Five Minutes with Russell Simmons

[Editor's Note: This interview appeared originally on]

Russell Simmons, hip-hop entrepreneur and activist, was awarded the Freedom of Speech Award at this month's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen for his groundbreaking Def Comedy Jam series, which was a critical forum for launching young, African-American talent like Dave Chappelle into the mainstream. Presenting the award was Center for American Progress President John Podesta.

Simmons is the co-founder of Def Jam, the pioneering hip-hop label that has been home to Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Redman, Method Man and more. He is now a multimedia mogul, with Def Comedy Jam, Def Poetry Jam (hosted by Mos Def), Phat Farm and Baby Phat clothing lines as well as films like The Nutty Professor joining his empire.

In his spare time, he launched the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) in 2001 to provide an organization that is by and for the hip-hop generation. HSAN engages young people in issues ranging from equal access to quality education, freedom of speech, voter registration, youth leadership, economic literacy and opportunity, and the reformation of New York State 's Rockefeller Drug Laws.

John Podesta sat down with Russell Simmons to talk about youth empowerment, yoga, and who the real gangstas are.

 John Podesta: Def Comedy Jam gave the opportunity to marginalized voices in society--[comedians that] didn't have mainstream audience, and through Def ComedyJam you gave them a mainstream audience. Now, with the success of the whole range of platforms that you provide, have those voices really penetrated the mainstream? Or do we still need to work to get the voices of the marginalized into the mainstream?

Russell Simmons: Well, it's an ongoing process. Of course a lot of work has to be done. But it's good that poor people have the mic. I always say that about rappers -- poor people got the mic. They won't give it back. They say a lot of things that make a lot of people uncomfortable. They're voicing ideas that are not otherwise going to get heard in a big way all over the world. There are so many songs that speak truth to power. And they say things -- although you may not get them right away -- about the poverty, the ignorance in the community, the lack of opportunity in the community -- they speak to all those issues. Songs that people are so offended by -- listen closely. Gangsta rappers, they call them. Not nearly as gangsta as the things that inspire them -- you know, a gangsta government that we operate under.

So things that we take for granted, and the things that we push under the rug, they bring up again, make us reassess them, and think about them. The suffering and the poverty in our communities that's not addressed by our politicians is in the forefront of our culture. So it's good that these poets and rappers can say what they're saying.

JP: One of the things that come through loud and clear through rap music, through the poets, through the comedians is that they are authentic voices -- they really have something to say because they're speaking from personal experience. As you look around the political world today, do you hear anything authentic coming from the political people speaking to people, particularly in communities of color?

RS: I'm not listening that much. You know, I support different candidates at different times -- there's always one better than the other. I like that Andrew Cuomo, for instance, [who] is running for Attorney General. I liked what he said about the death penalty when no one else would say it. I liked that he talked about fighting poverty -- not like most politicians. He might have been a little bit of a young Sargent Shriver, someone who wants to inspire people to break the mold. So I hope he really lives up to that. He's talking about a lot of things that don't poll well.

But I like most of the spiritual teachers that tell us the same things that the politicians don't want to talk about. His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke with such a sweet heart, he told us the truth -- the stuff we ignore … about our foreign policy or our insensitivity to our poor…. Politicians don't talk like that. Mostly spiritual people do. So I like listening to those kinds of voices.

JP: Do you think artists are providing a more serious and authentic critique of what's wrong with society today than the political world?

RS: Well, they tell you what people are thinking. Sometimes they know how complex it can be, but sometimes what sounds so complex is really pretty simple. So in other words, the smarter we get, the dumber we get. You know how dumb we can be -- if all of our sophisticates do all the good work. The smart ones, the educated ones put people in ovens, enslave people, bomb innocent people, let people die and complain about the few that die in their backyard. Rude, crude shit -- that's what the smart people do. So the rappers are really good at being the ones who just say what's on their mind, and make what's supposed to be so complex simple.

It's not really discussion about Sudan, Nigeria issue, all these things that are coming up right in front of us. We're still talking about little things that affect us personally, that we think affects us -- it all affects us. I like what Bono is doing. I love what he and Bobby Shriver are doing, that Red campaign, the One campaign -- just raise consciousness and even money for some of the stuff that Bush promised -- like the African AIDS thing.

But of course we spend so much on the war. The money we spend is fucking unbelievable. With people suffering … And no one talks about it! And no Democrat's saying nothing that's inspiring to me. The people with big voices -- politicians. I'm sure they believe what they're saying, but …. they can't say the obvious. Why they can't pay attention to our truth? I mean I think it's the truth …

JP: I think that's what there is a hunger out there for--

RS: Yeah, they're looking for somebody to say something.

JP: The Hip Hop Summit Action Network has done great work in voter registration, they've done amazing campaigns. In recent days, you've chosen to focus on financial literacy, and I think some people were surprised by that -- it wasn't an obvious choice.

RS: The Hip Hop Summit Action Network is about empowerment for the hip-hop generation. Voting is a strong indicator that you're paying attention to your connection to your community and to this country. Taking control of your life is a very, very important thing for people who feel lost, for people who feel locked out. Voting is a very, very important thing. Whether you win or lose, it's your investment -- you're now connected.

So financial literacy is something that's more practical to some, but it's the same thing. You know, you say let me look up my FICA score. Let me see what my credit rating is. Let me have an idea about what I gotta do to have good credit. How do I start to build wealth -- with the few dollars I have, can I make it more? You know, lots of people who go out to the Hip-Hop Summits are really poor -- they say, why are you talking about money? But the Summits are usually about the artists giving them the first and most important thing which is investing in themselves, devoting a night to looking up the score. That is the first step -- one step toward personal empowerment.

Rappers tell them that hard work, dedication, focus and resilience -- faith, also -- these things go into success. With those things, you can't miss. You have to have faith in that process, and what will give you faith in that process is when you see somebody come out of your own community. Eminem hosted three Summits -- this will be his fourth Summit. Nelly hosted two Summits. Snoop Dogg did two. Will Smith did one. Puffy did one. Jay-Z did one. All the artists -- 50 Cent -- all of them have invested. And when kids go to the Summit and see them on the stage, they say, these are people who come from my struggle. And the things the rappers tell them, it's just about taking control. And if you work hard, you can be a success in the world -- a worldly success. It can happen.

JP: Some of this is about personal knowledge, personal responsibility, personal empowerment. Some of it, though, is also about abusive lending practices.

RS: Oh, that's a different subject, a huge subject. Predatory lending -- and all the abuse of poor people, just in general. The people who have the least pay the most for all services.

JP: And is part of the empowerment agenda to try to change that practice politically?

RS: Yeah, to get out of that mud they put you in -- people taking advantage of your condition.

JP: After Katrina, there was a mainstream media focus on the plight of poor people for at least a brief few months. E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, called it the shortest war on poverty in history. But there are some things that are going on -- there are ballot initiatives on minimum wage around the country.

RS: These [conservative] think-tanks have raised all this money and investment, they really want to fight that minimum wage thing. You want the people to talk about it. You want the cultural people to do the work, because they make the biggest difference. Look what happened -- Governor Pataki gave me the pen, and he signed that change in the drug laws. Bob Ehrlich -- another Republican by the way -- gave us the credit for pushing it and bringing it to his attention. When rappers bring it to your attention, you gotta lay down. You can't have 50 Cent and Mariah Carey telling you about an abusive law that you hadn't heard about -- and they start talking about it, and then Puffy's talking about it, and next thing you know there's a snowball and all the people are point their fingers at you -- if you're a politician, you might do some work. I want to start talking about what can we do to get the artists to talk about this subject. We need help.

JP: Well, we're working with ACORN and some others on minimum wage issues.

RS: I want you to ask a 21-year-old kid from Brooklyn if he's even heard of ACORN. Ask him. Then ask him if he's heard of Reverend Run. Or 50 Cent. Or Snoop Dogg. The leaders of ACORN are talking about that issue -- and they're probably doing some lobbying, some work--

JP: Well, they're doing some grassroots organizing.

RS: Grassroots work? Well shit, all they have to do is get on TV and say it, and people start talking about it. It's a big issue, I think. All the people who are suffering, who are getting the minimum wage today, who need it to be raised -- they don't know that you're working on it. They could know in a matter of days if you spent the money in the right place. In days. Not months, not groundwork and millions of dollars -- days. So it's good to find good partners in your idea to raise awareness on subjects.

JP: So, in the work that is happening on poverty, what is completely missing?

RS: Oh shit. I don't know. Education is first. No Child Left Behind -- what is that? They're all being left behind! Right? It's the war on poverty and ignorance -- I think that's Sargent Shriver, I didn't make that up. That's it. Our schools are like prisons. What about the art programs? The imagination is very important. [My organization] funds 70 art programs in New York -- small, but that's our initiative to try to bring that back into schools. The imagination is how things get done. You have to cultivate creativity. You also have to work on a component that's uplifting for people who are struggling. I'm going to meet next week with the Secretary of Education. I want to bring yoga into the schools.

JP: That actually raises the last question I wanted to ask you -- it's my Oprah question, so don't answer it if you don't want to -- you're very into yoga. It's a big, meaningful part of your life. It maybe seems a little incongruous for a hip-hop mogul to be into yoga, but how did you get into it? What about it do you want to pass on?

RS: Let me say one thing about yoga. If you were to go down the block to that nice yoga studio here in Aspen and had all of them vote, they would all be more compassionate, and loving, and giving. You couldn't find a state or a city that would vote more on the side of helping others than you'd find in that small group there. And if you would have all those people vote all over the country, it'd be a different country. The idea of yoga is a union with something better -- that's what it means. It's a spiritual practice that's the basis of all religion -- it's a simple thing. Christians talk about Christ consciousness; Buddhists call it Nirvana. There's a name for it in every faith, and that's what you're working towards -- yoga. And I think it's a great thing that some schools in Chicago and Florida and other places are experimenting with it -- and I want to push that, because I think it will make a better society if people practice it.

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