Compa$$ionate Capitali$m

Russell $immons wants to fatten the hip-hop vote—and maybe his wallet, too

There are two folding tables set up in the lobby of Miami's Caleb Center—one for each side of Russell Simmons. The gaudier table is a promo vehicle for Def-Con 3, Simmons's new energy drink. It's staffed by two young and cheery women, notably white in the heart of black Brownsville, Miami. They're chatting up a smattering of neighborhood folk, the parents and the grade-schoolers and the high school seniors who've straggled in for a glimpse of Simmons, entertainment mogul and president-for-life of hip-hop America.

The second table is, theoretically, more to the point of this October event—voter registration. Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) has set a goal of signing up 2 million new voters, one or 10 or 100 at a time, for the 2004 presidential election.

But for Simmons, business is politics and politics is business, so it's essential that while he hawks voter registration he also hawks his latest product. He's been barnstorming the country with a unique, if mixed message—register to vote, and buy Def-Con 3 while you're at it. This is his 17th stop; given the allegations of voting-rights violations that dogged Florida last time, maybe it should have been his first. On stage, Simmons, the founder of Def Jam records and Phat Farm clothing, is humbly sharing a mic with elder statesman KRS-ONE, ally Benjamin Chavis, and a guy who says he's rapper Lil Flip's older brother.

Russell Simmons, president-for-life of hip-hop America
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Russell Simmons, president-for-life of hip-hop America

At a summit in Philly, with the assistance of LL Cool J, Will Smith, and DMX, Simmons signed up 11,000 new voters. In Detroit, the event drew an estimated 17,000.

Simmons's effort to convert the Miami faithful is not going as well. He stares out into Caleb's cavernous auditorium, where only one fifth of the seats are taken. Which doesn't mean the few who came aren't glad to see him. "I think you'd make a great politician," a beaming older woman tells him before he takes the stage. "A congressman, a president."

Dapper in Phat Farm—white polo shirt, shorts, baseball cap, and sneakers—Simmons is gracious, answering questions with his Zen-like calm. "Why aren't there any girls or young people?" asks a young woman in the audience. This would be a good time for Simmons to blast the rapper Trina, a local favorite, who has apparently stiffed him. Instead, when the mic comes Simmons's way, he apologizes and promises to do better next time.

That a raunchy rapper like Trina would be central to political activism is a demonstration of synergy, Simmons-style. "When Puffy says register to vote, maybe people will do it," says Simmons. "The most important thing we gotta do is make it cool to show up at the rallies, make it in style to pay attention."

Simmons has spent his life enumerating the ways that hip-hop's energy can be converted into dollars. Now he's trying to convert that energy into a social movement capable of reinvigorating the slumbering black left. A kingmaker in the making, Simmons has given money to all the presidential candidates except John Edwards and Joe Lieberman. While he is a nominal supporter of Al Sharpton, he confesses an affinity for Howard Dean. It's hard to think of a better ally for the governor of ivory-white Vermont than young black America's most formidable potentate. At 45, Simmons is the patriarch of a generation that couldn't pick Julian Bond out of a police lineup.

But for Simmons, the road from Wall Street to K Street has proven to be a slow one-laner fraught with potholes—hard going for a guy who has always lived like a Jaguar speeding down the autobahn. The goals of HSAN are far-reaching and wide-eyed with ambition. The only in-house organizing experience belongs to Chavis, who's as respected for organizing the Million Man March as he is derided for driving the NAACP into debt.

Simmons's value as an activist hasn't yet been proved. After all, hip-hop's idea of social justice seems to begin with the unabridged right to bling. But his approach isn't without merit: If the people care only about Bennifer, then let's bring Bennifer—not Lil Flip's big brother—and hope the people will follow.

Democratizing the hip-hop nation won't be fast, cheap, or easy. Young people, regardless of race, tend to have little time for the responsibilities of citizenship. Only 32 percent of all adults between the ages of 18 and 24 turned out for the 2000 ballot, according to census figures, and just 45 percent bothered to register in the first place.

Some would say tackling the problem is not a job for Simmons, given that his methods reflect the worldview of a guy who made his fortune peddling brands. In 2001, Simmons got on the slave reparations bus, pitching atonement—and his clothing line. "Isn't it time for change?" read the Phat Farm billboards. "Economic justice now. Reparations now. It's an American justice issue."

Traditional activists bring their ideology to the battle; Simmons brings his business plan. "Look, kids couldn't spell reparations," he says. "We talk about it in a different light than some people. But I'm helping to create a dialogue. . . . It's just part of the way we do business, as well as the way we live."

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