He began much like the music that made him famous- in a run down part of New York City, surrounded by drug dealing and poverty, and with seemingly no future. Now his success story mirrors that of the same music- hes conquering the world, if he hasnt already. Russell Simmons didnt invent hip-hop, but he is, perhaps more than any other individual, directly responsible for its success. Simmons helped put hip-hop on the map, and hip hop returned the favor.
He has conquered the music industry with his label Def Jam, which signed some of the biggest names in hip hop like Beastie boys, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. Hes conquered the fashion world with his line Phat Fashions making almost $615 million annually (Roberts). He is even partially to credit for the addition of a new word to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary with the word that dons his clothes- phat. Thats enough to make any millionaire jealous. Now he is set to conquer Washington with his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The organization, completely funded by him, is promoting political awareness, civic activism, and voter registration among the 18-24 year old group.
So how has hip-hop come from its modest beginnings to have a political force? Does Russell Simmons or anyone for that matter have the power to harness this force and bring it to politics and is the audience even interested in the political game? And finally, what are the issues the hip-hop community has to fight for? Hip-hop was supposed to be a fad. Starting on the streets of the South Bronx, New York amongst inner city teens, it was simply a means of expression. In 1979 after Rappers Delight by the SugarHill Gang was released, hip-hop quickly gained a lot of attention (Toop).
In the 90s when gangsta rap came on the scene, hip-hop really began to harness a massive audience. But unlike the grunge rock of the 90s, hip-hop wasnt just a fad, it was a movement. Hip-hop, with its music, fashion, attitude, style and language, is now one of the highest grossing forms of music and one of the most visually influential. On billboards, magazines and TV you dont often see country music stars or rockers, youre most likely to see rappers and other hip-hop stars.
With such a huge audience at its fingertips, it was only a matter of time before someone realized how much power this group could have and just how much power they already had. There are no statistics to give a face to this hip-hop generation, but it has the attention of everyone. Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, African-Americans. Poor, middle-class, rich. Suburban, urban. Theyre teens, 20-somethings who grew up listening to Ja Rule and LL Cool J and even people in their 30s and 40s who have grooved to the music since its birth in the 1970s (Jones).
With such a large and incredibly diverse audience, hip-hop is sure to have its share of issues for politicians. In their songs you hear a lot of the same themes- poor education, economic structure in Urban communities, youth poverty and disease. In a great majority of lyrics, as shown by Nas, hip-hop artists make clear their issues with politicians and with the audience tuning in with a degree of empathy, these issues spread like wildfire in the hip-hop community.
But the problem is, with a growing white audience, how do you get them involved in politics for issues that generally involve blacks and latinos? Though few whites are actually in this group of oppressed, they seem to find the connection to support each other politically on other levels (Potter 136). Any fan of hip-hop whether black, white, red or orange is angered by the strong call for censorship by politicians and critics especially in the 90s gangsta era with the talk of guns, murder, rape, and anger against the police.
This issue has been brought up again on a large scale with Eminem. His lyrics contain many derogatory terms for women and homosexuals and the hip-hop community has been highly criticized for supporting him financially by buying his records, and not just buying them, making them top the Billboard charts, album after album. In their defense, hip-hop says that rap is story of what they know. The FCC fined two radio stations $7,000 each for playing Eminems The real Slim Shady although it was later discredited. The talk of guns and gangs is only talk of what they see on a daily basis.
It is not to encourage listeners to participate in any illegal activity, only to seek out that trademark empathy with listeners who have also been there. This First Amendment fight is a battle that is still ongoing and one that is in the forefront of the political agenda for hip-hop fans nationally. One of the other main issues hip-hop leaders are addressing is education. Not only is education not equal in inner-city schools where it is seemingly needed more, they are also bringing higher education costs to the attention of politicians.
Cost of higher education has also been a constant battle in America but a newly adopted issue for hip-hop. More than ever before, with idols like Sean Combs, Russell Simmons, and other moguls of this generation there is an urge to get rich. Listeners of hip-hop are more driven than ever to be successful and in our society this most often requires a college education. The inner-city blacks and latinos connect once again with the middle-class white families who have been struggling with this for decades. Beyond education and censorship, there is a battle with law enforcement that plagues youths more than any other group.
The hip-hop audience has come together on the goal of re-evaluating the state and federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s. In some instances, drug offenders have been put behind bars for longer than rapists and murderers for small amounts of drugs and usually these are 18-24 year olds (Potter 131). So they come out of jail 15 years later and theyre criminals, surely not to have much a future seeing as theyre been sitting in a cement block for the greater part of their life.
This also means a percentage of their voting power is in jail, so hip-hop is fighting to give convicts who have paid their debt to society and served their time to resume voting privileges, and automatically- not through burdensome procedures. During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Simmons announced he was beginning a campaign to bring more political awareness to youth stating With issues like racial profiling and police brutality taking center stage in this years elections, the hip-hop community needs to mobilize, move as an army, and make their voice heard.
Kitwana 175) His campaign, Hip-hop Summit Action Network and also RaptheVote, aim to bring the issues of the hip-hop audience before the nation and encourage the cynical, apathetic 18-24 year old voters a reason to go to the polls. And not just to get them to the polls, but to get them involved so much in the political process that they can participate in it actively and firmly support a candidate not only because Russell Simmons told them to. After conquering nearly everything else there was in business, it seemed only natural for Simmons to turn to politics.
Simmons wasnt the first, however. Since the mid-1990s The Souce magazine has reported on raps youth sociopolitical issues directly linked to hip-hops cultural movement (Kitwana 176). Similar magazines have followed as well. Simmons has a degree of street credit with the hip-hop community because of his Def Jam label and VIP list of friends. With that in mind, Simmons felt he had the power, along with those VIPs, to get their audience out to the polls or at least aware of their political power. This was yet another risk taken by Simmons.
To mix hip-hop, something projected to youths as a rebellious form of music to find accompaniment in your strife and adolescent struggle, with the thought that being involved in politics is the cool thing to do and all their favorite celebrities are doing it, is partially risking the future of hip-hop. If it loses even an ounce of its rebellious nature, it has the possibility of diffusing like grunge rock. And its true, very few pop movements ever do last, no matter how much staying power they seem to have.
But Simmons has been highly criticized of late because of his strong support of Hilary Clinton for New York Senator. Hilary Clinton has yet to commit herself to any of the issues central on the hip-hop political agenda, or rather Simmons agenda. Simmons response is that he backed the lesser of two evils, but is that what voting is about? Simmons also backed Al Gores campaign yet his running mate Joe Lieberman and Gores wife Tipper have led campaigns against what they consider offensive music lyrics, including some on the Def Jam label (Roberts).
But with growing popularity, and the increasing appearances of hip-hop stars like 50 Cent, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Snoop Dogg joining the force, it has been looking increasingly positive that a hip-hop voting bloc may just happen in time for the generation that started all the madness to witness it. RaptheVote generated a great deal of excitement among politically minded youth in search of an organizational model that defines our issues and our time. Simmons effort may be the best thing weve seen to date but it is by no means the best we can expect. (Bakari 189)