Russell Simmons is the founder of Def Jam Records. In Boston, on the week of the Democratic National Convention, Simmons is acting as the host of the Hip-Hop Summit sponsored by the Hip-Hop Network. The goal is to urge young kids to vote in the upcoming election.
On Monday, Simmons joined Chris Matthews outside Faneuil Hall to talk politics:
RUSSELL SIMMONS, HIP-HOP SUMMIT ACTION NETWORK: The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has had 24 events all over the country so far, and registering voters. Beyonce hosted her summit, along with Master P and Puffy and others in Houston. Will Smith did Philadelphia. Snoop Dogg did L.A. and Nelly is doing Saint Louis. Eminem has done Detroit twice. Today, we’re hear in Boston with 8,000 kids. We had Lloyd Banks; he's the No. 1 artist in the country, Wyclef Jean and others.
We talk about empowerment and we register voters— hundreds of thousands of voters all over the country. And it‘s about taking personal responsibility. The artists, hip-hop artists, whether it‘s Eminem or 50 Cent or any of the people, have all come out of a struggle too. Their message is one of empowerment. I think that they‘re all going to vote. It‘s going to be a dramatic turnout and they‘re going to have a lot to do with this next election.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: What‘s the feeling left over among young people? Is there one about how the vote was counted last time, especially in Florida?
SIMMONS: We’re looking to the future. A great number of these supporters of hip-hop are African-American but 80 percent of them are not. The important thing is that the hip-hop community is concerned with the war on poverty and ignorance. That‘s the war that they really want to fight.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you my favorite question. So what? A kid gets out and votes. He‘s 18 years old. He‘s never voted. Or he‘s 25, he never voted before. He goes and votes. So what? What does it change?
SIMMONS: Well, the fact that is that each person, the most American thing you can do is vote. And it‘s part of a process to empower yourself, to feel like you‘re part of community.
What‘s the difference? Well, they said it didn‘t matter last time. Maybe we wouldn‘t have gone to war. All the poor people that they represent, the voices of all those people. This hip-hop community is a voice that has been locked out. They must know best what America is lacking, because they‘re the ones in struggle.
MATTHEWS: In a related matter, did you see “Fahrenheit 9/11”?
SIMMONS: I did see it.
MATTHEWS: What do you think it will do to voting strength? Will people get out and vote because of that movie or not, $100 million?
SIMMONS: I can‘t even imagine why people would suggest that it doesn‘t.
I had four kids in my office, and they were talking about going to see the movie, two of them weren‘t really into it and one didn‘t care. Then one said, "we‘ve got to go" so they all went. The next day, they were all out there registering other voters. They were very excited after they saw the movie and they were inspired. And they say all these people who are not sophisticated see it and what do they know?
Well, some of these basic ideas that come out of the movie will scare you to death and send you to the polls, send you to pay attention. People are afraid. I think we need to be open-minded. We need to have a better relationship with the world.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question that I think gets to a lot of kids, because a lot of kids think about right now, today. Everybody lives for the weekend, Friday night, Saturday night. How do you think they feel, because there are lot of them watching them now. They‘re up late. It‘s the summer. How do you feel after you vote?
SIMMONS: Well, you feel empowered. It‘s like taking part in the process, you know?
People wake up in the morning. Some wake up thinking what they can get. It‘s a disgusting feeling by the end of the day, because you don‘t get anything by feeling that way. When you wake up thinking what you can give, the day goes better, you know? You find that‘s what makes you happy.
Voting is part of that process. It‘s an empowering thing to do. I always say this to kids who come out of struggle, when you get pulled over by the police and you don‘t have a voter‘s registration, it‘s like, oh, he don‘t know nobody.
Now you have a voter‘s registration, maybe he does. Maybe he is part of something. Maybe he has people that support him, you know? And that‘s really what we want. We want to be community. We want to work together.
MATTHEWS: Well, you‘re a legend, one of the legends in American society. Let me ask you something from your heights, really. Is hip-hop a lot of anger? What is the message of hip-hop? Is there one?
SIMMONS: A lot of emotion is involved and there is a message coming out of hip-hop. I like to say it‘s God‘s soundtrack.
MATTHEWS: God‘s soundtrack.
SIMMONS: Yes. Some of what these people say about frustration and anger comes out. Some of that is true. But it‘s the voice of a voiceless people, you know? And a lot of times, those people‘s voices, you may interpret it as anger, but many people who understand the language interpret it as inspiring or as hope, people coming out of struggle who want to make it, you know? You may think the curse words are bad, but the cursed ideas I see at 6'o clock news are bad.
MATTHEWS: Why do young kids who haven‘t had it too tough love it?
SIMMONS: It‘s got a lot of integrity. It‘s honest, an honest expression. These are poets who feel that the reason that the rappers are doing what they‘re doing is because no one has turned us down when we ask them for our support. Rappers are so connected. They know what the people are asking from them.
The people want them to go out and register voters, want them to go out and inspire people. You know, in the ‘60s, there was a big influence from music and culture that had to do with the direction of this country. That time is coming back. Hip-hop is in the forefront of supporting these efforts to empower our communities.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, right before the election in 2002, before the congressional elections, which I guess you want people to vote in, too, Hillary Clinton was able to vote on the Senate floor. John Kerry voted. John Edwards voted. The ticket, basically, voted. They were asked to give the president basically a blank check to decide whether to go to war or not. They put it in his hands. Was that a vote you‘re happy about?
SIMMONS: No. I think they made a mistake. I think it‘s obvious they made a mistake and the whole world knows. And it‘s kind of arrogant for us to think that the whole world is wrong and we‘re right.
The fact is that you know what that could do for the war on poverty and ignorance?
SIMMONS: Instead, we‘re blowing it on hundreds of billions of dollars that the tab is going to be. Can you imagine what that would do for education? The idea of America having equal high-quality education, what would that mean?
MATTHEWS: The reason I think I question about how John Kerry voted and John Edwards voted and Hillary Clinton voted, all big speakers against the president of the United States, one of the messages tonight is, the president should admit when he makes a mistake. I heard it tonight.
MATTHEWS A lot of people buy that. If you make a mistake in public life, you ought to say, "I made a mistake." Why don‘t these Democrats, like Edwards and Kerry and Mrs. Clinton, Senator Clinton, say they shouldn‘t have given a blank check to the president?
SIMMONS: First of all, my effort to register voters is a nonpartisan effort. I want whoever is in office to respect young people and kids with greater vision than the old people who have already messed things up.
MATTHEWS: Do you think, as a citizen of the United States, that people who make mistakes in high office should admit it?
SIMMONS: They should be held accountable, absolutely. I think they should be held accountable for allowing the president to make that terrible mistake on our behalf. They‘ve used fear and anger to fuel their choices, to have people agree with their choices. They‘ve scared the American public into chasing us down this road.
Instead of love, which is the most basic and simple idea to govern this country and to give out to the world. Export something that we want back, which is love.
MATTHEWS: When you vote this year, without telling me who you‘re going to vote for, unless you want to, what‘s going to be the picture in your mind of what this election is about?
SIMMONS: Well, the election is about a fair chance for all Americans.. There‘s no congressman‘s son at war. There‘s no senator. There‘s no Bush out on the front line. John Kerry's family is not on the front line either. I‘m just making a point that all of us who are in struggle are being used. That‘s my opinion.
I think that we have to pick the best available when we go to the polls. We can‘t say, no one represents every idea in my head. We have to say, there are some who are closer to the way we think, and we can try to hold them accountable and push them to respect people who are, this country should be the most compassionate and giving country in the world.
We have all of the resources. We have the greatest country. We have to just stand up and be as good as those great documents that are written about us.
MATTHEWS: What do you think the effect of an election of the opposition, of Kerry and Edwards, this year will do to the morale of the troops who are fighting over there in Afghanistan and fighting in Iraq? Will they feel like they‘ve been let down by their country? What will they feel?
SIMMONS: No, those troops, they went to fight for our country. They would like for our country to be honest with them and give them the best opportunity and protect them when necessary.
If we made a mistake, you know, then to bring them home or to make the best efforts to protect them while they‘re there. We just can‘t run home, most likely. It probably would be a mistake. We have bombed a lot of innocent people. That‘s why I tell young people to vote. Think about the fact that these people are out there with your money. I gave away, I think, $10 million in bonuses this year.
And it was the beginning of the year I gave it away. Everybody gave up 50 percent before they could blink. They didn‘t get their money. They got half their money. These people gave away 50 percent of their money. And they need to hold the government accountable where they‘re spending it. If they‘re spending it bombing innocent people, then all of our karma is involved.