Russell Simmons with Kanye West at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York last month (photo: GettyImages)
Russell Simmons wants the business world to understand that the Occupy Wall Street protest and its related movements are not anti-capitalist. Rather, he says, the growing movement seeks to stop the flow of corporate money in Washington that prevents our public officials from truly representing their constituents. And he has a warning for our political leaders if they don't heed this public outcry.
In a phone interview with Billboard.biz late last week (before the overnight protesters were ejected from New York's Zuccotti Park and EMI was sold to Universal and Sony), Simmons discussed why he supports the Occupy Wall Street protest, the involvement - and conspicuous absence - of some of his music industry colleagues, as well as why the major record labels will continue to shrink unless they begin to grasp the "artist business," and his pursuit of purchasing and programming a network that finally ends "segregation" on TV.
Billboard.biz: You've obviously been very active and supportive of the Occupy Wall Street protest. Yet you're part of the 1%. So why do you feel compelled to speak out in support of the 99%?
Russell Simmons: I'm not part of the 1%. I'm part of the 100%. Why should I be separated from the people who are protesting? It's crazy. Is it okay to run a charity and give to the least fortunate people in the world, to promote well being and health for them, but then not be able to identify with their suffering or to not show solidarity with them? Why does anybody care? Why did Ali help stop the war [in Vietnam]? Why did Harry Belafonte help Dr. King? In every struggle, somebody who has some resources adds to the people who are doing the hard work.
I'm there because I believe in what they're doing, and I believe what they're doing is educating America on why economic inequality exists the way it does. And it's kind of disingenuous when the media keeps saying they don't know what they want. The number one thing they want is to control their government. When they elect an official, they want that official to work for them and not for corporations. So when we occupy Washington and we occupy Wall Street and we make the statements we make, it's crystal clear that we need politicians to write legislation and probably a Constitutional amendment banning the kind of lobbying that we have.
If you're a major company, of course you have to have a dialogue with government officials so they don't legislate around you and ruin your business. They have to understand your business, but you can't send them a check. You can't be like the oil companies and have corporate welfare delivered to you because you fund it so much. It's a fundamental flaw in our democracy and we have to change that. That's the big ask - stop the legal bribery.
Listen, nobody's against making money, man. No one wants to put people out of business. This is about changing our democracy.
BBB: What do you say to detractors who question how you can support a protest against corporate greed?
Simmons: Corporations are greedy by nature - that's their job. That's stupid. I've sat on the boards of some of the biggest corporations in this country and everything is derived around making a profit for their investors. That's their job. They don't have another job.
So I'm clear on how powerful the lobby is and how much it destroys the ability of politicians to represent their constituents. They need to change that sh-- or there's going to be a revolution in this country. We're not going to let corporations control our future. Corporations combined with government, and people edged out of the process, is not a democracy.
BBB: At an OccupyLondon protest, Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, was asked what music does for a protest. He said, "In my country, there's never been a successful progressive struggle for social justice that hasn't had a good soundtrack." Are you currently working with any artists on creating new music that's inspired by the Occupy movement, or you aware of other artists who are currently doing so?
Simmons: There's a lot of music coming. I don't want to say who until they're dropping these bombs. These are artists I'm aware of that I pushed to do it, supported their efforts to do it, told them why it was important, briefed them on the demands of the protestors. I'm not making any songs, I'm not producing anything.
BBB: Unlike the '60s and '70s, the turbulent first decade of this century in the U.S. failed to produce any iconic protest songs that citizens rallied around. Do you think that's because music has become so segmented that it's difficult for one song to capture the public's imagination the way it did 40 years ago?
Simmons: There'll be a protest song that goes with Occupy Wall Street. I promise you that. Me and you, promise. I don't know why we didn't have one then. I'm telling you we're going to have one.
BBB: In October, speaking about Occupy Wall Street, you said, "Every hip-hop guy is going to come down there sooner or later," and you called on a major artist outside of hip-hop, Bruce Springsteen, to go, too. You said, "Bruce Springsteen would be good. He's an American hero. It's an American working thing. If he understood the issue, he would be there." But he's yet to make an appearance. Did Bruce contact you after you publicly suggested he visit Zuccotti Park?
Simmons: No. I'm assuming he's not well [laughs]. I know he cares a lot about the working people. This is a Bruce Springsteen issue. He's one of the few guys in the entire music business that I don't have a strong relationship with, I couldn't call a friend, but I certainly could call him a hero. He's probably traveling a lot. He'll come. He has to come, he wants to come. He's a patriot. And if he don't come, then Jon Bon Jovi will come. Somebody's going to come. I'll call Jon and I bet he'll come. I haven't called him yet, but I'll call him right after I get off the phone with you.
BBB: While some music artists have performed informally at the Occupy protests -- most recently David Crosby and Graham Nash - do you foresee a large, organized and historic music concert in support of this movement? And specifically, are you or others in the music industry discussing such a concert at this time?
Simmons: Yes. And yes, we are. We are definitely discussing it. We're definitely working for permits. We're definitely looking to make a huge impact. We're actively working for permits. We'll have one in our hands soon.
BBB: Jay-Z was just widely photographed wearing an Occupy Wall Street T-shirt while performing at Madison Square Garden. You jumped on Twitter and quickly remarked, "Jay-Z just took #OccupyWallStreet to a whole new level. wowowowowowoow." [After receiving criticism for selling these T-shirts without donating any of the proceeds to the movement, the shirts were pulled from the Rocawear website.] Would you say this is an example of how capitalism can encourage positive change, even potentially allowing someone to profit from a social movement while helping to move it forward?
Simmons: What's wrong with selling goodness? There's nothing wrong with it. It's not the most preferred. In yogi scripture, at least, the highest form of giving is giving without expectation. Selfless. But a lot of people need incentive.
You should sell things you're happy about. You should sell products that you're inspired by, that promote lasting and stable well-being. Give the world something or sell the world something that you're proud of. Jay-Z didn't make a T-shirt [that said] "F--- the Bums on the Street." He wrote a T-shirt "Occupy All Streets" - I'm happy, it furthers the movement, it inspires the movement.
Listen, I'm going to get every corporation that wants to support us to get branding as part of the process. No one's against business. We're against business having too much control over our government.
BBB: With the sale of EMI resulting in three major labels instead of four, do you think this kind of massive corporate concentration in the music industry is a microcosm of the larger problem of corporate influence?
Simmons: It's a good question. I think the big companies can do what the big companies do, but they also give way to new innovation and new companies. But they're all shrinking, so I don't think that is a perfect example. Just to have the big infrastructure, the big company, the big thing. You know, I'm looking at Tyrese's new album and how that came out. He made it in his basement and released it independently. He owns everything. I think that's the roadmap for the future for a lot of artists. This could promote more independent success stories and the [major labels] haven't figured out how to co-opt that.
Having a 360 deal with an artist but not knowing anything about the 359 other businesses is not really the answer. That's not the future. If you're going to invest in an artist, and make a piece of all that they do, then that's a whole different business model. You're in the artist business, not the music business. And they only know about the music business right now. They don't have enough people who are smart about the whole artist business. So those companies, I don't know what they're going to do.
BBB: Do you see the explosion of digital music as having a democratizing effect or as just another revenue stream for the music industry? Or both?
Simmons: The artists themselves need to be compensated -- whatever empowers the artist. It may have to be that the companies are not in the middle. It may have to be that the artist can monetize their music, can publish their music. These are the kinds of innovations that allow individuals to be empowered. And the closer the people can get to the artist, the better it is for the artist and the people. No middlemen. What's wrong with that?
BBB: Do you have any projects on the horizon you'd like to mention?
Simmons: I'm going to buy a TV network. Why? There's a lack of diversity. What they call diversity in the TV industry amounts to segregation. And so you don't have innovation that leads the world the way the music industry leads the world.
My GlobalGrind Internet company has proof of concept. You see how integrated it is? That's the way a great part of America sees the cultural landscape. No sites, however, see it that way. Some sites are lily-white and some sites are 95% black. And the way Latinos and Asians and I don't care where they're from - Pakistanis - wherever the second generation is, they grew up through the lens of hip-hop. And also there's the urban graduates, kids who grew up in Beverly Hills, who grew up through the lens of hip-hop. And then there's always the next generation behind them, who really and truly live in a diverse population - they consume content differently than the way we're delivering it.
Justin Bieber shouldn't have to watch BET to find out what's cool. That's bullsh--. There's a point of entry for cool things and cultural things that exist, but there's no vehicles to allow them to really exist in their own space. So I just think there's a lack of sensitivity on the part of the programmers. They're not inclusive. And that leaves a big hole in the market. I'm not saying people aren't doing the best they can. They just don't get it.