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MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Speaks Out on Sean Combs

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For years, people have “heard grumblings and whispers” — as #MeToo founder Tarana Burke puts it — about the questionable behavior of Sean “Diddy” Combs.

“But I think the question,” Burke adds, “was there ever going to be any level of accountability?”

Five months ago, Combs’ life dramatically changed. Singer Cassie, the music mogul’s former partner and recording artist, sued him for sexual assault and said he repeatedly raped and physically abused her for nearly a decade; they reached a settlement two days later. But subsequent lawsuits from more women followed with claims of rape and sexual assault, and in February producer Rodney “Lil Rod” Jones — who worked on Combs’ recent Grammy-nominated album — accused the entrepreneur of harassing and trafficking him. Christian Combs, the entertainer’s 26-year-old son, has been accused of sex assault in a lawsuit filed this week that also listed 54-year-old Combs as a defendant, multiple outlets reported.

While Combs has denied all of the allegations, his homes were raided by federal agents, he lost several brand deals and he stepped down as CEO of Revolt, the television network he built. 

“What’s interesting about Diddy is — different from other moments that we’ve seen around Russell Simmons or R. Kelly — the zeitgeist has changed and people are ready to believe the survivors who are coming forward,” Burke tells The Hollywood Reporter

“I think there’s some unpacking to do there around the why. I want to believe a lot of it is because the ground has been set, because of what we’ve seen. For years and years and years, people did not believe those of us who were saying R. Kelly was dangerous. Even after the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene, it still took a monumental effort,” Burke says, referring to the #MuteRKelly campaign and the Emmy-nominated docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. “That’s the difference: in our community — communities of color, particularly Black communities — we haven’t had the luxury of being able to come forward. So this Diddy moment is indicative of a lot of change that started from the hashtag going viral to now.”

In the interview with THR below, Burke discusses Combs, the homophobia in the Black community around his allegations and “why the movement has to be bigger than Diddy.” 

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Some people feel like the #MeToo movement in music hasn’t been unpacked like other industries. With the stories coming out about Diddy, could there be a domino effect?

Yes. Because people are believing [the victims]. The difference is that people didn’t believe the women. 

I have heard constantly, since 2017, “When are we going to have a #MeToo movement in hip-hop? When are we going to have a #MeToo movement in music?” My response to that is, “When are we going to allow it?” The movement is not predicated on singular people. But I recognize and understand how symbolic it is for folks when they see a huge person be held accountable for misdeeds that they’ve been hearing about. R. Kelly was a huge figure in music that didn’t cause the “domino effect”; Russell Simmons didn’t cause the “domino effect”; Trey Songz didn’t. There have been many different individuals, even non-Black people. Marilyn Manson.

There have been figures of non-Black men who have been called out and accused in the last seven years. Movements are made of people, they’re not made of hashtags. And so the movement that people want to see has to be the movement that we demand. So if we want to see a domino effect and we want to see more of this happen and more accountability, people have to demand more accountability.

As we watch this thing unfold, I just really want people to know that this is bigger than Diddy. The harm is bigger than Diddy, and that’s why the movement has to be bigger than Diddy. That’s the major reason for these things to be big and public — because it becomes a blueprint for what’s possible for the same kind of violence happening across our communities. Because we know that everything that happened in a mansion in Hollywood, Miami and the Caribbean happened in some shape, form or fashion in our homes and in our communities.

The internet has been full of memes and jokes regarding the Diddy allegations. What do you make of that?

What I love about my folks, Black folks, is that we will find humor in everything. It’s one of the things that’s most beautiful about us and, in moments like this, it’s one of the things that’s hard to hold. Because, in the midst of all the Diddy memes and jokes that are flying all over the place, we are forgetting anybody who’s read those legal documents. Those things are horrific.

The allegations of the things that he did, and made people do — that’s horrible. They are real human beings behind those words that are typed in those documents. Those are real people. It takes me back to the R. Kelly jokes. We can reduce it to a joke, and it minimizes the depravity, and it takes the spotlight off of who we should be talking about, which are the people who had to endure that.

An element here that we also don’t talk about with Diddy is the homophobia. Yes, there’s stuff about Cassie that people dismiss as, “Well, she was his girlfriend and she wanted to get some money. She knew what was going on. Oh, but Diddy might be doing this to men” — then it becomes a joke. Then it becomes: These men are not really victims. We don’t think about them as survivors, we don’t think about them as vulnerable. We don’t think about any of those things. It doesn’t become about victim-hood, it becomes just about an opportunity to pick apart homosexuality and make it into some kind of depravity. So there’s a nuance there about this particular case that doesn’t provide protection for other people, for other survivors.

Are you surprised to see some of this playing out the way it is when it comes to Diddy?

I am. I am very surprised. I’m surprised to see it happen in a way like, “Wow, this took so long and we watched it for so long. We kind of knew whatever could be happening.” I am surprised because of how big he is. [Also], you can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with it forever.

To go back to the movement angle of it, I think the world is changing. I think outside of the comment sections of the internet, I think young people are way less tolerant of this kind of violence, this kind of depravity and deviance being mainstreamed, and are way more willing to call it out. So that’s helpful too.

Diddy has provided the soundtrack to a lot of Black people’s lives — and some in the community don’t want to believe what’s going on and others are believing the victims. Can you talk about that complex nature when allegations are brought up about a historic figure in the Black community?

I think those are the exact words. It’s complex. But it is possible to embrace complexity. And now we have experience with that. We have come through several people — Bill Cosby, Russell Simmons, R. Kelly — these are people who in the Black community specifically held very special places; there are so many people who hold on to idolizing them regardless of the accusations and regardless of the convictions.

But there are others who are like, “Wow, I think Bill Cosby is super wrong, but I really love The Cosby Show.” I think we have to sit with that complication and people have to make choices that are right for them. 

Michael Jackson‘s another one, right? There are tons of people who wholeheartedly don’t believe that there’s a thing. And then there are other people who know it in their heart and they’re like, “I don’t care.” The people sit in different places about him. It’s fine. But I really feel like what’s important in our community is that we are talking about sexual violence. What we do a lot of times is put blinders on. We don’t want to think about it. We don’t want to consider it. 

It’s going to be the same thing with Diddy, right? It’s nearly impossible if you are of a certain age [to escape Diddy’s influence on pop culture]. The other day I was in the store and [the Diddy-produced 1996 hit] “The Things That You Do” by Gina Thompson came on, and that’s one of my favorite songs. That’s how we met Missy Elliott. You are not dismissing Missy by any stretch of imagination. That’s not even a thing. So Diddy leads us to all of these other people, it’s almost like he [connects the dots] from Bad Boy Records.

So I doubt that people will release that music or will release the cultural gifts that we got from his talents. But we will have to embrace the reality of what we are seeing and hearing. I personally can’t listen to R. Kelly because it just disgusts me; you listen to his lyrics, you can hear remnants of him talking about young girls. I can’t put my music before my integrity and what it makes me feel. I also think about what it says to other people — what does it say to other survivors to hear me say, “Well, I don’t care.” I have to take that into consideration. And I think the same thing will happen with Diddy. People will decide if it is too much or too toxic. I think those of us who have read the legal documents will probably be like, “Oof.”

Diddy is very connected and a lot of his celebrity friends and peers — who have supported victims in the past — have been silent. Why do you think that is?

I have been labeled as this person who hates Black men, which couldn’t be furthest from the truth. I don’t like Black men who abuse people. I don’t like any person who abuses people. I don’t care who you are, how you identify. So I understand that. 

I feel like the fear is multilayered. I think people fear being ostracized. I think we get really protective about our folks. In a case like this with Diddy, if you’re in the industry though, he’s still powerful. There’s still tentacles. There’s people who are Diddy adjacent who may be watching and looking to see how people are moving. [What] if he comes through all of this clean and goes to Bali and then rebuilds?

If he wins in court, you and I know this whole scenario, and you and I know that Black people are so forgiving, so he will have a smudge on his name. He’ll have an asterisk next to his name. But we could be looking at three years from now — look, Russell Simmons is walking around. This is a serial situation and he’s managed to shift the narrative. I think about this all the time because so many people always send this stuff to me — MC Lyte was out in Bali with Russell Simmons; Jessica Care Moore, the poet, was out in Bali with Russell Simmons.

These are loved and respected and adored and revered Black women. Taraji [P. Henson] has been out to Bali with Russell Simmons, and he always posts these pictures. So what message does that send to the survivors? Black women back here who are like, “What about us? I thought you stood with Black women.” Not just his survivors, but other survivors who supported this, who are like, “Finally, somebody like Russell Simmons can be held accountable.” You don’t think that can happen to Diddy? Of course it can. 

I could certainly see a world where he wins his cases, settles all the civil suits, goes quiet, comes back with a monster album or produces some monster album, and does a couple of projects; spreads some money around to some good causes, rehabilitates this thing, and in 2027, it’s love, love, love, love, and it’s, “Oh, he paid his debt to society, y’all.” And I’m actually not opposed to a pathway back for anybody. The problem is when the pathway back excludes the people you harmed. 

I say this all the time: sexual violence happens on the spectrum, so accountability should happen on the spectrum. What most survivors [and] people who support this movement are looking for is accountability. You want us to support you and buy your products, and we made you those millions and millions of dollars, so there’s a level of accountability that says, “I took your trust in who I was supposed to be.”

And Diddy, in particular, set himself out as a role model for Black people. He’s like, “I love my people. I want y’all to vote. I want y’all to be good people. I want y’all to go to school. I want you to have businesses.” So you set yourself out as a role model, and you have destroyed that.

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