Russell Simmons Sexual Assault Accusers Reveal How Life Has Changed Since Speaking Out
A new HBO Max documentary, titled On the Record, premieres May 27 and tells the stories of multiple women who allege that Russell Simmons preyed on them during his reign overseeing Def Jam Recordings
Three women who say Russell Simmons sexually assaulted them are speaking out against the record executive in this week's issue of PEOPLE.
A new HBO Max documentary, titled On the Record, premieres May 27 and tells the stories of multiple women who allege that Simmons, 62, preyed on them during his reign overseeing Def Jam Recordings, his former music label.
Drew Dixon, a female employee who worked as the director of A&R at Def Jam alongside Simmons from 1994 to 1995, was hoping to blaze her own lane in the hip-hop genre and open doors for women entering the industry behind her. She helped to create some of the biggest hip-hop hits of the era — such as Method Man and Mary J. Blige's duet "You’re All I Need" — but she was not credited. Her hopes were soon crushed after she says she endured multiple incidents of harassment from Simmons which, she claims, ultimately led to a violent sexual assault in his apartment in 1995.
In 2017, Dixon and several other women — including former Def Jam executive assistant Sil Lai Abrams and early hip-hop artist Sheri Sher, who also share their accounts with PEOPLE — came forward to say that Simmons sexually assaulted them. By the time they detailed their stories during the #MeToo movement inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, the statute of limitations had passed and they were no longer able to bring legal action against Simmons.
Now at least 18 women have accused Simmons, who has vehemently denied the allegations of assault and harassment. There have been no criminal charges brought against the entrepreneur, who stepped down from Def Jam and his other companies in November 2017. Simmons, who is fighting a civil lawsuit from an anonymous accuser in California, did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
"It was very clear from the day I met him that my ambition was to be a rap record executive. Which is why it was so confusing to me when he started to cross that line," recalls Dixon. "It started out just verbal. Then it escalated."
"The night it happened, Russell knew exactly what to say: 'I want you to hear this demo. You’re going to love it,'" Dixon tells PEOPLE. "He grabbed me. He was naked, and he was fighting me. I resisted in every way that a person can resist. I was like, 'Please, I'm begging you.'"
Years later, Dixon is regaining her strength. “Literally now at the age of 49 I feel like I'm starting to reclaim the confidence that I had in that photograph that I really just lost. I came across this photo literally over the weekend when Andre Harrell died, in November 1994 — exactly a year before the rape. I'm sitting with Andre and Puffy. The woman in that picture had no reason to believe she couldn't be a peer with the two men in that picture. I saw that picture and I just sobbed because I lost that fearlessness, that swagger that I had. That night just completely shattered that part of me."
"I've learned in therapy that it's a split that happens where you separate the part of you that holds the memory and the part of you that carries on," she says. "I carried on, leaving behind the part of me that was a rape victim, and reinvented myself with a narrower piece of myself.”
Dixon went on to marry “a really kind and good man” for 16 years with whom she welcomed two children, now 13 and 15. She also moved forward in her career and even worked for music legends including Clive Davis.
"I'm developing a television show and I'm writing a book about the culture through my lens as a black woman who was a part of this important culture," says Dixon. "I would never have been able to do those things two and a half years ago. Now that I'm free of having to accommodate this secret and I'm also free from having to separate myself from my own authentic experience. My vitality is back, my creativity is back, my fearlessness is back, my ambition is back."
"Now this is stressful in a very different way with the pandemic and sheltering in place. I will watch [the documentary] alone in my living room with [my] cat, which is not exactly what I had envisioned," she tells PEOPLE. "I'm trying to just really stay grounded and centered and grateful without becoming anxious." Dixon fears facing backlash from those who don't believe her experience and those of the other accusers, or viewers who may side with Simmons.
“It's important to me that people see this film and that we continue this conversation so younger people understand what the signs are, what the patterns are that are much broader than what happens in a moment," she explains. "I want us to talk about that so people understand — it wasn't your fault.”
Abrams, 49, who worked as an executive assistant at Def Jam for a few months in 1992, first knew Simmons platonically. The two shared a date around 1990 at a sushi restaurant in New York.
"We spent time together, but it was nothing serious. More than anything it was based on friendship," Abrams says. "When the assault occurred, our physical relationship had ended. I told him I had a boyfriend. He held my hand and said, 'I will respect you and we will be friends forever.' I believed him."
"When it happened, I tried to fight him off. It didn’t work. I weighed 112 lbs.," says Abrams. "The next morning I called and confronted him and he downplayed it. I told him, 'When I'm dead, I hope you know you killed me.'"
Abrams says she attempted suicide that morning by swallowing pills and later went to the hospital. She then got sober and left the industry.
"I spent a lot of time in recovery groups, individual counseling and group counseling. I was able to compartmentalize and put it behind me. As long as I stayed away from the industry and people affiliated with it, I was safe. But eventually, all things kind of led back there and there were times when I would be out with a boyfriend or executive and see Russell out. I'd have to smile like nothing happened.”
"I hope people watch this and understand that black women’s stories matter," says Abrams. “My children had part of their mother stolen from them. They had a mother who was traumatized and raising them on moderate income. Part of me changed that day — I'll never get it back and that's unacknowledged."
Sheri Sher, 59, met Simmons when she was a member of an '80s hip-hop group hoping that her musical career would help save her single mom and 10 siblings from their life of poverty.
"I’d told him I had a group, Mercedes Ladies, and he was like, 'Yeah, I heard of you. 'I was like, 'Would you manage us?'" recalls Sher. "We recorded a song, but he decided to pull us off of it. We were hurt."
"He took me around the corner to his new office. He was showing me around, and we were talking," says Sher. "He said, 'You should have a seat there on the couch.' Next thing I know he was on me."
"In the Bronx, Russell was known as God to the hood," she recalls. "I never heard of nobody else he did this to. Nobody would believe me and it was a culture growing up in the Bronx. You just didn't say something. I just tried to block it out of my head."
Things changed for Sher as other victims began to come forward, and she too shared her story in 2017. “I was like, 'Wow, there's all these women coming out,'" she recalls. "Then everybody was calling me like, 'Sheri, it's time to tell your story. You've known that for years and you need to tell your story.’ That's what gave me the courage."
"What I learned through this whole journey as I started to get a grip of myself is that it's okay to be weak sometimes," she says. "This has been a healing process for me. Russell victimized me, but I'm a victor and I didn't want him to think he stopped my drive. I feel wiser. I'm not going to let fear or nobody's power stop me from what God determined for me to be and that's how I felt through this whole thing."
"Now, it's time for me to tell my story," she says. "Back then, was not the right time — it's God's timing."
For more on Dixon, Abrams and Sher's stories, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.