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Russell Simmons Endorses Obama

Russell Simmons speaks at a news conference in New York February 28, 2006, about the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's decision to add items from Hip Hop culture to the permanent collection. (Reuters.)

By Darryl Fears
The gospel of Sen. Barack Obama might not have opened up the heavens, as Sen. Hillary Clinton sarcastically suggested in a recent speech, but it apparently opened the eyes of one of her self-described friends and supporters, Russell Simmons. The music mogul, entrepreneur and staunch yoga practitioner endorsed Obama over the weekend.

"I see him as a different kind of candidate," Simmons said, echoing a refrain that is repeated over and over by converts to Obama's political message. "I see him as more of a spiritual inspiration, as much as a politician. The idea that other people are experiencing a change in themselves. I see that as an important part of the process."

A day before two decisive Democratic primary votes in Texas and Ohio, the question is not what Obama can do for Simmons. It's what Simmons can do for Obama. Simmons is the third richest man in hip-hop, with a net worth of more than $300 million, behind the rappers-turned-music-executives Jay-Z and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Young black voters have turned out in droves to cast ballots for Obama -- and Simmons could inspire even more.

Obama's campaign said Simmons will jet to Cleveland tomorrow to make appearances at a barber shop, a community college, a public housing complex, and a favorite stop of both Democratic candidates, a local high school.

But first, Simmons "dropped some knowledge," the hip-hop term for divulging previously unknown nuggets of information. "I did hear that the Obama camp got a call from Sean Combs," Simmons said. "I did hear from 50 Cent's camp that he didn't know about Hillary anymore."

What does that mean? He won't say. And Combs and 50, a.k.a., Curtis James Jackson III, couldn't be reached for comment. Combs and Jackson have been politically active in the past. Four years ago, Combs led a now defunct get out the vote effort for youth called "Vote or Die!"

Jackson wore one of the effort's red, white and blue T-shirts.

But with 80 percent of the primary already over, there's more die remaining than vote for those who didn't cast ballots in Simmons' hometown of New York. A legion of black celebrities have already stumped hard for Obama, including rapper/singer Wyclef Jean, CSI:NY star Hill Harper, actress/model Kerry Washington, singers John Legend and Usher, and most notably, Will I.Am, whose star-studded "Yes We Can" video take on Obama's catch phrase was recently followed up by a second.

So why did Simmons wait until now? "It was a long process," Simmons said. In a kind of twisty, topsy-turvy way, he explained: "I've known the Clintons before they were in Harlem. I had a great...I'm still in their camp. I'm just endorsing Sen. Obama. A lot of people feel that way. I'm happy she's my senator. I think she'd be a good president. I think Obama would be a better president."

Simmons' ex-wife, model Kimora Lee Simmons, owner of the Baby Phat clothing line, has endorsed Clinton, saying she likes the way a woman inspires the couple's two daughters.

"I have known Hillary for many years and have seen her work passionately on many issues, including poverty, education, and prison reform," Kimora Lee Simmons said. "As a mother, I have learned that you must lead with your head, not just your heart, and I'm confident that Hillary will be the President to bring our country together and deliver a brighter future for all Americans."
At the Hip-Hop Summit that circulates across the nation, artists and the people who buy the music -- white youngsters, mostly -- say they are concerned about the Iraq war and the ideological roadblocks in Congress. Black fans are deeply concerned about what they consider to be unequal justice against their community in the criminal justice system.

Simmons, who helped organize the summit, took note of an Obama speech on prison reform. "I'm compassionate and smart enough to know these first time offenders can be made better and can come back to the community rather than be in a jail culture. There are a lot of issues like that, the way he speaks to them."

Pausing, he thought about how his friend Hillary Clinton might take this: "I hope I still have a friendship with her that's lasting beyond this choice, not just a friendship but a working relationship. I hope we get past it."

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 3, 2008; 4:45 PM ET
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