What’s 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?

by Mark Anthony Neal, January 30, 2012

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

For far too many Americans, there is little distinction to be made among those who comprise the so-called 1%; this was made apprent recently in the dismissive reaction to the travails of locked-out NBA ballers, where the conflict was reduced to a battle between millionaires and billionaires (as if the NBA owners were not in position to set labor relations precedents—worker mobility, depressed wages, the value of labor unions—that could impact everyday American workers).  The general lack of nuance with which many in this country engage the issue of wealth is symptomatic of a general inability to make broader distinctions between power and wealth.  Thus it’s not surprising that many lump all of the so-called 1% into one group, as if they shared common values, traveled the same routes to their wealth, or deployed their wealth to the same ends—ends that are thought to be inherently antithetical to progressive movement. 

The criticism faced by #Occupy Movement supporter Russell Simmons is emblematic of a trend among critics of Black elites about their seeming contradictory support of the movement.  In one critique, “The Black Millionaires of Occupy Wall Street,”  writer Cord Jefferson takes Simmons to task for his own business practices—like predatory pre-paid debit cards—noting that the Hip-Hop mogul’s support of #Occupy is “convenient” in that it  “doesn't call into question the foundation on which he’s amassed a 35,000-square-foot home.”  Simmons’ business practices are, of course, fair game—yet to think that Simmons, or any of the Black celebrities who have empathized with the movement are some how complicit in the world that the 99% are symbolically dismantling, is to not really understand how power really functions.

Simmons’ depiction as a celebrity endorser of a pre-paid debit card—as figures such as Suze Orman and Lil Wayne have recently launched such cards—has recently drawn his ire. In an open letter to the “Financial Press,” where Simmons compares himself to Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerburg, he writes, “With the issuance of the first RushCard, I created the first Prepaid Debit Card Account, requiring no linkages whatsoever to a consumer checking account.  Today, millions of Americans manage their financial lives with the assistance of prepaid debit cards issued by UniRush and our competitors.”  

Yet underlying Simmons’ complaint and response to the reduction of his business acumen to his celebrity is largely motivated by a dismissal of hip-hop culture and its constituents (or consumers, depending on your vantage) as anything of value.  It is a well-worn accusation, that is more often on-point than not, but also highlights the classic spin of a cultural gatekeeper, who resists having to address real issues of accountability by continually highlighting his (now tenuous) relationship to hip-hop culture. Simmons may not be of a 1% that actually impacts policy in this country, like say the Koch Brothers or the substantial number of elected officials who are amongst the nation's most wealthy. Yet, his role in contemporary Black life is deserving of some level of scrutiny.

The term "hip-hop mogul" has become as commonplace in mainstream American culture as free wi-fi is in your local public library. Yet when Simmons, KRS-One and Stanley Crouch appeared on The Charlie Rose Show in the mid-1990s, Crouch repeatedly used the phrase to describe Simmons as if it was a pejorative—a dirty world intended to insult the Def Jam founder.   A longtime critic of rap music and hip-hop culture, Crouch’s intent was to directly link Simmons to the gansterization of Black youth, and to highlight the ways that Simmons directly profited from that relationship.  Simmons, of course, is not alone as the so-called hip-hop mogul has become the most visible emblem of Black economic success in the 21st century, yet there remain questions, in an industry that thrives on the exploitation of young, inexperienced, talent.

To Simmons’s credit, he has rarely viewed his position as a hip-hop mogul in vacuum; he has, instead, consistently attempted to translate his economic wealth and cultural influence into some vestige of political power.  Simply put, Simmons has tried to be a “race man” though not in the tradition of more visible icons such as Paul Robeson or Martin Luther King, Jr., but those who saw themselves as backroom brokers such as A. Phillip Randolp or Percy Sutton.

Indeed if there is a figure that Simmons’ career arc more closely aligns to, it is Booker T. Washington, whose own legacy continues to be clouded by his decision to align his interests with the ruling elites of the American South in the hope that he could siphon off enough economic resources, political influence and general goodwill to create a sustainable base for Black Americans still tethered to the plantations of the South. The equally enigmatic Simmons, can champion many progressive causes, even selling hip-hop on the value of yoga and a vegan lifestyle, yet 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.

[HAS HISTORY BEEN UNFAIR TO BOOKER T. WASHINGTON?]

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.

 
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