While doing A&R work for Def Jam recordings in her 20s, the music executive racked up hits from artists such as 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Biggie (who’d become a close friend). She assembled the massive 1995 song “You’re All I Need,” which brought the rapper Method Man and the R&B ingenue Mary J. Blige together for a duet that echoed Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 Motown classic. Multiple peers attest to Dixon’s early brilliance—it was obvious, they say on-screen, that she had an incredible ear. In On the Record’s later scenes, these comments take on a more rueful valence. They’re not just assessments of the bright future Dixon was poised to have—they also highlight the immense tragedy of losing it.Following Simmons’s alleged assault, Dixon left Def Jam and later joined Arista Records, where she says the executive L.A. Reid refused to work with her after she denied his sexual advances. (Reid has denied Dixon’s allegations.) In two particularly shocking sequences, Dixon recalls Reid declining to meet with two artists she brought to him: a young Chicago rapper named Kanye West and a soulful pianist who’d soon go by the name John Legend. Dixon says that the incidents proved to her that Reid was yet another man who used his power to impede her career; it didn’t matter how sharp her work was. “After a decade of working my way up from the bottom of my industry, I just quit,” she says. “I also completely and utterly cut myself off from the parts of myself that I love the most.”On the Record is most revealing in moments such as these, when it shifts the focus away from Simmons himself. While prior works such as Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable make cursory references to the career paths that R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein reportedly halted, On the Record makes Dixon’s devotion to her craft palpable before revealing what forced her to give it up. The documentary also posits that this loss wasn’t just Dixon’s—when she left, hip-hop suffered, too.Woven throughout the narrative about Dixon’s career in music are clear-eyed assessments of how racism and sexism operate within the industry and beyond. Throughout the production, black women scholars, cultural critics, and activists explain why black women’s stories of harassment and assault often go untold or unaddressed, especially in the music industry. In addition to Joan Morgan, figures including the former Ebony magazine editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo and the #MeToo founder Tarana Burke underscore the dilemma that women such as Dixon, Abrams, and Jones said they faced when contemplating whether to share their accounts of abuse. In a country whose history of violent racism paints all black men as sexual predators, they noted, it can feel impossible to speak up about one man’s harmful actions without the fear of fueling broader stereotypes about African Americans. “For 22 years, I took one for the team,” Dixon says in the film, referencing her reluctance to name Simmons publicly.In homing in on Drew Dixon, On the Record diverges from other #MeToo documentaries that take a more collective approach to the stories of alleged victims. (HBO)On the Record situates its subjects’ dilemma within the context of American racism: All victims of sexual assault contend with a cultural climate that weaponizes uncertainty to discredit them, but black women also bear the burden of the transatlantic slave trade’s legacy of violence and sexual exploitation. The film, in which each of Simmons’s accusers affirms her prior affection for the mogul and love of black men in general, doesn’t set out to pathologize an entire demographic. Rather, On the Record simply zooms in on the women whose lives are altered by the alleged actions of men such as Simmons, whose stature grants them outsized influence over the women in the entertainment industry.Some also saw the extent of the mogul’s reach in news that broke in January shortly before the documentary was originally set to be released. Oprah Winfrey stepped down as the executive producer, at the time giving a vague statement about editorial issues she had with the film and later acknowledging that Simmons and his supporters had tried to pressure her into leaving the project. Winfrey’s refusal to identify the problems she saw in the film, which her production company had enthusiastically endorsed just a month before, disturbed Dixon. “I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime. I am being silenced,” she told The New York Times. “The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”In homing in on Dixon, On the Record diverges from other #MeToo documentaries that take a more collective approach to the stories of alleged victims. Yet the film doesn’t diminish the experiences of other women in the industry who may have been abused. Some of the most affecting sequences bring Dixon and Abrams together with Jenny Lumet, another woman who accused Simmons of assault, for the first time. The women express gratitude for the support they’ve found in each other despite the pain of what unites them.In these moments, On the Record highlights the rarity of such gatherings in hip-hop spaces—not because women don’t want to be present, but because pervasive sexism often pushes them out. Listeners will never know what hits Dixon would’ve produced, or which artists she might’ve discovered, in the years after she alleges Simmons and Reid targeted her. “If [the early prowess she showed] was her 20s,” one former colleague ponders, “what would the next 20 years have been?”
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A Greatest-Hits of Graduation Advice From 19 Experts
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here. In late January, I agreed to give a commencement speech at the high school I went to. I had vague ideas about what I might say—probably something about the perils of following predefined college-major, career, and life “tracks.” But before I began preparing in earnest, the pandemic hit, and I soon felt that my message seemed irrelevant and probably even unnecessary, since everyone has recently been derailed from their tracks in one way or another. On top of that, I realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I could say to a group of people who were graduating into chaos and misfortune.I struggled to come up with any guidance because, frankly, I see so little that people, especially young people, can do to dodge the many harms of the pandemic. But since I couldn’t plausibly get up on a stage (or a videochat) and tell everyone to just give up, I decided that I’d instead outsource the task of wisdom production by asking a bunch of smart people from a variety of fields—writing, psychology, history, and others—what they’d say to the class of 2020.[Read: A commencement address too honest to deliver in person]I’m not giving the commencement speech after all, but I thought that convening this pandemic-commencement brain trust anyway might be useful, because it’s who I’d want to hear from if I were graduating right now, whether from high school or college. The following advice is not meant to provide a positive spin on miserable circumstances; the pandemic sucks, unavoidably and, it seems on some days, irredeemably. Nor is the advice meant to be definitive; no one truly knows the way forward. But hopefully the guidance I heard from these 18 people—which I’ve grouped below into five categories—will help steady this year’s graduates, along with anyone else who needs steadying.on coping with uncertainty “The future is uncertain,” said Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher in Seattle, when I asked him what he’d tell the class of 2020. “But the strange thing is, the future has always been uncertain. Change is taking place in every moment, with every rising opportunity.” He thinks of the pandemic as a chance to note the constancy of change—“a forced opportunity to transform our relationship with uncertainty.”Along those lines, the fiction writers Karen and Jim Shepard think that this moment of heightened uncertainty “should be simply sobering, and not paralyzing.” “When our middle son was applying to colleges,” they told me, “he said he felt like he was making an enormous decision with almost no information, and we noted in response that the trick was not to avoid uncertainty but to try to develop the skills to manage it. So our hope for the graduates of 2020 is that, even acknowledging the instabilities of our time, they remember and continue to nurture the skills necessary to read and react to the unexpected.”Lori Gottlieb, The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” columnist and the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, also sees uncertainty as a sort of opportunity. “Sometimes when we feel like our path is planned out, we blindly walk along it, and it’s only later that we say, ‘I wonder what would have happened if …,’” she told me. “Uncertainty allows you to reinvent yourself. It opens you up to new experiences.”Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, agreed that uncertainty has its uses, despite the skepticism his book title suggests. “There’s a crucial way in which these two things—uncertainty and possibility—are actually the same,” he pointed out. “Things have to be up in the air, at least to some extent, in order for anyone to engage creatively with the world, and thereby craft a meaningful life. If we were ever to achieve the definite knowledge of the future that we tell ourselves we want, it would feel like a kind of death,” in that knowing one’s life story in advance would squash one’s sense of forward-looking possibility.He also made an observation that seems obvious but that might go overlooked at a time when people are so fixated on the future: “The fact is that you’ve never known what the future holds … so you’re very probably better than you think at coping resiliently in conditions of radical uncertainty. You’ve been doing it since the moment of your birth.”The unpredictable, then, doesn’t have to be paralyzing—a conclusion backed up by the advice of Colin Ramsay, whose job it is to teach people how to quantify uncertainty. He’s a professor of actuarial science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “Do not be risk-averse,” he said. “Gather as much information as you can—then take measured and calculated risks.” Similarly, he suggested that graduates draw up a short-term plan (“say for one or two years”) in addition to a longer-term one—advice that could prove useful for other adults too, young and old alike.on finding contentment and meaning Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland, has studied how people respond when they have to wait for something to happen, giving him an unusual perspective on the present moment. “Whether living through a pandemic or in an era of health, you should never defer your happiness to an unknown future,” he said. “You will do your best work when you understand that the present moment is not a delay or an in-between time … Do not wait for conditions to be perfect; perfect conditions will never arrive.”[Read: I didn’t get to graduate either]One way of pursuing contentment now, suggested Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who focuses on health and happiness, is to find ways to help other people. “Maybe that seems cliché or corny, because it sounds like advice to ‘be nice’ or to ‘do good,’” she said. “But the truth is that humans are wired to experience hope and courage when we are needed.”Of course, during the grueling wait for this crisis to end, many people aren’t searching for happiness so much as wondering how they’ll make it through. For insight on that, I consulted Tony Mangan, an endurance athlete who holds the world record for the longest distance run on a treadmill in 48 hours—which is not just an incredible feat, but also, given the perseverance required and lack of actual forward motion, probably the most fitting metaphor I’ve yet to come across for life in lockdown.Mangan’s record stands at just over 250 miles, and I asked him what was going through his head, helping him keep his legs moving while not actually going anywhere. “I broke the treadmill run up into manageable segments of 30 minutes, that’s all—all 96 segments,” he wrote in an email from Tanzania, where he is waiting to continue a roughly 30,000-mile walk around the world put on hold by the pandemic. “You say I wasn’t going anywhere, but I was on my way to a world record.” (In case you’re curious, Mangan napped for about an hour cumulatively during those 48 hours, plus “pretty minimal stopping for food, toilet, etc.”)on the lessons of history So much of this pandemic is unprecedented, but a bit of solace can be taken in how people have weathered previous chaos and disasters. “If you spend the next 30 years reading and writing about epidemics, as I have, you’ll be able to take heart in the fact that we will get through this terrible pandemic,” said Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan.The class of 2020 is not the first bunch of graduates to finish school at a deeply uneasy time. Paul Hendrickson, an author and former Washington Post reporter (as well as a beloved college professor of mine), told me that when he finished college and then graduate school in the late 1960s, “it seemed as if the world was about to end every day.” The Vietnam War, riots across the country, the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention—it was overwhelming. “It almost seemed as if nothing would ever be the same again in America,” Hendrickson said. “Except it was. Except the boat eventually righted itself. So I have to think the same kind of righting is somehow not far off. We just can’t see it now, in the midst of our miseries. In the meantime, we have to go on—trusting, believing, working to overcome.”[Read: Is this the worst year in modern American history?]Some more recent history might be reassuring as well. Tim Ebner, a writer and communications director in Washington, D.C., graduated from college in 2008, during the Great Recession. Looking back 12 years later, Ebner said that while he did see his peers’ job stability and earnings take a hit, the recession “helped me to explore pathways in my career that I never imagined before,” and he’s “extremely happy with where my career is now.”ON FINDING WORK AND BUILDING A CAREER Ebner, having built a career after emerging from school into a major economic downturn, also passed along some advice about finding a job. “Get comfortable talking to strangers,” he said. “Almost every career opportunity that has come my way resulted from a soft connection—a job lead from a next-door neighbor, a referral from a friend of a friend, or even a chance encounter with an HR recruiter on an airplane.” He acknowledged that face-to-face networking is difficult right now, but encouraged graduates to develop connections digitally and reach out to people for virtual informational interviews.There’s room for ambition, too. “You can still dream big,” said the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. “Don't let fear put you in a box. Think what really brings you joy, and pursue that with all your energy and commitment.”Still, job searching right now can be exasperating, so thinking about work with a zoomed-out perspective might be helpful. “Careers are long,” said Vida Maralani, a sociologist at Cornell University. “Be flexible in what you do next and know that your next job doesn’t have to be what you do forever. Some of my most valuable experiences have come from jobs that I thought of as temporary stepping stones. Use these stepping stones to get yourself through the current crisis, and know that they will become distant first steps on a much longer path.”[Read: Dear graduates, I failed and failed until something worked]The same outlook applies to money and savings. “Don’t take your personal finances personally right now,” said Farnoosh Torabi, a personal-finance expert. “If your dream job is no longer viable or if you have to move back in with your parents to help make ends meet for a while, that is not your failure.” The present circumstances will make it hard for many young people to start building up their savings, but they should remember that this is not their fault.Besides, earnings and productivity aren’t a reflection of self-worth, even if American society sometimes makes them out to be. “The culture that a student is graduating into right now prizes individualism and constant output of visible results, to an extent that can easily lead to isolation and burnout,” said Jenny Odell, an artist and the author of How to Do Nothing. “My advice is to have the patience and trust to disengage from that value system … The times in which you’re not making anything or racking up achievements may well turn out to be the most meaningful times in your life.”ON “CHANGING THE WORLD” These days, the perennial commencement-speech subject of making the world a better place is more charged than usual: Saddling this year’s graduates with the burden of fixing this terribly unequal and unjust world seems unfair. But for those who want to try to change how things operate here on Earth, I heard from some people who had ideas.First, how to react to the present crisis. “Young adulthood is a time of breaking away. I hope that some of you will seize that feeling and lead a public-health revolt,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Overturn social structures that produce uneven health impacts and curb risky practices at the human-animal-environment nexus that can spur the emergence of novel pathogens. Go for broke.”Interruptions of normalcy also present an opportunity for a broader rearrangement of society, beyond public health. Katie Eder, the 20-year-old executive director of the youth advocacy group Future Coalition, noted that young people are often the group that sparks change. “Everyone in our generation has this power and it’s up to each of us to realize it,” she said. “We must meet these times of uncertainty by standing up for justice and continuing to test the limits of the impossible.”Andrew Solomon, the author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, told me that “if we are lucky, [the pandemic] will awaken humankind to the fact that disaster is always possible.” He hopes that the present upheaval will spur renewed efforts to heal the environment and tamp down on economic inequality. In witnessing the pandemic firsthand, he said, “you have the gift of knowing that the social order can be undermined by a sudden and unanticipated change; that people can radically transform their behavior when the severity of the threat is made evident to them (you can help make it evident); and that most of us can manage when our way of life is changed beyond recognition. Don’t squander that gift.”As I read the responses that came in for this article, one thread I saw running through much of the advice was the observation that, ultimately, everyone is buffeted by uncertainty even in non-pandemic times, whether they pause to dwell on that fact or not. Really, we’re all making it up as we go along, even the experts. But I think that they are, collectively, onto something, and here’s how I’d distill their guidance: Recalibrate your relationship to uncertainty, remember that others have been in your position before, and don’t forget to make time for “food, toilet, etc.” The et cetera is often where the joy is.
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Obama speaking to high school graduates on May 16, 2020. | Getty Images/EIF/XQ Read this to understand what it would be like to have a real president in office now. On Monday morning, former President Barack Obama posted a statement on the wave of protests and police violence rocking the country, celebrating peaceful protesters and calling for fundamental reform of America’s police forces. It’s a perfectly fine statement by Obama’s standards: compelling, not extraordinary. But comparing what he said to the angry tweets President Donald Trump is busy firing off reveals just how badly the White House’s current occupant is failing. Obama’s first major point is that the protesters resorting to violence are a small group; the vast majority are peaceful protesters coming out to demonstrate against severe and ongoing injustice: First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood. On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves. Trump has not issued any kind of formal statement supporting the legitimate aims of protesters or calling for reform of police departments. On Twitter, he has worked overtime to cast the demonstrators as dangerous “anarchists” who need to be put down: Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020 Obama’s second core point that is that reform to the police and criminal justice system requires political engagement at the local level. Demonstrations are good, but they need to be followed up by electoral organizing and voting aimed at empowering reformers at the city and county level: It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes. While Obama is specific about creating change at local level, Trump is treating the protests as an opportunity to exploit widespread fear for his reelection campaign. Monday morning, he tweeted repeatedly about the presidential election on November 3rd — including the allegation that “Sleepy Joe” Biden is in league with anarchist demonstrators who, he strangely claims, want to raise taxes: Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more. Joe doesn’t know anything about it, he is clueless, but they will be the real power, not Joe. They will be calling the shots! Big tax increases for all, Plus!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2020 Third and finally, Obama outlined the kinds of specific policy proposals that could concretely reduce police violence against African-Americans — and provided links to lists of organizations working to enact these policies, for those Americans interested: Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best. But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years. President Trump, who is currently in office and thus has far more power to put pressure on police to reform, does not seem interested in any sort of policy solution. His most notable policy response to the weekend’s violence has been an announcement that he will declare “antifa” a terrorist organization — an idea that not only fails to respond to the root cause of the protests, but is also incoherent and legally impossible: The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020 The last president condemned rioting, but also correctly identified police violence as the root cause of our current unrest and proposed ideas for how citizens and elected officials could work on reducing them. The current president has painted peaceful demonstrators calling for such change as a bloc of violent anarchists, and tried to use the misleading label “antifa” to categorize their behavior as a form of terrorism. The contrast could not be clearer.
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