Monday, November 28th, 2011

The Black Millionaires Of Occupy Wall Street

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.

Cord Jefferson is a senior editor at GOOD.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

RonMwangaguhung (#3,697)

When Russell Simmons does some fucking yoga tweet against materialism I am remembered of his tacky wedding vow. From People magazine (July 1999):

Simmons's brother, Pentecostal minister and rapper Joey "Rev Run" of Run-D.M.C., married the pair, asking Lee, "Kimora, do you take him for richer or richer?" and telling Simmons, "If you were any poorer, you certainly wouldn't be marrying Kimora!" At the reception aboard a 190-foot yacht, the blend of refinement and raucousness continued as maid of honor Tyra Banks led the 200 guests—-including Martha Stewart, Penny Marshall and Jon Bon Jovi—-in dancing to hip hop, R&B and rock and roll. Says Banks: "We didn't let our floor-length dresses stop our rump-shakin' one bit." 

I would respect Russell Simmons so much more if he just went with his naturally shallow nature and stopped trying to force this ridiculous Hindu mystic shit. Just be a dumb, earthy capitalist shithead, Russell. It is your destiny.

Aatom (#74)


Yeah, this was really well done.

jfruh (#713)

It's always been interesting to me how much conspicuous consumption is an integral part of hip-hop culture (and here I promise I'm using "hip-hop culture" not as some code phrase for "black people" but to mean "the cultural signifiers that surround the production of hip-hop music"). I mean, you have white "indie" rockers who cling stubbornly to the aesthetic of some small-time bar band long after they sign to some whimsically named label that is, three corporate layers up, owned by some predatory multinational; and other hand you have something like Master P.'s No Limit Records, a genuine scrappy underground company founded in his mother's house, which had as its logo a diamond-encrusted tank necklace. I think it's probably a lot easier to dismiss mega-wealth as something to aspire to when you grow up in middle-class comfort.

sigerson (#179)

@jfruh – historically, wealthy American neighborhoods had legally binding racial covenants tied to property rights that prevented any owner from selling to a black person. That meant that even those rich black folks (e.g., the "talented tenth") who could afford it couldn't show off their wealth in real estate. But they could buy a nice car and a fur coat, etc., etc. So that's where the "bling" tradition comes from. Show off your money in the streets.

Will@twitter (#185,881)

@jfruh "I think it's probably a lot easier to dismiss mega-wealth as something to aspire to when you grow up in middle-class comfort."


smithsj (#21,669)

@sigerson What the hell? I study housing policy for a living, and there's a lot of bullshit going on there, but I'm having a hard time believing that pre-civil rights real estate provision has anything to do with black hip-hop and bling.

The truth is, every poor (usually darker) minority across the globe has the bling thing. Gypsies in Romania, Chechens in Russia, blacks in Brazil, poor Mexican immigrants in the US, etc. Hell, even Native Americans had it. I'm not going to pretend to be able to explain it with certainty, but I'm pretty sure it's got nothing to do with pre-civil rights era residential covenants.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

@smithsj THANK you.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@smithsj – Does this mean my evo psych hypothesis about why the Salvadorean dudes in my neighborhood put ridiculous spoilers and pinstripes on Nissan Sentras is probably made up too?

Abe Sauer (#148)

Simmons absolutely deserves a (this) takedown.

But to say "Blacks don't occupy Wall Street" and link that to data pulled from a study done to determine "support" for OWS using data from visitors to (a website, not, you know, actually Wall Street, or Denver or San Francisco) is misleading. Not that you're wrong on the suggestion that the movement is largely white, but to say "Blacks don't" is ridiculous and, in fact, for the movements in, say, Oakland, and other cities is insulting. I mean, look at all these honkies Occupying Milwaukee, right?

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

@Abe Sauer That's a very fair grievance, and I hope my intentional hyperbole isn't taken as a snub to all the African Americans risking their safety at Occupy protests around the country.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Cord_Jefferson A "very fair grievance" seems a lot like "There's nothing wrong with it”

Abe Sauer (#148)

BUT ALSO: "all the African Americans risking their safety at Occupy protests around the country." WHAT? That seems, um, like a preposterous follow up waffle to the entire opening paragraph here, which isn't about Simmons but instead about establishing a race argument about blacks not being into OWS. It is a giant horeshit race-bait lead (Not surprising maybe that it's from somebody who argued that (on this very site) "blacks don't even watch the NFL."

That you never even mention, once, Cornel West's involvement makes me suspicious this is an essay that wouldn't have been publishable at the site you yourself edit, So it was dumped. like a turd, here instead.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Abe Sauer: Abe, we've all agreed not to mention Cornel's name. I'll thank you not to do it again, or he'll be summoned before us to talk about himself.

Fearlessleeder (#2,618)

@Abe Sauer You also left out amongst this race baiting, his vague, veiled attempt at calling Russell an uncle tom. I applaud your rebuttal though!

Not that I already know that Uncle Russell, while being a self made success, has been a shill of book store eastern spirituality, while being unapologetically materialistic, but the vitriol reserved for both him and Jay Z over t-shirts is starting to come off as something else being masked here.

Fearlessleeder (#2,618)

@Cord_Jefferson No it comes off as a white, liberal hustle on race, that's exactly why more minorities didn't join and are very cautious about OWS, despite sharing the grievances. The reductionism and generalization of your first paragraph is appallingly unwelcoming to minorities.

Oh by the way, minorities did show up to Slutwalk, only to be bombarded by signs that woman are the niggars of the world held up by white women. Any wonder why black woman who live in doubly precarious position of hostility based on gender and race at the same time, might just have been a little put off by that? Especially with the woefully clueless defense by white woman of the signs.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Further: Speaking, as you do, of "bullshit," this piece uses as its graphic a screenshot from (what appears to be) an okayafrica youtube video.
That same channel features an assload of black (probably) millionaires, like Questlove, supporting OWS in no self-promotional terms.

janine (#248)

@Abe Sauer I think we can agree that it's non-controversial to say that some people of color are showing up at OWS, but as you say, the movement is largely white. It doesn't take much time in the Black blogosphere to say people aren't 100% comfortable. I'm going to quote Chauncey DeVega, who says, "where were the OWS folks when black and brown people were catching hell for decades, as globalization and deindustrialization ravaged our communities, punching upward mobility and wealth accrual in the gut?" I'm not fully on board with this, but I put it out there to say this: an entire photo album of OWS protests with Black people in them doesn't prove there's not a POC issue(and perhaps I'm too sensitive to this. as one of 2 black people in my class at the private school i went to, I was in every 3rd page of the brochure). It's not a damning indictment of the movement or anything to point this out. I mean, it's America! I'm wondering what the point is here. To vehemently say, "move along, there's nothing to see here?" Okaaaaaayyyyy.

ugh really??

pretty sure Russell Simmons is still one of America's most successful black entrepreneurs whose work opened doors for thousands and inspired millions, before he's a rich dude. OWS is about a lot of things, but "income inequality" slides into "endemic racism" pretty easily, and not many people understand how hard it is to succeed while black in America than a guy who did it.

(anyways, for the billionth time, being rich doesn't mean you can't participate in OWS. Tom Tomorrow said this nicely here:

as for Kanye being a hypocrite … first of all, every single person using an Apple device at OWS is a hypocrite by your criteria. but second, remember "Diamonds (remix)," where dude rewrote a song about diamonds after seeing a documentary about diamond mining in Africa? he'd probably cop to being a hypocrite, tell you he's complex and tell you about how he struggles with it. Kanye's entire career has been a public clash between his excesses and his guilt.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

Putting your name on a high-fee prepaid credit card makes you an asshole. Selling OWS tees made with sweatshop labor and keeping the profits makes you an asshole. It's one thing if you're broke and trying to hustle up some cash, but both Jay and Russell are halfway to being billionaires.

Scum (#1,847)

Abe Sauer sure is a huffy dick. "Yes, the claim you make in the opening paragraph is plainly correct, but if I choose to interpret this obviously figurative sentence in a literal way it becomes ridiculous!". Fuck off with that, son. What's the point? you must be joining in literary solidarity with your occupy brothers by writing obnoxious things that serve no real purpose in pursuit of nebulousthoughsurelyrighteous goals.

Guarded Conditions (#186,699)

I think the content of this post this is bullshit. I'm a black person and I've been to at least three OWS protests, including the last one on Nov. 17th. Each protest seemed very diverse to me, but maybe my perception is off since I live in Manhattan. Whatever the actual statistics, I for one have no problem with wealthy black people showing up to show support for the movement. I have a lot of problems with Kanye et al, and OWS, but this factor is not one of them. They aren't telling us poor black people not to show up, some of us just don't pay attention to the real news, but that's not their fault.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

I'm guessing the reason black people didn't come out in droves to occupy Denver or San Francisco is that they're like 5% of the population there. It's like asking why there weren't that many black people at occupy Portland.

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