Afrika Bambaataa & The Universal Zulu Nation Scandal: The Secret History
Afrika Bambaataa at a benefit for funk legend Bernie Worrell in a rare DJ appearance [photo by Kenneth St. George for Okayplayer].
On April 8th, 2016, Ronald Savage went public with accusations that hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa had sexually molested him as a youth. Three weeks later, the Universal Zulu Nation issued an apology to multiple alleged victims who came forward with similar stories. What follows is the Secret History of everything that happened in between.
For 43 years, the Universal Zulu Nation has positioned itself as the moral compass within hip-hop culture. Co-founded by Kevin “Afrika Bambaataa” Donovan and Amad Henderson in the South Bronx in 1973, the Universal Zulu Nation was hip-hop’s first cultural organization. Their motto of “peace, love, unity and having fun” was adopted as a rallying cry around the world by b-boys, breakbeat aficionados, DJ, rappers and aerosol artists.
In recent months, though, a series of troubling allegations of sexual abuse have risen in Bambaataa’s name and threatens to rip the collective apart at its foundations. Direct conflict over how the allegations were addressed have split the New York old guard who make up the Zulu Supreme World Council, and rank-and-file members who accused leaders of complicity in covering up Bambaataa’s alleged pedophilia. The fallout has resulted in several high-profile Zulu Nation members renouncing their membership. The Supreme World Council has apparently resigned, leaving the organization’s future in disarray.
I. The Accusation.
Rewind the track back to March, when Ronald Savage, a former Zulu Nation “crate boy” known in the streets as “Bee Stinger,” tweeted that he had been molested by Bambaataa decades ago. Savage’s 2014 self-published book, Impulses, Urges and Fantasies, recounted his abuse by a well-known hip-hop DJ, yet at the time the book had not revealed the name of his abuser. Savage said that Amad Henderson asked him to take down his revelation, which was made on Twitter, as a favor. Other high-ranking members of the Zulu Nation, according to Ronald Savage, offered him upwards of $50,000 for his silence. A promise was offered to him where the Universal Zulu Nation would set up a meeting with Bambaataa. Weighing the offer, Savage decided that his need for closure “wasn’t about money,” and was more about him getting peace of mind.
Savage kept the secret hidden deep down inside, a burden that was tearing him apart and damaging his personal relationships with women. He had intimacy issues as a result of his abuse. He stopped returning calls from Zulu Nation affiliates and even considered ending his own life. Internal Zulu Nation sources paint a picture of frantic activity behind-the-scenes to reel Savage back in during this time, between March and April of this year. Upon looking at Amad Henderson’s Twitter log, there was no evidence of a mounting crisis. On March 29 of this year, though, Henderson tweeted, “Reflecting on the importance of life. My goals. My visions. My legacy.” Two days later, Savage appeared on Shot 97, the internet talk show of Troi Torain (better known as Star of Star & Buc-Wild fame). Savage told Star that the former Black Spade member made him perform oral sex on him and other males. It was also said that Bam performed oral sex upon the then-teenager…
Ronald Savage speaks to The Daily News about his alleged abuse at the hands of Afrika Bambaataa.
“I don’t even like to say Bambaataa’s name because of the things that he’s done to me,” he said to us here at Okayplayer, adding that he didn’t go public earlier because he feared for his safety and that of his family. Promptly following the interview, Savage said to Okayplayer that he got a call from the Universal Zulu Nation’s head security guys, who “told me to retract my story and [then coached me on] what I needed to say in my retraction.” A week later on April 8, Amber Cartha, also known as Zulu Queen Pepsi, posted a Facebook status update urging the UZN to “attack the enemy… by all means necessary.” Her post appeared to threaten the former Hot 97 radio personality directly, while advocating for the rigorous defense of the Zulu Nation on social media. “Stand strong, Amazulus,” she concluded. The next day, April 9, Savage’s story was picked up by the New York Daily News.
II. The Denial.
Bam’s lawyers and Universal Zulu Nation spokespeople vehemently denied the allegations. Citing that 59-year-old “Godfather of Hip-Hop” was being targeted by a government conspiracy, these parties involved suggested that Savage made up the allegation to help sell his book. But, as the New York Daily News reported, Savage’s ex-wife’s boyfriend referred to “the Bambaataa thing” in court records from 2011. Savage also claims that he had previously told Amad Henderson what had happened to him, saying to us, “I had told Amad before… We talked about, [and] I confided in him. This was not the first time.” Henderson did not return any calls or emails to Okayplayer while seeking comments for this story.
Over the next few weeks, the weight of the allegations grew and became more public. Several other alleged victims came forward to air their grievances with Afrika Bambaataa. This included Bronx River OG, Hassan “Poppy” Campbell, who told the New York Daily News that he had been molested by Bam on numerous occasions between the ages of 12 and 13-years-old. Adding more fuel to the fire was Shamsideen Sharif Ali Bey, better known within the UZN as “Lord Shariyf,” a man who said he once stood at Bambaataa’s side as his bodyguard. Bey alleges that he personally witnessed “inappropriate behavior” between Bambaataa and young, teenage boys. Furthermore, Lord Shariyf said that members of the UZN organization were fully aware of their founder’s sexual proclivities.
Both the Universal Zulu Nation and Afrika Bambaataa denied the allegations.
A statement was then sent out by Bambaataa’s lawyer, saying that Bam called the allegations “a cowardly attempt to tarnish my reputation and legacy in hip-hop at this time.” On the same day that the statement was released, April 12, another reputed victim (#4) came forth to speak out on the accusations. Bam would later take to the Ed Lover Show to defend himself, saying that the accusers had a “hidden agenda” and denied having ever known Ronald Savage. Despite the denials from Bam, public opinion within the hip-hop community began to shift. Fellow South Bronx hip-hop legend, KRS-One, was widely criticized for his supportive statements of Afrika Bambaataa. There was also noticeable silence from many of the other successful hip-hop figures associated with the UZN such as Q-Tip and Lil’ Wayne. Other rappers like Brand Nubian‘s Lord Jamar weighed in with critical comments directed at Bambaataa and were dismissive of the UZN’s position.
III. Turmoil in The Nation.
Doubts began to emerge within the notoriously cryptic Zulu organization, and members began to make their own inquiries. A show bill from 1983 began making the rounds on social media which clearly listed Savage’s alias “Bee-Stinger,” along with [Afrika] Bambaataa, DJ Jazzy Jay, Afrika Islam and The Force MC‘s. The flyer “made Bam look like a liar,” Savage told us when we asked him about it. “I always had in the back of my mind suspicion [that] something wasn’t right,” former Zulu Nation member, OG TC Izlam, said. “How [are] you gonna deny knowing Bee-Stinger?”
Bambaataa, in an interview with Okayplayer at the time of the 2014 Renegades Of Rhythm DJ Tour. Photo by Eddie Pearson.
Elsewhere, discussion on social media forums heated up, led by people such as WBAI radio host Jay Smooth, who addressed the taboo issue of sexual abused and even compared the Bambaataa situation to that of Bill Cosby and the Vatican. Seeing Savage’s interview “started a real tough process for me,” Smooth said. On one hand, Bam’s contributions to hip-hop culture are unquestionable; many Zulus have helped out with this radio show over the years, he added. However, “the silence went on for long enough that it started to disturb me.”
“It was unfortunate,” he said to us, “to see [UZN leadership] have a knee-jerk response to the allegations.” The denial of ever knowing Ronald Savage by Bam “took the denial to a point where it wasn’t even plausible.” “And when KRS-One showed little sympathy for victims of child sexual abuse, it hurt my heart,” Smooth added.
A week later on April 19, former X-Clan producer and hip-hop activist, Paradise Gray, posted a petition on Move On on behalf of the hip-hop community. “We hold ourselves and our peers to a high standard of moral responsibility,” the petition stated. “We do not condone sexual abuse or violence against children.” Currently standing at 669 signatures, the petition was also authored by luminaries such as Davey D, Kuttin’ Kandi, Bakari Kitwana, Mark Anthony Neal and Dr. Tanji Gilliam. Acknowledging the need to “create safe spaces” and to “work toward restorative justice and the healing of our community,” the petition is close to its goal of 700 signees.
We spoke with Paradise Gray and he said that he wrote the petition because “I didn’t see a lot of hip-hop pioneers who were speaking out about the situation.” Before making a public statement, Gray said that he reached out to Zulu members and even Bambaataa himself, and “started discovering a lot of stories which were unreported. At the time, Bambaataa still hadn’t publicly addressed Savage’s claims. “People were having so many questions which were unanswered,” Gray said, noting that many Zulu Nation members felt that the Supreme World Council “wasn’t representing them anymore.” After Hassan Campbell named names on YouTube, he concluded that “the Zulu [Nation] brand was very, very badly damaged.”
Bronx, New York native and nationally recognized hip-hop journalist, Davey D related to us that he’s known Bambaataa since he was 15-years-old. According to him, he was “shocked, stunned and heartbroken” when the news of the allegations broke in the news. Even though there were “whispers” about Bam’s sexuality, Davey D said, “I didn’t hear any rumors about him being a pedophile.” The Universal Zulu Nation countered by saying that there is a COINTELPRO-like conspiracy, which Davey believes is an “insult to those who actually suffered under that program.” The silence and inability of UZN members to address, directly, the issues in a real way were “almost inexcusable, in terms of what they are supposed to have stood for.” The fallout continued to accumulate as TC Izlam became the highest-ranking Zulu Nation member to resign, which he did on April 19.
Izlam would later claim to have received approximately 25 death threats from those wishing him harm. Speaking to OkayplayerIn an exclusive interview, Izlam said that he resigned because of frustration over “zealots” who had “joined the Afrika Bambaataa cult.” His intention, he said, was not to “demonize or tear down Bambaataa, [since] he’s doing a good job of that himself.” Social and political activist Rosa Clemente was joined by DJ Kuttin’ Kandi and MC Julie C on April 20, as the trio published an open letter via Clemente’s website. Titled Hip-Hop Breaking The Silence: An Open Letter To Our Beloved Community, the letter called upon hip-hop supporters to uphold the culture’s core values of “peace, love, knowledge and unity,” while focusing not on hierarchical structures, but more fluid movements, dismantling “rape culture,” and using hip-hop culture to promote “transformational organizing work.”
IV. The Exodus.
The following day, April 21, the Might Zulu Kings/Kweenz Worldwide, an organization led by Zulu Nation veteran Alien Ness, announced that they were defecting from the UZN and were changing their name to “MZK.” The post went on to read as such, “In our efforts as MZK, we will continue to be a worldwide organization of hip-hop ambassadors promoting a positive lifestyle, change and a bond of peace to all humanity. We will continue to teach with passion the historical facts of the origins of the hip-hop culture.” The withdrawals continued as on May 4, Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder and longtime UZN member, Adisa Banjoko, announced in a blog post that he was resigning from the Zulu Nation. While the decision was a difficult one, Banjoko had recently published a book titled Bobby, Bruce and Bam: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess.
The allegations and accusations pegged to Bambaataa eventually forced Adisa to retitled the book, to omit direct references to Bambaataa.
A former writer at The Source magazine, Banjoko explained that he had been affiliated with the Universal Zulu Nation since 1991. At that time, the organization represented “community, knowledge and empowerment.” But after one accuser turned into multiple accusers, Adisa realized that he had to distance himself to protect the integrity of the HHCF. Upon writing his blog post, Adisa was prepared for a backlash, but instead he got “calls and emails from Zulu Nation members from all over the country who were really supportive.” Amad Henderson, seeking to clear his name, would then appear on Star’s Shot 97 show, but he may have raised more suspicions about his complicity by saying he witnessed an alleged assault on Bam. Yet, Henderson had no recollection of what the dispute was about.
On May 6, the Universal Zulu Nation put out their own statement through its UK chapter, announcing that the organization “is currently under new leadership” and would be undergoing a restructuring over the next few months. The statement would go on to claim that “all accused parties and those accused of covering up the current allegations of child molestation have been removed and have stepped down from their current positions.” Shortly thereafter, a video appeared from the Universal Zulu Nation’s Supreme World Council, including Amad Henderson, Mohammad Islam and Queen Pepsi, which appeared to contradict the UNZ UK statement by asserting that Henderson was now in charge. The video noted the “official removal of Afrika Bambaataa” from the Universal Zulu Nation, while also noting that Bam had not been in a leadership position within the organization since 1994. The video also didn’t answer questions about complicity in a cover-up of Bambaataa’s alleged actions, however, and raised further questions about the status of the organization moving forward.
V. Bam Speaks.
The following week, Bambaataa addressed the allegations of abuse in a sit-down interview with Fox 5’s Lisa Evers . On May 12, Bambaataa denied all accusations of abuse, yet, curiously, this time he did not deny knowing Ronald Savage.
More high profile resignations followed, as Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples and producer 9th Wonder both withdrew from their respective UZN chapters. In an open letter to the public, Rakaa Iriscience addressed “the true Amazulu worldwide,” saying, “This isn’t about hip-hop. This isn’t about race or sexual orientation. This is about [the] children. This is about abuse, bullying, shame, and fear. This is about tolerance or acceptance-based in personal agenda. This is about greed, ego, privilege, and power.” Meanwhile, 9th Wonder, who was a member of the Black Jedi Zulu chapter in North Carolina, stated that “due to the recent events, the disorganization, the fight/hunger for power, the countless public statements, the interviews and the inability to update and move forward as an organization, We as Black Jedi Zulu have decided to create our own history.”
Adding even more intrigue, another petition appeared on the internet, signed by numerous UZN members and community supporters from around the world. Calling for an “organizational rebirth,” Ras Ceylon, the Minister of Information of the Calafia Zulus, said that the “national leadership and international leadership called for the removal of the Supreme World Council,” directly rejecting Amad Henderson’s coup as a “power play.” Bambaataa’s handpicked transitional leader, Afrika Islam, was also reportedly rejected by the membership, following a series of conference calls. One Zulu Nation leader, who declined to be identified by name, told us that [the Zulu Nation] “are in healing and prayer.” We attempted to reach out to Bam’s lawyer, Charles Tucker, by phone but were told that the Universal Zulu Nation founder would not be making any further comments at this time. He also noted that the allegations against his client have not resulted in any criminal cases or civil suits being filed.
Muhammad Islam, a former member of the Supreme World Council, confirmed that he and others stepped down two days after the release of the video announcement. He and others “tried to get Bam to step down,” but according to Islam, “he wouldn’t do it [voluntarily].” Islam said he remains a UZN member, but admits, “I have no idea who is running [the organization] currently.” Despite the allegations and accusations, Muhammad believes that the Zulu legacy should continue. “The good works over the last 43 years shouldn’t be wiped out based on the allegations [against] one man,” he told us. “If [Bambaataa] is guilty, he has to be held accountable.” Among the defectors, there is a feeling that the Zulu brand has been so compromised, it may not be repairable. “If there is a fundamental flaw, what’s the point in rebuilding it?” Rakaa Iriscience wondered. For him, personally, the Universal Zulu Nation “is already too far gone,” though he added that he has “a lot of friends and family that are gonna try and stay to see what happens.”
Adisa Banjoko said that rejoining the UZN at a future date was out of the question for him. “I don’t think Zulu Nation should exist anymore.” On the other side of the debate, Paradise Gray urged for UZN leaders to “pass the torch and let the young people hold it up.” For him, the crisis represents a rare opportunity to “rise from the ashes like a Phoenix” and “help begin the healing process.” Davey D, a staunch critic of hip-hop and the culture, was even more pointed, saying that the UZN’s current relevance amongst today’s hip-hop generation was in question even before the controversy. “The average person doesn’t know [about UZN] or care.” And while the Universal Zulu Nation was of critical importance at one time in hip-hop’s history, in 2016, “99% of America doesn’t understand why Bambaataa is important,” Jay Smooth related. “Even if there’s a chance to rebuild a stronger foundation, there is still this decades-long history of alleged terrible criminal behavior to contend with.”
Other sentiments have been expressed, such as that the situation is “bigger than hip-hop,” according to Davey D and that the larger is is that “sexual assault has been met with denial or normalized in the eyes of many.” Bam’s sexual orientation isn’t even as much of an issue in all of this, as is the notion that a cultural forefather could be a sexual predator. Should the UZN manage to right the ship, it may be “too little, too late,” according to Paradise Gray, who also added that the whole matter is “very messy.” “Zulu leadership has family young people [and] failed themselves,” Gray said. One of the outstanding issues with Bam was the lack of communication with rank-and-file members. “He’s never really addressed us as a membership,” Ceylon told us. “He went to Fox News, but not to former followers. I understand why a lot of people resigned. When the Supreme World Council stepped down, that was the first victory.” Ceylon and many other Zulu Nation members remain committed to the organization’s goals and principles. “We’ve done so much work under that banner,” he said.
VI. The Question Remains.
The current situation begs the question of whether Afrika Bambaataa is the Universal Zulu Nation. One major hiccup with reorganizing the Universal Zulu Nation is that the articles of incorporation as a registered nonprofit in New York state lists Kevin “Afrika Bambaataa” Donovan as its signatory. He reportedly owns the trademark as well, while Amad Henderson and Amber Cartha control the LLC. What this means is that any attempt to legally remove Bam from any involvement with the UZN would have to cross the hurdle of ownership. This could turn into a very problematic situation, as a large segment of UZN members who want to remain in Zulu may choose to not to do so if Bam retains a stake and decision-making power. Some chapters have refused to pay dues to the parent organization in New York City.
Despite the onerous mess, this situation has become, there are many Zulu Nation members who feel that they have invested too much to simply walk away at this time. Rob “Zulu King El” Rodriguez, the chapter leader for the Tri-State Zulus, bluntly stated to us [that] “we all have 20 years in [UZN]… we love this too much to let it fall.” Recently, Rodriguez has organized Zulu rallies for victims of sexual violence and reach out to both Savage and Hassan Campbell. “We wanted to give them a level of comfort,” he explained to Okayplayer. “We were all in a state of confusion,” King El said, especially as more people started to come forward. The initial statements from the Universal Zulu Nation “were not what the members felt,” according to Zulu King El. The divide was generational, impacted by decades of loyalty, and, perhaps misguided trust and blind faith. “A lot of the elders have relationships with Bambaataa, they’re peers of his. They bashed the victims and we couldn’t look at it like that.”
Campbell and Savage, according to him, are “a part of this family,” saying, “Whatever assistance we can give them, we’ll do it.” Rodriguez says that he and other chapter leaders are committed to continuing the good works of the Universal Zulu Nation, even if it means starting awkward and difficult conversations. “Hip-hop has a problem when it comes to speaking out about sexuality, abuse and violence,” Rodriguez told us. He and other chapter leaders plan to continue to run their youth programs without any direction from the Supreme World Council and push forward on the difficult path to reorganization. Envisioning the UZN as continuing “for another 43 years,” the hurt and pain is to be addressed in a restorative way. “The victims need healing [and] Universal Zulu Nation needs healing,” Rodriguez said.
As for Afrika Bambaataa, Rodriguez said that “he needs to speak openly with the public and speak from the heart.” For his part, Savage says that he feels vindicated by the apology from the Universal Zulu Nation. He does not want to see his onetime idol and alleged abuser go to jail. “Bam needs to be honest to himself. He needs to come clean to everyone and he owes everyone an apology,” Ronald Savage to us. “I’d like Bam to get the help that he needs. He doesn’t need jail time, he just needs help.” Savage did tell us that he is in favor of having the statute of limitations lifted for the reasons that victims of abuse don’t always come forward right away, saying, “You see how long it took me to come out!” The entire situation has been messy and involved, but ultimately brought some sense of relief to Ronald Savage.
“I can speak freely now… I was molested by a man, by Afrika Bambaataa.”
Abuser or not, Savage added that no one can dispute what Bam has done for hip-hop culture. But so, he maintains, has the conversation resulting from the scandal around him. As Savage told Okayplayer:
“I think this has changed the history of hip-hop…At the very least, it has changed the conversation of who the culture is for. They say hip-hop is not for homosexuals or gay people, [but] I think that hip-hop is for everyone. Hip-hop is universal.”
Eric Arnold is an Oakland-based writer/journalist whose work has appeared at the San Francisco Chronicle, VIBE, Wax Poetics, XXL, Complex and Oakulture.com.