For months, we’ve been writing about “On The Record,” the documentary film that would detail the allegations of rape and sexual assault against media mogul Russell Simmons. Today, on the film’s release date, we spoke to one of Simmons’ accusers, activist and author, Sil Lai Abrams. During our chat, we spoke about the documentary, Abrams’ path toward healing and how money and influence don’t make a good person.
You detailed that Russell Simmons raped you in 1994. I wanted to ask you what has it been like to watch his rise and climb and be so beloved within the Black community since that time?
Sil Lai Abrams: I did my best, over the years, to eliminate anything that would trigger a memory of him. Unfortunately, he has been ubiquitous in our culture so before social media, he would always be in mainstream news with a new venture. His ascendency was not surprising because he’s earning that kind of money and has that kind of power. But was it painful? I never gave myself permission to really think about that because I was busy focusing on my own survival, recovery and healing.
What did your recovery and healing look like for you in nineties—I’m sure it’s an ongoing process.
Sil Lai: Well, the first thing I did was I got sober. God willing, one day at a time, come November 27, this year, it will be 26 years without a drink. That summer of the assault was the last summer of drinking for me. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work on an individual and group level. And I’m a huge advocate for mental health awareness. And also the the support groups for survivors, having a safe space where you can talk and realizing you’re not alone. Though, with me, obviously I could never talk about who committed the act because I would find myself, very quickly, in the news cycle. Which I did not want.
What changed for you? What made you say now is a good time for me to speak out?
Sil Lai: I was compelled. It was a compulsion more than anything. I had been doing activism work, at the time of #MeToo, when Harvey Weinstein first was outed for his serial predation. I think at that point, it had been ten years of work. And a large part of my foundation is grounded in telling the truth no matter how uncomfortable. It’s part of what has engendered trust in me, within the community. People knew what they would get from me. When they read my book, when they read an article from me, when I spoke, I was unapologetic about sharing the dark aspects of ourselves and of our experiences which most people would never reveal out of shame.
To think that something like #MeToo would come along and I wouldn’t speak up…I wrestled with it because I didn’t want to become collateral damage. I called up a friend of mine, who’s a music producer. And I was just hyperventilating and crying and telling him about what happened.
But it was him [Russell] calling Keri Claussen Khalighi a liar and then saying that he was an ally of #MeToo. I just said, ‘Ok, I’m throwing myself in front of this bus. Damn the consequences.’ And that was my reason.
And when it comes to participating in the film [On The Record] it was not anything calculated. Drew Dixon (another survivor) reached out to me. We spoke. You join this terrible club that you don’t even know you’re a member of when you have a shared assailant but then you are a Black woman who chooses to tell the world about her experience of victimization at the hands of a powerful man, it’s so incredibly tiny. It’s such a tiny group. The interview for the film came after meeting Jenny [Lumet, another accuser] and Drew for the first time. The privilege of being a part of something like this, it was a no-brainer for me.
When you’re a Black woman who shares her assault at the hands of a powerful Black man there’s the trauma of the initial assault and then there’s the trauma of your intentions and loyalty to the community being questioned, have you had to deal with that?
It’s been interesting because very few people have come at me directly on social media, which is a common forum for attack. On an individual level, I believe I was somewhat insulated because there’s a trail of breadcrumbs—at least in the public sphere. My first book [was] published in 2007, where I explicitly describe the rape and who the person was without naming him. And then again, I reference him in 2016. I had also gone on Al Jazeera. There’s no way that I could have anticipated that #MeToo would ever happen or that there would ever be an opportunity for me to speak. So I think that along with my activism and the respect that I had garnered in the arena made people less likely to come for me.
But I certainly noticed in the comment section, which they say to never read… but whatever, there seemed to be a lot of debate about the veracity of my claims. And that’s where I saw the debate occurring. It’s certainly disappointing but expected.
And I think that’s one thing the film does a good job of unpacking. It’s an inevitability. It’s not if you’re going to be questioned. It’s how intense will the scrutiny be and to what extent will people throw you under the bus? Will the clamoring and the refusal to acknowledge the trauma that you’ve experienced, the defense of the perpetrator, will that move from the comment section onto anywhere where you have a social media presence where people will start attacking you.
That fortunately has not been the case.
That’s good to hear.
But there has been efforts that were engineered—I believe—by Russell to discredit me, using small press, Black press to try and paint me in a light that quite frankly is defamatory. So yes, has Russell done things? Absolutely. But the public at large, I’ve been generally insulated.
Did you ever grapple with the impact sharing your story would have on the Black community? Or was it that you didn’t want to share because you didn’t want to be the target of so much vitriol?
They go hand in hand because the only community I have is Black. The vitriol that I would experience, would come from my own people. So it wasn’t something that I consciously thought, ‘Oh, I have to protect Russell.’ Because I knew Russell was protected by his wealth. I was concerned about protecting my son and protecting myself from further harm. u
I know that Russell Simmons is not the only man who has assaulted you. There is also AJ Calloway, who has been fired. But I was wondering what would you like to see happen to Russell Simmons given what he’s been accused of doing to several women over several decades?
I would like to see accountability. True accountability that does not entail him absconding to Bali, performing Yoga videos on a daily basis for his continued supporters. What I would like to see is the opportunity for our cases to be litigated within the criminal justice system, as corrupt and racist a system as it is. Russell has the resources to mount a robust defense. He is not the everyday Black man. He is a man that has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct and assault of at least twenty women that we know of.
I wish that the statute of limitations of rape would be retroactive and that we could have that day in court. In the absence of that occurring, if a woman that is within the statue chooses to come forward, I absolutely would participate in court proceedings because I know what he’s like. I lived with the aftermath of it and all of the survivors that he’s harmed, we each have had to live in a prison ourselves. And I don’t believe that serial rapists deserve a pass because they are famous or because they can afford to live in countries with non-extradition treaties with the U.S.
And let the chips fall where they may, honestly.
But what’s come out with this film is that no one can say that they didn’t know, that they didn’t hear or they’re surprised to learn of these allegations, when in fact this was something that had been whispered about in the industry. And has since at least 2017, been in the public discourse. And now, is in a film where his behavior and impact of his actions are detailed.
It’s my hope that people will watch the film with an open mind and realize that celebrity does not equal virtue. And those with the most power are the ones most likely to abuse it. And he is no exception to that.
Did Oprah taking her name off of the documentary affect you in any way?
It was a shock and a surprise. Now, I can’t imagine what the directors went through, how absolutely terrifying that is. But for me, because I’d already had the rug pulled out from underneath me in telling my story, the first time, that I am of the mindset that until it’s really, really done. It’s not done. I was shocked but I knew that the film would another home. That, I had no question about.
That home is on HBO Max which is airing the documentary “On The Record” starting today.