The Swami of Hip Hop

Russell Simmons Morphs Into a Mogul-Activist

A little over a year after forming the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) and fresh from relaunching the Rap the Vote voter mobilization, Russell Simmons is feeling good about his prospects despite critics constantly nipping at the heels of his straight-out-the-box Phat Farm sneakers. The music magnate and fashion mogul has been diligently nurturing a hip hop political power movement and marketing social consciousness to a generally apathetic constituency in a quest that synthesizes his business interests, spiritual philosophies, and philanthropic ambitions.

Besides the voter campaign, a partnership with the NAACP, his activities in recent weeks alone have included the announcement, at the National Urban League's annual conference, of a joint literacy initiative, Urban Leaguer Def Jam Reader; a seminar to inform rappers of wealth-building strategies; and a press conference in the interests of educational budget spending that brought together Mark Green and Reverend Al Sharpton.

"Mark Green and Reverend Sharpton have not been in public together working on the same initiatives," said Simmons. "I was amazed that the Daily News and the Post, who were at that press conference, did not cover the fact that Sharpton and Green were on the same podium." Simmons caught flak for supporting Green in last year's run for the mayor's office that ended in a controversial flyer campaign with racist overtones aimed at Fernando Ferrer and Sharpton.

"It wasn't about any one person. It's never about one person. It's about the masses. The people who are suffering," said Simmons. He maintains his support for Green and still thinks that he was the better choice for mayor in light of Mayor Bloomberg's willingness to cut programs that affect economically disadvantaged communities.

"We killed ourselves," said Simmons. "Our people got a little mad at a person who had basically been a poor people's advocate and we moved on to Bloomberg to teach Mark Green a lesson, and we taught ourselves a lesson. None of [them] have been visible. The black leadership who at the last minute made their choices—where the hell are they when [Bloomberg] is fucking with the homeless or fucking with our kids' education? Why is Cynthia Nixon leading the charge? It's embarrassing."

The Green situation is indicative of the choppy waters that Simmons has sailed since entering the political sphere as a self-appointed lobbyist, supporter, and fundraiser for a motley crew of candidates and causes. The emerging power broker has given his name, money, and other resources to Hillary Clinton and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, among others. Ironically, Simmons found himself at odds with Clinton when she co-sponsored the Media Marketing Accountability Act, a bill that Simmons successfully protested as being against free speech and primarily targeting rap music.

But Simmons's generosity doesn't buy him respect with everyone. "There's a sentiment among a lot of black elected officials and even some civil rights leaders that maybe I'm uninformed," said Simmons. In addition, Simmons has turned off others with his endorsement choices. Specifically, Simmons has been challenged for his decision to support Cuomo over African American candidate Carl McCall. Along the way he has learned a few lessons. For instance, he has reconsidered his beef with "Hip hop Minister" and Movement for CHHANGE leader Conrad Muhammad. The onetime colleagues had ideological differences last year that erupted into mud-slinging.

"I cannot find fault with other people's efforts, and I really have never done anything worse that I'm aware of or that backfired more than being critical of Conrad's efforts," says Simmons. "I could only say that he is an activist in many causes and he intends to do good things for the community."

But despite his personal development, some challenge that his political work hasn't gone far enough. HSAN, which is primarily funded by Simmons and is set up to implement a 15-point platform for economic, social, and legislative empowerment, has faced criticism in the media. For one, its close ties to Nation of Islam head Minister Louis Farrakhan has been problematic for some, and the group has taken heat for the past improprieties, including allegations of sexual misconduct, of HSAN President and CEO, Minister Benjamin Chavis Muhammad.

The questions have come not just from the mainstream press but even publications like The Source magazine, the bible of hip hop, whose publisher is one of the founders of HSAN. The Source criticized Simmons and his organization for having bumper-sticker philosophies and lacking focus.

"It's a process," said Muhammad. "Movement building takes time. It's not overnight. Movement building is not something spur of the moment, where you react to what's in the news today. Movement building has to have a long-range vision. We want to change America."

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network's agenda calls for freedom, social, political, and economic development, and empowerment for the hip hop nation. In addition, HSAN has set up a PAC, Nu America, has been building local youth councils across the country, and has a sister organization focused solely on education and research.

"We intend to flex the muscle of hip hop," said Muhammad. "In municipal, state, congressional, and other federal elections, ongoing." However, Nu America, according to the Federal Election Commission records, has not registered any activity for the 2001-2002 cycle.

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