The emergence of Hip Hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons as an establishment-endorsed political leader of the new generation of Blacks gives me pause. Being a member of this new generation, I think this should be put on the table for discussion.
Why have mainstream media’s political pundits given Russell Simmons an open mic? He’s a guest on Charlie Rose; he’s become a constant feature in the New York Times, Newsweek Magazine and many other newspapers and magazine across the country. Hailed as among the one hundred most influential African Americans by Crain Magazine, can helicopter to Albany for private meetings with New York Governor George Pataki on the Rockefeller drug laws. He has organized fundraisers for senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, works closely with former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, teams up with democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton to register new voters, and dines with Shimon Peres, Israel’s former Prime Minister discussing a possible Middle East youth summit.
Either the king makers have peeped Simmons’ ability to use his influence over urban youth as leverage in his business and political ventures and they want to control him, or the severity of the US economic recession deems it time to send in the clowns.
Russell Simmons and his Hip Hop Summit Action Network have orchestrated several very high profile, massive political rallies in New York City, using his connections in the entertainment industry to get mega- stars like P. Diddy, Mariah Carey, 50 cent, LL Cool J, Jay Z and Alicia Keys to attend and draw thousands of Black youth. But it was painfully clear that the majority of youth in attendance were more interested in getting a glimpse of their favorite rap artist than in the city budget cuts in education or draconian drug sentencing laws that send many of our peers to prison for decades. Simmons and his star-studded entourage put on a good show but have yet to present a clear political program of action and vision for Black people.
Black youth have a tremendous amount of unused political power. Young people represent the most revolutionary force in all movements for social justice around the world. We have the energy and tenacity to fundamentally change our conditions, and we have nothing to lose. That’s why leadership is so important.
Black youth in the United States are under attack from all quarters. Police brutality, failing schools, mass unemployment, foster care, inadequate health care, and the exploitation of a criminal justice system by large scale corporations all simultaneously attack us in order to break our natural spirits of resistance. But the most pervasive and unrelenting attack against us has been conducted by the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry with its overt and covert manipulation of Black Hip Hop culture.
Culture is a weapon. Like a double-edged sword, culture can be wielded in the interest of oppressed people to further our struggle for self-determinations or in the interest of our oppressors to keep us enslaved.
Originally, Hip Hop was a source of strength in our community. Created by young grassroots people on the streets, it defied the status quo. From seemingly nothing, no money, no musical instruments, no multi- national conglomerates or political connections, it emerged as an international cultural force. Hip Hop exemplified our peoples innate creativity, social consciousness, and self-determination. It was our voice of resistance.
Now that Hip Hop is totally controlled by giant international corporations, “artists” promoted by industry and media executives, including Russell Simmons, reflect a superficial petty criminality and a vulgar individualistic materialism that erodes our collective struggle. The systematic degradation of Hip Hop is an example of the use of our culture to further the interests of our oppressors — the wrong side of the double-edged sword.
Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop cultural credentials are key to his ability to influence this “new generation” on political and economic issues. The phenomenal rise of Def Jam Records in the 1980’s with groups like Public Enemy and RUN DMC made Simmons and his partners Lyor Cohen (son of Israeli immigrants) and Rick Ruben very wealthy. In 1999 they sold Def Jam to Seagrams Universal Music Group for $130 million. Universal was subsequently acquired by Vivendi to form the international entertainment behemoth Vivendi Universal. Lyor Cohen was named Chairman and CEO of the Island Def Jam Music Group and Simmons named Chairman of the Def Jam Records division. The brash B-boys that burst on the music scene are now corporate executives towing the company line.
In an effort to ignite young people to social action, many Black grassroots community leaders have reached out to Hip Hop artists and impresarios for assistance. Sometimes these efforts are fruitful and solid relationships are forged based on mutual respect and in the interest of our collective struggle. Hip Hop maverick Tupac Shakur had intimate ties to respected political leaders like Dr. Mutulu Shakur and was a living example of a successful cultural / political link. Tupac was the co-founder of The Code Foundation, a youth organization involved in the current struggles against racism, police brutality, and drug abuse, human rights and reparations. His untimely and unresolved murder is a reflection of the work that needs to be done to make our generation aware of our collective political power and the power of our culture as a mechanism to spark the fire.
Individual artists with consciousness like Chuck D, Mos Def, Common, Dead Prez, and others have also forged links with grassroots leaders and committed their creative skills to our collective struggle against oppression.
But when grassroots political activists reach out to Russell Simmons there is a recurring disappointment. When organizers of the Millions for Reparations Rally in Washington DC met with Simmons, after going through an obstacle course of handlers, Simmons said “Wait till next year, I’ll do it and I even let you all speak.” Rally organizers declined and decided to do it the hard way–without the superstars, media access, and strings attached.
Simmons also launched a special “reparations” sneaker brand in his clothing line. Advertisements for it have proclaimed that a percentage of the proceeds from the sneakers would be donated to the reparations efforts. When a youth organization working on reparations issues contacted sales executives at Phat Farm about donations, they were told that a larger percentage of the proceeds were applied to advertising the sneakers so that the idea of reparations is being exposed. This maneuver is the extent of company’s contribution to the struggle for slavery reparations.
When Pepsi Cola dropped Ludracris, a black Def Jam recording artist, from its television commercial because of his profane and sexually explicit lyrics, Simmons threatened to organize a boycott citing Pepsi’s use of the equally vulgar, but white Ozzie Osbourne. Imagine boycotters chanting “Equal opportunity vulgarity!” Nevertheless, Pepsi, acutely aware of the political and economic power of Black youth, acquiesced and agreed to donate millions of dollars to unspecified youth organizations.
Like Pepsi, Courvoisier Cognac is strengthening its ties to the new generation of Blacks through Simmons, the Hip Hop power broker. GlobalHue Advertising Agency named Mr. Simmons its Vice Chairman and Senior Team member of the Courvoisier Cognac Team, which pushes the cognac for Allied Domecq Spirits of North America.
Simmons’s aggressive business style often rears its head in his attempts at coalition grassroots political campaigns. The hostile take-over of the “Drop the Rock” (Rockefeller drug laws) coalition may be the most telling. For the past 30 years, the draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines incorporated into the NY state drug laws by former Governor Nelson Rockefeller, have sent hundreds of thousands Black and Latino youth to prison for decades for minor drug offenses. These laws have contributed significantly to the rapid development of new state prisons and the corporate exploitation of prison labor. A broad coalition of families, lawyers, ex inmates, students, churches, unions, civil right organizations, community activists, clergy, elected officials, and others waged a long and intense battle to repeal the laws. In recent years, they had been gaining considerable ground and the drug laws became a pivotal issue in the 2002 campaign for New York State Governor.
In an effort to galvanized Black and Latino youth, coalition members requested the assistance of Russell Simmons. Then Simmons, at the urging of his friend and failed democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, staged another star-studded massive rally at New York’s City Hall drawing thousands. Cuomo was the Master of Ceremonies.
Thereafter Simmons began meeting with the New York Governor Pataki without informing or inviting veteran grassroots coalition members to attend. Negotiations between Simmons, Pataki, and two leading members of the state legislature ensued. In the end Russell Simmons, who had audaciously appointed himself HNIC (head negro in charge) of the coalition, compromised their mission.
Republican Governor George Pataki called a press conference and stood side by side with Russell Simmons and democratic presidential candidate, Al Sharpton. Together they joyfully announced cosmetic changes to the drug laws affecting a tiny percentage of its victims. All of them praised Pataki’s proposed changes, which left the mandatory sentencing guidelines that lock up thousands of young Black and Latino men and women every year, intact. Some people now call them the “Simmons Drug Laws.”
According to a Newsweek report, when asked about the ramifications of his actions, Simmons said. “I’m not running for anything. I don’t give a f-k. I did what I thought was right.”
New Black leader?
Russell Simmons, Inc. has reaped enormous profits from the new generation of Blacks through his position and salary as Chairman of Def Jam Records and Vice Chairman of GlobalHue Advertising Agency, Rush Communications, Phat Farm Fashions, Baby Phat, Rush Visa, Simmons- Latham Media and other capitalist ventures. He has aligned himself with the corporate class and works in their political and economic interest. More often than not, these interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the majority of Black people.
Simmons’s rebirth as a political activist is entirely manufactured. Wrapped in stylish Hip Hop packaging, displayed on top shelf media outlets, and presented to the new generation of consumers as the new and improved Black leader. He is a product of corporate America, and we shouldn’t buy it.
The corporate imposition of Simmons as a “leader” is an affront to our people and should be exposed at every turn. Leaders come from the people and their skills are sharpened and honed through struggle with the people. Our fight for human rights and self- determination demands principled leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the genuine political and economic development of us all.
Russell Simmons’ leadership can only be defined as: Def Sham.
AMADI AJAMU can be reached at: Amadi4@aol.com