Hip Hop Action Summit Ed Gordon talks to music mogul Russell Simmons, co-founder of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, about the group's town-hall style meeting to foster economic and political empowerment in the black community.

Hip Hop Action Summit

Hip Hop Action Summit

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Ed Gordon talks to music mogul Russell Simmons, co-founder of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, about the group's town-hall style meeting to foster economic and political empowerment in the black community.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Yesterday in Philadelphia, entrepreneur Russell Simmons hosted the National Action Network's Hip-Hop Summit Town Hall Meeting. The one-day event tackled big city poverty and sought to heighten political awareness heading into the fall election. The Action Network is teaming with the National Voter Coalition to register new voters in the Philadelphia area. And Russell Simmons joins us now. Russell, welcome.

Mr. RUSSELL SIMMONS (Entrepreneur; Founder, Rush Communications): Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: Talk to me a little bit about what happened yesterday, the turn out and what came about?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I don't how many seats, maybe 3,000 seats, but every single seat was taken. Young people were excited about us coming to Philadelphia again. We started off voter's registration a few years ago in Philadelphia. We've been on 55 separate summits since then. So coming back to Philadelphia was a very good thing.

As you know, Ed, we've been to Detroit four times and Eminem hosted all four; went to L.A. twice and Snoop Dogg hosted the summits in L.A., Nelly hosted St. Louis, Puffy hosted New York.

So all the artists have been supportive of this initiative and we've always been inspired to get young people to vote. But in Philadelphia, there was a special energy. I think Mayor Street brought additional energy and I think the Governor Rendell's work for the Summit was also very helpful. But the Summit again was about young people, and it's always about the inspiration you get from voting as well as what you get when you don't vote.

Puffy went out on a campaign a few years ago, Vote or Die, and we went on a campaign with the Hip-Hop Summit, and we registered a tremendous number of voters. And when the results came back, a great number of them had voted, and we made a tremendous difference. I think it's important that we recognize our power and take advantage of what it means.

I think the hip-hop community is the best brand-building community in the world. When they say do something, everyone follows. When they say that Pepsi hot, people drank Pepsi. If they say Coke is hot, then Pepsi is out of luck. This is a fact. The hip-hop community is the best trendsetting and brand-building community, and when they go in their communities and they talk about voting, their parents, their friends and everyone who is maybe not so cool or so hip-hop, does what they say.

GORDON: Russell, let me ask you about mobilizing this group that often goes with the hot trend, if you will. Is it important to try to keep them politically aware beyond just the election season? I know you and I have had many public and private conversations about this, the idea of getting them involved all year round, all the time, so to speak?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes. Well, you know, you have to start somewhere, Ed. If you register, then when the TV is on and there's some politician rambling, you pay attention. If you're not registered, you don't even pay attention. So every spark is important, every first-time voter or every person who is inspired to register for the first time. You have to stay on them, of course, but it's a step in the direction. And we've found that that step has led to actual voters and actually I was confronted by a young man who told me that when we first did a voter's registration with the Hip-Hop Summit he registered, but now he's running for city council.

He had not even registered, but now he was taking office or working to take office. This kind of inspiration is critical. We started talking about giving in hip-hop, and now there's a Chingy For Change, a Ludacris Foundation, a G Unity, a Shady Foundation, a Daddy's House, a Shawn Carter Foundation.

In fact, if you name a rapper, I can tell you name of his foundation. This is the most giving community in America, and it's because they decided to take these first steps. So what we have of course, not only the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, we have the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, we have the Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation, we have Common Ground, we have (unintelligible), many causes that Rush Communication takes on, and I'm the chairman of at least four very important - I say at least because we're always in debate about me taking another chairmanship - four organizations that are philanthropic or have some social component.

So it's something that we do. It's what the hip-hop community is not known for, but it's in our DNA.

GORDON: What of the idea, Russell, of taking on a subject matter like you did yesterday, and that's urban poverty, which doesn't often get the attention it deserves. And talk to me about what you're trying to do to eradicate that?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, the whole focus it seems of this politically astute group, the hip-hop group that's involved and engaged already, seems to be poverty, the lack of sensitivity on the part of our leaders when it comes to the poor in this country. The fact that the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer is a constant subject. So this subject matter is taken up at all the Summits and it's because the rappers come from struggle, whether it's Eminem or 50 Cent. They come from the same poverty.

I think one of the things that the Hip-Hop Summit talks about often is that in hip-hop the color lines are blurred, but the social lines and the cultural lines are the same. So the fact is even kids in Beverly Hills sympathize with and understand the plight of the poor in Compton. If they're hip-hop fans, then they're listening to the poor express their discomfort or the kind of struggle that they live with here in this country. And them being sensitized…

GORDON: Do you really believe, though, that they empathize with it, Russell, I mean the idea that they hear it and they sing it, but do they truly empathize and understand it?

Mr. SIMMONS: Each one is different. I can only tell you that if you grow up with hip-hop music and you're listening to this struggle, if you live in L.A. and you are driving around Beverly Hills listening to Snoop Dogg, you are being made aware. When they say F the police and you're a real rap fan, you know that there's an issue with police brutality. You know what you didn't know, what your parents didn't know. It's not like jazz or blues or rock and roll when the jazz musicians who were white played race music and then they became popular.

MTV does not have a white rock star, it has a black rap star. And it has not only somebody who is slumming doing rap, but somebody who comes from the slums. It's different from what America experienced when these other art forms grew up. The same heroes that started rap are the same heroes that are in charge of this greatest cultural phenomena.

The poor people have the mike and their expressing themselves and they're being heard not only in America, but all over the world.

GORDON: What of the critics who suggest that there is a certain irony when you talk about the rich getting richer and those who make it in this game become very rich. The other side of that question of political awareness and movement goes back to some of the questionable lyrics and antics of rappers. Is there a sense and is there a need - is there a need, Russell, to police it?

Mr. SIMMONS: Listen to me. If we want to police anybody, let us look to our government officials, let us look to our clergymen and our policemen, not the poets. The poets say things - of course, you're uncomfortable with what they say. I don't believe it's possible that gangsta rappers could be nearly as gangsta as our government. I don't believe that your sexism that you hear in our rap records are equal to the sexism that you get from our clergy. I don't believe that the homophobia or the racism or the - whatever you hear, if you hear something that offends you, or the violence - you know, we are good for being sophisticated and smart when it comes to the violence and the abuse. You know, we can look past it. In other words, the sophisticates put people in ovens. The sophisticates enslave people. The sophisticates bomb innocent people. They use cleaned-up language, but they have dirty thoughts.

The poets tell the truth, and what they say that's so offensive to many is their own truth. They can't take to hear that truth that is the expression of their mindset, or if we kind of block out what we are allowed people to do in our name - if the rappers only voted, believe me we wouldn't be at war. If it was up to the rappers to vote, the poor wouldn't be struggling the way they are. We would not be able to survive. This country would not make the choices, the uninformed ... I mean uninformed - I mean not that they don't watch the news, that they're not listening to their hearts.

The poets, they write their poetry from silence, and they say what's on their mind. Some of us block out what, you know, what should be on our minds.

GORDON: Russell, talk to me, if you will, about - and for people who are unfamiliar - why this became such a movement for you personally. You've talked candidly about not voting most of your life. What was the catalyst to really move you to this point?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, the process of voting is part of a personal empowerment process, and whether it's voting or getting your financial house in order, or -it's these steps, any of these steps, to help others. Most of the voting that hip-hoppers do are for their communities, not for themselves.

So when you get plugged in, when you get out of this stage of isolation, lots of black men and minority men are in a place where they feel isolated, but when they make certain steps, like registering and voting, they feel more connected.

You can't survive in this country without feeling connected, without knowing that the system is there for you. You may have been told that the world is racist or that you don't matter or that - you know, you may have taken that message even it's not said directly to you, if you live in some of the communities of poverty in this country.

But when you take certain steps, you feel like you can be connected. And, you know, that isolation that many of us feel across this country is the sickness that keeps us in the mindset of poverty.

So I just wanted to do something, not only myself, to empower myself, but I know how it feels when you vote, when you take part in the system, as opposed to thinking the system is only there to destroy you. It's very important.

So I feel it's the best way to uplift myself is to uplift others.

GORDON: And that isolation is very real for those that don't live it. We should note that this is not rhetoric; it's very real. Russell, let me ask you. I know you want to register voters. You and the coalition, the Voter Coalition, are together. Where can people go if they want to register?

Mr. SIMMONS: You can go to hsan.org. It'll take a few minutes. That's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, but hsan.org.

GORDON: Russell Simmons, as always, man, good to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. SIMMONS: Thank you so much. Thank you, Ed.

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