Minnesota music scene faces a #MeToo reckoning led by sexual assault survivors

The music scene that Lydia Liza entered as a 16-year-old, “vulnerable in every sense of the word,” was full of men and full of threats. Men who groomed her with bad intentions, men who kissed her without her permission.

Soon, she and her guitar will return to venues again. But thanks to a #MeToo reckoning that’s been playing out backstage, that scene will be different, she hopes. She will be different, at least.

“I never really was worried about losing a reputation or ruining my music career, because who wants to be in an industry that is built on cruelty?” she said. “I want to be there for other women in the scene … because nobody lifted me up the way I really needed.”

Last summer, Liza and other female and nonbinary musicians made it their mission to compile the countless allegations swirling through the Minnesota music scene, sharing stories and naming names. For weeks Liza received and reposted allegations new and old, of verbal abuse and sexual assault, rape and disrespect. At one point, she got hundreds a day. Screen­­shot after screenshot, story after story.

While these musicians shared stories on social media, a rapper was leading a boycott of the Rhymesayers record label and journalists were publicly calling on their employers to investigate the claims.

It was both distressing and powerful, survivors said. Messy, too. But out of it grew a movement.

Amplified by social media, the kind of stories whispered for decades now reverberate through a music community grappling with harmful behavior by men. The sexual misconduct allegations last month that derailed Sean “Har Mar Superstar” Tillmann’s career are just the most recent fallout. At least a half-dozen prominent musicians and one radio DJ have been sidelined, too.

One musician was accused of repeatedly raping a young woman who said she was too drunk to consent. Another allegedly groomed two younger female musicians into relationships they say turned into assault. Another tried to force a young woman to perform oral sex after a show.

Male musicians drunk on local fame — and often alcohol, too — are finally facing demands that they take responsibility for toxic behavior born of the tired old “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” ethos, a tidal change that women in the industry say is long overdue.

“It’s always been this bad,” said Minneapolis-raised music writer Jessica Hopper, a childhood friend of Tillmann’s who spoke out last month in support of local survivors. “The difference is, we’re holding people to a higher standard.”

Survivors of abuse are being heard and bringing about change. Mistrustful of police and news media, they’re confronting abusers and telling their stories on their own terms via private Facebook groups, anonymous Instagram stories and very public tweets.

They’re inspiring more women (and girls, too, sadly) to share their stories. They’re pressuring music venues and radio stations to not promote the violators.

They’re organizing a task force and proposing their own safe-haven music venue — Auntie’s, which promises to be “a venue owned by womxn of color rooted in radical freedom of expression without judgment [and] leading with loving accountability.”

Still in development after a $70,000 GoFundMe campaign, the project was announced last summer by musicians Sophia Eris (Lizzo’s main sidekick), DJ Keezy and Lady Midnight after a flood of #MeToo-style stories. Auntie’s leaders declined to comment for this report.

Another sign of the growing momentum was the “#MeTooMpls” charity album. Issued last summer, but in the works since 2019, it featured songs about abuse and harassment by 17 Minnesota women and nonbinary songwriters, from rocker Tina Schlieske to folkie Chastity Brown to electro-pop singer Ro Lorenzen of Static Panic.

All this work “is a great, big step toward progression,” said Lorenzen, who has regularly faced harassment. “There’s still a long ways to go.”

Many of the accused abusers were never named in police reports or the news media. Nonetheless, they still face consequences, as institutions undertake a deep examination of their policies and people reflect on their own potential complicity.

At least a dozen local musicians from varying genres (including punk and alt-country) were removed from the playlist at Minnesota Public Radio station 89.3 the Current, which issued a statement to the Star Tribune last month saying its staffers “believe survivors” and “are continuously evaluating which voices we amplify.”

The Twin Cities’ preeminent hip-hop label and promotions company, Rhymesayers Entertainment — which has long faced criticism for not supporting women artists — dropped two acts, Prof and Dem Atlas, amid last summer’s glut of survivor stories.

“We, like many others, separated the music from potential behavior,” the label said in June. “Thus, we were complicit in promoting and marketing music that perpetuates misogyny.”

Prof and P.O.S., two of the Twin Cities’ most prominent rappers, issued personal apologies for harmful behavior cited on social media.

Psalm One, the rapper who led the #BoycottRhymesayers effort last summer and had long sounded the alarm about misogyny and homophobia at her former label, published an essay this winter titled “Ain’t No Human Resources in Hip Hop.” People in the label’s office called her a “dyke,” she wrote, while a fellow artist aggressively French-kissed her without her OK and the label’s leaders ignored her calls and e-mails.

“This was my dream job and wasn’t this just par for the course?” she recalled thinking. “I figured it was.”

Much of this wave of survivor stories can be traced to the New York Times’ outing of rocker Ryan Adams’ predatory behavior in February 2019.

The story prompted women in the Twin Cities music scene to begin comparing notes on their own abusers. It led to the firing that spring of a talent buyer at Icehouse supper club in Minneapolis who was accused of sexual harassment by at least five women.

He also happened to be a well-connected musician, which is “one of the reasons the situation at Icehouse didn’t end sooner, because people we’re intimidated of who he was,” said the club’s current booker, Diane Miller, aka singer/rapper D Mills. “It can be difficult for anyone to talk about it to anyone. It’s a lot more complicated than saying, ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ ”

Icehouse at least did that, posting a “code of conduct” online that was soon copied by other venues. Among its dictums to employees, musicians and patrons were clear definitions of sexual harassment and consent, and a call to “speak up, seek support when witnessing, experiencing or suspecting any form of harassment.”

A similar effort to define abuse and provide resources for victims is underway from the Minnesota Music Coalition. The nonprofit created an “action group” of musicians and other industry professionals that began meeting March 29.

“There’s usually no human resources department you can go to if you work in the music industry and are victimized,” said executive director Joanna Schnedler. “We need to create resources to help fill that void.”

Having nowhere to turn is exactly what kept Minneapolis rock veteran Cindy Lawson quiet for three decades. The singer for ’80s band the Clams recently opened up on Facebook about being assaulted by men in the New York music industry in 1990.

“Sadly, sexual abuse was completely tolerated, and in some circles, encouraged and celebrated,” said Lawson. “It felt good to name the men who assaulted me out loud and not carry those secrets around.”

Janey Winterbauer, who came up in ’90s bands and now sings with the Suburbs, said she had witnessed bad behavior by one of these newly outed male musicians for many years. But, she said, “it was easier to simply avoid him than complain, because those complaints fell on deaf ears.”

Musician and Palmer’s Bar talent buyer Christy Costello, a longtime friend of Tillmann’s, said, “If [men] being held accountable finally helps bring an end to this toxic behavior that has gone on far too long in this scene, then I’m all for it.”

Allegations of misconduct in the music scene have been investigated by the Star Tribune over the past two years, but without court records or corroborating evidence, those cases often did not meet the news organization’s standards for publication.

It was a similar story at Minnesota Public Radio, whose reporter Marianne Combs resigned last September out of frustration over its reluctance to air a story on one of MPR’s own: Current DJ Eric Malmberg, who was subsequently fired.

“News outlets are reluctant to publish accusations from anonymous sources, but the last thing a survivor of assault wants is to be forever linked to their abuser on the internet,” Combs wrote in an article for Minnesota Women’s Press. “To do justice to survivors, we need to change how we approach their stories so that they are not victimized again.”

Former Pitchfork music editor Hopper — who reported on accusations against R&B megastar R. Kelly — said many cases are not written about simply because a lot of the music press isn’t able or willing to do so. “With local musicians, reporters worry about tarnishing the reputations of the big local heroes, or of losing access to artists who are a big news engine,” Hopper said, noting that many music bloggers aren’t trained journalists.

Minneapolis journalist Andrea Swensson, who recently ended her 10-year tenure at the Current to pursue other ventures, has been an advocate in private for victims in the music scene. She said the news media — and anyone else in a position of power — needs to be more open and respectful to victims.

“Who are you supposed to report these things to?” Swensson said. “Come forward to a booker or other gatekeeper, and you run the risk of being blacklisted, written off as a nuisance, or forever having your reputation tied to the name of someone who harmed you.”

Swensson is suddenly hopeful, though: “There is a new surge of momentum and concern, and it is weirdly heartening to feel that — after all this time watching painful stories bubble up but stay just under the surface.”

The allegations arose during the pandemic, in the rare space created when venues were shuttered and calendars bare. The test is to come: Will Minnesota’s newly reopened music scene be safer? More equitable?

When Liza entered the music scene as a teenager, other women “just saw me as competition.”

Now 26, she believes that the power structures in the music scene — the gatekeeping, the misogyny — kept women apart. She’s not immune to it: Last summer she, too, apologized publicly when someone anonymously alleged that she’d hurt them.

But this process has connected her with older generations of women who have been pushing for years. Together, they’re dreaming up a music scene that values people’s safety and well-being.

“I am encouraged by the conversations happening now,” said ex-Clams singer Lawson. “I am so impressed with the fact that young people now just won’t take any [crap] from anyone.”

The music scene is both a workplace and a community, so policies and processes must address both, said Becky Smith, communications director for Violence Free Minnesota.

“Harm is going to happen,” she said. So groups must decide: How do we approach the person who is being harmful? How do we approach the person who has been harmed?”

Holding the person who’s caused harm accountable “takes a lot of work,” Smith said. “It takes a lot of conversation. It takes a lot of boundaries. It takes structure. It takes time.” Ostracizing someone isn’t the answer, she added, because “there’s every chance that person will go to a different community and harm in the same way.”

Some musicians have issued apologies. But few have gone beyond that, some survivors said.

“Calls for accountability can result in consequences for actions, but are not the same as calls for punishment,” said Christin Crabtree, a survivor, organizer and board member of the Domestic Abuse Project. “Accountability is rooted in presence and love.”

To move forward, the people who have caused harm must first be honest with themselves and others, said Crabtree, who has been working with survivors.

Survivors have been doing just that, she added, examining their own participation in the culture that allows for harm.

“In the music scene, I have been assaulted, groped, threatened and even raped,” said Crabtree. “It has also been in this community that I have found conspirators in healing, accomplices in reimagining what is possible.”

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