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Then: "I'm not saying who's right and wrong."
Finally: "I want to get something done."
This is what can happen when you make a deal with Russell Simmons: You learn there are rods of titanium more limber than you. This becomes obvious to me 15 minutes into a yoga class with Simmons at the Jivamukti Yoga Center, base camp for Hollywood types (Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna) looking to connect with their inner selves.
Toward the end of class, everyone is doing headstands. Most of the students are thin white women who look like they might have been made to do yoga. Simmons is not particularly thin, white, or womanly (though he has claimed to be a lesbian trapped in a man's body). But when it comes time for headstands, he shoots his body into the air with the deftness and ease of Rakim over "Schoolboy Crush."
Yoga, with its premium on compromise and surrender, is the perfect art for Simmons. If only we can release our self-doubt, we can begin to do wonderful thingslike marry our mouth to our knees, hip-hop to sports drinks, celebrity to activism.
Simmons hopes he can add a coolness factor to social insurgency. "The most important thing we gotta do is make it cool to show up at the rallies, make it in style to pay attention," says Simmons. "At the hip-hop summit in Philly, we had tremendous success. It was the place to be. LL Cool J was there, Wyclef was there, Damon Dash was there. But no one could get in unless they registered to vote."
Fair enough. But Simmons's populist chic doesn't square too well with the history of progressive activism. Malcolm was anathema to mainstream black America, and finally to even the fringe Nation of Islam. Forty years later, it's easy to quote Malcolm and put him on a postage stampnow that we've killed him. Martin Luther King Jr. was ultimately abandoned by the civil rights establishment for his stand against poverty and war. Today he has a national holiday, and even conservatives have to honor himnow that he's no longer here to shame them. Ditto for the Black Panthers. Everybody says their dad wore a black beretnow that J. Edgar Hoover isn't alive to tap their phones.
Progressive vision almost always lacks mass appeal. While possibly enjoying a bit of rebellious sheen, prophetic insight is decidedly uncool; it involves the sacrifice of family livelihoods, the sullying of reputations, and, at worst, death. Only the afterglow is romantic. Everybody says they would have fought with Nat Turnernow that none of us are slaves.
To his credit, Simmons isn't claiming messiah status, and only his most bitter critics doubt his intentions. "In yoga, you practice ahimsanonviolence," he says. "When I breathe, I compromise someone's air space. For that reason I don't eat any animal or any animal product.
"But," says Simmons, pointing to his bomber, "I'm wearing leather. I do the best I can. You know what I'm saying? Everybody does the best they can."