Culture

Women Speak Out Against The ‘Bill Cosby Of Indie Music’

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

Yasmine Kittles rarely goes on Twitter. But she woke up early on Tuesday morning and the first thing she saw was a series of tweets from Amber Coffman, of the band Dirty Projectors, describing how Life or Death PR founder and CEO Heathcliff Berru allegedly groped her at a bar.

“All of a sudden I was like — immediately, I didn’t even think twice — ‘I have to respond.’ I have to let her know she’s not alone,” Kittles, half of the electronic duo Tearist, said by phone. “Because that was my fear.”

Kittles had never gone public, really, with her experience. She says Berru had groped her, too — grabbed her butt, pulled her onto a couch, gripped her in a hug, and forced her to touch his penis — in 2011.

At first, Coffman didn’t identify Berru by name. But as soon as she did, Kittles said, “I was just like: That’s it. That’s it. Okay. Let’s fucking go.”

“I was very blunt, because I was like, I think I need to be,” she said. (She also clarified that she had the date wrong in her tweet; the incident occurred in May 2011.) “It was like a pretty quick thing. I thought: I’ll just say it. This horrible, gross thing, I’m just going to say it.”

Kittles’ voice turned out to be part of a chorus: Musicians and publicists came forward, alleging Berru had committed similar offenses against them, or against women they knew. On Tuesday, Life or Death announced that Berru would be stepping down as CEO, saying the company “has a zero tolerance policy for the type of conduct alleged in today’s on-line postings.” The next day, Berru released a statement of his own, via Billboard. He wrote that he was “deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel,” detailing a years-long “losing battle against drugs and alcohol” that he claims fueled his misconduct.

“I think, secretly, every woman that this happened to was waiting and hoping that someone would break the silence,” said Judy Silverman, owner of the PR firm Motormouthmedia. “I think they knew that there were others out there, but fear was very pervasive, and all of these women didn’t want the usual: To be called sluts and whores and they deserved it, or, it didn’t really happen. I think as soon as the floodgates opened, it hit. And it took a courageous voice from somebody that has a name in the music industry and is respected as a good person to open that door.”

It’s not just in the music industry, Silverman pointed out, that women are reluctant to come forward with these stories. “Women don’t want to lose their jobs, their reputation, they don’t want to litigate, they’ve been harmed and they think they can live with it and they’re going to move forward.”

Kittles wasn’t motivated by revenge, she said. “There was nothing about it that was like ‘I am out to get him.’ Never. Because it wasn’t about ‘getting’ anyone. It was about people not experiencing this. If I were 19 years old or something and this happened to me… I don’t know how I would be okay. I don’t know that I would think of music the same. I don’t know that I could, you know?”

Coffman had told Silverman about her experience years ago but, at the time, didn’t want to go public. (Coffman claims that her record label, Domino, banned Life or Death privately and refused to work with them; Domino has not refuted her statement.) “Three years later, it was getting pretty dark and deep, rumors and stories [about Berru] from all corners, including men,” Silverman said. “But men told the stories in a different way: ‘Oh, ha, ha, he’s just wasted.’ So she decided to tweet.”

Silverman saw Coffman’s first tweets, in which Berru wasn’t named, and sent Coffman a text: “I stand behind you, if you’re going to name him.”

“We were scared, overwhelmed,” said Silverman. “But these stories that came out since are heartbreaking and sickening and have pretty much kept me awake at night, for days.”

Silverman was in an uncomfortable spot when it came to talking about Berru: He was employed by her about five years ago for a 10-month period. His tenure, she said, “was fraught with a number of issues, and I had to legally take the steps to get him out of the company by warning him and writing him up for different infractions I could prove. And when I finally had what I needed, he was promptly fired.”

After firing him, Silverman said, “I did tell people to be extremely careful,” but “I couldn’t tell everyone that, because friendships in the industry are very small, you don’t want to immediately badmouth somebody that leaves your company because you just look bitter.” He went on the road; his reputation for bad behavior did not improve, but, by signing on with Odd Future as the collective was on the verge of exploding, his reputation as a publicist did.

“I think that really launched his entire career, and that really gave him a platform of cool,” said Silverman. “People were blown away by the rise and success of that, and out of that came Frank Ocean and a lot of other amazing artists. It really brought him the cool kid badge that he so desperately sought. But he always used that badge, in a way, to harm people.”

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CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

Silverman shared her concerns with “some people, and a lot of people chose to ignore me. I think, because, I look like a bitter ex-employer. He was suddenly a successful competitor, and I looked like I was trying to get people in the record industry to not hire him.”

Berru “had a reputation. It was like a sexual predator,” said Silverman. “How many people knew the true truth? A lot of women were out there, and told at least one or two friends… I think people knew things were wrong,” but the intel “wasn’t firsthand for so many people, so I think they felt not liable. My information came from the victim and because of that, I felt that I was in a really strong place to be supportive. It wasn’t, ‘I heard this about him.’ I heard it from the women he did it to.”

How does someone like Berru — a man who, according to allegations, is known to behave with women in ways that are inappropriate at best and violent at worst — go unpunished for so long?

“I think because of the inbred culture that I have coined ‘brotection,'” said Silverman. “People think it’s rock and roll, and rock and roll is a different space than the library or the post office… You just have people living like it’s 1979. There is an incredible amount of partying in this industry. It’s truly just part of the job: You’re going out at night to see music and there’s alcohol in the venue. So it’s sort of endemic to our industry. When you work in a desk job, in a much drier industry, you’re not with your colleagues at night, you’re not in a party atmosphere. It’s very similar to the movie industry, in that sense, which has had its fair share of scandal.”

In 2011, Kittles’ career was taking off. Tearist’s first full-length album, Living 2009-Present had just been released, and the band made the cover of L.A. Weekly, above stylized scrawl proclaiming the musicians “The Real Thing.” Berru, too, was on the rise: Still in his twenties and already doing media relations for Wu-Tang Clan and a few other acts, he convinced Odd Future to hire him as a publicist and strategized the buzz that helped the collective blow up.

“He was on a high,” Kittles said, and he was persistent, sending her news clippings to prove his worth as a PR guy. “It was really strange,” she said. “I’m not your mother.” He suggested they meet to talk about the music video for her song, “Disposition,” and then have a formal meeting.

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They went to a concert together, where — despite the reliance, in Berru’s public statement, on his addiction as the root of his misconduct — Kittles maintains that they were both sober. After the show, Kittles told Berru, multiple times, that she was tired and could email him the video. He insisted on coming into her house.

Kittles remembers being inside her home, standing in front of Berru, bending over after pressing play on “Disposition.” The video had already started when “he grabbed my butt. And I screamed and jumped and kind of laughed.”

“I had bent over, not even fully bent over,” she said. “But it wouldn’t even matter if I had fully bent to the fucking ground and touched my toes. That is not an invitation. There was never an invitation.”

“It was so insulting. It was so degrading,” she said, and the fact that the video was already playing amplified those feelings. “He had done it right over this thing that I care about the most. Not even that it was that video, but that it was what I do and what I care about, my life, this thing that is very vulnerable to me… All of a sudden I didn’t feel safe in my own house.”

The video finished. In a strained, high tone — “my ‘this is not cute’ voice” — Kittles said, again, that she was tired and was going to sleep. She walked to the door, turned around, “and he’s like, fucking on my couch, in the middle, arms out, like he pays rent here, like that is now where he is. He’s not leaving.”

Kittles was “trying to keep this light,” which was infuriating (“I’m trying to fucking protect you from embarrassment after you fucking did that shit to me?”) but also, she felt, necessary. “I’m scared and I need you to leave my house.” He told her he was “really proud” of her (Kittles, in her mind: “Really, because I needed your approval? Who the fuck are you?”) and then he told her that again, and then he said, “Come here, give me a hug.”

“Swear to God,” Kittles said by phone. “It felt like I was in an after school special, and my gross uncle just asked me to give him a hug.”

“I’m vulnerable. You have me at my house. You already made me feel small by grabbing me in that way,” she said. “And now you’re thinking that I need you or something? I don’t need to give you a fucking hug.”

She tried, politely, to decline. “And he grabbed my arm and he yanked me down to the couch,” she said. “I’m just sitting and I’m like, a little pissed, like, you just grabbed me?” He hugged her. “He was holding me really tight… It was going so long,” she said. “I just tried to pull out of it, and I couldn’t. He had a grip on my back, and he’s much bigger than me.” Kittles was facing the wall, she said, “And I’m noticing: Where is his other hand? It was really quick, he had kind of let go of me, grabbed my wrist, and just — his dick was just out. Fully out. And he had his, a grip on my wrist and was holding it onto his penis.”

“The first thing I did was scream. Just scream. Because, oh my God, what is about to happen? And it just felt like: I know that I have to accept that I am maybe going to be raped.”

On the phone, Kittles anticipated the why-did-you-why-didn’t-yous that seem to follow every sexual assault story: Why did you let him in your house in the first place? Why didn’t you fight back? Once he violated her, she said, violence on her part wasn’t an option. “If he was able to do these things — able to grab my butt and feel like he could, and then he does something more horrific, and then he’s not leaving — I’m not going to punch him in the face,” she said.

“When someone who can overpower you and just overpowered you feels like maybe their manhood is in question, it’s like, that is something that is very dangerous, and you don’t fuck with that. You do have to kind of just get them out the door, you know what I mean? Because I felt like it was two seconds from being raped. I genuinely felt that. In my head, I had already processed that that’s what’s going to happen next.”

“I yanked my arm, finally, and I jumped up and I was like, ‘You need to, umm, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ And I kept saying that: ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’ It was like regressing back to childhood… I could hear my voice, and it felt like a small voice, like the smallest voice, like I could hear it in my ears. Like I was in a tunnel.” She told him, “No, sorry, I just need you to…” And Berru said: “Sorry, you just look so sexy.”

“I’ve never heard someone say that in real life,” said Kittles. “That’s the thing you don’t say. ‘She was raped. Well, look at what you were wearing.'” Then, she said, he asked her if she wanted him to stay over.

“Who do you think you are?” Kittles said on the phone. “Someone who can get away with it all the fuck around the place is who you think you are. It’s so ridiculous. How does he think he can do that? Because he can. And he does.”

“It feels like the Bill Cosby of indie music coming out,” said Alec Koone. Koone is pretty disconnected from the music industry now. But when he was just starting out as a professional musician, performing as Balam Acab in 2011, Berru was his first manager. The two mostly communicated digitally — texts, emails, calls — and Berru was “friendly and charming,” Koone said by phone. “The only thing I knew about him was his artist roster.”

The first time the two met in person was in Chicago, when Koone was touring with one of his best female friends as a vocalist. “I’m not the type of person to just write someone off immediately, but that night, from the get-go, I felt paranoid about him,” Koone said. “He gave off a vibe. Being around him made me panic.”

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CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

Two nights later, at Koone’s San Francisco show, Berru “was getting pretty drunk” and “coming up to me all night, ‘Come on dude, let me have a go at [your friend], let me try to fuck her, let me try to hook up with her.’ And I was like, no. That is so messed up. You’re working for me. That’s so inappropriate.” That night, after Koone and his friend went back to their hotel, Berru started texting the vocalist directly: “Come to my hotel room, help me finish my minibar, I’ll pay for you to come over.”

Koone said he and his friend “kind of brushed it off and went to bed,” but right after that incident, “I fired him.” Over the past few days, Koone has revisited his email correspondence with Berru to make sure, and he’s sure: “That was what made me fire him.” His record label at the time dropped Berru as PR. “It’s unprofessional, and it’s creepy… It’s just really fucking sad.”

Koone “kind of disappeared” from the music business, and he “had no clue” that Berru’s misconduct “was this big, unknown secret.” When Koone logged onto Twitter the day the Berru story went viral, he realized, “It makes perfect sense. And it makes me so mad.” His first impulse was to tweet about it. “If you see something fucked up, say something. That’s definitely important. Make it known.”

Koone also saw Roxy Lange’s account in Brooklyn Magazine: She wrote that Berru sexually assaulted her in 2007, when she was 21 years old and had just moved to New York. “He kept trying to force me to give him a blowjob in a cab and wouldn’t stop pushing my head into his lap forcefully, with his pants unzipped and penis out in the open. After I got out of the cab, he followed me up three flights of stairs and forced his way into my apartment, attempting to force himself on me but he was luckily too drunk and coked up to get hard so he gave up. He then pissed himself and fell asleep in my bed while I laid there.”

When Koone read Lange’s story, “I thought: God, it seems exactly like the shit he would do.”

Even though both Life or Death and Berru’s public statements insist on a church-and-state divide between the company Berru founded and Berru’s alleged conduct, “I wouldn’t trust that whole PR company,” said Koone. The operation is inextricable from Berru, Koone said, at least based on Koone’s experience. “I like how the company is saying it ‘goes against their values.’ He was that company.” Koone also doubts that the other employees and artists on Life or Death’s roster were totally oblivious to the allegations against Berru until this week.

“I know people who this has happened to, ” he said. “And I go back and I think about that night, and what if the vocalist I was performing with thought it was just a friendly offer to hang out? What if something had happened that night?”

Kittles didn’t go to the police or file any charges. “I just wasn’t thinking like a person. I was in this fucking victim mode… You feel a range of emotions that are maybe irrational, and you don’t have thoughts like, ‘Oh the police exist.'” The thought of reporting only crossed her mind within the past few days, since Coffman’s tweet. At the time, she said, “It felt like: There’s no one I can go to. There’s no one.”

She didn’t go public at the time, not because she was afraid of damaging her career; she was already certain that she would never work with Berru, and wouldn’t need to, ever. But “I didn’t want to seem like I was making anything up, like I was trying to stir up any drama,” she said. They would run into each other at parties, and he would ask, “Are we cool?” Kittles would say, yeah, to get on with it. “I just wanted him far away.”

“I went into a depression,” Kittles said. “Paralyzed. That’s how I felt. I didn’t know how to get out of it. Because I didn’t expect it. Because I felt like I let everybody down.” She didn’t want “to do anything or go anywhere,” even though it was “a very important moment, all these great things happening at one time” with her career. “And then he just took it from me.”

In a weird way, she said, “I wanted it to be my fault, maybe, because then I can work on that. If it was something I had done, that’s something that I need to take care of. Something someone did to me, that’s a harder thing to deal with.”

“Now I’m questioning everything about myself, about who I am. Am I a liar because I’m supposed to be this powerful person, and people think I’m powerful, and this makes me weak because I couldn’t punch him? Or stand up for myself?”

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CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

She didn’t want to have to have a meeting about it, didn’t want anyone to ask her questions. But she saw her manager at a party. “I really, really struggled to tell him. I don’t think I was afraid of his response. I did feel confident that people around me would be so mad [at Berru].”

Kittles described what happened. She was crying. Her manager, she said, “looks at me in the face and is like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to get over that, aren’t we?'”

She waited for him to say something else, maybe that he’d failed at a terrible attempt at a joke. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he went on, “‘There are other people involved here. You invited him into your house.’ It was all this stuff, like it was on me, like I fucked up. How do you recover when people are like, ‘don’t be that girl.’ ‘You invited him up to your house, what do you expect?'”

“All my friends were friends with him,” she said, but no one had told her about his reputation before. When she told a male best friend about the assault, he said, “Everybody knows that. That’s kind of his thing.”

“That was the common thing: ‘Everybody knows he’s like that.’ Those words were repeated. ‘That’s how he is,'” said Kittles. “And that’s your friend? And you’re my friend?” The men in her life mostly put it on her: Well, do you want me to stop hanging out with him? What do you want me to do? “It was a tonal change I had never heard.”

Koone emphasized that, as a man, “I generally feel like my role on issues like this is more of a listen, learn, and adapt behaviors.” He was disgusted by the men Kittles described, and their apathy toward her experience. “I feel like it’s fucked up to even ask, ‘Should I not be friends with this person?’ That’s a given. Don’t be friends with them. Don’t work with them. Punch them in the face.”

The day before our interview, Kittles reminded her male friend of their conversation. He didn’t remember it at all. “And I was like, ‘I remember exactly where we were standing.'”

“I was just thinking about how many people came after me, you know?” Kittles said. “When he got more clients. He was just kind of blowing up at that moment. There were more clients. [That’s why] we have to communicate. We have to protect each other.”

That’s why, she said, “the focus needs to shift. Because it’s not about him.”

Sexual harassment and violence against women, she said, “is in the industry, so much. That all needs to come out.” She recalled wishing, in the aftermath of her assault, that music had some all-powerful governing body, “the boss of music,” to whom she could appeal. And, in a roundabout way, there is — or, at least, there are, decision-makers and power-players who could choose to hold individuals who commit these kind of crimes accountable within the industry, simply by refusing to work with them, even if they are never made to face consequences through the justice system.

Berru’s case, and others like it, is about “a beef with power,” said Koone. “It’s someone in power, they’re going to abuse it. Ideally, they wouldn’t abuse it. But I mean, it’s not surprising.”

It might seem, from the outside, like the artist is the one with all the power. But for a musician trying to break in, there’s a vast apparatus of people upon whom an artist relies in order to have a career. “That’s how I felt,” said Koone. “I was a new artist in the indie music club, and it’s like, you hire this person to work for you as your manager, but really, are they working for you or are you working for them? And I came to the conclusion that, as an up-and-coming indie artist, most of the time, you’re working for the industry people.”

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CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

“I think now that men in the industry know the extent of this, they’re scared,” said Silverman. In the wake of the Berru scandal, “Two major music companies did have meetings about sexual harassment, that I know of, and I’m sure many will in the days to come.” While, in the pre-internet age, it might have been easier to keep misconduct like Berru’s under wraps, “You know exactly what the viral nature of an accusation is now,” said Silverman. “You Google someone’s name and they’re forever cached as whatever bad things they did… I do think people will question working with people with these reputations, for fear of massive scandal.”

Those two desires — the altruistic goal of weeding out predators and the pragmatic, cover-your-ass impulse to avoid liability — is driving an effort to “work on change,” said Silverman. “Any woman in the world in any sexual harassment or rape case has gone through these issues. But now I think it’s specifically the music industry’s term. This is our first major case.” (That is in the independent scene: pop star Kesha is currently embroiled in a case against producer Dr. Luke, who she alleges abused her for years and with whom she is still contractually obligated to work.)

“I’d like to be optimistic and say this is a big wake-up call for a lot of people, good people and bad people, both pretty equally,” said Silverman. But “I also believe that this problem is endemic throughout society,” and progress will be slow.

That said, “social media has enabled people to speak out in force,” Silverman said, particularly people who have been wary to speak out through other means. “I think that change is very slow-coming, and expanding this conversation is a step in the right direction… My motto is: It better get better.”

Kittles agreed. Victims “need to keep talking. Because it shouldn’t be that we’re afraid to speak. They should be afraid to speak, because they should know that we will speak out. Why are we afraid when you are the one violating us and doing horrible things to us? And we have to be afraid — for what?”

Kittles said she feels “a change” in the culture — in the overwhelmingly supportive way people in her life, and even strangers on the internet, have responded to her story — and “a change in myself.”

“Being victimized is fucking difficult. And it’s extremely difficult to speak out about it,” said Kittles. “But when you know that your’e going to be okay and it does not matter if someone says something shitty, at least you said it. At least somebody might see it and they won’t get hurt. You’re affecting change. Just like in our art. That affects people. Us talking about what happened to us affects people. Like, maybe saves their life. It’s the most important thing that is going to fucking happen.”