Inside the #BoycottRhymesayers movement

Rhymesayers Entertainment

Rhymesayers Entertainment

Back in June, stories of abuse and misogyny revealed patterns of predatory behavior in the Twin Cities music scene.

At the center of that moment of reckoning was Rhymesayers, the beloved Minneapolis hip-hop label responsible for Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and the Soundset Music Festival.

“The reports of abuse that have come to light this past week are not things that we’ve ever tacitly condoned or were previously aware of,” the label said in a statement that announced it would drop two of its stars, rappers Prof and Dem Atlas, the subjects of multiple online allegations. Prof was criticized for misogynistic lyrics and tweets, as well as his association with alleged abuser DJ Fundo; Dem Atlas was accused of physical assault.

For many fans and artists, those words rang hollow. And so the #BoycottRhymesayers hashtag began appearing on Twitter, signaling a movement that can be traced back to a 2015 interview with Psalm One. The label’s only woman signee at the time, Psalm (born Cristalle Bowen) called out Rhymesayers for what she viewed as sexist treatment, describing a toxic, exclusionary boys’ club. (The post began circulating again this summer..

Five years later, Psalm One feels validated for speaking out against one of the world’s most popular indie record labels. And she’s not alone.

“People finally believe my story,” she tells us. “Other folks are speaking out about the culture of abuse surrounding not only Rhymesayers, but music at large.”

Below, you’ll find an update on Psalm’s story, plus four other voices behind the #BoycottRhymesayers movement and a response from Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, the label’s CEO.

Psalm One
Musician, songwriter, educator

On the reaction to her 2015 call-out of Rhymesayers

I was dragged in the court of public opinion, much like the survivors who’ve been brave enough to speak up about their alleged trauma by artists within RSE have been dragged. It’s much bigger than me now. It’s shameful how City Pages and other media allowed the narrative to fly that Rhymesayers was above the kind of criticism I still have for them. I am stronger than I was in 2015, and there is a great difference in climate now.

On what inspired the Boycott Rhymesayers movement

I experienced backlash from RSE stans firsthand in 2015 and it almost broke me. I was silenced for many years while I picked up the pieces of my life. But after the accounts of survivors regarding alleged abuse by artists including (but not limited to) DJ Fundo, Prof, Grieves, Dem Atlas, and P.O.S, fans demanded answers. After extremely weak and generic statements from RSE, Atmosphere, and many of the alleged abusers in question, I felt compelled to stand with these survivors. And to be quite frank, it took white women speaking up against their abusers for the general public to circle back around to what I was saying. It’s bittersweet, but validating.

On criticisms of Rhymesayers within the Boycott Rhymesayers movement

That they’ve harvested a culture of abuse, from enabling to enacting. From grooming to alleged sexual abuse of “groupies” and partners to simply looking the other way. Sex, drugs, and hip-hop. There are also racist implications regarding the identity and makeup of RSE’s flagship artists, but that’s a story for another interview. All of this is harmful. A lot of the criticisms are indicative of the misogyny, homophobia, and racism in hip-hop and in society at large. I will continue to say this isn’t just a Rhymesayers issue. It’s much bigger than them.

But when our hometown heroes abuse their power and station within the hip-hop community, it’s up to us to speak up. We want to be SAFE in our venues. Artists want to feel SAFE signing deals or going on tour. We want our faves who preach love and feminism and family and kindness and all the good stuff to actually practice what they preach. What kind of example are we setting for the next generation of fans? And on the artist side, what kind of example are we setting for queer, trans, and BIPOC artists? We want a safer music community. Period.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the misogyny, elitism, superiority complexes, and sheer ego of some of the artists are, at best, problematic. At worst, they are life-damaging. There are many allegations surrounding more than a few of their artists and while there is always room for doubt, where there’s smoke there’s fire.

I endured professional abuse and the kind of misogyny and homophobia I’ve learned to live with from RSE. They had power, and I didn’t. And in the public eye, I was made to look problematic and difficult to work with. That’s a lie. I was mishandled as an artist, plain and simple. I was called a homophobic slur, plain and simple. When I signed, there was a running joke in the front office about how I couldn’t sue them for any type of harassment because “it’s hip-hop” and I’m a woman (Sayers denies ever saying or hearing this). How young and impressionable I was to not see that as a gigantic red flag...

And now, the alleged stories from survivors are varied and awful and on par with any boys club. But how much longer will we look the other way? How long can we separate the art from the artist? Or separate the label from the shine they’ve brought to the Twin Cities? How many survivors are there? People find abuse problematic. Abuse by the powers that be is problematic, in every corner of our society, and people are fed up. That’s not very hard to understand.

On how the label could satisfy its critics

We seek to devalue not only RSE but all problematic, abusive artists and companies. The hashtag has trended and will continue to trend. We have a petition with over 900 signatures of people wanting to ensure a safer Twin Cities music community. It starts locally, then we expand. I felt very alone in 2015. Any public support beyond Psalm One is a victory.

They can just… stop for a while. Maybe forever. As a label, they can stop putting out projects, stop doing shows after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and let the artists who are innocent leave without legal or professional retribution. The accused and the label at large can donate earnings from their music streams to survivors and have a chance to reform as individuals, but they should stop being active in the community while we make it safer for everyone. Rhymesayers can be devalued and accept it. They can be sorry, and truly show it by centering survivors in tangible ways.

Since we’re drowning in hyper-capitalism, a tangible way to show remorse is by a redistribution of funds to directly help the people they’ve harmed. I have been in conversation with community leaders about what more can be done, but this would be a good start.

Carey Vosler
Survivor, social justice advocate, writer

On her experience with Rhymesayers

My experience is with Ben Laub, Grieves, who I think was signed to Rhymesayers in 2009. I met him in 2007 and we were involved with each other until 2012. I thought I had moved past all the shame and confusion those years caused in me, but after seeing Ben’s statement about DJ Fundo online, I felt everything come back up like bile in my throat. One of Ben’s close friends who had worked for Rhymesayers for many years sent me a text and said that Ben was afraid of my stories coming out. Never, until that moment, had anyone ever confirmed to me that they knew what had happened to me wasn’t right. Reading that text felt like my brain snapped in half--or maybe it snapped back together.

A while later, this friend referred to Ben as “his brother.” The direct language that was used was “I don’t have siblings and Ben is someone who has felt like a brother.” I have since seen multiple artists release statements referring to other artists on the label as their “brother.” Rhymesayers has created and profited from a culture of complicity where it’s known that speaking up and actually holding men accountable for their behavior will result in estrangement from the “family.” All these years I thought I was crazy and broken and worthless because I was made to feel that way by this brotherhood.

On accountability and Rhymesayers

When stories of abuse are dismissed or silenced, it not only allows the behavior to continue but it also communicates to others that these types of behaviors have no repercussions. I didn’t share my story because I didn’t know how, I was afraid no one would believe me, and I was ashamed and embarrassed. Many people involved with Rhymesayers saw how I was treated for a long time so I reasoned that if it was really as bad as it felt, someone would have stepped in, spoken up in my defense, or even had a private conversation with me—especially those I considered my friend.

I decided that what happened was my fault and a reflection of me, my character, and my worthiness. Imagine my frustration and shock when 10 years later I found out the same things have been continuing to happen and there are people all over the city with stories like mine. Because, as it turns out, what happened to me actually had nothing to do with me at all. It’s a manifestation of the untouchable toxic masculinity Rhymesayers encourages and perpetuates. If Rhymesayers sincerely cared about accountability, there would not be three generations of people in this city with stories about how artists on the label have hurt them and experienced no significant consequences.

On why she’s speaking out

I’m sharing my story because there are consequences to these types of behaviors and I deal with them every day. From the outside, maybe I seem like I’ve grown into a successful woman in her 30s who has a good job and a pretty apartment. I think the outer image of me is significantly different than the inner experience I have of myself. I imagine it must be soothing for anyone who has hurt me or knows someone who has hurt me to see these external markers of success and use them to reassure themselves that I turned out okay. Some days, it seems like the public needs there to be a victim who is battered and bruised and completely incapacitated by crippling self-doubt and pain in order to believe that abuse or misogyny has occurred or had a lasting impact, but that’s not the case.

I am a fully functioning and impressive young woman but I am also a survivor of many types of abuse who struggles every day with feeling safe in my relationships, my body, and my city. I invest a lot of time and money toward healing and grounding myself so I can show up for myself and others like me. I know now that this story is not my own and I want other people who have experienced this to know that they’re not alone.

Angel Davanport 
Artist, survivor

On cultures of abuse

As an artist in 2020, I’ve found myself witnessing more and more the long-lasting effects of rape culture and intimate partner violence, as well as financial abuse in the workplace. I’ve given my time, energy, resources, and money to women who’ve been directly affected by what seems to be an open secret. I wasn’t safe when I began in 2013 and women, especially Black and Black queer women, aren’t safe today. “Successful” musicians are already treated damn near above the law, and in a smaller city, bigger artists are treated like gods. It’s as if they can do no wrong. Many people get discarded and abused by their favorite artists, then thrown away by the very scene they fell in love with.

As a survivor, a creator, and an advocate for all women, I know the problems within Rhymesayers are part of an ongoing, serious and widespread problem in the music industry. Physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, and financial abuse happen all too often; so does stalking both online and off. I saw Psalm One deal with the pressure of speaking out against the abuse of Rhymesayers for years. I’ve seen the psychological and professional trauma she’s had to endure for speaking her truth. Survivors in the Twin Cities are facing the same ridicule, but they know their truths, and thankfully they’re speaking up regardless.

On healing

I’m currently holding space with survivors of abuse in the Twin Cities on a weekly basis and sadly, many of their stories are the same. The harm and trauma is ongoing. The therapy bill grows. The healing never stops. Survivors may seem to get through it or “over it,” but it lingers. Many survivors aren’t as fortunate. Many survivors are afraid, because the harm is very real. The effects are everlasting.

On accountability and Rhymesayers

I want to know what true accountability looks like moving forward. It’s nice to see releases from unproblematic artists, but is Sa Roc supposed to carry the entire label’s transgressions during her release? That’s not fair to her. What are we doing to prevent this from happening again? Because statements are nice but they’re just words. They said they were creating a new set of standards moving forward and cutting ties with artists who wouldn’t adhere to said new standards. What about all of the past allegations? The ones that went largely ignored until now. What about the culture of abuse that allowed these perversions to go unchecked in the first place? How do we honor and keep safe the women who’ve already been brave enough to speak? The ones who get berated and bullied online and have been shunned by the community at large? The ones with permanent emotional and psychological damage? How do we take care of them in all this? How do we protect future generations?

Rhymesayers says they’re going to do some things... cool. Actions speak louder than words. Had these words been put into practice long before a public outcry, we might not be here. I’d still be doing the work of making the community safer—Rhymesayers just might not have been a target.

Zola Richardson
Artist, activist

On survivors speaking out

When survivors of abuse came out, we anticipated retaliation from our abusers. Gaslighting has always been rampant in the Minneapolis creative scene. When people with power, clout, a general disposition of charm and wherewithal are called on to reckon with their harmful behavior, the sentiments that follow are often, “This is all untrue,” “I never did those things,” “She was obsessed with me,” and the motif used as frequently as toilet paper, the one reeking of misogyny and vitriol: “She is crazy.” These narratives, as inept as they sound, are often believed, especially when they come out of the mouths of our idols.

On her experience

As we continue to share our truths and experiences regarding Rhymesayers artists and beyond, many of us have been navigating long-term, insidious abuse paired with long-lasting trauma. My story, like many, started with going to a show.

I was raised by a woman who survived extreme violence, both physical and psychological, at the hands of men. For her, it started in her early teens and continued for decades. Very early on she was transparent with me about what she survived. It was important for her to tell me, her child, what to expect from men and masculinity. That the likelihood of me navigating similar plights is one in four. So, when the flags started frantically waving, and I found myself being abused by a person with power, clout, and community wealth, it was not only important for me to say something, I felt obligated to.

It is not wrong for a young person to be impressed with someone who is successful. What’s wrong is if and when the abuse starts, the abuser leverages their success to silence you. It is wrong when successful abusers leverage their relationships and platform to “beat you to the punch.” Historically, it has been easier to share moments when my physical autonomy has been ripped from me. Those who have sexually and physically assaulted me have left visible wounds. We need a more cohesive lens when it comes to psychological and emotional violence. People want a tangible thing to grasp on to, often leaving survivors of gaslighting, manipulation, coercion, and so on, to further rip ourselves open in order to be believed.

Since the moment I spoke out, at the raw age of 23, my abuser has spent eight consecutive years continuing his rampage of harm against me. This has often included weaponizing our shared community in an attempt to isolate and ostracize me. This happens too frequently.

On why she supports boycotting Rhymesayers

I believe that in the face of terror, we should not bow to it or simply philosophize through it. We must believe survivors and fight to protect all women and femmes, especially those most marginalized. Sometimes, it isn’t enough to just speak. Sometimes, we need to boycott an entire label. There should be a resounding uproar when institutions profit from spoon feeding, even unknowingly or inadvertently, rape culture to the masses, thus destroying valuable and sacred lives.

The ask is that Rhymesayers does more than make generic statements. The ask is that Rhymesayers acknowledge their many transgressions, both public and private. There is no more going back to business as usual after being exposed. Until they acknowledge survivors and concretely give back to a community they have historically harmed, we can boycott. Stop streaming their music. Don’t buy their merch. Don’t go to their shows. And believe survivors. It’s simply the right thing to do, and it helps protect our abundant and vital music community. One that we all deserve to exist in safely.

Christin Crabtree 
Survivor, advocate

On why she’s speaking out

I believe in accountability rooted in honesty and love. I also believe survivors should not have to rake ourselves over the coals in a public display of vulnerability in order to be seen, believed, or heard. Due to the trauma I have experienced, the proximity I have had to both victim-survivors and to people who have used abuse in the Minneapolis music scene, and for my own agency, I am choosing to open up about my own life as a survivor.

I believe that it is a radical act of healing to share our truth when it has long been denied, to speak when we have been conditioned to silence. It is an act of love to share our stories. I do not share because I want attention or to be seen as a victim; as a matter of fact I have hesitated to come forward for those reasons. I choose to share my story because it has value, because as a young woman, if I had read a story that sounded like mine, I would have known I was not alone. When I honor myself and those who might find me in this work, I am standing in my power. I am not defined by the trauma I experienced; my power is in the resilience that I possess.

On her relationship with former Rhymesayers artist P.O.S, another recent subject of online allegations

As a teen I fell into an unhealthy attachment with a profoundly charismatic, magnetic person who was coping with levels of generational trauma similar to mine, and also with the racial trauma that is part of being a Black man living in the United States. Our relationship reflected each of our pasts. When I was 18 I became pregnant with our child. Our romantic relationship eventually ended, and our lifelong co-parenting/friendship took its place. When our child was two, their father, Stef (P.O.S), started a rap crew with some friends: Doomtree.

My relationship with Stef continued to be impacted by the patterns of behavior we each learned young. Trauma that is not transformed is transmitted. Old patterns showed up in our relationship in a myriad of ways. It took me many years to see clearly the ways in which I was repeating behavioral patterns ingrained upon me from my relationship with my father, and where Stef was likely doing the same. Yet, Stef also possesses many wonderful qualities. He can be sensitive and protective. This is to say: People who use abusive behaviors are not demons. They are our brothers, friends, and lovers. They are us.

On her personal experiences this summer

As survivors were coming forward this summer about artists using abuse in the Minneapolis music scene, several local rappers and labels reached out to me to help them write statements. As I set boundaries with each, they began to disappear. Many of these folks know that I’m a survivor, but I do not think that they understood the depth of what they were asking of me at the time. During this time, memories resurfaced, I began to rethink my relationships, and question my own reality. My PTSD became so triggered that I didn’t eat or sleep for over two weeks. I felt incredibly violated in every space of my life.

While these men were asking for my help with statements, I was simultaneously receiving calls from survivors looking for help—multiple a day. As survivors continued to come forward, the intensity increased. I was named as a rape survivor without my consent using my full first and last name on a Zoom call that was recorded. The call was then put on Facebook publicly by a man I do not personally know. Harmful and false rumors were perpetuated, I received threats, and I began to fear for my safety. I began getting calls from the press. For over a month, every day something new would transpire that added to the feeling of victimization. Sometimes at the hands of the people who say they are centering survivors. Sometimes at the hands of trolls online and scary calls from strange numbers.

My children watched their family pain play out online like a reality TV show. Learning new information about family history and generational trauma. Being exposed to things that I would have rather had developmentally appropriate conversations about as a family. Today, when we listen
to the radio, my 12-year-old asks me as each new song comes on, “Are there allegations against this artist too?”

On what needs to happen now

With the sheer magnitude of people who have come forward, I affirm that we are well past “did it happen” and are onto “what are we going to do.” A label cannot simply cut an artist from a roster and call it a day. Doing so releases people who have used abuse to continue perpetuating harm in a different community, rather than holding them accountable. Doing so dismisses the lifelong healing that rests on the shoulders of survivors, minimizes our pain, and does nothing to validate our experiences. It allows our larger community to separate themselves from survivors, rather than interrogating the ways in which they have contributed to an atmosphere that allowed for abuse to be acceptable behavior.

Calling for a boycott of folx with a platform who have engaged in or benefited from abuse and gatekeeping addresses the power structures that exist which have normalized, enabled, and perpetuated the use of abuse. Holding people accountable is an act of love. It is a recognition of the agency of those who have caused harm to do better. It is choosing healing over enabling abuse; choosing well-being over comfort. When we put them on pause, they are being given a choice: They can choose to do the work of accountability, required reflection, and self-interrogation that is needed in order for our community to begin to heal, or they can choose not to, in which case we will continue to invest time energy and dollars in other spaces.

I invite you to stand with us.

Brent "Siddiq" Sayers
CEO of Rhymesayers

On his reaction to seeing the #BoycottRhymesayers hashtag

“We’re really focused on doing the work. We’re focused on looking inward first, and going, ‘What are these situations? How can we be better? Where are the spaces where we can improve what we’re doing?’ That’s our real focus.”

“I see what’s happening, of course, and I think that the picture is so much bigger,” adds Rhymesayers artist Nikki Jean, who Sayers brought on the call with City Pages. “It’s easy to focus in on where we are, but what’s exciting to me is that change is happening on such a grand scale. There’s a moment now that women across the country are saying, “OK, what do we really want to see from hip-hop?”

On Psalm One’s saying she was silenced after her 2015 interview

“Psalm hasn’t been signed to us since 2008 or 2009,” Sayers says. “I’d like to think everybody is pretty familiar with how record labels and record deals work. She was signed to us, we did work with and for her, and for multiple reasons we decided it wasn’t working. That’s a conversation I’ve had to have with lots of artists. [Her criticisms] have never been expressed to anyone at our label until the 2015 statements she made.”

“When she publicly spoke out and said I was mistreated… I’m on the outside of this looking in,” Jean says. “I think from my perspective, as an artist with a decade-long career in the industry, if what they’re doing is not enough, when they have no contractual obligation to you, and they’ve been trying to be solid, like why would that continue when you’re so clearly dissatisfied?”

On allegations of a culture of abuse and grooming groupies

“I’m not quite sure how or where that would come from,” Sayers says. “We’ve seen these acccusations just like everyone else, and I think in our initial statement we laid out our feeling about it and our immediate reaction to that was to look at everything, take everything into consideration, make sound and responsible decisions behind that, and then move towards work that we can ensure things don’t happen. We’re not existing on a day-to-day basis sitting right next to each and every one of our artists. We’re a label that works with over a couple dozen artists. It’s kind of hard for anyone to think we’re… we don’t have access to every one of our artists’ personal lives. We did have higher expectations of our artists than some of the things we’re seeing. We want to make sure they’re aware and accountable. We want to have an environment where people are treated with respect and dignity.”

“We’re zoomed in on Rhymesayers, and I get that, but I guess my perspective from having been so many places, is we’re not contextualizing this at all,” Jean says. “The power dynamic between an artist and the people that love them and the communities that form around them, that’s a dynamic that exists all over the country and all over the world. Are there harmful things to that dynamic? Absolutely. Are they worse here than anywhere else? That’s not been my experience.”