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Whites have accepted Russell Simmons as the guru of urban black youth culture. He has sold them a bill of goodsthat we are penny-chasing, champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day Sambos, pimps, and playas.
Russell Simmons and Conrad Muhammad, two titans of the hip hop culture, have clashed over upcoming summits both have planned to chart the future of rap, modern music's most volatile art form.
Muhammad, founder of A Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), accused Simmons of condoning violence by refusing to condemn the frequent use of words like "bitch" and "nigga" in rap lyrics, and of trying to derail his April 30 Campaign for Dignity Meeting. Simmons, one of the pioneers of rap music and the founder of Def Jam Records (now a division of RUSH Communications, which includes the Phat Farm clothing empire), described Muhammad as obsessed with efforts to censor rappers and bent on undermining the largest gathering ever of hip hop artists and executives, scheduled for June.
The feud over the direction of rap erupted on April 16 after Muhammad blasted hip hop executives for failing to mentor young, aspiring rappers, which he said leaves them prey to the pitfalls of the gangsta lifestyle. At the time, Muhammad was speaking in favor of a lesser sentence for Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, the 21-year-old gangsta rapper who was convicted of assault last month in the highly publicized 1999 Club New York shooting. Hip hop idol Sean "Puffy" Combs was acquitted of gun possession and bribery charges in the same case. Barrow faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on June 1. Although Muhammad did not name names, Simmons felt that the former Nation of Islam cleric, known as "the hip hop minister," was pointing the finger at people like him and Combs.
The day after Muhammad's statement, Simmons sent an e-mail to hip hop executives and other music industry figures, touting his summit to "address various issues affecting the very survival of the . . . spirit of hip hop." He said Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad's estranged spiritual father, "has agreed" to host the summit. As if pitting Farrakhan against Muhammad weren't enough, Simmons concluded his brief message by ripping into the activist. "Whether or not you attend this summit," wrote Simmons, "I urge that you do not support open and aggressive critics of the hip hop community (i.e., C. DeLores Tucker, Bob Dole, or Conrad Muhammad)."
One of the spammed executives forwarded Simmons's warning to Muhammad, who wasted no time firing back in an interview with the Voice. "This is an entertainment figure who really has contributed mightily to the degradation of the African American community by corrupting the morals of young people," Muhammad said. "Instead of him being in a spirit of repentance and offering to use his power to right some of his wrongs, he engages in a divisive campaign to stop a minister whom he has called on many times in the past for help when he was in trouble."
Muhammad portrayed Simmons as someone who has exploited hip hop for the benefit of white fans, who he claims represent 70 percent of the rap consumer market. "Whites have accepted Russell Simmons as the guru of urban black youth culture," Muhammad sneered. "He has sold them a bill of goodsthat we are penny-chasing, champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day Sambos, pimps, and playas. This Russell Simmons, who would rather wrap me up in a Bob Dole jacket or a C. DeLores Tucker dress, is selling Mammy and Sambo culture to white America."
Muhammad asserted that dragging a big gun like Farrakhan into the hip hop war was an act of desperation. "Russell really thinks he's clever," scoffed the activist who was minister of Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7 and once served as Farrakhan's emissary to the hip hop nation. "In his attempt to stop me, he goes to Minister Farrakhan so that when I hear Minister Farrakhan's name, I'll back up and stop doing what I'm doing," Muhammad continued. But he contended that the cancer-stricken Farrakhan would never let some "little music man" use him that way. "I am confident that will not happen," he said. "I'm confident that he will not join in an unholy alliance with Russell Simmons to block a rap summit that I am organizing."
For his part, Simmons belittled the black Muslim evangelist, questioning his raptivist credentials and proclaiming that Muhammad can't be a "hip hop minister" when he doesn't have a hip hop constituency.
But Muhammad said that his hip hop ministry is well established. After nearly 20 years of shuttle diplomacy between warring factions of the hip hop nation, many feel that Muhammad has earned the title of "hip hop minister." The baby-face activist, once considered an heir to Farrakhan, said he has brokered more truces among rappers and done more to promote the culture of the ghetto griot than critics like Simmons care to acknowledge.