Russell Simmons is a controversial character in American culture. He is iconic to some for being one of the founding fathers of hip-hop music, but to others, he’s seen as more of a corporate animal who puts money over people.
Personally, I see him as a mix of all things and there is no one way to define all that he does. While nearly all of us are worthy of some form of critique, I choose to focus today on the fact that Russell has been one of the driving forces behind the recent shift in US government policy on mass incarceration.
What impressed me most about Russell’s approach to getting the government to pay attention to the mass incarceration crisis is how he was able to channel the power of celebrity into an effort that got Attorney General Eric Holder on the phone to discuss how to address America’s commitment to the New Jim Crow.
The letter that Russell and I wrote together last year consisted of 175 celebrities and public figures co-signing onto a document that laid out the policy changes necessary to reduce the extensive damage that America’s incarceration policies have caused to black and brown families. The list of signees included Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Jesse Jackson, Michelle Alexander, the presidents of Morehouse and Spelman College, etc.
What really took the campaign to the next level, believe it or not, was when Justin Bieber tweeted the letter out to his audience, setting the social media world on fire. While I’ve never listened to a single Justin Bieber song in its entirety, I can say that I was pleased to have his support on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of black and brown families that have been harmed by the American prison system.
In this interview, Russell and I talk about the incarceration issue in America, how hip-hop artists can help solve the problem, and what we need to do now.