Compa$$ionate Capitali$m

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

Chavis and Simmons reject the idea that one of hip-hop's biggest problems is itself. "Rap is a mirror image, and all of it is not pretty," says Chavis. "What hip-hop does is take the negative and flip the script. 'Dog' is now a term of endearment. 'Pimp' has become a term of endearment. 'Bitch' and 'ho' have become terms of endearment. It's hard to take the dictionary of the oppressor to understand the dictionary of the oppressed."

"That's bullshit," counters Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. "I think if we can't be self-critical, then that will be the death of hip-hop. It's just backwards. Just because we all love hip-hop, we shouldn't defend something that is indefensible." Kitwana is working with other grassroots hip-hop activists on the National Hip Hop Political Convention, slated for June in Newark. Its aims are similar to HSAN's, although the group will be pushing the hip-hop generation to be more introspective, to look to themselves for solutions.

HSAN's platform assumes that the hip-hop community's biggest problems originate from outside. But how's a guy nicknamed Joey Crack supposed to fight the Rockefeller drug laws?

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

"The challenge is that artists are artists and activists are activists. If you connect the two," says Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, which hopes to work with Simmons, "then you have a strong element and it will have real impact. But if you're just using entertainers who may not be socially conscious and are just doing PSAs, that doesn't work."

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D sees a more sinister hand in HSAN's unwillingness to critique its own. "These guys got the dick of the radio and record companies in their mouth," he says. "How you gonna be on the industry's payroll and speak out?"

Chavis and Simmons see no conflict in HSAN being partially funded by the music industry. "We get a very small percentage from the record companies, but we want more," says Simmons. "We're not compromised on what we've received. We can only be compromised by what we do. And I challenge anyone to say we've compromised on any issues."

Challenge accepted. Randy Credico, an activist against New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws, says he has watched Simmons not only compromise on an issue but compromise himself. Last year, Simmons entered the Rockefeller fight with legislators in Albany. "We had been continually organizing, and he came in late," says Credico, co-founder of Mothers of the New York Disappeared. "But we continued because I thought he was going to get involved in a long process of organizing. But he got involved for his own self-interest; he wanted to put himself in the forefront."

Not that Simmons's work was useless. "We were amazingly close," says Anthony Papa, Credico's founding partner. "The star power, the publicity, getting the issue out there to the general population—getting Russell involved was a dream come true."

HSAN officially got on board by joining the Countdown to Fairness, a coalition of activists, politicians, and entertainment figures. The group held its kickoff rally on May 8, an event Papa characterizes as "20 people standing in the street." In June, with Simmons pulling in the likes of Puffy, Jay-Z, and Mariah Carey, the group held another. This time it was 20,000 people standing in the street.

Two weeks later, Simmons was holed up in Albany with Governor Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno for seven hours trying to carve out reform legislation. For many, Pataki working legislation with the politically green Simmons seemed a ploy to keep more informed—and less manageable—activists out of the loop.

According to Deborah Small, public policy director for the Drug Policy Institute, the deal Simmons worked on would have helped only a minority of those convicted. A month later, Pataki would propose legislation from his session with Simmons, who promptly endorsed it. The activists, however, balked, effectively breaking the coalition.

"The agreement included provisions that were poison pills. I didn't feel the language was such that we ever could have accepted it," says Small, who broke with Simmons but has since reconciled. "Russell thought the pills could be taken out in negotiation. . . . To the extent that [Pataki] manipulated Russell to come out and endorse his proposal, he did a disservice to Russell and made it impossible to reach an agreement."

The point was moot anyway. The "agreement" Pataki induced went nowhere, raising serious questions about the difference between star power and real power.

Today, the state attorney general is investigating whether Simmons should have registered as a lobbyist—Simmons maintains he wasn't one. Meanwhile, Rockefeller reform is no closer. "Where's the movement now? It's constipated," says Credico. "We're starting all over again. We learned a lesson: You don't bring in celebrities who have big egos and are ill-informed."

Simmons hardly sounds stung. "God bless 'em," he says of his critics. "I'm just glad they're talking about it. [Credico] called the other day, talking about we should stay out of it."

But: "I'm not staying out of it. I'm going to do the best I can for those people in jail. The prisoners don't want me out of it. I don't think."

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