To anyone paying attention, it wasn’t really a surprise when blacks didn’t come out in droves to support Occupy Wall Street. Despite the fact that blacks suffer from poverty and the ills accompanying it at wildly disproportionate rates, African-Americans have for a number of uncertain reasons been avoiding most of the liberal demonstrations of the moment. Blacks don't occupy Wall Street (or Denver or San Francisco) just as blacks don’t SlutWalk, or rally at the World Bank.
What was surprising was when the rappers started showing up.
At first it was just Russell Simmons—not technically a rapper, but a rap icon—his proselytizing becoming a daily fixture at Zuccotti Park and then at far-flung movement outposts like Occupy LA and Occupy Boston. Later came Kanye West and Jay-Z, the most famous hip-hop artists in the world right now. West has been to Zuccotti himself once, when he ambled around the park for about eight minutes before being shuffled off to chauffeured cars. For his part, Jay-Z hasn’t made an appearance at any protest encampment or march, but he’s been showing his support in other ways, specifically by hawking a run of OWS-themed Rocawear t-shirts for $22 a pop. Jigga’s advocacy knows bounds, of course: None of the proceeds from those shirts will go to OWS or any other charity. After criticism, the shirts were lifted from the Rocawear site, but as of now, they appear to be back on the market—and on backorder.
The presence of Simmons and friends—which has been mostly Simmons—at OWS is as paradoxical as Rocawear’s protest t-shirts. On the one hand, yes, support OWS, everyone should. On the other, what sense does anti-corporate Rocawear apparel make? This cognitive dissonance was perhaps best illustrated that afternoon in early October, when, draped in gold chains that hung low below his Givenchy shirt, Kanye strutted through the OWS crowds, smiling and silent and flanked by yes-men. One could almost hear him humming “Jesus Walks” quietly to himself as people reached out to touch him, his gold grill glinting sunlight into everyone’s eyes. All around the rapper men and women held signs decrying greed and selfishness, and demanding higher taxes for the ultra-rich. It was undoubtedly a different scene than the one he’d encountered hours before while shopping with Beyoncé at a boutique called Intermix. At Intermix you can buy a leopard-print handbag for $3,200.
If Kanye loves to spend, his friend Simmons loves to make money off of people who spend. Among other things, Simmons is the purveyor of the Rush Card, a prepaid Visa card designed for people too poor to get regular bank accounts. With a $10 monthly usage fee, and many others along the way, the Rush Card earns profits by charging people to spend their own money, a practice that’s gotten Simmons heckled at OWS and on the receiving end of a recent investigation by Florida’s attorney general. Simmons has consistently lashed out at critics, naturally, telling Forbes in March that the Rush Card makes it so people “don’t have to get on line at a check cashing place.” But he’s seemingly forgotten that things have already gone badly wrong when your best defense is that your product isn’t as bad as a check-cashing scam.
Knowing some of the ways Simmons has gone about accumulating his $110 million fortune—those predatory debit cards, a clothing brand that may or may not be tied to questionable labor practices, gigs helping mega-entities like Coca-Cola with commercials—it’s been interesting to hear him outline the OWS movement’s wish list for the many reporters who seek him out. Thus far the Occupy movement has purposefully avoided crafting any bulleted list of demands in favor of letting protestors speak for themselves. This nebulousness, some have argued, has been one the movement’s “great strengths.” Simmons apparently disagrees, as he often feels very comfortable expounding at length about what he thinks OWS stands for. Frequently he’ll forget about the protesters who say they want a radical redistribution of wealth. He’ll forget about the protesters holding up signs celebrating socialism. Instead, Simmons prefers to focus on the demand that lobbyists and corporate money wield less control over the government. He talks about this constantly, and at one point he even said railing against lobbyists is the “one thing” protesters should focus on in their responses to what OWS is about. However sincere his motives may be, it's certainly convenient that Simmons' personal cause célèbre at OWS is the one that doesn't call into question the foundation on which he’s amassed a 35,000-square-foot home.
It must be quite strange to be a black millionaire. I can only venture to guess at what that second part entails, but I would imagine it’s something like straddling a great divide, or trying to reconcile within yourself two endlessly different senses of being. Societal expectations can be difficult to escape, and society—both black and white—is confused by a black millionaire.
I’ve occasionally said to my friends that black hipsters are the truest hipsters, because even their race is “indie.” It’s a dumb joke largely cribbed from a Chris Rock bit, but I do think there’s some truth to it. For about 100,000 reasons, most of them quite subtle, people of color in America quickly learn to consider themselves outsiders—maybe not outcasts, but definitely not part of the norm. That coupled with a history sprinkled liberally with icons like Huey and Malcolm and Martin can start to manifest itself as a sense of duty to fight for the little guy. But what happens when you’re no longer little?
I think that if you told Russell Simmons his prepaid credit cards are the kind of predatory bullshit that got America into this mess, he’d be genuinely shocked (when it happened here all he could do was smile sheepishly). I think if you said to Jay-Z that attempting to profit off of OWS through Rocawear is vile, he’d respond with something like, “What's wrong with selling goodness? There's nothing wrong with it” (which is actually a direct quote from Simmons when asked about Jay-Z’s vile shirts). I think that if you asked Kanye West how he can support a movement Simmons says is anti-oil and gas lobbying while also big-upping the 10-mile-per-gallon Maybach he’d say you were a hater. I think that each of these men would be disappointed to find out that if a revolution is to happen, it’s definitely not going to begin with them, and indeed they may be part of the problem.
Nietzsche warns us that it’s painful to discover you’ve become the monster you thought you were battling. But what certainly hurts worse is when, having become a monster, the other monsters won’t even let you into their dark and secret hideouts. As wealthy and powerful as Simmons has become while playing by America’s rules, there are still golf clubs where he can’t be a member, and still prominent white politicians who wouldn’t think twice about calling him “brotha” or telling him “you be da man.” There are even still many people who would be upset if their daughter brought him home. There’s a notorious and easily modified black joke that goes, “What do you call a black billionaire (or lawyer or doctor)?” The answer: “A nigger.” That one’s always been particularly ugly to me for its honesty.
I wonder if the past few weeks have found Russell Simmons dreaming of walking quickly down a narrow pathway in Manhattan. There’s an OWS protest on one side of him and Wall Street on the other side, and yet he can’t reach either. Not really, not fully.