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Hip-Hop Fridays: Understanding Russell Simmons' Political Positioning

It is difficult to find a subject that evokes more passion, discussion and resentment among certain political and Hip-Hop intellectuals than the subject of the motivation, strategy and tactics involved in Russell Simmons' engagement with the American political process. For a few years now, I have heard a mixture of excitement, jealousy, envy, disappointment and constructive criticism regarding it all. I have listened and have commented on the subject whenever and wherever I have felt it appropriate, but for the most part I have studied the controversy, without much commentary.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Phat Farm/Rush offices visiting a Brother and much of what I have thought, felt, and heard in debate over Russell Simmons crystallized for me, at a higher plane than ever before.

I am persuaded to believe that the key to understanding Russell Simmons' activity lies in accessing the proper paradigm. I think greater insight than most would imagine is available through looking at the Hip-Hop executive's political methodology through the lens of business marketing models.

Throughout Mr. Simmons' career, you see a clear pattern and evolution. He is uniquely adept and skilled at assuming the leadership position in different industries and market segments by being the "first" in marrying Hip-Hop culture with existing industry structures. In music, he has been the most successful in bringing a loosely organized artform into a business model. We have Def Jam records to show as an institution, as a result. In films, he was the first to bring to the mass level, a movie about the broader Hip-Hop music genre and industry (more than just breakdancing). We have the movie, Krush Groove, loosely based on Russell Simmons' early experience as a music executive as evidence. In fashion, Russell Simmons believed that there was a clothing market segment that was Hip-Hop oriented but which was broader than the ethnic or the normal "youth" categories. So he established Phat Farm clothing and assumed a leadership position in the elite young men's and sportswear segments. He has offered the brand in exclusive and elite outlets, making the product scarce and in the process guaranteeing an inelastic price (translation: he can charge basically whatever he wants, regardless to the supply of his brand - of course this becomes less true with each passing year, as more competition enters Phat Farm's market segment). Russell Simmons recognized the intersection between Hip-Hop culture and the existing comedy industry and developed Def Comedy Jam establishing a leadership position in a market that was both underserved and underdeveloped. And most recently, the Hip-Hop mogul took his brand on Broadway and into the spoken word and live drama categories with Def Poetry Jam.

You really can stand to learn a lot about Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN)and Russell Simmons' worldview, if you look at it in the backdrop of these businesses.

The Hip-Hop mogul's modus operandi is that he treats Hip-Hop as if it were his brand, develops an entity that marries the culture with a particular industry, adds his valuable presence and name recognition, and aspires to grab the leading position of a market category. It has been this powerful mixture of branding; positioning; basic institution building with his own seed capital; and name recognition that have made Russell Simmons so successful. His name and the perception that he has a personal monopoly or at least dominant position in his core business sets the stage for his entrée into any existing market. In the manner in which he uses his name and brand Russell Simmons has clearly demonstrated that he has absorbed, quite well, the lessons and history of his mentor, Donald Trump. The Queens' native alludes to this in the fascinating book about his rise, Life And Def:

The developer Donald Trump told me that though he was once nearly out of business, his name kept him going. He had enough clout in the larger community that the bank couldn't close him out. This affected all his negotiations in a positive way. I feel Def Comedy helped us in the same way by making the Def Jam brand seem larger than just that of a record company. It made Def Jam seem part of the larger culture.

Our brand value is what led PolyGram, a multinational media company who really wanted to be in the hip-hop game, to reach out to us. They figured if you wanted rap, who better to work with than Def Jam?

By now, you should be able to pick up the parallel. Russell Simmons has positioned himself with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network like Def Jam was positioned relative to the multinationals. Follow it through: if you want the rap vote who better to work with than the Hip Hop Summit Action Network and Russell Simmons?

It is with this positioning that Reverend Run's big brother has simultaneously inspired and alienated many, especially within Hip-Hop intellectual and activist circles. Among this relatively small group the alienated are more displeased than the satisfied are motivated. But if they only understood, what Russell Simmons was doing from a business marketing paradigm, they would understand that they have nothing to be threatened by. In the short-term, he only dominates perception because they watch him and in the long-term he cannot succeed without them.

It really is almost all in a name. Had Russell Simmons (controlling for the diminishing returns of line-extension, for example, Phat Farm instead of "Def Clothing") named his effort the Def Summit Network; started Def Jam PAC; and set up the Def Think Tank in Washington D.C.; he would be measurably more successful, at this moment, in being viewed as the definitive and most authentic political force in Hip-Hop, without some of the alienation. "Def-anything" is Russell Simmons. Like "Virgin-anything" is Richard Branson. Working within his own brand, Russell Simmons would have more latitude and less resistance. He would be viewed as the newcomer, even underdog entry into the narrower and tighter and non-Black, non-Hip-Hop political lobbying market. If he wanted to avoid the perils of line extension he could have named the political organs almost anything, just so he maintained a visible presence in the public affairs of the institutions. His presence says more than any company name, at this point. "Def" means Hip-Hop but the visual of Russell Simmons in the baseball cap embodies Hip-Hop culture.

But to overtly slap the "Hip-Hop" label on his political entities? The idea and concept are simply too broad, and involve too many layers for any one person, no matter how influential in the genre, to own by appropriating the cultural label to an initially narrow (in terms of market segmentation and regional) undertaking. In the very short term yes, it is possible for one to have the appearance (in the eyes of uneducated outsiders) of ownership of the culture, and that is obviously important to Mr. Simmons. But upon further and prolonged inspection, the political establishment sees and will continue to see that the Hip-Hop political market is too underdeveloped and disparate to be owned by a single music executive, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Russell Simmons, on paper has made a powerful claim to an entire culture, but in practice he can only legitimately and with consistency represent a slice of that culture. By taking on the title "Hip-Hop" he aspired to guide an entire movement into a political sphere of influence. Yet, he works from on high while movements work from the ground up. The natural tensions develop.

The perception outside of the Beltway (Washington D.C.) among some Hip-Hop journalists and intellectuals is that Russell Simmons has somehow "stolen" or misrepresented the Hip-Hop community in his dealings with the power elite in the nation's capitol. This is only true, if it is, and to the degree that it is, because they have allowed it. Talk to anyone in the know in Washington D.C. - the most influential political consultants, party bosses and politicians. Russell Simmons is a player, a real name with some pull, but he certainly is not a monopolistic power broker bringing the dollars, winning issues, and votes that earn their (professional politicos) attention and obeisance. By now, to varying degrees, they have tested Russell's nominal claim on Hip-Hop. The claim and his name alone have gotten him that far. He dominates the "first-look" department. If anyone is interested in a Hip-Hop vote, Russell is the man you call. No question. But in practice, Russell doesn't bring a compass-like Hip-Hop agenda, money and votes to town - not even in New York it has been argued. I was present at the 2001 Hip-Hop Summit where Russell announced that Hip-Hop would not just determine the outcome of the New York City mayoral election but that the community would "pick" the next mayor. Well, Russell backed a losing Mark Green. I still have no idea who "Hip-Hop" supported or "picked". And I don't think anyone else does either.

But for whatever he lacks, at present, Russell does bring his own personal power and that of his impressive network, which of course does include a collection of votes, campaign contributions and positive publicity. Russell conducts politics like he conducts business. His effort is guided by relationships, networking and a basic set of principles. It is not guided by candidate development, lobbying and position papers that grow out of those core principles. It is largely personality politics. But it is politics.

Reverend Al Sharpton clearly understands this. He offers a legitimate critique regarding the nature of Russell Simmons' approach to politics. Writing in his book, Al On America:

Russell Simmons, who is one of the fathers of hip-hop, is attempting to put a political spin on the hip-hop movement...In the last few years, Russell has become more political. In some cases I have agreed and in other cases I have disagreed with his politics. But the question for Russell and others of the hip-hop generation is not who they're going to endorse for political office, but what they're going to endorse.

They cannot get caught up in personalities; it has to be bigger than that. The question is not narrow partisan politics; the question is a broad social political agenda. I hope that's what Russell and others are striving to get. Their candidate and their support must come out of a broad-based vision. It can't be "I like Joe and that's who I'm going to vote for." But it should be, "I support Ann because she follows my vision for America."

Certainly, Rev. Sharpton can stand the same line of questioning regarding "narrow partisan politics," but his point should be considered seriously. Russell Simmons, all while operating in the name of Hip-Hop has found himself opposite leading Black and Latino civic and political leaders in recent elections. He supported Andrew Cuomo while others supported Carl McCall for Governor of New York. He supported Mark Green, while others supported Fernando Ferrer and to a lesser degree, Mike Bloomberg, for Mayor of New York City. His close relationships with New York City and the neighboring Hamptons' white, wealthy liberal elite have raised eyebrows from New York City's Black political establishment and grassroots progressive activist community. And there are other eyebrow-raising scenarios like the Def Jam Chairman's visible and consistent support for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the face of his hesitant attitude toward supporting Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in her 2002 congressional campaign. Many argue the Hip-Hop businessman is more interested in the Democratic Caucus than the Congressional Black or Hispanic Caucus.

But again, the key to understanding Russell's political leanings in this direction can be found in his business dealings. The wealthy upper west-side of Manhattan and Hamptons are home to many of his business partners and associates - in music, movies and fashion. White liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, Mark Green and others raise tremendous sums of campaign cash from this network. In that sense, Mr. Simmons' political maneuvering should be transparent more than it should be deemed threatening. Russell is doing politics like he does business. Celebrity, access and relationships are currency. Much more than ground-breaking ideas or noisy protests. In fact, this becomes clear in Life and Def, when the Def Jam co-founder explains his actions and attitude opposite racism in Hollywood and the controversial Oscar awards ceremony 6 years ago:

...the most controversial moment in my relatively brief film career was when Veronica Webb and I attended the 1996 Academy Awards. Outside the building there was a protest about the lack of representation of blacks in Hollywood. Inside, Quincy Jones was producing the show - the first time a black person had ever done it - and Whoopi Goldberg was hosting. So it was a weird moment: black people protesting outside and two of the most important black people in Hollywood inside playing the most prominent roles in the broadcast.

On the red carpet every other question was, "Well why are you going? Don't you know that Reverend Jackson's picketing and that black people should be pissed off at the Academy?" To me, it's like this: They got to do what they got to do from the outside, and I got to do what I got to do from the inside. When the protesters have left their signs in the street and gone back home, someone has to be there to make the deals, to take advantage of the opportunities that black people have in this society. I wanna be that person. Like the protesters, I don't feel black people should accept the limitations or boxes that white people put us in. But my way of overcoming them is different from theirs.

Keeping with our business marketing paradigm, it is clear that Russell has largely left the activist/protest political sub-category alone, in favor of an elite personal relationship-oriented and social class networking political sub-category. The currency of activism and protests are the masses and the dramatization of issues. The currency of relationship-building and networking are direct intimate contact and private off-the record discussions and negotiations. Russell's historic preference for the latter will mean that he will never be able to own the Hip-Hop political category. Like most business markets, even if he is the leader in his category, there is plenty of room for the second-place (in market share) alternative. Unless, of course, individuals are so busy watching Russell politick that they forfeit the available and viable number two market position. Essentially, that may be what is happening today.

And Russell doesn't make it easy for others closer to the masses who seem to be thrown off balance or frustrated by the Phat Farm head's penchant for headlines, photo-ops and political access. The mogul has begun to cross into new political market segments. It was Russell Simmons who boldly barged into a "closed" July 2001 Senate Governmental Affairs hearing on music censorship and made his opinions known, in a hearing that he believed was biased against Blacks and Hip-Hop artists. And it was the mastermind of Def Poetry Jam who invited the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan into the same room with multi-platinum Hip-Hop artists and music executives, for a heart-to-heart on the constructive and destructive power of music lyrics and economic empowerment. Most recently the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Alliance for Quality Eductation, and the United Federation Of Teachers succeeding in combining the power of the music airwaves (Hot 97-FM) and Hip-Hop artists (Jay-Z, P.Diddy, and Wyclef Jean) to draw 100,000 students out in protest over Mayor Mike Bloomberg's consideration of $358 million being removed from the school budget for this fiscal year.

Several members of the Hip-Hop community felt that the event demonstrated Russell's enormous influence and value to an entire community. Recently, Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash expressed his sentiments to me:

I've been working closely with Russell in every single thing that he does, whether anybody knows it or not, I'm there. And I definitely appreciate how he stands up for us. He does alot of things that people don't understand, like alot of s--- that is going on in Congress, they are really trying to stop us from getting any money. And every time they try to pass one of these laws without letting us know, Russell and Minister Ben (Minister Benjamin Muhammad) they go up there and they hold us down. And like dealing with this thing that went down with education, when they were going to take that one billion dollars from us (out of the New York City budget), 100,000 kids come out there and that changed things. They (Mayor Bloomberg's administration) didn't do what they said they were going to do. Russell actually had a hand in doing that. I think that we should all get together and give Russell our support. I don't think people understand what it is that he actually does for everyone in Hip-Hop, and other cultures and communities as well.

Dame Dash is not alone, among Hip-Hop executives who look at Russell's brand of politics with admiration and who are inspired to support him and work his playbook.

Certainly, many observers realize that although Russell Simmons' efforts laud notable causes like "Education" and "Freedom" and "Justice"; they usually only operate within the confines of the Democratic Party. Or in ways that are compatible with the Party of Roosevelt. And the appearance is that although Russell identifies core principles, he accepts the Democratic Party establishment and leading interest groups' thinking on those principles. Nothing independent in Russell's politics, some say, other than the sentiments of the industry and consumer market with which he identifies.

Again, following business marketing principles, it is easy to argue that Russell Simmons is not the "chosen" political representative of Hip-Hop when he is so closely wed to a single political party, especially since so many members of the Hip-Hop community are apathetic or deliberative non-voting Independents. Russell doesn't speak for them as long as he ignores political alternatives to the Democratic Party and even the stiff critique for the two-party system that the average Hip-Hopper maintains. He also can only go so far once it becomes visible that in the marketplace of political ideas, Russell may be taking marching orders rather than giving them. At that point, Russell becomes revealed as more of a facillitator than a revolutionary and assumes the appropriate market position, if alternatives develop in the Hip-Hop political market segment with sufficient seed capital and mass appeal to survive the lean years.

Furthermore, Russell Simmons' commercial interests stand to suffer if he does not adequately read the texture of Hip-Hop and the Black community's moral fabric. Project Islamic H.O.P.E.'s Najee Ali, an influential young activist who enjoys close relationships with both Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and Rev. Al Sharpton, has called for an apology from Russell Simmons for his magazine's featuring of a "naked" Lil' Kim in hijab, the Islamic veil covering. The magazine's editor has thus far rejected the call and Russell Simmons has not commented. A protest is being planned. From The Islamic Hope website here is the text of Najee Ali and his organization's complaint against Russell Simmons' One World magazine cover.

December 19th 2002, Los Angeles CA

Nat'l Dir. of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. Najee Ali, is requesting that music mogul Russell Simmons and Lil Kim both formally apologize to the Islamic community for the Dec/Jan 2003 cover of his One World magazine. It ran with pornographic female rapper Lil Kim on the cover wearing an Islamic burka-like head garment over her face, but wearing lingerie from the neck down. Lil Kim is also quoted by the photographer Alexei Hay, in the issue saying "F!@# Afghanistan."

"That this magazine ran with Lil Kim on the cover like this, is totally unacceptable" said Ali. "Russell Simmons has stood with Louis Farrakhan and had him host Hip Hop Meetings for peace. Does he want to build bridges with the men of Islam, but disrespect the women? I don't think so. It is part of every Muslim man's duty to defend the integrity of the women in our community. They need to apologize immediately, as there is no justification for this whatsoever."

Unfortunately this is not the first time Mr. Simmons has already allowed anti- Islamic artistic expressions with other artists he has worked with. On the song "Hot Spot" by another pornographic female rapper Foxy Brown, (on Simmons founded Def Jam record label) she say's "MC's wanna eat me, but it's Ramadan." Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting for more than one billion Muslims worldwide. Many Muslims in the Hip Hop community see this as possibly an emerging pattern in the Def Jam/One World arena.

Mr. Ali notes again that "This is interesting because Russell Simmons is an avid yoga practitioner, very well read, a vegan, a supporter of animal rights and he has worked hard to bring peace to the Hip Hop community at times. Yet if you look at the lyrical content of most of the Def Jam roster, and then look at this cover it sends a mixed message of where his heart is. It'ss as if being educated and healthy is a priority for him personally, but not his immediate concern for the Hip Hop community."




PHONE 1-800 558-1730


Some may think that the Muslim community may not be part of the core Hip-Hop consumption audience but even if that were true, Russell Simmons should still be mindful of alienating a constituency that holds considerable sway in many Black innercities and among several rap artists, directly and indirectly. This is real politics.

It will be interesting to see how the shrewd Russell Simmons handles the relentless Najee Ali and the segment of the Islamic community he represents.

The next competition in the political marketplace between Russell Simmons and the more political-minded members of the Hip-Hop community will be for the hearts and minds of the artists and intellectuals, with Russell pulling from the top while the activists and political independents pull from the bottom and left and right. That competition, in my view is a good one, which can only lead to a wide variety of strategies and methods by which the legitimate aspirations and interests of the community can be achieved. The more voices in play there are, the more stimulating and influential the dialogue becomes. And the more comprehensive and accurate the political diagnosis of, and prescription for, the Hip-Hop community's ailments will be. Traditionally, there are rarely more than 7 options at one time, in a prospect's mind, when entertaining a purchase in a single product category. The rule has been that a prospect can't maintain more than this number in a mental ladder of competing products and services. How critical and even myopic can we afford to be if Russell Simmons' political activity represents only one of seven potential political market offerings? Is some of the negative reaction of Russell borne out of a scientific analysis of his political, economic and cultural philosophy, activities and strategies or, out of frustration and even jealousy and envy? Here is how Russell describes what motivates and guides his emergence onto the political scene:

My recent forays into politics have the same ultimate goals as my ongoing social and philanthropic initiatives, and that's to uplift poor people. A society is measured by how it treats its poor and, if that's the measure of our humanity and sophistication, then we in the United States are barely human and in no way sophisticated. We treat people - especially poor and working-class people - like shit. As a society, we exploit them, don't educate them, don't provide them with decent health care, and don't promote opportunity to them. We throw them in prisons and try to forget them. I spend a lot of my time and resources these days in supporting movements and activists who will fight this war on ignorance and poverty.

The Hip-Hop Summits we've held over the last couple of years are in that spirit. Every significant political movement in the world has been energized by the spirit of young people, and right now a lot of them have become apathetic, through no fault of their own. However, we can't move forward as a country without them. It's the young people who need to tell us how to fix the mess that old people have made. What young people need is a platform for their ideas and an outlet to get involved with in the process of political and social change...

Between the Hip-Hop Summits and Def Poetry Jam, we're hoping to plant a big seed that will grow into a movement, getting young people to bring their ideas to a positive critical analysis in our society. Putting these ideas out, I believe, will lead hip-hop to aspire to be even greater than it already is.

Sounds like Russell Simmons is clear that his long-term influence is limited and that he is only attempting to address a void in an underdeveloped marketplace, a leadership role in that marketplace, no doubt. That being said, the important question remains: is time better spent by watching his every move, for good or bad, or in helping to amplify the voices of the other six potential offerings?

How we understand Russell Simmons' positioning will have a lot to do with whether or not we, in the Hip-Hop community see him as an enemy or agent of our best or better interests. For now, and until others more visibly step up to the plate, the humble label of "political marketplace option" for Russell Simmons, suits me just fine.

He can't overcome the laws of marketing and neither can we.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, January 3, 2003

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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