Q&A: Russell Simmons

Published May 20, 2006

Russell Simmons, considered the grandfather of hip-hop, started selling records out of an NYU dorm room in the early 1980s. Simmons has branched out into fashion, jewelry and credit cards. Seven years ago, he sold his record company, Def Jam Records, for $100-million. The 48-year-old Queens native's latest venture: social justice.

The Hip Hop Summit Action Network, a nonprofit coalition of hip-hop artists and advocates founded by Simmons in 2001, has tackled HIV/AIDS, public education and voting rights. You've made financial empowerment this year's mission. Why?

Some would say that economics is the last leg of the civil rights movement. It's something that's not taught in schools. But it's something that needs attention. Young people get out there and make mistakes with their money, and they spend a lifetime trying to make up for it. A lot of young people don't know their credit score or what it takes to manage a relationship with the world financially. It's simply not given enough attention.

With so much focus on growing and managing wealth, do you ever fear that teens, already living in an uber-materialistic world, will become too preoccupied with money?

We do what we think people need. I don't think young people are too preoccupied with money. I think they're preoccupied with the toys that come with the money. But the resources, underwriting change in our community, growth and economic development, those things aren't taught that at all. It's just not a part of the education process, so it's important that we bring this out.

You've been doing a lot of work with creating dialogue with ethnic groups, recently speaking in front of the United Nations as well as your involvement with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (an organization founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier in New York). What's your hope for that work?

The idea is to promote racial and religious understanding, we have a reoccurring Muslim-Jewish dialogue, anti- Islamic phobia campaign and an anti-anti-Semitism campaign that we're running. So, we do these things because it's great to have an NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish caucus, Latin caucus, that defend and protect people in struggle. But who will bring them together for dialogue? There aren't enough organizations that do that, so that's what the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding is all about.

Some filmmakers recently followed you around to film a movie called Lockdown, USA, (an independent film that basically chronicles Simmons' journey to advocate for the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws that recently aired at the Tribeca Film Festival). Tell me about that.

They made this film so the rest of the country will see the prison system. They'll see the prison as an industrial complex across the country abusing people and that the people are going to jail because the lobbyist and businesses support it. It's big money. But the people are more important than the money. But they're not important if they don't say anything. So that's what this movie is trying to do.