Between Russell Simmons and The World and Oprah

This essay is excerpted from Kevin Powell’s new book, “When We Free The World,” writings about the present and future of America through the lens of gender, race, protests, the pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump.

Cause we’re alone now
And I’m singing this song to you

—Donny Hathaway, “A Song for You”

Take 1

The godfather of hip-hop, Russell Simmons, sits at a table with two elderly white men on either side of him, holding court in the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel, just days before Christmas.

The Mercer is an epicenter of power and wealth—less a lobby than an exclusive living room for Simmons and other visitors. Once you push past the heavy black drapes that separate the outside world from this living room, there are art-deco shelves and tables filled with all kinds of books and high-end magazines; there are immaculately scrubbed white walls and comfortably elegant sofas; and there are young, chic, multicultural staffers rocking all-black gear while attending to the godfather of hip-hop and others milling about. 

Simmons, with no security detail, is dining on a vegan burger, a salad and a glass of water, totally at ease, his toothy grin engraved ear to ear, sporting his usual uniform of a New York Yankees fitted cap, a colorful button-up shirt, chiming prayer beads around his neck, blue jeans and white-on-white Adidas sneakers. There is a sun-baked glow to Simmons’s copper brown skin—the product of several years of daily yoga and meditation, and every kind of self-care activity at his well-manicured fingertips. Given what is hovering all around Russell Simmons’s life this very moment, his zen-like state is unbelievably jarring in its calmness.

A child of blue-and-white-collar Queens, N.Y., Simmons and his journey have been a testimony to the surge of hip-hop, the governing culture on the planet since the early 1980s. His vast and layered business interests have grown to include music, film, management, comedy, finance, television, books, fashion, media, technology, the visual arts, yoga and poetry. There are few in pop culture who can say they have not been affected by Russell Simmons and his monumental reach. 

I count myself among the nation of millions. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I danced to—and worshipped—several of the hip-hop acts Simmons either guided via his firm Rush Management (like his younger brother Joseph’s rap group, Run-DMC), or had on his now-historic record label, Def Jam (like LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy).

In the 1990s, I was a senior writer at Vibe magazine—which Quincy Jones owned—and Simmons considered joining as a partner.  When I was fired from the publication in 1996, it was Russell Simmons, while having a sidewalk lunch with the writer Nelson George at Greenwich Village’s Time Cafe, who told me to get over the firing and “go franchise yourself.”

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In the late 1990s, I wrote cover stories on iconic figures like Lauryn Hill and Chris Rock for Simmons’s One World magazine, although I never interacted with him directly. A year or two later, when I helped produce the very first exhibit on the history of hip-hop, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Brooklyn Museum, it was Russell Simmons who I sat down with, along with the director of the Brooklyn Museum, to get his stamp of approval. And into the 2000s and 2010s I have become both a vegan and a yogi myself—due in no small part to the health-and-wellness preaching of individuals like Russell Simmons.

But the only other time I can ever recall interviewing Russell Simmons was during the 1990s, as he was walking on a treadmill in his home in Manhattan. I have no clue who or what that interview was for, and my only recollection is him telling me I should try yoga. 

Russell Simmons and I are not friends and have never been. But there has always been mad respect, and through the years, I certainly was in awe of him for curating a soundtrack and a culture that I grew up with, one that provided spaces of expression for me and Black and Brown boys like me from America’s ghettos.

Because no Russell Simmons for hip-hop is like no Rosa Parks for the Civil Rights Movement; like no Frida Kahlo or Jean Michel-Basquiat for avant-garde painters; like no Michael Jordan for basketball or Nike; like no Beatles for innovative song-writing and sonic twists and shouts; like no Meryl Streep for method-inspired actors; like no Kardashians or Jenners for reality television and Instagram; and like no Oprah Winfrey for emotion-packed TV talk shows and teary-eyed confessional interviews.

His presence has been revolutionary and deeply transformative for multiple generations of hip-hop heads, a railway bridge between people and possibilities, making Simmons a very potent and very rich tastemaker in the process. As a matter of fact and keepin’-it-a-hundred mythmaking, Russell Simmons is the walking, breathing logo of manifesting something from nothing, of winning on his own terms—the very definitions of hip-hop.

As Simmons sits there with his vegan burger in the lobby of the Mercer, several people, mostly white, stop to pay their respects, to ask how he has been, to say it is good to see him, to shake or touch his hands. You can tell that these admirers have not encountered Simmons’ in a long while, or are surprised to see him, by their words, by their body language.

That is because the godfather of hip-hop no longer lives in New York, or in America, but has resided, since February of 2018, in Bali, in Indonesia, in Southeast Asia—a nation-state that is a safe and extradition-free haven 9,000 miles away from the allegations of approximately 20 women who have accused Russell Simmons of, among other things, rape. 

To read the entire essay, visit Apple Books to purchase “When We Free the World.

When We Free the World” by Kevin Powell.


Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and the author of 14 books.