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Russell Simmons on President Obama, Politics, and Hip-Hop

Whether serving as the multimillionaire cofounder of Def Jam Records, shouting down injustice at Occupy Wall Street, or stumping for the president of the Unites States of America, Russell Simmons — the rap legend, media mogul, and dedicated vegan — never stops reppin' the people.

That's why we at New Times recently met him at a Miami Beach hotel for a vegan breakfast and a rollicking in-depth discussion of hip-hop, politics, health care, the value of voting, and Obama versus Romney.

New Times: Why is it important that every eligible American voter cast a ballot in this presidential election?

Russell Simmons: It's simple. That's how a democracy works. You want people from all walks of life voting so you can get a real sample of what America's thinking. The government needs our lead. The government is the people. So if all the people vote, then we have a clear indication of the direction we all want to go in.

Why should the average voter pick Obama over Romney?

For me, I want the people to govern this country, not the corporations. And President Obama is in favor of campaign finance reform. He's opposed to Citizens United. Almost every piece of legislation that disempowers the poor comes about because of lobbyists. But the president wants to restore our democracy. He understands that legislation is supposed to be for the people and not the corporations, not for exploiting the people but empowering them. That's the number-one reason to put President Obama back in office: He will represent the people.

What's the number-two reason?

To keep Mitt Romney out of office, so we don't continue to support the old ways of working against the middle class and the poor.

You know, poor is not a popular word. Because everyone thinks they're not poor. But all of America's underserved communities, including the middle class, will be disenfranchised if Mitt Romney is elected.

Already, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. There is a lack of educational opportunities and health care... This stuff is barbaric. No country in the world should tolerate it. Yet we keep saying that we're "number one." I won't knock the president or Mitt Romney for saying it on television. But they're not telling the truth.

We are not number one in education. We are not number one in health care. We need to improve. We need to educate our middle class. We need to take care of our sick. Those are big issues for me. And unlike Romney, I think the president is working and will continue to work for the people, moving toward all those goals. And that's why I go to work for him.

The '80s and early '90s was a sort of golden era for hip-hop in politics. But is rap today as politically active as it should be?

It comes in stages. But you can't put the whole community in one box. We've gotten people involved in so many issues. All the work that Jay-Z has done to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Then there's Diddy and his efforts to change drug laws. And we're not only political; we're very socially engaged.

Every rap artist has a charity! I don't give a shit what name you come up with... Chingy for Change, the Ludacris Foundation, Daddy's House, the Shawn Carter Foundation, the Shady Foundation. Rappers are way more social — they do more in their communities than the average elected official. You can name all these charities for every rapper. But you can't name no charity for none of these congressmen.

There's always this burden put on rappers: Why don't these guys do more? Well, they do a lot. They don't escape their communities. They don't try to. They're always working for the people.

Is it irresponsible for people, especially the famous, like Kendrick Lamar, to advocate not voting as a way to protest the system?

For those individuals who don't vote, their karma is at risk. When we bomb innocent people or get into wars that we shouldn't be pursuing or do things that abuse the poor and middle class, the government makes the choice. And if we don't vote, then we allow, by default, those in power to do what they want. We lose our right to an opinion.

Each person is part of a whole. And you feel empowered when you come out of the voting booth. You feel connected.

Has Obama really had the kind of significant successes in his first term that should convince the skeptics?

How long has it taken us to say that women deserve the same pay for the same job?... Too long. But the president passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And then he eliminated Don't Ask, Don't Tell in our military before supporting the freedom to marry who you want. He has been a champion of equal rights. I think the president believes the rights that you reserve for yourself should be no different than those you award everyone. He's demonstrated that with his philosophy and actions.

But it's been hard for him to deliver on every promise, because he hasn't had the support. The president of the United States is not like the president of a company. He's got a big board to report to! [laughs] I run a business, and I can just say shit and it gets done. But President Obama can say it a lot and everyone will just stall.

Over the years, on a number of those issues, from health care to women's pay to gay rights, Mitt Romney has been difficult to pin down. What do you think a Romney presidency would look like?

No one knows! That's the problem. The strongest statement that Mitt Romney has made is Paul Ryan. And that's the most offensive thing that he could've said to me.

A friend of mine once said, "Oh, he's a moderate Republican. Maybe we can get some Democratic stuff done. It might not be so terrible." But his pandering to the extreme right during the Republican primary debates proved otherwise. And then in the first debate with President Obama, he tried to switch his stance on almost everything that matters!

His health-care plan in Massachusetts was good. I applaud Mitt Romney for that plan. But he doesn't have a plan for the rest of America. [laughs] So we really have no idea what his presidency would look like. The best guess is four more years of the stuff that Bush did. And that would probably destroy the country.

That infamous 2000 election was decided right here in Florida. Do you predict that our state will prove pivotal in this year's presidential contest?

I think Florida is critical. But everybody in every state has got to go out and vote. I want to make sure that we win by a record. This guy Romney is against the people. It should be easy. But I don't want people to think that they don't have to vote.

We must do everything in our power to win Miami and Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia. Every city in every swing state needs to be ours. The voters have to be committed and determined and say, "I don't care if I break my feet! I gotta have somebody wheelchair me into that booth!"

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S. Pajot
Contact: S. Pajot