Russell Simmons Apologizes For ‘Harriet Tubman Sex Tape’

It turns out “comedy” does have limits, as Russell Simmons discovered when he allowed the outrageous “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” to be posted to his YouTube channel.

Simmons, founder of hip-hop label Def Jam, published a “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” parody to his “All Def Digital” YouTube channel Aug. 14. The disturbing video showed an actress playing Tubman, the historic former slave turned Underground Railroad pioneer, engaging in sex with her white slave master in front of a hidden camera.

As the video begins, Tubman (played by Shanna Malcolm) persuades a fellow slave to secretly record her sexual activity for blackmail by energetically whispering, “This our only chance to gain freedoms.” As her accomplice hid in the closet, Harriet’s “massa” strutted in the bedroom, exclaiming, “Harriet, I’ve never seen you be this frisky before.” Before their sex performance (screams and gasps included) Tubman teased, “Oh, massa, all these years I’ve been actin’ like I didn’t love our special time together. Tonight this all goin’ be different.”

The clip sparked outrage from critics such as Change.org, which called for an apology, arguing, “Rape is not a joke, nor is the sexual violation of African American women by enslavers a punchline.”

Simmons issued an apology Aug. 15 for the video, explaining on his Global Grind website:

In the whole history of Def Comedy Jam, I’ve never taken down a controversial comedian. When my buddies from the NAACP called and asked me to take down the Harriet Tubman video from the All Def Digital YouTube channel and apologize, I agreed.

I’m a very liberal person with thick skin. My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of actors said in the video, that 162 years later, there’s still tremendous injustice. And with Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master? I thought it was politically correct. Silly me. I can now understand why so many people are upset. I have taken down the video. Lastly, I would never condone violence against women in any form, and for all of those I offended, I am sincerely sorry.

During a Huffington Post Live conversation, guest panelists bashed Simmons’ apology. Ebony.com’s Jamilah Lemieux called his actions “a new line that’s been crossed,” while MediaMake Change founder Tara Conley and “The Intersection” host Jeff Johnson brushed off the apology saying they wanted to see “action” instead. HuffPo’s Marc Lamont Hill concluded, “It’s almost as if he was saying, ‘I’m going to apologize because you’re asking me to, but I actually don’t think I did anything wrong.’”

While now removed from Simmons’ YouTube, the clip is still available via an alternative channel.

Katie Yoder
Katie Yoder
Katie Yoder is Staff Writer, Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow in Culture at the Media Research Center