‘The Breakfast Club’ Disrespected Black Women. Again.

Survivor Sil Lai Abrams speaks out on Russell Simmons’ presence on the show

A photo of Sil Lai Abrams on set in October of 2019.
Author and domestic violence awareness advocate Sil Lai Abrams on the set of ‘The Story With Martha MacCallum’ at Fox News Channel studios on October 23, 2019, in New York City. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

When The Breakfast Club announced that Russell Simmons would be appearing on the show, one of his most vocal accusers of sexual assault, Sil Lai Abrams, swiftly took to the internet to address the bias since neither she nor Drew Dixon nor Sherri Hines had been invited to tell their sides of the story. Just a few weeks since the release of On the Record, a documentary about Russell Simmons’ alleged attacks on the aforementioned women and their decades-long fear of coming out with their stories, there has not been ample engagement in Black media about these women’s tremendous courage.

Sil Lai Abrams spoke with ZORA this afternoon on the immediate aftermath of The Breakfast Club’s neglect, what this means for survivors, and how she intends to fight back.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: How are you feeling after finding out that Russell Simmons was going to appear on The Breakfast Club?
Sil Abrams:
So, last night, April Reign and Fred T. Joseph held a tweet chat about On the Record. It was a watch party. I was in the process of reading the comments and the feedback from people who were tweeting about one of the most painful experiences of my life. And while even though people were very supportive, it’s still painful, right? And so that’s when I got wind that Russell was going on The Breakfast Club. It was a gut punch. It just knocked the wind out of me. At the same time, I already knew that there has been a fortress put around Russell by certain actors of Black media, where they are not reporting anything on the film. It’s been crickets.

Within the hip-hop community and Black pop culture community, we’re all one degree away from Russell Simmons. There are too many people who have made money off their relationship to Russell or someone who’s connected to Russell. It is reflective of the issue that we talked about in the film, which is the erasing and silencing of Black victims of sexual violence, and how we, the community, perpetrate this against Black women in particular, but all survivors. Black women’s issues have always been considered a subset of Black issues. Black men’s issues are foregrounded. Ours are secondary or an afterthought.

What type of message do you think The Breakfast Club is sending by not inviting you or any of the survivors on the show?
The message they are sending is consistent. Charlamagne has his own problems that have been discussed and debated in the public around domestic violence and sexual assault. The Breakfast Club has provided a sympathetic space for problematic individuals for years. But because they are the largest radio platform, they are the go-to space for everybody. If you want to reach Black people, you go on The Breakfast Club. But by doing so, a person has to understand that they are going on a show that has shown itself again and again to be anti-Black women yet proclaiming to be pro-Black.

“That interview is straight propaganda.”

How has your life been since the release of the documentary On the Record?
This has been an incredibly isolating and traumatizing experience. Going back to when I first came forward, attempted to come forward in November 2017, and finally had my story published in the Hollywood Reporter at the end of June 2018. It has been a very intense experience, because I am wrestling with the fact that I am having my story told in this very public way and coming to terms with what that means to me as an individual and trying to navigate the world so that I’m not known exclusively as Russell Simmons’ rape accuser. I already had an established identity as an anti-domestic violence activist. But the silence has been deafening, and it’s so painful from our community. It’s so hurtful.

And for Russell Simmons to go on the Black community’s largest radio show? It reaffirms the topics discussed in the film of how difficult it is to have our stories told. Going back to 2019, when Russell and 50 Cent embarked upon their campaign against the film, to today, we have not received the support that survivors should be entitled to, at the very least to have our voices heard, and that is my issue with The Breakfast Club. They had him on to get his side but not have us. That interview is straight propaganda.

Let’s talk a bit about power dynamics, because you said that in the hip-hop community, you’re all one degree away from Simmons. Can you explain how this feeling of obligation among your colleagues toward Simmons collides with the ecosystem that he built that led to his predation of Black women?
People owe their careers to this man. Let’s be real. Because of him, we have hip-hop as an art form. At the same time, he’s also a businessman who at times preyed on his own people, like the RushCard. You have a man who’s living in a country without an extradition treaty.

I have a friend who posted something on Instagram about Russell. It was about a project he was working on, but he used Russell in the promo. He knew even before the story broke; he knew years ago what happened. I told him that I was disappointed in him. I said, “If your sister were raped by Russell, you wouldn’t be doing this.” His response was something to the effect that Russell helped out with his sister’s medical bills years ago. There is this sense of obligation. Russell isn’t all bad or all good. He’s a complicated person. I’m sure there are people he has done good things for, but that shouldn’t erase the harm that he has done to so many women and also to the culture — let’s not forget the Harriet Tubman sex tape.

Despite this lack of a platform to be seen and heard on places like The Breakfast Club, how do you stay motivated to persevere?
We’re just beginning with Russell. This is not a sprint, but a marathon. One difference between R. Kelly and Russell is that R. Kelly is financially insolvent and also had a movement behind it (#MuteRKelly). We need a similar movement now. Now, I don’t know if it’ll happen, because we’re not talking about the lives and bodies of Black girls, we’re talking Black women — women who are accused of being gold diggers or clout chasers.

I do this work because what happens to the Black woman whose perpetrator isn’t famous and who is watching all of this happen and saying to herself, “Oh, I’m never going to speak up”? A change can occur. We are sending a message of safety to other survivors. If I have to suffer being socially ostracized because I broke our code, then so be it. But I’m not going to stand by and allow the complicity of certain Black media outlets to prevent me from doing what’s right.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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