Hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons has a musical message for those in the Middle East conflict: “Bury the beef.”
The founder of the Def Jam record label uses rap language for ending an argument. He is trying to open hearts and minds on both sides of the Jewish-Muslim divide with a planned CD and concert in Jerusalem.
“To get two Palestinians and two Israelis to rap, to make a video with a holy site in the background, that is a fun thing to do,” Simmons, 54, says in an interview. “Dialogue has to be cultural and music can be very helpful as a great catalyst.”
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled in Sept. 2010, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in West Bank settlements. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he will not negotiate while the building continues.
“The politicians have proven they can do one thing, which is stall and not have communications,” Russell says, wearing a white polo shirt and baseball cap.
On a recent visit, he met bankers, Jerusalem’s mayor, the chief rabbi of Haifa, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein.
“They are willing to work toward tolerance,” he says. “The question is will they work toward a political solution.”
During his Jerusalem stay, Simmons -- accompanied by his friend Rabbi Marc Schneier -- placed a Yogic mantra in the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site: “May it be the will that people all over the world will be happy and free.” The black American wears a necklace of black beads that bears a Yogi symbol.
They also met Shari Arison, controlling shareholder of the country’s second-largest bank by assets Bank Hapoalim Ltd., who Simmons says “really liked the idea of what we are doing.”
Mayor Nir Barkat proposed a hip-hop happening in Jerusalem and Simmons has a few stars in mind. They include Israel’s Kobi Shimoni, best known as Subliminal; DJ Khalif and Shyne, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail for attempted murder and is now a devout Jew named Moses.
“He gave me some great raps,” says Simmons of Shyne, a one-time Def Jam artist. The label has also released music by Kanye West and Rihanna. Simmons’s discoveries include the Beastie Boys, LLCoolJ, RunDMC and Public Enemy.
Simmons is also the founder of the Phat Farm clothing line and has a net worth of $340 million, according to Celebnetwork.org. With Schneier, through the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, he has persuaded Muslim and Jewish religious leaders around the world to meet and even twin congregations. Schneier is the institution’s founder and Simmons is its chairman.
The sensitivities of the conflict were underscored during their visit when Russell responded to a conference moderator who mentioned that Louis Farrakhan, who Russell believes should be part of a dialogue, hadn’t been constructive for the Jewish-Muslim-black relations.
Russell said that Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman hadn’t been that helpful in building tolerance either, prompting an angry response from the Jewish leader.
“What is disappointing is that someone who has a history of having a blind spot to one of the most vociferous and ugly anti-Semites would be given a platform in Jerusalem,” Foxman said.
Simmons says in response now that he had no desire “to create disharmony in our communities by having a public fight. I respect Abe’s work.”
The encounter left him feeling that Jews and Muslims weren’t irreconcilable.
“It’s all right,” he says. “In the rapper community, they shoot at each other.”
He just intervened in a feud between Chris Brown and Drake after a confrontation at a New York club.
“I settled that rap beef and although I don’t think it is the same as imams and rabbis and their lack of understanding of each others’ scriptures, I do find that in all the beefs you settle, both sides have more in common than not,” Simmons says.
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market and James Russell on architecture.