Russell Simmons is no stranger to controversy: Over the course of his career as the business mastermind behind outlets like Def Jam Records and Def Comedy Jam, he’s gotten plenty of heat over content that was considered edgy, political, and vulgar. As he notes, “They almost shut down my company over Public Enemy.”
But the swirl of negativity surrounding Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, one of the shorts that is a part of his just-launched All Def Digital channel on YouTube, was too much. The piece, which depicted the famous titular abolitionist bedding an older white man she refers to as “Massa,” was taken down—though not without considerable hand-wringing from Simmons.
“For my entire life, I have been protective of artistic freedom and protective of artists,” he told EW via phone. “In the history of Def Comedy Jam or Def Poetry Jam or Def Jam Records, I have never censored an artist. But I took it down, because all the artists involved agreed it was okay. What broke my heart was how upset and enraged black women were.”
Simmons said he received personal calls from women in his life who were unhappy with the clip. “This was about black women, and I know how much they go through and how much they’ve been through, and if they were hurt the way they were hurt, then I was hurt,” he said. “It’s the oldest form of black comedy—the oppressed turning the tables on the oppressor. That’s what I saw in that video. I didn’t see some of the things that hurt black women, and had I seen those things I probably wouldn’t have put it up. Politically, it was okay. Emotionally, it was not.”
Still, that won’t be softening the rest of ADD, which Simmons hopes will give an opportunity to young artists honing their voices. “On the Internet, I can take a lot more chances,” he said of his new endeavor. “I don’t have to ask anybody, I don’t have to wait to get it on the air, I can work with young talent that can be developed, and I can find talent.” All Def Digital features individual arms for both music and poetry in addition to the short films and animation. Already, the first episode of the MellowHigh-centered rapumentary Odd World is a winner (it’s worth it just to watch Odd Future associate Hodgy Beats dance around in that strange body suit), the jazz-age super hero Harlem Shadow looks pretty dope, and if the forthcoming series B-Rock (which casts Barack Obama as an intercontinental action hero) is as good as its trailer, then there’ll be plenty of reasons to stay tuned to ADD.
And though it has gotten off on the wrong foot socially, Simmons hopes that despite the removal of Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, people still know they can trust him to be free of boundaries. “I almost want to write a letter to the artistic community to say I still love you and I still protect you,” he said. “This was about black women.”
“I probably won’t pull down this B-Rock s—,” he added. “If the political community is hurt, that’s not going to matter to me.”