Russell Simmons is a name as famous as the household brand he created nearly 40 years ago. As the co-founder of Def Jam Records, and former CEO of the iconic record company—Simmons has become the quintessential businessman spanning across cultural boundaries and sealing hip hop into a billion-dollar industry.
Creating a record label with then-partner and Grammy award-winning producer Rick Rubin—the two are responsible for the music careers of LL Cool J., The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy as well building a foundation to cultivate some of today’s leading label music executives. From the creation of Rush Communications to expanding into cable content with HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry, and the first label executive to build a successful fashion empire with Phat Farm—Simmons has proved there is no limitations to his vision.
In 2013, he co-founded UniRush—creating the RushCard, a prepaid debit card provider to low-income customers. Stepping away from the record label side 1999, Simmons has become actively involved over the last two decades with more philanthropic and community related projects including his partnerships with organizations such as The Peacekeepers and other nonprofits.
“We’ve been involved with The Peacekeepers for years now in New York—my neighborhood that I grew up in—also other organizations that are doing this type of work. This particular program, we decided to spearhead ourselves with some of the community members. Those local organizations that are on the ground and are key and they have been overlooked and they are not part of city funding. The unions don’t want to take the money and give it to them,” he said.
Over the years, Simmons has worked with the group’s founder, Dr. Dennis Muhammad, hiring them as his security detail for special events. The men believed in much of the same viewpoints in building back their communities.
“I like to hire them so that other people feel safe hiring them. If you’re on a subway at 3 a.m. in the morning and someone is coming on the platform—you hope that it’s a nun or a bow tie. I like their love for the community and what they’ve done,” Simmons explains. “They have genuine concern and love for the community.”
Recently, RushCard launched a national program Keep the Peace initiative, which provides comprehensive community peacekeeping and empowerment to various programs on the South Side of Chicago. The company has donated $50,000 to bring a holistic approach to reduce violence.
Having grown up in Queens, NY, Simmons is no stranger to understanding the obstacles of becoming a statistic if necessary resources aren’t available. He has witnessed a similar pattern around the country in predominately Black communities. He believes the problem is clear and concise.
“The lack of jobs, opportunity and good education. A lot has been done to the Black community over the decades and over the centuries, which has not been healed. The relationship between the infrastructure of this country and communities of color is not helping especially African-Americans–where it hurts so much. It’s not helping to change the quality of life,” he says. What has been done to our psyche has not been fixed. There’s a lot of work that has to be done and community work is the best way.”
As a purveyor of First Amendment rights and the creative expression of Urban culture, Simmons takes into account the influence of music, how it influences reaction both good and bad.
He digresses a little. “Listen to the rap music—it’s reflection of some of the ignorance and some of the beauty in other cases. Nothing has really advanced in the Black communities–these drug laws for instance that have helped to destroy the fabric of the Black community,” says Simmons. “I’m just trying do what I can to try to add something positive back into the struggle. People were arrested for being diseased, educated in criminal behavior and dumped back into the hood. It happens in such a dramatic way around this country. Actually, Jeff Sessions has just rolled back the work it has taken me 20 years to do on the drug laws.”
Through RushCard’s national campaign, the key for Simmons is to incorporate a combination of resources from meditation to introducing Chicago area schools to financial literacy and more importantly, bringing a holistic teaching of yoga to young people early in their development.
“Yes, kids need to know they have every opportunity to grow. They’re not being told that properly. Through challenge and through stillness, people can see, innovate and live a better life. The creation of a better life is from the imagination.”
Simmons says, “imagination is God itself” and shares sometimes society can also cultivate discouragement. He adds, “You’re sitting in a prime position, although they tell you it’s terrible. You have an opportunity to grow—to become a great leader and there’s so many examples of what you can become but our education system and the poisons they’ve put in our communities have stopped us from seeing our truth.”
Having worked with local leaders such as Father Michael Pfleger and the city of Chicago’s first lady, Amy Rule—he has convinced Mayor Rahm Emanuel why meditation is needed in the schools.
“At first, Rahm Emanuel wasn’t excited but we got his wife involved and she got him involved. Now we have meditation in the schools where the most violence has occurred and I know it will be very successful as it has been around the country and around the world.”
As one of the first people to utilize the strength of hip hop culture and influence into politics, Simmons has become an admirer of Chicago artist Chance the Rapper and recently had a meeting with his younger brother and recording artist Taylor Bennett.
“I think we’re in a space where a lot of artists will contribute going forward in a political dialogue. That platform should be a voice for resistance and it’s a voice for hip hop.”