Russell Simmons, known for decades as Rush to his friends, is of average height and build for a man his age (45), with a cleanshaven face, bald dome and light complexion. In conversation, he is likely to switch gears from hip-hop culture and Eastern spirituality to politics and rap-industry commerce several times in the span of just ten minutes. He was born in Jamaica, Queens, the son of Howard University graduates, and moved to residential Hollis at 8; dealt marijuana and was very briefly warlord of the 17th Division of the Seven Immortals gang during the 1970s; and eventually attended, then dropped out of, City College a few credits short of a sociology degree.
In the halcyon days of hip-hop, Simmons managed the seminal rap acts Kurtis Blow, Whodini and Run-D.M.C. (his younger brother is Joseph “Run” Simmons, now a reverend) through Rush Management. Shortly thereafter, he founded Def Jam Records out of partner Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm room, introducing the likes of L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to Middle America. His wildly successful clothing line Phat Farm has been in operation since 1992. He is universally regarded as having established the blueprint of the hip-hop multimedia mogul. Russell Simmons is hip-hop.
Or is he? “Russell, as quiet as it’s been kept, you are not hip-hop!” begins an open letter circulating on the Internet by rap activist Rosa Clemente–founder of Know Thy Self Productions, a speakers’ bureau dedicated to social change and organization of the hip-hop generation. “Where were you when the hip-hop community united over the issue of AIDS, apartheid, police brutality, gun violence, and the bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico?” she asks. “You were having those fundraisers for Senator Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and having your summer Hamptons parties hobnobbing with the likes of Donald Trump and Martha Stewart.”
Ask Russell Simmons about Rosa Clemente, and he’ll ponder meditatively and then respond sincerely with, “Why do I know her?”
Not long ago I spent some time with Simmons in mid-Manhattan at the offices of Phat Farm, from where he now operates. (Currently chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam, Lyor Cohen runs the label’s day-to-day management.) We sit in his spacious forty-third-floor office, which is distinguished by a wall-to-wall Oriental rug, lots of mahogany wood grain and gold: gold scales, gold lamps, gold clocks. Magazines adorn various surfaces: Black Enterprise, XXL featuring popular Def Jam artist Jay-Z on the cover, Simmons’s own Oneworld. The bookshelf features titles like former mayoral candidate Mark Green’s Selling Out and Simmons’s memoir, Life and Def. So widely known for conducting business on the move that Motorola recently partnered with him to produce the i90c limited-edition mobile phone, it’s slightly strange to see him sitting behind a desk, a candle serenely flickering its flame on the surface next to flowers sprouting from a Phat Farm shoebox.
Speaking with Russell Simmons is, I imagine, akin to taking an audience with the President. We are interrupted several times by various assistants and speakerphone intrusions as we discuss his political leanings of late. Partially responsible for bringing Public Enemy (the revolutionary rap trio that produced the masterpiece of the genre, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) to the world, Simmons has felt the pang of social responsibility since becoming a yoga adherent, marrying Kimora Lee, and fathering two children. He spearheaded the creation of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in July 2001–a “coalition of hip-hop artists, record company executives, Civil Rights leaders, [and] community activists,” according to its executive director, former NAACP head minister Dr. Benjamin Chavis–and has recently been voicing political opinions like a seasoned pundit. Ask him what sparked his greater awareness, and his answer is characteristically two parts reflection, one part filibuster.
“They ask this question all the time. I’m never really satisfied with my answer,” he starts. “But it’s a little bit of a greater connection with myself. It started seven, eight years ago with yoga practice. I started reading all the propaganda, the yoga sutras and the basic books, right? Reading that kind of crap. Meditation and the whole physical and spiritual practice has helped, though. It gave me a better understanding of my purpose. You know what yoga means, first, right?”
No, I admit.
“‘Union with God’ is what yoga means. And living in a state of yoga is a state of union with God, which is, like, samati. That’s what a state of yoga is. That’s what you’re moving toward, so you know that that’s your purpose. And so, that is the reason I’m involved in more social and political stuff. I have my own Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. I have my own Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, my own other charitable kind of philanthropic work, all those things, because I have a better relationship with myself, with my higher self.”
Of course, political movements have been built on spiritual foundations before–think of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. In keeping with the familiar spiritual axiom that character assessment be based on deeds rather than rhetoric, a 53-year-old, bespectacled Benjamin Chavis enters from his office down the hall to discuss the organization’s progress. Simmons takes one of his many persistent phone calls.
“Prior to June 4, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he was cutting $300 million additionally from the school budget. This was on top of the $400 million that Giuliani had made the year before,” says Chavis. “Nine days before June 4, Russell and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network called for young people to come after school, to meet us down at the City Hall. The teachers, who had already planned a rally that day, were planning for maybe 10,000 people. Well, 100,000 young people showed up, and it was unprecedented.”
“It was the largest urban mobilization,” he continues, “and it was not only that Jay-Z, P. Diddy, L.L. Cool J, Doug E. Fresh, Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu and Rah Digga came to speak, but they spoke on the issue. They were clear that we want an equal, quality education, that we were protesting these budget cuts. The next day, the Mayor restored $298 million back into the budget. So that was a tremendous victory. And it showed that we have the ability to flex a certain muscle in terms of mobilization.”
Benjamin Chavis exits, but he is far from the final visitor to Simmons’s office. Simmons mentions that celebrated yoga instructor Sharon Gannon attended his 2000 fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and soon someone enters with a copy of her book The Art of Yoga. (“You can have it. It’s a beautiful book,” he says.) Two middle-aged white men breeze through to pitch some sort of beverage for hip-hop consumption. Gary Foster, who works closely with Simmons on the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, is introduced at one point, and a discussion of press in the New York Times takes place. Simmons is constantly hustling, hence the nickname Rush. One man’s hustler, however, is another man’s politician, and at times, Simmons seems poised for his own mayoral bid. He looks me squarely in the eye and vehemently denies any interest in political office, not the first time he’s done so. “I have no aspirations. To move young people to a higher consciousness is my greatest aspiration, to make a difference in terms of young people.”
In the June 2002 issue of The Source–a hip-hop organ so popular it’s the largest-selling music magazine on newsstands nationwide–Russell Simmons and Benjamin Chavis (then Benjamin Muhammad) published “Power Movement,” an essay detailing a fifteen-point agenda for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. (Until recently, the organization’s headquarters were at The Source.) The “social, political and economic development and empowerment of our families and communities” ranks highest; environmental concerns also rate, as Point 15 protests the targeting of low-income communities for toxic waste dumps and other environmentally hazardous developments. Point 9 states, “We want reparations to help repair the lingering vestiges, damages and suffering of African Americans as a result of the brutal enslavement of generations of Africans in America.” The reparations issue is serious to him, and it serves to highlight the synergy a man as enterprising as Russell Simmons is able to generate for his causes. The Phat Farm Classic, a sneaker that enjoyed unprecedented success in 2002 (“We sold 2 million”), was buoyed by an advertising campaign promoting awareness for reparations featuring Run of Run-D.M.C. “I have ‘reparations rallies,’ quote unquote, or sneaker parties, all over the country,” says Russell Simmons. “And I do interviews on every radio station and morning show as I get to each city, and we talk about the reparations movement.” Money contributed to the reparations cause is admittedly minimal, he says. But countering suspicions that he’s out to sell sneakers under the guise of a political issue, he opines, “It’s really about awareness. We just gave $15 million to the [Millions for Reparations] March. I don’t believe it’s a racial issue. I think it’s a simple American justice issue. Reparations is greater affirmative action. It’s underwriting better job training in communities where it’s necessary, or equal high-quality education. It’s a way of repairing the past. Repairing the past is a simple meaning of reparations, right? Repairing the past is giving opportunity, access to America. And the government owes us access, greater access. We just want to increase dialogue.”
A hip-hop political movement may sound curious to those with only a peripheral understanding of the culture and its goings-on. Though materialistic, nihilistic, often misogynistic rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z command the attention of mainstream record buyers and video networks, hip-hop has an active social consciousness [see Jeff Chang, page 17]. MCs like Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Common, dead prez and numerous others provide balance to the oft-popularized nihilistic arm. So politicizing the hip-hop nation is not necessarily the greatest challenge facing the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network; that’s already happened, to some extent anyway. More to the point is that pre-existing grassroots hip-hop activists are bound to take issue with the network as a come-lately group stealing media thunder from efforts that have long been under way.
“Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Youth Force Coalition, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Sista 2 Sista, El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, Prison Moratorium Project: All those organizations work around issues such as political prisoners, the Rockefeller drug laws, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, violence against women, the AIDS epidemic in our community,” Rosa Clemente writes in her open letter to Simmons. “Give me a call and I will help set up the meeting so you can meet them. Instead of hosting one of your many fundraisers for white elected officials, why don’t you host a fundraiser or, better yet, attend one of the many events and mobilizations that these black and Latino/a youth organize?”
Traveling to South Bronx High School in a limousine with director Ellen Haddigan and four starring poets of Def Poetry Jam on Broadway for some community outreach, Russell Simmons responds calmly to these fiery charges. “I don’t know of them,” he readily admits. “I’m just meeting them now. I don’t know why they call themselves ‘hip-hop’–they don’t know no rappers. But I do know why: They’re young, they’re from this generation and all that shit. But they don’t have any influence, except that they have their heart, and they’re hard-working. And they’re probably a lot more educated and sophisticated than I am about all the issues that I’m supposed to be involved in that they’re involved in. I want to be connected to every one of ’em. And I want them to be connected to us. We’d love that. So, I mean, she’s right. I don’t know exactly what else she said. What she think, that we’re not trying to talk to them?”
Well, maybe more that you are trying to hold out the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network as the premiere rap activist organization, I suggest.
“I ain’t trying to do shit. I’m trying to get Jay-Z to be premiere. My job is to get Jay-Z to be the premiere…. He saw the poetry [on Broadway] last night; he was inspired. I hope he changes. He moves people in all kinds of ways.” Notwithstanding the complaints of his detractors, Russell Simmons occupies a space that other hip-hop magnates (Roc-A-Fella Records’ co-CEO Damon Dash; Irv Gotti of Murder Inc.) have yet to reach in terms of maturity and, apparently, spiritual and political evolution.