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.
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.”
Listen in as Simmons and his brother Run, one third of Run-DMC, are chowing down on takeout from Subway and talking up the social benefits of Simmons’s new energy drink, Def-Con 3. “We were going to give away 20 or 30 percent of the proceeds,” Simmons says, sitting in his New York headquarters. “I decided to give away 100 percent, at least for a period of time, to develop the hip-hop summit. We want to register a lot of voters, and that shit is expensive.”
Simmons talks with his mouth full. Meticulously groomed, he somehow still wears the cloak of the disheveled. His cadence is rough and abrupt; words issue from him with the grace and elegance of an avalanche. But it’s his candor, even his fondness for profanity, that allows him to spin you, even if he isn’t trying to.
A natural broker, he knows how to give ground without really giving it. Last fall, Simmons came into conflict with Farrakhan would-be Malik Zulu Shabazz over Simmons’s nonsupport of the 2003 Million Youth March. According to Simmons, Shabazz had threatened to “expose” him.
“You can’t expose me, nigga!” says a suddenly animated Simmons.
Then: “I love a lot of what you have to say.”
But: “A lot of what you have to say, I don’t necessarily think is my struggle.”
Finally: “Everybody has their own struggle.”
Ask about Phat Farm, and he’ll lean forward incredulously and, in a semi-nasal tone, declare, “I still got the hottest clothing company in the business, and it’s a lotta niggas with clothing companies.”
Is he hotter than Sean John? “Well, I don’t wanna compete.”
But: “My numbers are bigger. My growth is bigger.”
Yet: “I think, I don’t know. There are stores we’re not hot in.”
Finally: “But overall, we’re doing better business. I think our overall numbers are the best.”
His Clintonesque combo of straight talk and compromise—he’s comfortable enough to speak his mind, but malleable enough to seemingly concede a point—has won Simmons allies and friends that run the gamut from Louis Farrakhan to Bobby Shriver. “He’s a very dynamic individual,” says Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash. “He’s got friends in fashion, in music, friends in the political world, and then overall he’s just a nice guy. Russell is the type of guy who if he asks you to do something, you just do it—even if you know nothing about the issue.”
Throughout our conversation, Simmons quotes from his yoga teachings. When he talks about his transformation to being an activist, he credits his wife, his kids, his age (“I’m old”). But as much as anything he credits yoga, which is all about the sort of odd marriages—like, say, your mouth to your knees—that Simmons has specialized in executing.
“You wanna go to yoga with me?” he asks, breaking from an evaluation of yoga teachers with the Reverend Run.
“Yeah, sure,” I reply.
“I’m gonna take him to yoga with me,” he says to one of his PR people. Then he picks up the phone to grab one of his personal assistants.
“What’s your name again?” he asks.
“I got a big nigga named Ta-Nehisi that I’m gonna take to my six o’clock yoga class,” he tells his assistant.
Simmons began his forays into social enlightenment by launching the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, in concert with Benjamin Chavis, in July 2001. By then, Simmons had left his footprints all over the entertainment world. Briefly recapped: He got his start by founding Rush Management and handling the careers of Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. In 1984, he partnered with Rick Rubin to form Def Jam.
Between Rush and Def Jam, Simmons would leave his imprint on everyone from Eric B. and Rakim to EPMD to Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. He started Phat Farm, Def Comedy Jam, and Def Poetry Jam. By understanding that niche products don’t have to be, Simmons made millions—and had a blast along the way. “I didn’t make ‘Rock Box’ thinking, ‘Oh, how much money is this gonna get me,’ ” says Simmons. “I made ‘Rock Box’ thinking this is a lot of fun and niggas is gonna bug out when they hear this. And, so they did. I enjoyed it. They sent me money. The money didn’t matter.”
As chair of HSAN, Simmons has directed the group to take on everything from blocking cuts in New York’s education budget to curbing file-sharing and preserving freedom of speech. He’s been criticized for adopting a veneer of activism even as he protects his own interests, but his real goal is to influence electoral politics. To what end is hard to say. Through the lens of HSAN, hip-hop activism is as amorphous as the music and culture it springs from. Its leadership planned it that way.
“We universally represent all of hip-hop. We didn’t say we’re only going to work with artists who do good videos and good lyrics,” says Chavis. “We represent all of the artists, from gangsta hip-hop to gospel hip-hop. It gives us the ability to help encourage all of the artists to seek a path that is constructive and not self-destructive.”
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?
“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.”
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 things—like 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 stamp—now 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 him—now that he’s no longer here to shame them. Ditto for the Black Panthers. Everybody says their dad wore a black beret—now 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 Turner—now 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 ahimsa—nonviolence,” 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.”