Russell Simmons looks East beyond bling!

2012-09-21 11:41

Rap star Russell Simmons has a new fascination with Eastern wisdom. Percy Mabandu speaks to him about meditation and money

The hip-hop mogul casually known as Uncle Rush to his Twitter followers or Blood Diamond Russ to his detractors has traded in his platinum jewellery for Japa Mala meditation beads.

It appears rap rhymes share his ear space with mantras and hymns these days.

I meet the founding father of hip-hop’s best-known record label, Def Jam Recordings, and super entrepreneur Russell Simmons for a chat at the Saxon Boutique Hotel in Joburg.

Fresh off the plane, Simmons speaks to me ahead of his talk at the Destiny Forum, a platform organised by Destiny magazine to bring together leading figures in business and other sectors. He was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of Hollywood’s most influential celebrities, while USA Today mentioned him as one of the top 25 most influential people of the past 25 years.

His book Do You! 12 Laws to Access The Power in You to Achieve Happiness in Success is a New York Times bestseller.

At 55, Simmons still carries himself with the casual bravado of a youthful rap star. He wears a black NY baseball cap, white Phat Farm sneakers, blue jeans and a golf shirt.

It’s his standard laid-back rap uniform. However, there are marble beads with an aum pendant to code a spiritual agenda beyond rap’s obvious appeal of bling, flashy things and sex.

The pursuit of these things ironically led him into yoga and his new-found shine to a meaningful existence.

“I’ve learned that we are spiritual beings with some kind of physical experience. Not the other way around,” he says.

Simmons says he first went to a yoga class with former Santa Monica mayor, activist Bobby Shriver, a Kennedy descendant.

“I first went because there were so many hot girls there. So it was me and Shriver, some 65 girls and maybe two gay guys.”

It was after that yoga class that he realised there was something more there. A few months later, earlier this year, Simmons, ever the entrepreneur, launched Tantris, his yoga lifestyle brand.

He counts a number of moments in his life as cues that led him to this fascination with proper living: “That Christmas Eve in 1979 when our first record release, Christmas Rap by Kurtis Blow, was played on the radio.

“That moment in Amsterdam (in 1980), I’d been working on hip-hop all these years and that man asked me, ‘What do you want Mr Simmons?’ and I said, ‘I want some cocaine and some pussy’ and he said it was fine. He was the head of the record company.”

These moments – after everybody said he was wasting his time and no one believed in him – at least told him faith does matter and hard work equals something.

Eventually, the world was finally his oyster. He was getting his dues for releasing hip-hop’s first record. This launched a genre that would change the future of global youth culture for generations to come.

Simmons has other reasons to temper his bad-boy hunt for girls, bling and other thrills.

In 2009 he divorced Kimora Lee. They’d been married for 11 years and have two daughters, Ming Lee Simmons (12) and Aoki Lee Simmons (7). Fatherhood has become a priority for Simmons because he doesn’t have as much access to his children as before.

Simmons says: “I’ve moved to Los Angeles. I want to move around the corner from them

so I can walk them to school every day. I want to teach them it’s important to be connected to get out of the bubble. My daughters meditate twice a day.”

Asked about the charges levelled against hip-hop culture – such as promoting misogyny, violence and rampant consumerism – Simmons fumes.

Visibly irritated, he says: “Look, a lot of people want junk. Hip-hop didn’t create that. They only articulate things in our society. But it’s there.”

He also doesn’t agree that the mainstream’s co-option of the musical genre that started in the ghettos of New York has lost its social connection and voice.

“Artists always make music about what’s in their hearts and what matters to them and people around them. No one can change that. Just as Chuck-D and Public Enemy could speak about Minister Farrakhan and black empowerment, N.W.A could say Fuck The Police and started a national debate about police brutality. It’s still the same, only bigger,” he says.

But Simmons has since courted larger dreams for the ’hoods he once sold music to. These dreams are, as he puts it: “To see artists or their managers become more interested in business overall. Back in the day some people learned how to be entrepreneurs by selling drugs.

Now people learn by selling records. We need to build this culture of entrepreneurial spirit in the black community.”

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