Def Politics: A Q&A With Russell Simmons

It’s safe to say that Russell Simmons has transcended his status as one of the first true moguls in hip-hop music. A Queens native and founder of the iconic Def Jam Records along with music producer Rick Rubin, Simmons has expanded his brand to include clothing, film, television, advertising and, most notably, philanthropy.

In the political arena, Simmons is a renowned advocate for animal rights, and has used his clout and celebrity to help register voters in multiple national elections and support the Occupy Wall Street movement. City & State reporter Nick Powell spoke with Simmons about the mayoral race, how he became interested in politics and hip-hop’s role in shaping the national dialogue.


The following is an edited transcript.

City & State: You recently announced your support for Bill de Blasio in the New York City mayoral race. Can you elaborate on why you chose him?
Russell Simmons: The reason I endorsed Bill de Blasio is because he’s always been there when we needed him for issues that affected underserved communities. He was there when he marched with us and we fought against the Rockefeller drug laws. He was there when we talked about education budget cuts. He’s been there on stop-and-frisk and things that are happening now. He’s very vocal on these issues. He’s not quiet. He’s the progressive in the race. I think that we’ve had a very conservative administration on many issues, and the people haven’t gotten a break. Although I like Mayor Bloomberg on many issues, I think that we need a balance, we need a change. I think that [de Blasio will] listen to business. I’m a business guy. He’s not gonna drive business out of New York, but we need a balance.

C&S: You also endorsed Reshma Saujani for public advocate. What about her appealed to you, and do you plan on endorsing in any other local races?
RS: I don’t know [about endorsing more candidates]. I have to see as they come up. Reshma’s always been a person that inspired me. She’s another one who cares about people. You can guess who I’m gonna endorse just by knowing that I’m an activist for all the underserved and people who don’t have a voice. These [other candidates] hide behind campaigns that were created to mislead the people, and they live behind them; quiet mousy politicians. You have the entire gay community backing a candidate because she’s a woman and she’s gay. For me, I’m a women’s rights activist, I’ve worked very hard for women’s rights. I’m a gay rights activist. Of all the straight men on this planet, I’m as vocal as anyone. They’re fighting for equality. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna bend because someone has these advantages [as a candidate] and wears them like a badge of honor. I’m not gonna support an African-American [Bill Thompson], who I think is a great guy but a politician in every sense of the word. Neither candidate makes me cringe. There are lots of candidates who make me cringe. They’re decent guys and girls, but I see de Blasio as far more progressive and more concerned about the plight of the poor, underserved and even middle class communities.

C&S: Anthony Weiner has been the big story in the mayoral race the past couple of weeks, what are your thoughts on his candidacy. It seems like sex scandals are hardly a death knell for politicians anymore, at least in New York City.
RS: He’s a good enough guy, he’s a nice guy, I like Anthony Weiner. He made some bad choices. You never know, sometimes people like that they get so much love, you give them a pass, you know they’ve been through hell so you give them a little extra love. The more the Post beats him up, the more I like him. “Hide Your Kids” was the best headline I saw. None of the candidates are terrible, they would all make good mayors, they would all probably push some new ideas, except possibly Christine Quinn. I like a lot of the stuff the mayor’s doing. I wouldn’t be fighting so hard for the food thing and all that, but I certainly believe in all of it. If it were up to me, I’d have every kid eat a vegan meal, but I don’t think I have the right to make every kid eat a vegan meal. I don’t drink soda, I don’t let my kid drink soda, but I don’t really know how to tell kids they can’t drink soda.

C&S: You mentioned Blasio’s position on stop-and-frisk. Has this policing practice irreparably damaged relations between minority communities and the NYPD?
RS: Stop-and-frisk wouldn’t annoy me so much if I didn’t think it really led to the incarceration of people. If you stop-and-frisk every white college kid, it’s likely you’d have a lot of kids in jail for the drugs they have in their pocket. You wouldn’t have a lot of people in the workforce, and a lot of people’s lives would be destroyed. That’s a big part of stop-and-frisk. The fact is, I used cocaine as a kid, my friends used cocaine as [kids, and] some of them went to jail and their lives were ruined from using drugs. That’s a big issue to me, the fact that the entire fabric of the black community has been destroyed by the war on drugs. If you find a gun that’s illegal, then that’s one thing; but if you find a little bit of cocaine in their pocket, and they get a felony and their life is ruined and they’re dedicated now to a life of crime, back and forth to prison, and they feed the prison industrial complex, that’s a crime itself. This person now becomes educated in criminal behavior. That’s a problem. Of course, there’s also the [racial] profiling, a lot of other things, but I’m really upset by the effect it has on people’s lives.

C&S: Was there a moment in your life where you really started to be engaged in politics, either locally or nationally?
RS: I don’t think there was a moment. There were transformative moments in my life, getting involved 20 years ago in yoga, reading Scripture, trying to embrace these ideas of presence had a lot to do with my transformation as a person. … With that knowledge, I became more and more concerned about other people and animals and the planet. Realizing this connection is the impetus behind being involved in politics. Politics is necessary; it’s a spiritual pursuit. You have to be engaged in a process. Voting, you’re connected, your vote matters. Isolation is a form of sickness. The more connected you become, the more involved you are in politics.

C&S: You were very involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, do you think the movement was ultimately successful? What I mean by that is, do you think the spirit of the protests translated into a seismic political change?
RS: I always felt Occupy was about money in politics. Every issue that people were complaining about when they were occupying was taxes or shipping jobs overseas or the prison industrial complex—one of the things I care about—all those things were about money in politics. People learned a lot about these topics, there was a lot of discussion when we occupied. Although we didn’t have a major impact that we can see, we certainly got in the consciousness of people, raised the subject of money in politics to the point that people remember and are aware of it.

C&S: Do you think there will be a continued involvement of hip-hop artists in politics, beyond electing and re-electing Barack Obama?
RS: Jay-Z, Puffy, all the stars of hip-hop went on the road for John Kerry and Al Gore. We worked our ass off for all of them. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network had as many as 20,000 people show up at venues that Eminem hosted, 50 Cent hosted, different artists hosted around the country on the subject of voter registration. There were a lot of rap artists on the road promoting voting in advance of Obama. Maybe the black community didn’t come out as much as the artists that came out, always have come out and will continue to come out. In fact, I think we did more work for Al Gore than we did for [the 2012] campaign. The highlight for the press was when Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige and myself and Beyoncé and Puffy went on the road on one plane, but that was one night, that’s one weekend. We were on the road consistently, and pulling in local artists from all over the country for the previous four elections. I don’t think that there was a resurgence just because Obama ran. We knew the policies that affected our community. It sounds good, it’s a good headline but it’s not true, we’ve been there.

C&S: I meant more with the engagement of Hip-Hop in politics. You have Jay-Z and Beyoncé visiting the White House, Common being invited to perform…
RS: That’s different, but there’s still stuff that he can do on the drug law issues and issues that affect the black community. The word “poor” doesn’t come out of his mouth enough, as much as I love him. Middle class, yeah, and he’s the president now he’s not running again, he can say, “some people are poor in this country”. I know it doesn’t poll well, but we’re not running. There are people right now suffering in this country and we need to talk about them. It may not be popular, but go down and meet some of these people in Mississippi, black and white. If it polls better, go sit in a trailer park somewhere, talk about the suffering in this country. That’s what we hoped he’d do, and there’s still a need for someone to call attention to the real suffering that’s going on in this country. The economy’s recovered for some, but it’s still getting worse for many. We need to go and put the spotlight on them. The drug laws, they have ruined the fabric of the black community, these 40-year drug laws. Don’t’ leave office without [fixing] that. The timing for it is now. Take advantage, when you have Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, whoever…signing a letter for us, Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber tweeting it out, so speak on it. He could have taken that and run with it. That drug war has cut billions of dollars to the taxpayers. You’re ten times as likely to go to jail than your white counterpart if you’re black or brown, [if arrested for] drugs. Ten times more likely to get arrested for the same crime, when blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate? Is that equality? I know [Obama is] everybody’s president, but there are some things that are so unequal. These diseased people that we lock up, that we train to be criminals, it’s a cycle that’s destroyed this country. The jail culture that these people take from jail from having used drugs, they come home now violent criminals, they teach the kids. You say, “I don’t like the outfits rappers wear”, those are jail outfits, that’s the culture in the community that comes from jail. You can’t blame the poets, you have to blame the root cause. The war on drugs is a disaster. Not doing [anything] is a crime if you’re the president of the United States.

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