Hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons brought his unique spin on business, politics, race, religion and philanthropy to Texas this past weekend. Friday night he appeared at Matthew Trent Jewelry for his Diamond Empowerment Fund nonprofit; Saturday he was in Houston for a meeting of his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. Before the Trent event (pictured: Simmons and an admirer there), we sat down with the controversial Def Jam Records/Phat Farm clothing founder for a provocative, wide-ranging–and lengthy–Q&A. Among the topics discussed: Simmons’ latest business ventures, the state of race relations in the U.S., why he’s a big fan of Minister Louis Farrakhan–and what Barack Obama could learn about being president from George W. Bush.
GH: As a successful businessman, how do you see the current economy?
RS: I’m a creative person, so I wouldn’t take my advice! But, my money’s always been sitting in the most conservative [investments]–convertible bonds, triple-A convertibles, and some of it was downgraded. That’s my personal investments. Other than that I don’t invest. Very little stocks. I go to work every day and try to earn money.
I don’t need the fluctuation. I have plenty of fluctuation with my [businesses]. I invest in things that are somewhat risky. The financial services company I started–who knew that the market would crash and it would become even more valuable and necessary? It’s called UniRush Financial Services, and it’s for underserved communities. We provide a way for people to rebuild their credit–bring them back into the market–providing health care, loan services, for people who paid these huge fees but shouldn’t have to. It saves people a lot of money, gives people a lot of opportunity.
They’re the people who sometimes pay 8 to 10 percent to cash their checks, people who can’t rent a hotel room. But now our black Visa card allows them a kind of freedom to go to work. These are virtual banks that we’ve created. We’re going to launch new services next month: card-to-card transfers, so you can just text that money somewhere [instead of paying for a wire transfer] for free. We’re trying to save our customers money in lots of different ways. So that’s been a very fun business. It’s providing aid to people who are mostly locked out.
You have lots of different businesses, don’t you?
I have a new [clothing line] at Walmart which is developing nicely, and one at Macy’s that’s developing. Then there’s jewelry–Simmons Jewelry–which is doing very well in this economy at Zale’s and Kay’s and Gordon’s and Macy’s and also in Neiman Marcus. We do some private-label stuff for Walmart even. Simmons Jewelry put me into the jewelry, the diamond business. I thought that I would be using diamond jewelry a lot, and I wanted to make sure I was doing a good job, with [benefits] for Africa. I want to see that the diamond industry sees Africa as a critical part of their business model, saying, a diamond equals love. So I’ve been working on that, and that’s why I’m here in Dallas, for the Diamond Empowerment Fund.
Dallas-based Zale’s is a backer of that, right?
Zale’s, and Kay’s–two of the biggest–are on our foundation board, along with the president of Botswana–the No. 1 diamond-producing country in the world–and the head of DeBeers.
Are you still involved with Phat Farm, the clothing line you started?
No, I sold Phat Farm a long time ago; my ex-wife runs that. American Classics is the name of the Walmart business; then I have [the clothing line] Argyleculture. So, fashion and empowerment are my major businesses. Really what I do is run four charities: the diamond fund, the Rush Art Foundation, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding–we do a lot of Muslim-Jewish dialogue lately, all over the world, and it’s been very fulfilling.
The idea is that a Jew should fight Islamo-phobia, and Muslims should fight anti-Semitism. That’s the premise of this organization–have people do what’s right, what’s promoted in their scripture. Their scripture says, you get for yourself what you promote for others. The king of Saudi Arabia has joined on. So has Tony Blair and some others, so it’s very successful.
Do you consider yourself more a philanthropist than a businessman at this point?
I would say so. I also have a web-site investment as well: globalgrind.com [a hip-hop site]. My partner in that is Axel Management; they did Facebook and a number of other successful Internet ventures. That’s growing very quickly, so it’s nice.
It was reported that in 2004 all your businesses together were bringing in $530 million a year. Was that accurate then–and how are you doing now?
That was ridiculous. That was way too high, totally overstated. I’m a private company, I don’t talk about it. My ex-wife may be making that; I read that she was, I don’t know. If she is, I’m paying too much alimony. But I’m not making that. She’s rich; I’m not so rich. I give away all my money anyway. I could probably sell my financial service company; that might be worth something, since it’s growing so quickly. That’s probably the best thing I’ve got, in terms of money. But I’m really more interested in the effect of the seeds we plant. [On Saturday] I’m going to Houston for a Hip-Hop Summit, where a lot of stars are going to come and talk to young people–kids 18 to 34–about financial literacy. Walmart’s funding it.
In terms of race and race relations, do you think things are any better in America now that Barack Obama is president?
You know, I think that President Obama is an example of how things have shifted. As chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, I get a lot of research, and kids are much, much better than their parents were. And they’re the reason that their parents made the choice for Obama. They told them it was possible. Nobody believed it was possible–not even members of the [Congressional] Black Caucus. So they know that there was a shift.
I remember, when I got Run-DMC on MTV, there were no black faces at all except Michael Jackson, and he had his nose straightened and everything. When Run-DMC got on TV there was this dialogue then that happened between Compton and Beverly Hills, and all over the country, and honesty, and interest in the suffering of these people in these communities, interest in just the culture–seeing the sameness, or the connectivity that people had anyway–through television, through music and culture, really made a big difference in race relations.
I think there are older members of the black community who harbor a lot of energy, that hate, sometimes hurt people, and there are members of other communities who have not been abused over the last few years who are not aware that they’re harboring some racism. So, there’s still a struggle, most of it class, the perception of class–sometimes you don’t pick up a black guy who wants to get in a cab. People of color all over the world are poor, and for that alone, there’s a pain. Sometimes ignoring that pain, it increases. People say, “Oh, you have a black president now, it’s OK.” Those people who live in black communities where as far as they can know there’s only black people, and they never venture outside their community, those communities are filled with poverty. They don’t even know that white people are suffering in poverty, too. They don’t watch it on TV, it’s not in the mainstream culture; it’s not in style like black poverty. This is a very intense discussion for me, because I know so much about it from research.
I’m a big integrationist. The other day I had Louis Farrakhan and 75 security guards staying at my house, and everybody was very upset with me. They’ve changed over the years, obviously. When they said some of the mean things they said, they were right to say it. As a yogi, I wouldn’t have framed it that way, but you need all kinds. People say, oh yeah, “troublemaker, stay away.” I’ve always been a friend and supporter of Louis Farrakhan. His message was: “You know, you guys aren’t ready to integrate. You need to put on a tie or something, get educated, read a paper.” But the main message was, “Don’t hate anybody, and stop hating yourself.” That was his message. Other leaders are so afraid of him, but they all worked for him, they all went to his marches.
But, didn’t he say some pretty extreme things about Israel and the Jews and the Holocaust?
Oh, no. The other day, I forced a meeting between him and one of the top–well, I can’t even say who it was–and this top person said to me, “What do you think about Farrakhan saying that about the Holocaust things? Such a horrible thing to say. The suffering of the Jewish people is so well-documented. That was such a horrible things to say, and sets back Muslim-Jewish relations, so you have so much work to do. But, it kind of furthers your cause, because so many Muslims hear that and they get so upset to hear another Muslim say those things.”
So, that was a nice statement that he made. But me, I’ve spent so much time fighting anti-Semitism. I realize that the person who is perceived to be that bad–but has so many followers–that he can bring a million people three different times to Washington. You don’t want to perceive him as being hateful. If he says he’s not, then just take that message. He says he’s not hateful; he says we’re all Jews, and we all come from the same place, we’re all children of Abraham. That Million Family March, his speech was the most beautiful speech on race I’ve ever heard. Even better than the president’s, and that was a good speech on race. But his Million Family March speech was even better.
It was kind of tough on religion, which I like, because, as a yogi, I think they’re all the same. Farrakhan said, I want to tell you Muslims something: Mohammed died long before there was such a thing as a Muslim. Christians obviously know there were no Christians when Jesus Christ passed. Lord Buddha came and went, and there were no Buddhists. And when Abraham left there were no Jews. Then he took a long pause, you know how he does, and he says, The gangs started later! That’s a nice thing for me to hear. They all came at different times, different languages, and told the same truths.
I spoke to the UN the other day with a delegation of Muslims and Jews. We flew in the top rabbis from the top 10 European countries, and their counterparts, the top 10 imams. I took them to the White House, to the New York mayor’s office, and to the UN. I made this speech about the sameness of religion. I said Lord Krishna said, I don’t care what you call me, you follow these rules, you come to me. And an imam from Geneva gave me his prayer beads–it was beautiful–you know, in the Koran it says–he read to me–the exact same thing. I think if they all got in the same room, they’d find their scriptures ran parallel to the same one God idea. That’s a pretty good scenario. But it’s important to have a dialogue. We have 80 programs all over the country where the imam speaks at the synagogue, and the rabbi speaks at the mosque.
This country is so full of hate for Jews and for Muslims. There’s so much anti-Semitism, but there’s certainly a lot of Islamophobia. They hate Muslims.
Well, there was 9/11.
Yeah, but that was 3,000 people. Do you know how many billions of Muslims there are? There’s always extremists. Look at what the Christians did to women; how many women did we kill? Christians did more things to women than anybody. But we sweep it under the rug.
Yes, but people progress.
Yeah. I like to believe that we progress. But then again, abuse of the animals and the planet and each other is ongoing. I’m an animal activist. But, you don’t want to talk social [policy] and politics with me. They say I’m so liberal, that I’m far to the left of Dennis Kucinich. But, I’m very opinionated on things.
To return to race for just a second before we finish: What about when political criticism of the president is labeled as racist, when it fact it’s based on policy, not skin color? It seems like that’s been happening a lot lately.
I don’t say that. Sometimes there are angles that are used that inspire people’s fears and their worst fears about race in the person listening. They say, “Oh, he’s a Muslim,” like that’s the worst thing in the world. But, a good Muslim is the sweetest person on the planet. Just like good Jews, just like good Christians, just like good Buddhists. The books are good, the inspiration is beautiful. The prophets were all the same. So, to say he’s a Muslim, that shows how fearful we are.
Obama’s agenda is not directed to the black community; it’s directed to the poor, to people who are locked out, who don’t have voices and sometimes don’t vote enough. I believe in a lot of his agenda, but a lot of his agenda doesn’t go far enough, like single-payer health insurance. Like him not doing anything for that gay boy who quit the Army, Lt. [Daniel] Choi–a great American servant who was dishonorably discharged. The president said, oh, we’ll take care of it later. Remember John Kennedy wrote that letter to Dr. King in jail, and then later they passed civil rights. At least he wrote a letter. I think that guy [Choi] deserved a letter from the president. [Obama] should do things as they come up. George W. Bush did it–did everything as it came up. I like him as a person. Execute as things come up. I know you want health care now, but you can’t put everything to the side and do just one thing. George Bush did a good job; got a lot of what he wanted done.
Thanks very much for your time.
You’re going to make this about the Diamond Empowerment Fund, right? But, don’t make it so everybody in Texas hates me! It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope I didn’t offend you.