Russell Simmons — the man behind Def Jam records and Phat Farm fashion line, among many other successful ventures — is the rare mogul not content to sit around and count his millions. The New York native has been a vocal proponent of a number of social causes, from the fair treatment of animals to the Occupy Wall Street movement. This month, Simmons has been stumping through swing states for the Obama reelection bid. Scene caught Simmons fresh off a get-out-the-early-vote event at a community center on Cleveland's east side.
How did the event go?
I think it went pretty well. I got off message. I always get off message.
Where did you steer the conversation?
They were talking about why people are sleeping in the parks.
You're talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Yeah. I'm an Occupy-er. I slept in all the parks and I supported all the work that was being done. I liked it because it was a clear message to me: It was the idea — and I think 85 percent of Americans agree with this — that corporations and special interests have too much control over our government. With that said, speaking to an African-American community, I tried to give one reason. There are so many reasons, we can go on about how anything that ill affects the middle class, we can trace it back to money.
But for the black community, I was talking about the fabric of the black community being destroyed by the prison-industrial complex. How we knew that those laws were ineffective 20 years ago, but we kept them to fill up the [prisons] that were built by these businesses. And how these businesses have kept Democrats quiet and have energized Republicans to keep the laws on the books. And how the President has fought and held the ground for people against corporations, not against business.
I'm a businessman. I think the President loves business, and I love business. I've run many businesses. But I don't want business running our government.
If you were face-to-face with Mitt Romney, what would you tell him is missing from his understanding of America? What's he not getting?
Well, I wouldn't know where to start, because I wouldn't know which Mitt Romney I was meeting. He inherited a great state, he didn't twist it up too badly, and he left it still a great state. If you're in a state, you're not going to fight to promote some of the things that just won't go in your state. Lots of governors around the country, Republicans and Democrats, they've changed their views enough to suit some kind of reasonable government plan. And Mitt Romney did that. That Mitt Romney I would probably just tell him, "You're way far to the right, you don't understand the middle class, you're not working for them."
The other Mitt Romney, the one that hired Paul Ryan, that guy, I would just say, "Let people be free." I'm a yogi, and I believe in the one mantra about promoting freedom and happiness for others for your own happiness. Paul Ryan has said some of the most absurd things that Mitt Romney would never own up to, but he hired him. And I'm afraid that some of what Paul Ryan says is what Mitt Romney believes.
Some Obama supporters from the first campaign were disappointed the President didn't get more done in his first term. Did you feel that way?
It's very difficult to get a lot of stuff done. I wish he could have pushed some of the agenda, a lot of the stuff he could have gotten done earlier. But in all fairness, he might not have gotten health care. And that's a revolutionary thing, and it's going to be improved on as we get used to it. He had to come here to suck up to my man Dennis [Kucinich], because Dennis was like single-payer health care or get out of here, right? Dennis finally broke down in support of it. But it will get there. I believe it will become single-payer health care.
How do you think the Occupy movement has influenced this election?
I think that the idea of economic inequality came up so much in that period, that people are aware now. In other words, when you talk about Mitt Romney's connection to big money and corporations, it resonates a little more. I think that if not for Occupy — and this is a big statement — we would not be where we are in the race.
In the 1980s and '90s, a lot more big-name hip-hop artists were talking about politics. Today, when you turn on the radio, you're not likely to hear songs with political themes.
It comes in cycles. They're poets, they reflect what society is saying, and unfortunately young people are not as engaged as they could be. It's the people that give the subject matter to the poets. And you have to understand also that every social statement has political ramifications. Everything said. If you're talking about underserved communities that wouldn't be heard otherwise, and they're telling you these things about the state of their community, even the mindset they and some of their friends have — that's something we have to listen to. We're talking about one out of three black kids going to jail, we're talking about people not being educated, [but] then we forget. Then we hear a record and say, "Oh my God, they don't sound educated." Yeah, well, sometimes they're not. And that's something we have to deal with.
Is it harder for young people to make it in America now, as opposed to when you came up?
I think it's more difficult now. I think it's more difficult for a college student coming out of college. I think it's more difficult for a student to get to college. It's more difficult to escape the trappings of the 'hood. There's more violence in our communities. We can talk about the great catastrophes that are flying off the front pages, but never talk about the 80 kids that were shot over a four-day weekend in Chicago. Eighty kids — can you imagine that? That's like Afghanistan and Iraq put together, and it's not even newsworthy. But typical of Chicago. This is off the campaign. But then, it has everything to do with the campaign.