Use Your Voice: Russell Simmons

Use Your Voice: Russell Simmons

by Abby Schreiber / Photography by Albert Sanchez
Nine living legends of music, the causes they believe in and the worlds they envision. Welcome to PAPER's Use Your Voice portfolio. Get ready to get inspired.

Def Jam cofounder and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has served as Chairman of the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding, worked with legislators to repeal draconian drug laws, promoted education initiatives in communities affected by the diamond trade and more. Our own Abby Schreiber got on the phone with him to chat about the challenges and rewards of living in cultural, corporate and activist spaces all at once.

Would you say that there is one cause that we can talk about in particular that you are really passionate about right now?

Gay rights, animal rights, human rights, the prison-industrial complex... compassion is my cause. Compassion and equality. The rights that you want for yourself, you want to give those rights to everybody. So you could just say that's the cause. To promote equality. The things that you want for yourself, I want that for everybody else, so that's my cause. I run four philanthropic organizations and a lot of social and political causes that kind of speak that language I support.

 Are there any that you can call out in particular that you are involved with that work towards the quality and understanding?

GLAAD, Mercy for Animals, PETA, The Justice League in New York. Those kids that Harry Belafonte is mentoring -- those young political scientists and lawyers -- who have been doing the #BlackLivesMatter have been brilliant.

 Do you remember how you first connected with some of these causes?

On Saturday I am hosting my event for the Diamond Empowerment Fund. It's about higher education for Africans who live where diamonds are natural resources. 

 To what extent does your activism inform your creative projects and your businesses?

I try to be what I refer to as a "business yogi" -- a person who is concerned about the choices he makes for business, he gives things that he likes, so I have to give things that I think are useful: comedy, music, fun stuff that I like and that I like to share. Also businesses like the financial service company that really changed the dynamics of a lot of people from underserved community members' relationship with the financial world. Otherwise without a card you couldn't exist. People talked about the RushCard, saying, "Oh, it's a credit card." It's not a credit card; it's a debit card for people who don't have bank accounts. When I created it, people I made the card for had to get their check, had to go to the check cashing place, get cash and than wait online to pay their bills. So now they wake up, their money is in their account two days early before it even clears. They can call and pay the bill without getting on line. So it was a convenience issue -- people who didn't have cards were locked out of the American dream. Now I have many competitors, but no one could imagine that. The way that you build a business, there's one way if you're not a real numbers guy and you make someone else's business cheaper and better. But an independent, innovative entrepreneur creates what's not there. And people need what's not there.
Who would you say has most inspired you to do what you are doing in terms of the activism and involvement with some of these organizations?

A lot of people, a lot of people from Harry Belafonte to just a lot of people, you know who ever is an activist. My father was an activist. He was a poet and he became a professor of black history when I was older, but he was an activist and that's where I got it. 
What are some of the greatest challenges you face as an activist who is also a celebrity? 

Being a business guy -- forget being a celebrity. As a business guy, when I have to fight corporate control of our government or greed or when I occupy, for instance. How are you rich and you occupy? Well, what the hell? The rich can't help the poor? Then how do you work in the corporate structure where you're partners with some of the biggest companies in the world, and yet you're questioning the tax code? You know, the prison-industrial complex is probably my biggest focus over the last 20 years -- I've probably spent more hours fighting the prison-industrial complex than anything else. 

Do you think that all celebrities have an obligation to be activists or philanthropists? 

Nobody has an obligation. It's in the scripture that what makes you happy is to make other people happy and what makes you, you know, whole is to give other people what you have. So to the extent that you want to be selfish and want to be happy it's important.

What's one thing you want all of your fans to know or do?

I wish that everybody would just accept what they tell them in the scripture -- not to be religious, but to accept that all those promises were true. In other words, what your mother told you is true. I wish I believed it. To gain faith in what they promised you regarding the pursuit of happiness -- that giving makes you whole. That basic stuff that I didn't believe that we have to gain faith in as we get older. The broad idea, it kind of sounds like bullshit, but I wish I could give everybody around me. 

What change do you most want to see in the world?

Well, if we're going to survive, everybody has to go vegan. If we want to save the world we have to stop 100 billion animals from being killed, slaughtered, not killed, slaughtered and abused so that we can get cancer, so we can be sick, so we can destroy the planet, the ozone layer and all our natural resources. It doesn't make sense. We can you know change that. Right?

For more Q&As from our 'Use Your Voice' portfolio, go HERE.
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