The Shattering Of Idols: On Afrika Bambaataa and Viral Allegations

Molly Lambert on how justice and scandal unfold through social media

"I want him to know how much he damaged me growing up," Ronald Savage told the New York Daily News in an interview April 9. "I was just a child. Why did he take my innocence away? Why did he do this to me?" The "he" in question is Kevin Donovan, better known as Afrika Bambaataa, godfather of rap and Bronx cultural icon, whom Savage has accused of molesting him when Savage was a teenager. Savage is promoting a memoir called Impulse, Urges and Fantasies, in which he speaks for the first time about the alleged 1980 abuse incidents. Savage aims to challenge the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases in New York, which makes it impossible for adults over the age of 23 to file charges belatedly. Savage says that shame kept him from speaking out earlier about what he alleges was a string of at least five incidents. He was 15 in 1980 when he says that then-23-year-old Bambaataa abused him sexually. Bambaataa issued an initial denial via his lawyer, calling Savage "a lesser-known person seeking publicity."

Now 50 years old, Savage says he is telling his story not to extort Bambaataa or tarnish his legacy but to gain emotional healing for himself, having lived with his secret for 36 years and experienced years of suicidal thoughts and intimacy issues as a direct result. Savage seeks some acknowledgement of the pain he was put through, to come to terms with an event he's spent his adult life keeping quiet on. Watching the video of Ronald Savage crying as he details the allegations is heartbreaking.

The Universal Zulu Nation put out a press release through their website that began, "Once again rumors, slander and outright lies have been aimed at Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation. First of all this attack not only is defamation and assassination of character it is a diversion and attention shift tactic designed to counter all the positive works of the Universal Zulu Nation." This story is tragic on all levels. Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation crew are heroes in their community and worldwide for their pioneering contributions to hip-hop. Bambaataa has long been grandfathered in as a legend, but his legacy is still being written, and nobody wants to think of their heroes as villains. If the abuse charges are true, it changes nothing about Bambaataa's musical legacy — his influence and talents as a DJ and organizer are not up for debate. But it complicates the story of Bambaataa, which had heretofore been one of nothing but positivity and good.

Donovan's origin story is inspirational — he rose out of the Bronx River Houses, became a successful gang leader, then won an essay contest for a trip to Africa that changed his life — after which he changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa and disavowed violence forever, turning to music and DJing. His Kraftwerk-sampling "Planet Rock" is a holy tablet of music, and Bambataa was pivotal in building Afrofuturism into the burgeoning hip-hop culture. In Hollywood, several famous directors like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Bryan Singer have been accused of sexual abuse and continued to have successful careers afterward, relatively unaffected by the serious allegations against them. Bamabaataa's position is more tenuous, because he makes a living on his reputation as a legendary musician, and because he is not protected financially or insulated from the backlash in the way that rich white male film directors are.

It's impossible to reconcile the image of the Bambaataa who travels the world fighting for the rights of indigenous communities, the spiritually elevated people's champion, with the idea of him as a predator. But the disbelief of something one does not want to be true often turns into a denial of the victim's claim. In olden days, an accuser could take their story to a tabloid like The National Enquirer, which would be willing to publish it. Today, social media has become the place where accusers can have a voice as loud as their more famous abusers. Enough well-flung online pebbles — Facebook shares, Vine loops, tweets — can fell even the most famous Goliath. The virality of the clip of Hannibal Buress joking about Cosby's holier-than-thou persona despite rape allegations shows what a seismic effect a Vine, tweet, or YouTube clip can have in felling an icon. The space between these cycles of powerful abusers being outed online is closing; it is now near constant. And yet we know this is really just the beginning.

Online might be the only place where people who speak about abuse they have endured can potentially find some form of justice and support. In this setting, virality can become a liberating way to release years of bottled-up pain. Part of what is unfair about the statute of limitations is that events like childhood sexual abuse often take people decades to process psychologically. People who don't file immediately are accused of being unreliable narrators of their own lives, but situations of childhood abuse are traumatic, and all relationships between adults and children are fundamentally imbalanced in power. When that person in power is also your hero, even the victim might feel like they don't want to be the one to take them down, as they are gaslit into putting their abuser's feelings and reputation first. Nobody wants to see something they love, something that had such a profound impact on them personally and on the culture at large, be it Annie Hall or the Universal Zulu Nation, corrupted forever by such serious charges.

How do fans face this? How do we address the feeling of having been unknowingly complicit? Our fandom helped build the platforms that gave this person both access and protection. The concept of "The Great Man" leaves too little room for the complicated realities of people's lives, particularly those people we deem heroic based on talents real or perceived. In the case of Bambaataa, a genuinely musically prodigious person who may have also committed heinous crimes, can we still believe in all his ideas, what his work represented? Does it make all that was believed in and built around him, by him -- not true, not possible? Or is it just a sign that any ideology, no matter how heroic, is rife with hypocrisy, and that we shouldn't build up any human beings into idols?

Perhaps realizing that the story was not going to go away, Bambaataa issued a statement himself earlier this week, to Rolling Stone: "I, Afrika Bambaataa, want to take this opportunity at the advice of my legal counsel to personally deny any and all allegations of any type of sexual molestation of anyone." He calls the claims of abuse "baseless" and "a cowardly attempt to tarnish my reputation and legacy in hip-hop at this time." He promises he will be "continuing my battle and standing up against the violence in our communities, the violence in the nation and the violence worldwide." When a figure who stands for nonviolence, goodness, and creativity is accused of sexual violence, it always feels like the world as we know it is being upended. But unfortunately, it's a song we've all heard many times before.