Hip Hop Humanitarians

by Catherine Curan
Worth, 04/1/2006

Hip-hop’s godfather and the cofounder of Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons, slides out of a black, chauffeur-driven SUV, showing off his Simmons Jewelry prayer beads made of precious stones. Nelly–a Grammy-winning, multiplatinum recording artist–arrives, smiling to reveal a sparkling grille of diamonds emblazoned on his lower front teeth.

Hip-hop music’s leading lights have turned out on this wintry night in New York not just to show off the trappings of their success. Like their counterparts at jewelry-laden society charity balls, recording artists and industry executives such as Simmons, who is worth more than $300 million, are mixing glamour with good works. The event is the third annual Action Awards of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), and Simmons, HSAN’s founder, has attracted the industry’s elite to fete an aspect of hip-hop that even some of its fans are unaware of: its growing charitable efforts.

“A lot of times people think we hip-hop people are all about money,” says honoree Jermaine Dupri, a producer and entrepreneur. “It’s not about the bling. It’s just about doin’ good for the hood. I think that’s the most important part of the whole situation.”

Dupri was honored for his charity work in the Atlanta area; Nelly, Michelle Williams (on behalf of the now disbanded Destiny’s Child) and Chrysler Financial were also celebrated for their philanthropic efforts. Warner Music Group Executive Vice President Kevin Liles gave a keynote address that was part sermon, part humorous confessional about his abandoned rap career and part impassioned call for further charity. “We got to stop making excuses here, [that] we’re not role models. Kids look up to us. We ain’t raisin’ nobody’s kids, but you got to lead by example.”

Liles’ call is resonating. As hip-hop enters its third decade, nearly every award-winning rap star boasts a charitable foundation. While some might argue that such philanthropies are mechanisms for offsetting the sometimes violent, misogynistic facets of their public personas, many hip-hop stars are genuinely dedicated to using their fame–and fortunes–to help the underserved communities from which many of them come.

The long and growing list includes Simmons, Diddy (also known as Sean Combs), Jay-Z (Shawn Carter), Nelly (Cornell Haynes Jr.), Ludacris (Chris Bridges), 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson), Kanye West, Chingy (Howard Bailey Jr.) and Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus). Simmons, who sold his stake in Def Jam for $100 million in 1999 and his Phat Farm clothing company for $140 million in 2004, is leading the way. In addition to HSAN, he operates the 11-year-old Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which gave away roughly $523,000 in 2004 and raised more than $2 million in 2005. Combs’ Daddy’s House foundation allocated $1.3 million in grants, mainly to New York’s The Fund for Public Schools, in 2003–the same year he ran the New York City Marathon and raised more than $2 million for children’s health and education causes. Their activities are not restricted to their own foundations: Jay-Z and Diddy pledged $1 million to the Red Cross last September to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, publicly announcing the gift to encourage other donations.

In 2003, Syron Kira began working with a small education-sector nonprofit called Donors Choose as a junior grant maker in a program funded by Russell Simmons. Kira, now a 23-year-old college student, remains a Donors Choose volunteer. Inspired by the program and a brief meeting with Simmons, she recently changed her major from accounting to economics and plans a career in philanthropy.

In some ways, these hip-hop humanitarians are akin to many first-generation philanthropists: Their foundations tend to be initially relatively small (particularly compared with the annual earnings of hip-hop’s biggest stars), family run and focused on grassroots initiatives. But these music titans are also creating an undeniably personal style of giving. Coming from the streets, they often have a profound insight into the impact their philanthropy can have, and so they return to the streets, devoting their time, as well as money, to urban charities that are often overlooked by traditional philanthropists. Moreover, hip-hop’s leaders are wielding their fame to transform forgotten charities into a causes célèbres and influence legions of young fans to think philanthropically.

“There is a trend that’s occurring, increasing the visibility of what these individuals do,” points out Roberta Shields, Ludacris’ mother and the president of the 5-year-old Ludacris Foundation. The nonprofit made grants of $343,000 in 2004, focusing mainly on arts-related projects, and, through a partnership with Pepsi, distributed an additional $666,000 in charitable funds. “It’s not just all of a sudden they’re starting to do these things. But as your capabilities grow, you’re going to give more broadly.”

Leveraging Relationships
By targeting friends, business associates and other young wealth creators in the hip-hop world for donations, the artists are also tapping new sources of funding. Simmons and his wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, promote Rush Philanthropic with a lavish benefit at their East Hampton home every summer. Last year’s party drew musicians such as Usher and Alicia Keys, along with business executives and models. It raised more than $1.35 million for underserved New York City youth. “A lot of our funding comes from people who in one way or another are friends, colleagues or peers of Russell,” says Ellen Haddigan, executive director of Rush Philanthropic. “Hip-hop is making it happen. This is not old money that’s been dusted off and is getting distributed.”

These newly minted–and in many cases astonishingly young–philanthropists are filling some crucial funding gaps. Hip-hop foundations tend to focus on education and arts groups, supporting grassroots organizations. Such groups are often too tiny or entrepreneurial to attract funding from larger, traditional charities. “Any time you start a business or a philanthropic organization, you’re trying to fill a void, and there is a tremendous [funding] void for grassroots organizations,” Simmons says. “For people to give their money to the Urban League, it’s a safe bet. There’s nothing wrong with the Urban League, but what about these other issues?”

While hip-hop has long since crossed the color line, and the work of these foundations is not constrained by race, the hip-hop community brings an insider’s awareness of the needs of poor black Americans–at a time when black charities’ already small share of grants from traditional foundations is shrinking. Allocations dropped to 1.6 percent in 2003, down from 3.8 percent in 1998, according to the Foundation Center, a New York—based organization that tracks nonprofit giving. Many of these foundations target needs in the rappers’ home communities that are often overlooked by conventional charities. “Philanthropy, in a sense, was organized to preserve the culture, and our culture is not foremost on the minds of people outside of our community. So having this new wealth being more focused on the community is very valuable,” explains William Merritt, president of the Newark, N.J.-based National Black United Fund, which supports philanthropic organizations that aid black Americans.

Russell Simmons carves out time to personally investigate potential beneficiaries. He spent an afternoon in a trash-filled parking lot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 2001, watching a performance by the Jackie Robinson Steppers. The group was performing in threadbare uniforms, and their instruments were held together by tape. Rush Philanthropic later donated $20,000 to the Steppers, and Simmons and his wife personally donated funds. The donations enabled the group to buy new uniforms and instruments, and to enter competitions. In 2004, they won the national high-step championship and are in talks to perform at New York Knicks games.

Hip-hop philanthropists who overcame poverty and the temptations of the streets are often well-positioned to reach out to blacks in need, especially to the fans who idolize them. Jay-Z, who grew up in Brooklyn’s crime-ridden Marcy Projects, started the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund in 2003 to help those, such as GED recipients and released inmates, who are ignored by most scholarship grantors. His mother, Gloria Carter, who runs the fund, says the objective is to educate urban children who are bright, but who may not be able to meet other scholarships’ stringent requirements. “We come from the ghetto, and I know how hard it is to get money for education,” she says. The fund has awarded 10 scholarships, mainly to students who plan to return to their home communities to help after college. Carter plans to expand the group this year and establish an after-school center at Marcy.

Chingy, who grew up on St. Louis’ North Side, is just 26, and he, too, has a foundation, Chingy for Change, which provides college scholarships. Founded in 2003, the organization works with local principals to select scholarship winners. Chingy holds fund-raising concerts and visits local schools to encourage kids who grew up like he did, telling them that there is a way out of poverty. “It’s really important for me, because as a kid coming up, I didn’t have that much,” he says. “Now that I established my career . . . it’s like, you go back, and the kids that can’t really help themselves, you help them.”

Foundations can also create an incentive for more giving. Lisa Franklin, Chris Bridges’ financial advisor and a board member of his Ludacris Foundation, says the rapper felt more comfortable making larger donations after–as an established philanthropist–he became privy to private information about needy organizations.

Serial Entrepreneurs
Some observers, however, wonder if these young stars possess the staying power to fund philanthropy over the long term. The most dedicated artists do seem to be laying a solid financial foundation, using music-industry success to springboard into new businesses, turning themselves into durable, multifaceted brands. The elder statesman at a mere 48, Simmons now hawks everything from jewelry to debit cards. Jay-Z, 36, hung up his microphone last year to become CEO of Def Jam. He also produced clothing and sneakers with Reebok, and owns a stake in the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He is said to be worth some $300 million.

These artists are also becoming icons for their peers in the hip-hop pantheon and the millions of fans who worship them. After Katrina hit, Roberta Shields says her son received numerous calls from other stars who wanted to help. Soon the Ying Yang Twins and Lil’ John and the East Side Boyz were bringing baskets of supplies for 15 displaced families that Ludacris was moving into temporary housing. Ludacris, at 28 a multiplatinum rapper, radio show host and critically acclaimed actor, collaborated with MTV last December to broadcast his outreach to Mississippi high school students affected by the hurricane.

Conventional philanthropists are taking note of hip-hop’s growing power and the opportunities its stars are taking to sway fans around the world. “Most traditional foundations don’t have a following and access to communication channels to influence the thinking of an entire generation of young people,” says Emmett D. Carson, president of the Minneapolis Foundation, one of the oldest and largest foundations in the United States. “That influence [can] create opportunities for positive social change, the likes of which we’ve never seen in this country.”

Black charities’ already small share of grants from traditional foundations is shrinking. Allocations dropped to 1.6 percent in 2003.

Indeed, hip-hop culture, which traces its genesis to the Bronx in the early 1970s, is a growing force. Hip-hop and rap records accounted for more than 12 percent of the $12.1 billion recording industry sales in 2004. The artists and their music also define fashion trends and advertising and marketing strategies for everything from video games to financial services. While hip-hop, like any popular trend, remains subject to the capricious winds of the music-buying public, its stars possess the potential to make a lasting and profound impact on American philanthropy. Because of the combination of their upbringing in underserved communities and their social consciousness, along with their worldwide notoriety, hip-hop philanthropists have both strong motivation and a powerful platform for doing good.

Simmons, like many committed philanthropists, aspires to change the root causes of poverty and inequality rather than simply trying to alleviate some of the suffering that is the outgrowth of the problems.

“[Our goal is to have an] impact on policy . . . whether or not you call it philanthropy,” Simmons says. “In other words, when we get people to be better citizens by voting, or money in the education budget by rallying as we did a few years ago and getting [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg to put money back in the education budget, that’s the same thing to me. I’ve got a blurred line between the social and philanthropic stuff.”

Nelly established Jes Us 4 Jackie in 2003 in honor of his sister,
Jackie Donahue, who died of leukemia. The nonprofit is designed to help redress the lack of black donors on the bone marrow registry. The group had signed up 2,700 donors by November 2005, and had found successful matches for seven patients. “A lot of people ask me, like, what’s my biggest achievement, what do I feel, like, defines Nelly, and I’m, like, it has nothing to do with music,” he says. “You know you can be the richest man on the planet, but how many lives have you saved? We saved seven. So top that one. You know what I’m sayin’?”

Controversial Collaborations
If these philanthropists hope to achieve these goals, they will have to find ways to mollify donors, corporations and other philanthropies that are reluctant to align themselves with an industry that often celebrates violence and misogyny. Most hip-hop charities forge their own path, but those that seek to expand are considering partnerships with larger charities or businesses; some are already making such connections. Haddigan of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation hopes to follow an established charity model by creating a hip-hop community trust, banking on Rush’s decade of experience connecting with grassroots organizations. Meanwhile, Target is in talks with Rush to donate up to $1 million, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

These collaborations are not always comfortable. In September, Kanye West diverged from his script during a live Red Cross telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, tearing into media portrayals of black people and the delays in administering aid. “Those are my people,” West said. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Enough of his fans agreed with West that a remake of his song “Gold Digger” (renamed “George Bush Don’t Like Black People”) became a cult hit.

Even as some hip-hop stars have been willing to spark controversy in support of a cause, the public personas of others have, at times, repelled even those they seek to help. A backlash against Nelly’s video for his song “Tip Drill”–in which he swipes his credit card through a woman’s backside–wrecked his outreach to Atlanta’s Spelman College last year. Students at the all-female black college protested his appearance to promote bone marrow donations, and the event was canceled. Last fall, 50 Cent’s G-Unity Foundation made a $100,000 donation to Teach for America–even as billboards for his film, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, were removed from the vicinity of Los Angeles schools after protests about the image: 50 Cent’s bullet-scarred, tattooed back, with arms outstretched, holding a gun in one hand and microphone in the other.

These incidents highlight the tension between laudable charitable contributions by celebrities, and the images they sometimes display. “These artists have begun a journey,” says Carson of the Minneapolis Foundation. “They are not at the end of their journey, and as these contradictions come forward, I hope they will say, ‘I’m about this other part of my life,’ or, ‘That’s not the fullness of who I am today.’”

Shields, Ludacris’ mother, admits she prefers the edited versions of her son’s songs, but stresses a holistic view of young hip-hop artists and fans. “You’re not going to like everything they do and say, but you do like them. It’s more important to be in your children’s life than to announce your disdain and get closed out.”

“For people to give their money to the Urban League, it’s a safe bet. There’s
nothing wrong with the Urban League, but what about these other issues?”
- Russell Simmons

Ludacris and Simmons have shown that it is possible to take on controversy and emerge with philanthropic gold. Since 2003, they have successfully teamed with Pepsi on a $3 million partnership to support community groups. The relationship started antagonistically, when Pepsi dropped Ludacris as a pitchman after broadcaster Bill O’Reilly criticized the rapper’s use of foul language. When Pepsi replaced Ludacris with a famously foul-mouthed white family, the Osbournes, Simmons called for a boycott. Pepsi then agreed to the $3 million deal, which has proved fruitful enough that the partners are discussing ways to continue beyond June’s expiration date.

Frank Cooper, vice president of promotions, interactive and entertainment at Pepsi, says he would like future collaborations to have a national impact, possibly by rallying a group of grassroots organizations around one theme, such as music education. “We hear the stories that this is just a payoff for Ludacris to keep quiet. But we know it’s much more than that, or we would not be sitting here talking about how to capture some more opportunities,” Cooper says.

Backing the Underdogs

Collaboration can act as a catalyst for small charities. Support from Rush Philanthropic launched formerly tiny charity Donors Choose into the major leagues. Founded in 2000 by Charles Best, a former teacher in the Bronx, Donors Choose allows teachers to post online proposals for small grants to purchase classroom materials; donors view and select the proposals that appeal to them. In late 2002, Rush stepped up with a grant of $30,000, and in 2003 included an insert in his benefit gift bag, urging attendees to vote for Donors Choose in a competition on Amazon.com. The group began as an underdog, but Rush’s backing helped it generate enough donations to win an award as America’s most innovative charity. “Rush Philanthropic deserves credit as a kind of venture philanthropist who identified our potential,” Best says.

On the night of the HSAN Awards, Nelly lingered at the podium to shout out the achievements of his charity for children with disabilities, 4Sho4Kids, which is run by his aunt, Chalena Mack. His speech ranged the spectrum of emotion that hip-hop can inspire. It began with raw grief over the loss of his sister. He also sounded a note of pride over the success of Jes Us 4 Jackie. He had the audience laughing at a story about giving $10,000 worth of toys to soften a guilty conscience after spending an equal amount at a strip club the previous night.

Nelly, not yet 30, spoke of the confusion sudden wealth can bring and the role models in the hip-hop community. “Hip-hop is the only thing that takes raw and uncut young brothers, and they turn ’em into millionaires overnight,” he said. “And nobody put a book in our hand and tell us, ‘This is how you supposed to act.’”