The Swami of Hip Hop

Russell Simmons Morphs Into a Mogul-Activist

HSAN intends to make good on its electoral objectives by way of the alliance with Rap the Vote. Simmons's presence assures visibility and access to his contacts and resources, ingredients that sweeten the pot. For instance, voter registration has already started at concerts such as Jay-Z's Sprite Liquid Mix Tour. The idea is to create momentum in this fall's elections that builds toward a substantial mobilization in the 2004 presidential elections.

Still, there is a perception that Simmons and the HSAN are getting more exposure than other activists due to their notoriety, and not their productivity. Simmons doesn't dispute the point. "I help. We didn't invent shit," said Simmons. "We get more press than we deserve. I'm only an advocate and supporter." Jeff Johnson, National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division, said, "Who do we blame? Do we blame Russell or do we blame the press?"

Simmons maintains that his activities are entirely motivated by his desire to make positive contributions and is quick to quell any speculation about a personal interest in public office. "In yoga we talk a lot about selfless action is part of the way to God-realization or self-realization, and lasting happiness. I'm only thinking of how do I make my actions selfless," said Simmons.

It is his practice of yoga that governs his business and personal life and, in turn, these beliefs extend to his philanthropy and sociopolitical activism. All are interconnected in a synergy of commercialism, spirituality, advocacy, and B-boy bravado. "I spend half of my working hours in business and the other half are in philanthropic, social, and political initiatives," said Simmons. "The business initiatives that I take on are conscious."

Simmons recently combined two goals to create a successful marketing plan. Attempting to break into the mainstream sneaker industry, Simmons tied his sales campaign to the issue of reparations and became the first black-owned sneaker company to move major numbers and at the same time heightened awareness of the drive for reparations. "I sold a shitload of sneakers," said Simmons.

"What are they criticizing me for?" asked Simmons. "What I'm doing is certainly not hurting the movement, and I'm hopeful that it really is helpful. I certainly respect their opinions. I try not to be exploitive in a negative way. But, yes, the reparations campaign was very successful for not only selling sneakers but awareness."

Hip hop has significantly affected the economic welfare of many individuals and some farsighted members of the hip hop world; a foundation in the political arena is the next logical step in securing a social-justice agenda.

"We've done so much as a culture to empower each other, from clothes to records to production companies to businesses, but what we have not done is provide the means for us to have a political voice," said Def Jam president Kevin Liles, a partner in the Rap the Vote initiative."If every day we can urge kids from 12 to 24 to go into a store and buy a CD. Let's change it from a consumer dollar to hip hop voting power. If you can buy a CD, you can damn sure go and put somebody in office that we can hold accountable and responsible."

Hip hop's coming of age has brought the realization that it's no longer just a teenage phenomenon but a socioeconomic entity with the potential to bridge the gap between the civil rights era and the current cyber-age dominated by rap's "bling-bling" materialistic mentality.

"There is a disconnect between some of the older organizations and young people," says Simmons. "The hip hop revolution started 20-some-odd years ago. The hip hop community, they're 35, 38 years old and there are two generations that were left behind." HSAN hopes to connect grassroots activists, the hip hop community, rap artists and civil rights groups.

"It's about connecting these institutions with grassroots hip hop activists because artists aren't all going to be activists, and we don't need to call them to be activists," said Johnson. Artist-activist Mutulu, a/k/a M-1, of the politically charged rap duo dead prez, is looking for more concrete action but welcomes the help. "Whatever it is, I'm hoping that we have more people fighting to make something happen."

True to his synchronistic style, Simmons is using his name brand to market political consciousness. There is a marked contrast in the messages of today's hip hop as compared with its last period of awareness in the mid-'80s. A scan of current playlists and sales charts reveals a programmed diet lacking moral substance and philosophical depth. The result is that the average hip hop fans aren't interested in making a difference but in "rocking platinum and ice" and spinning 22-inch chrome rims on over-customized SUVs. The politically active segment of the hip hop community is a minority, and its economic impact is small. HSAN wants to reverse this kind of mentality.

"If I can put my fingers on two top issues that we are going to challenge relentlessly, that is poverty and ignorance because a lot of the stuff that goes down in our community is because of economic deprivation and also ignorance," said Muhammad.

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