By Tomika Anderson
Photography by Mark Mann
Styled by Memsor Kamarake
If Def Jam founder Russell Simmons is considered the Godfather of Hip-hop, he is certainly considered the Godfather of Hip-hop Philanthropy. Virtually every rapper boasting an eponymous foundation thinks they’ve torn a page out of Uncle Russ’ philanthropic playbook, each of them mimicking the same formula: strike it rich, put some money behind at least one non-rap-related business venture, and ﬁnd a way to support the ’hood you grew up in.
Only for Simmons, who’s seen a half century on this earth, giving isn’t at all about the accolades. He doesn’t do it as a hobby. He doesn’t do it for the tax breaks. And he definitely doesn’t do it to quiet the haters—those who may never be satisfied with how much, or how frequently, he gives.
Fact is, the hip-hop mogul—whose music, clothing, ﬁlm, and television empire has netted over $340 million—believes that karma is more than a throwaway term. He knows he’s the product of the people who put him where he is (some of them young, black, and poor), people who may not know what a “conﬂict diamond” is but never miss a sale on Phat Farm. Years ago, he decided to take on their plight—to serve as their ambassador in lands foreign and domestic. For Simmons, who heads up the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and has his hands in half a dozen other charities, it’s about being able to live with himself. Everything he touches must convey one simple message: I care about what happens to you.
The proud father of 7- and 5-year-old daughters Ming Lee and Aoki Lee, what Simmons cares about most are children. Nothing gives him more joy than the looks on their faces at his Annual Youth Holiday Party in New York City. Playing Santa for the past eight years (although he pays somebody else to sweat inside the uncomfortable suit), Simmons makes sure that hundreds of local at-risk kids have a merry Christmas, offering them free pizza and ice cream, extravagant gifts, and guest appearances by artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West.
The party is cosponsored by Target and Rush Philanthropic, a nonproﬁt that the City College of New York graduate formed with his brothers, Run DMC legend Joseph “Reverend Run” Simmons and Def Poetry co-founder Danny Simmons, nearly 13 years ago. Its goal is to provide disadvantaged urban youth with significant exposure to the arts. The initiative includes the Rush Community Grants Program, which provides direct funding to more than 70 nonproﬁt organizations that put together educational programming in all disciplines of the arts in New York City and Palm Beach County, Fla.
“My brother [Danny] is an artist, I’m an artist, our younger brother is an artist,” explains Simmons of his family’s decision to champion art programs in schools. “We all found art to be a transforming part of our spiritual and business lives. We know that art is something that’s being left out of schools, so we’re happy to be able to promote these 75 or 80 programs that we’re involved in.”
Rush Philanthropic offers something for adults as well. Each year the organization sponsors an event called Art for Life at Simmons’s East Hampton home, a celebrity-studded gala designed to raise money for Rush’s various programs. This year’s gala brought out, among others, Os¬car winner Forrest Whitaker, actress Kerry Washington, designer Rachel Roy, and her hus¬band, fellow hip-hop mogul Damon Dash. “We actually hold two Art for Life events a year,” says Simmons. “One in New York and one in Miami that we used to hold in Palm Beach. We’ve been expanding because for the last four years we’ve sold them out.”
Simmons’s philanthropic work also extends to social entrepreneurship seminars on topics like managing money and politics. He and civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis plan to hit their own campaign trail in 2008 courtesy of Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, registering voters in the hip-hop community for the upcoming presidential election. “We’ve done 73 summits [across the country] so far,” he says of the political forums for the youth. “We preach empowerment—how you can make a difference in your community just by voting.”
But his message of self-determination doesn’t just apply to causes he supports in the United States. He’s carrying that message to countries like Botswana, where, along with Sierra Leone,
a good percentage of the world’s diamonds come from. Though Simmons doesn’t wear much jewelry as a rule (save his Green Bracelet) he is now actively involved in helping black people get their 40 acres and a mule inside the lucrative diamond trade industry.
“The Diamond Empowerment Fund came as a result of me being in the jewelry business,” says Simmons, who admits he founded the Simmons Jewelry Company because of soon-to¬be-ex-wife Kimora Lee Simmons’s passion for bling. “It’s about higher education for Africans.” Through the fund, formed last year, Simmons is helping black South Africans learn how to cut and polish their own diamonds, generating money to improve the education and health conditions of their communities. “Most of the people who give us these diamonds come from suffering economies,” he says. “If we could just shift that—if we could just ﬁnd a way to con¬tribute to where they come from, when we wear these diamonds we can be proud to know that we lifted these people up. That would make the diamonds much more valuable.”
Last December Simmons went on a nine-day tour of South Africa to learn more about the so-called blood or conﬂict diamonds, which are diamonds whose proﬁts are used to fund wars or are mined and produced under unethical conditions. These diamonds have helped pay for devastating civil wars in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, destroying millions of lives.
Simmons is proud to say that his company does not sell conﬂict diamonds, which make up less than 1 percent of all diamonds on the market. But this doesn’t mean that conﬂ ict diamonds are not out there, being passed off as “clean” stones on the world’s international diamond market. This hits particularly close to home for Simmons: The diamonds for the hip-hop mogul’s jewelry line are supplied by DeBeers, which has a legacy of buying and distributing these controversial stones. It’s a partnership that has been criticized, but Simmons laments that there aren’t more African-Americans helping to police the diamond industry, making sure more people of color see a proﬁt. “We’ve made billions of dollars in the clothing industry,” he says. “Why not diamonds? We have to be involved in it in order to ﬁnd some solutions.”
In the future, Simmons may only need to look to his left and to his right for assistance. That’s because he’s helping to raise a generation of younger philanthropists, among them Sean “Diddy” Combs, Nelly, and Alicia Keys (whose Keep a Child Alive initiative helps to provide HIV medication for children in Africa).
“I’ve worked for all of them,” says the longtime vegan and self-described yoga fan. “People like Ludacris, Bono, and my girlfriend [model] Porschia Coleman, who runs the Happy Hearts foundation for disadvantaged kids around the globe. I watched [organizers] raise $1 million one year for her foundation, and then $5 million this year.”
And even with all that he’s done—including creating the Fashion Delivers Foundation to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina and selling prepaid Rush Visa Cards in low-income communities—Simmons swears it’s still not enough. In fact, he often gets frustrated with him¬self for not being a successful enough businessman to make the kind of impact on the world that he truly wants.
“I think if I had more money I’d be able to have a greater effect in so many different ways,” he says. “I would be a greater giver. If I had it like that, I would give away 99 percent of what I make and live off 1 percent, like what Bill Gates can do. You know, do all the selfish stuff I do but put the rest to good use,” he says. “That’s what a good entrepreneur should be able to do, in my opinion.” Well, if the mighty Russell Simmons can’t afford to give the way he wants to, why would the average Joe believe he could make a dent in the world’s problems? To that, Simmons, who recently released the book Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success, proposes a simple solution.
“Prayer is the greatest gift,” he says. “It’s really about your heart and intentions. And if you don’t have the money, go volunteer in your community. There’s a repertory theater in Harlem that needs your help. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund needs volunteers. Spend some time with kids at the public library. Never underestimate your ability to change the world.”