Whatâs the Deal with Russell Simmons? Deconstructing the Black 1%

What’s the Deal with Russell Simmons? Deconstructing the Black 1%

The Def Jam icon is part-activist, part-capitalist...so who is he really?

Mark Anthony Neal

by Mark Anthony Neal, January 30, 2012

Whatâs the Deal with Russell Simmons? Deconstructing the Black 1%

continually dismisses the complexity of hip-hop culture’s role in contemporary gender and sexuality, with the oft-cited quip, “it’s just the poetry.”

Close readings of Washington’s memoir Up from Slavery and Simmons’ Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and Godor as I like to refer to it Up from Hustling—bear out striking similarities of how each man viewed their roles in what were vastly different, yet eerily similar historical moments.

Published in 1901, Washington’s book at once allowed his story to be exploited by Southern segregationists desiring to maintain the political status quo, while also positioning the Tuskegee founder to be the “point man” within the Black community. In Life and Def, Simmons casually celebrates the life of the hip-hop mogul in an opportunistic global marketplace, while positioning himself as part of the next generation of Black political brokers. Whereas Washington traded in the value of a largely landlocked Black southern working class to an agrarian based economy in the South, Simmons explicitly traded in the value of the styles, language and music of a largely landlocked urban working and underclass to transnational corporations.


In either case, both men had necessity of a social model of control and surveillance that only marks a subtle difference between a literal plantation in the case of Washington and a metaphoric one, as is the case with Simmons and his cohort of urban moguls.  For Washington that entity was Tuskegee; For Simmons it was Def Jam and Rush Communications (including the infamous UniRush Financial Services). Where Washington could literally point to the bodies that inhabited Tuskegee’s campus, Simmons could always point to the “real” that was embodied in hip-Hop music—and that he had such intimate knowledge of.

If Washington’s gift was to think a way out of the bind of the Jim Crow south, while minimizing the violence associated with maintaining the system, (while being simultaneously fetishized by patronizing Whites), Simmons’ true innovation has been his ability to elevate so-called “ghetto” culture into an upper class fetish, creating the context for the emergence of high-brow brand pushers like Steve Stoute and Shawn Carter.   Sadly, it’s not hard to imagine, a contemporary Washington selling Tuskegee Temp Services to the lowest bidder (not unlike private prisons) or an early 20th Century Simmons, hawking ham hocks and ragtime to the highest bidders.

Russell Simmons, though, is low hanging fruit.  With television commercials running on local urban stations and radio, Simmons is simply a more visible emblem of why the haves, have, and the have-nots don’t; the CEO of Bank of America is not trying to be down like Simmons is during breaks on 106th and Park.  And however problematic RushCards may be—always a good capitalist, Simmons of course argues that users are paying for the service of have their credit established—they are not the payday loans that other Black celebs—talking to you, Montel—hawk at 36% interest rates.

More than anything, Simmons’ career has been a testament to his ability to anticipate the future.  The 99% Movement is not going away, even as it rebrands, and Simmons simply doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

More great reads from Mark Anthony Neal

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