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What the abuse lawsuit against Diddy, one of hip-hop's most powerful men, means

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 26: Sean "Diddy" Combs attends Day 1 of 2023 Invest Fest at Georgia World Congress Center on August 26, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.
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ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 26: Sean "Diddy" Combs attends Day 1 of 2023 Invest Fest at Georgia World Congress Center on August 26, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sean "Diddy" Combs, the hip-hop executive known widely as the head of Bad Boy Records, has been accused of years of abuse by R&B singer Cassie Ventura, including emotional and physical abuse, human trafficking, rape and more in a new lawsuit filed against him.

"With the expiration of New York's Adult Survivors Act fast approaching it became clear that this was an opportunity to speak up about the trauma I have experienced and that I will be recovering from for the rest of my life," Ventura said in a statement to The New York Times.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of New York Courts on Thursday, details decades of manipulation, intimidation and coercion that Ventura endured at the hands of the hip-hop mogul, both as a boss and romantic partner. According to the suit, Combs often "punched, beat, kicked and stomped on Ms. Ventura," forced her to engage in sexual acts with male sex workers while he masturbated and filmed the encounters, coerced her into taking drugs and into procuring drugs for him, forced her to carry his firearm and would violently retaliate any time someone would try to intervene in the relationship.

Combs and Ventura began working together in 2005 when Ventura's first label, NextSelection, run by producer and artist Ryan Leslie, partnered with Bad Boy to release her self-titled debut album. It was the only album she released on the label and spawned 2006 hits "Me & U" and "Long Way 2 Go."

According to the filing, Combs exerted this level of control over Ventura's life from the very beginning of their relationship. He took hold of medical records from an MRI that showed she suffered memory loss and would frequently delete photo evidence of her bruises. Toward the end of their relationship in 2018, the suit states Combs raped Ventura in her own home.

Ventura filed this suit under New York's Adult Survivors Act, a recently passed bill that opened up a one-year look-back window allowing adult survivors whose statute of limitations have expired the ability to file a civil case against their accused offender. (Former record executive Drew Dixon also recently filed a civil suit under the same act against her former boss, record exec L.A. Reid.) The window to file is set to expire next week, on Nov. 24, and with this filing, Ventura is seeking an undisclosed amount of damages.

Michael Polenberg, Vice President of Government Affairs for victims assistance organization Safe Horizon, characterizes the Adult Survivor Acts as "a statement of understanding, in a more profound way, the way trauma can affect a survivor and why someone might not come forward right away to report an incident of abuse. Sometimes people don't fully process what happens to them until months or years or even decades later."

Victim services organizations like Safe Horizon advocated for the passing of the bill since it was first drafted in 2019, believing it fills a void in the judicial system's treatment of survivorship.

When speaking to the one-year window, a short and finite period for survivors to come forward, Polenberg notes that the bill's passing meant there could be opportunities to expand the scope in the future, but acknowledged the strategy of working toward wins in the present: "It's always a balance of the perfect and what you think you can get done."

In a statement, Combs has denied the allegations. He is now the latest on a growing list of music moguls accused of sexual misconduct, a list that includes the Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons. But of the many accused offenders in the hip-hop space in recent years, Combs may be the most active and the most prominent.

Since founding Bad Boy in 1993, Combs has shaped the careers of iconic hip-hop and R&B acts like The Notorious B.I.G., Foxy Brown, Mase and Mary J. Blige. At the turn of the century, Combs, who at various points has gone by Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and Love, transitioned from music executive to corporate executive. Having aided greatly in the commercialization of rap, he branched out into fashion, lifestyle, culinary and reality TV spaces. Brands like Sean John Clothing and shows like Making The Band cemented Combs as not only an industry name but a recognizable personality. He set the tone for hip-hop's upper echelon: From his illustrious and extravagant Hamptons white parties to photogenic antics on Met Gala red carpets, Combs has come to be known as a pillar of success, a representative of hip-hop's potential to reach new capitalist heights. Up until very recently, he was considered the richest man in rap, thanks to lucrative deals with Ciroc Vodka and the expansion of his media platform, Revolt Media. As of today, Combs is on the short list of hip-hop billionaires.

Combs also remains an active artist. In September, he released his first solo album in over 15 years, The Love Album: Off The Grid, which recently received a Grammy nomination. Last year, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from BET.

Ventura's suit demonstrates how wealthy and influential men leverage their positions to abuse and restrict their victims. It alleges that the people who work for Combs not only concealed his behavior but helped him control her. As Louder Than A Riot reported, the rampant mistreatment of women in the hip-hop industry has been normalized by peers who refuse to hold them accountable, and the deafening silence has led to a toxic culture that enables powerful men.

Some of the women who were once signed to Bad Boy have since voiced support for Ventura. Dawn Richard tweeted, "praying for Cassie and her family, for peace and healing. you are beautiful and brave." Richard's former groupmates, Aubrey O'Day and D. Woods, of the Making the Band-winning Danity Kane, called for greater transparency. "I am in full support of Cassie. It isn't easy to take on one of the most powerful people in this industry and be honest about your experience with them," O'Day told Entertainment Tonight. "May her voice bring all the others to the table, so we can start having more transparent conversations about what is actually happening behind the scenes. There is a lot more to all of our stories!"

Ventura's lawsuit has once again ignited the public desire to see a greater reckoning around sexual assault in the rap community. Activist Tarana Burke told Louder that hip-hop was left out of the MeToo movement in 2017, not simply because of denial, obfuscation and apathy, but because there is a feeling among Black men that admitting such abuse and engaging with the justice system to hold offenders accountable is an inherent betrayal, given the racist roots of that system.

"No matter what we do, you have some way in which men will silence [us], will not recognize we have these moments where we get diminished. And you're going to have people who will excoriate me. They'll be like, 'You just want to take down our men'," Burke explained. "If we love hip-hop, accountability is a part of love ... If we really love hip-hop, then we would hold ourselves accountable. We would hold it accountable. Those two things can happen at the same time."

"We need the men," the rapper Latto told Louder Than A Riot reporters. "We need them to call these n****s out when they do some lame s***. That might be your partner. Y'all might be from the same hood. Y'all might got a mixtape together or a feature, whatever. But we need them to speak up for us, because the s*** these n****s be doing and getting away with publicly and nobody speaks up, that's foul. We all have to work together to rewrite that."

In this troubling reality, we have also seen a malicious pattern play out, where corroboration from men holds more sway than the female victims' accusation. In the case where Tory Lanez was found guilty of shooting Megan Thee Stallion in 2022, many still did not believe Megan until guilt-stricken jail calls of Lanez surfaced. In this lawsuit, one claim from the complaint seems to be gaining more traction than the others: a 2012 incident in which Combs allegedly threatened to blow up the car of Ventura's then-boyfriend, the rapper Kid Cudi, and his car exploded in his driveway shortly thereafter. This is, in part, because Cudi backed up Ventura's assertion. It is important for men to stand with women, and to speak up in support of their claims, but it is even more important to let the word of the survivor hold its own weight.

The suit being brought forth feels like a potential beacon for those survivors, a way to let them know they are being heard and action is coming. A case of this stature, taking on a man this visible and powerful, could set off a chain reaction that reverberates throughout the community and leads to the accountability movement in hip-hop that many have been waiting for.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Sheldon Pearce