Russell Simmons: A New Black Leader?

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 […]

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


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


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’ss 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’ss 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*ck. 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’ 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’s leadership can only be defined

as — Def Sham.