The Grammys Call Dr. Dre an Icon. Dee Barnes Calls Him an Abuser
On Sunday night at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards, hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre was honored with an award that will newly bear his name – the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award. The honor is a project of the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective, which debuted the Global Impact Award last year, simply as such. The Collective was established after the mass protests of 2020, fueled by the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor by police. And for some, Dre’s moniker upon this award also fuels indignance — because for several women who have accused the mogul of grave acts of violence against them, his impact has been much darker than the Recording Academy is acknowledging.
Dee Barnes is one of those women. Barnes, a journalist and MC who, at 19, hosted Pump It Up!, a hip-hop show on Fox integral to the real-time archiving of the genre’s development from 1989 to 1991. Before she says she was attacked by Dre on January 27, 1991, and before the series’ subsequent end, Barnes interviewed now-legends like LL Cool J, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and Queen Latifah.
Ahead of an album release party where Barnes said that Dre assaulted her, a segment on her show aired that captured the tension between Dre’s then-group N.W.A and former member Ice Cube. In a 2015 op-ed for Gawker, where Barnes recounted the incident, she said N.W.A later claimed Dre was angry about the clip she included in the show and beat her mercilessly because of it. The police were called and in the early hours of January 28, 1991, a warrant for Dre’s arrest was issued. At the time, he was charged with assault and battery. He pleaded no contest, resulting in a $2,500 fine and a two-year probation sentence with community service. In the op-ed, Barnes wrote that she’s suffered horrific migraines in the years since the incident, pulsing in the exact spot where she said Dre slammed her head into a wall.
Today, Dr. Dre has a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars after building a discography revered as classic and foundational. He’s a lauded music executive, having founded the label that launched the careers of Eminem and 50 Cent. More recently, he built an empire with Beats and Apple alongside Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine. Conversely, Barnes has struggled immensely to house and provide for herself since pressing charges, saying she was blacklisted in the industry as a result of speaking out. She said she’s even experienced harassment while working entry-level retail jobs to survive.
As this year’s Grammys approached, Barnes knew Dre would be honored with the Impact Award alongside other industry legends, including Missy Elliott, Lil Wayne, and Epic Records CEO Sylvia Rhone. “I was really excited about that,” Barnes — who is still an avid music fan and expert — says of Rhone. But when she learned of the plan to name the honor after Dre, she was shocked. “I had no idea this other thing was coming at all,” she added. At the live televised ceremony, Dre was graciously celebrated with a video tribute before accepting his namesake award.
Here, in her own words, as told to Rolling Stone’s Mankaprr Conteh, Barnes reflects on Dre’s latest victory, the violence she says she experienced at his hands, her life before and after the life-changing incident, and still loving hip-hop.
Everybody wants to separate the art from the artist, and sometimes that’s just not possible. Most people without a knowledge of [Dr. Dre’s] history are going to say, “Oh, he must deserve that. He must be such a great person for them to put an award in his name.” But they named this award after an abuser. It wasn’t just a one or two-time thing; these are choices. The first time, it’s maybe a mistake. The second time, okay. The third time, it’s a choice. I’m not saying he is the same person now, though. I don’t know. I’m not around him anymore. I haven’t talked to him. But to name an award after someone with that type of history in the music industry, you might as well call it the “Ike Turner Award.”
What I find most frustrating about the entire thing is that [Dre and I] can’t seem to coexist in the same space. I looked at the Grammys’ tribute to the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop — which was beautiful — and I was thinking, “I would’ve been there. I would’ve been there on the red carpet. I would’ve been interviewing some of those artists.” In fact, I’ve interviewed most of them before.
However, they have to keep one of us out of sight while they’re honoring another because one of us makes the other look bad. He said it himself in the documentary The Defiant Ones: I’m a “blemish” on who he is as a man. Well, what do you do with a blemish? There’s a whole industry created — skincare lines and vitamins and rituals — to get rid of blemishes. And, in a sense, there’s a whole network to keep me hidden.
I shouldn’t have to suffer by not being able to exist in a space and in a culture that not only did I grow up in but that I contributed to in a major way. Is this about his feelings? Is this about his legacy? Or is it about ego and toxic masculinity? What is it about? My whole history has been erased — as an artist, as a music journalist, and as a television host. All some people see is the  incident. Whereas with him, it’s like, “Look at all the shiny stuff over here! Look, we’ve got awards, we’ve got schools, we’ve got headphones, we’ve got the Super Bowl, we’ve got productions, movies. Don’t look at that.”
I’ve been trying to get a documentary made since 2015. I wanted it to air this year for the Hip-Hop 50. I was the first young Black woman to host a show on Fox as a new network. It was even before In Living Color got there. I was 19 when I got the show and 20 when it first aired, and there’s a lot of historical content in that. I’ve talked to everybody you can think of and then some. Now, with the documentary I want on it, I’ve been met with silence or people who say they are interested but eventually ghost me. There’s absolutely no good reason why this documentary shouldn’t have been made. It would’ve definitely helped me out of homelessness. Every couple of months, I’m crowdfunding, trying to save the archives of the show from being sold at auction because I can’t afford to pay the storage bill. If I had one Netflix check, that history would be preserved forever.
The blacklisting I’ve faced still feels active, and it took me a long time to accept that. For the longest time, I was like, “That’s not what’s happening. It’s not that.” But it’s definitely that. I see it. I’ve had plenty of people who will support me privately, but they don’t want it to be publicly known because of their business associations, dealings, or whatever.
It’s always and mostly been Black women — journalists and writers — that have always had my back in regards to what happened to me. Dream Hampton was the first person to write about my incident and show me amazing support. She was so fearless about what she had to say. She said it in The Source. She said it in The Village Voice. She was amazing. She still is amazing. Pearl Cleage also wrote a book called Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, and she mentioned me. It may have been the first book to do so. It was amazing because she knew right after the incident, so what she said was pretty powerful.
But other than that, as far as people in hip-hop and the community, the support is not there. Someone had recently said that “hip-hop wasn’t good to Dee. Hip-hop might have been good to other people, but it wasn’t good to Dee.” And I was sad because it’s true, but at the same time, I still love it regardless. I still love it because there’s still much more to love than to hate. What happened to me was strange and incredibly personal. It wasn’t about business. A lot of people think what he did was about Pump It Up!, and I’m working on my memoir now to really get into a lot of the dirty details. This was a personal thing.
When I think of what atonement looks like for Dre and me, I think of a missed opportunity where we could have sat down together on camera and hashed it out. I think that would’ve begun a journey of healing; he’s coming face to face with me, and I’m coming face to face with him. I’ve put out the olive branch. Black women and grace, you know how we are. It wasn’t accepted. But I think that’s going to be the only thing to turn the tide, so to speak — if we have a come-to-Jesus moment in person, in public. Because everything happened publicly, it’s got to have closure publicly.
I’m not the bad guy, but I am made into the villain — very much like how they did Megan Thee Stallion during the trial against her attacker, Tory Lanez. I watched what happened to my little sister Megan, and it just was heartbreaking to me because we have not changed in all these years.
My financial life is just now stabilizing. I was unhoused for three years. I just moved into a place, and it was hard. It was really, really hard. I got evicted in 2019, and then that followed me on my credit, and I couldn’t get another place. But I didn’t even have the money to get another place. The money from my 2019 GoFundMe just wound up helping me survive those three years of being unhoused… barely. Because by the second year, the money was gone. Now, I’m finally getting my feet wet again, back in the game as a journalist. It’s been a little rough start because I’m a little rusty, but it’s getting better. The more I do it, the better I’ll feel — confident again.