The Swami of Hip Hop
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 choiceswhere 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.
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.
"It might become fashionable. It might be the norm that not just kids with dreadlocks and alternative lifestyles are talking about political and social consciousness but niggas in baldheads, headbands and Phat Farm," said Simmons. "Mainstream black young people and mainstream white hip hop fans might think it's cool to be politically and socially conscious."
The impact of such a widespread awakening is not lost on Simmons. "What does it mean that 80 percent of our buyers are not African American and there's a connection now between the trailer park and the projects?" In Simmons's opinion, hip hop has a potential impact that extends far beyond the inner cities where it was created. "I'm watering these good seeds and doing what makes sense," said Simmons. "Somebody's got to know what they'll accept. Somebody has to help and support the idea for people who are leading to lead gently, accept where they are, and not to judge them."
But can political consciousness be packaged and marketed? "I don't know if you can market certain consciousnesses," said Mutulu. "I hope that you can, so that it could become infectious and make the ones who are faking it real. If the people have to be sold police brutality as a concept in order to fight against it, then, 'by any means necessary.' "
"If we utilize marketing skills that have been proven to be effective to engender social consciousness," said Muhammad, "and thereby lead to social change, then we see that as an affirmation. We're serious about change." Simmons sees this objective as the cornerstone of HSAN's efforts."The biggest piece of work we could do is this. The most important thing that we can do is make social and political consciousness cool," said Simmons. "Everything else is minuscule compared to having some greater percentage of the hip hop community interested in the social and political landscape of this country," he said. "I can't run the streets for every campaign. I do the best I can."
"I don't quit anything," said Simmons, "Phat Farm took six years before it sold enough clothes to be profitable. I lost money for six straight years. I don't expect to change the world overnight, but I loan my name and resources to good causes. I don't quit on 'em. The work doesn't end just because of one win."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.