Russell Simmons might have been the most stylish dressed man at Organizing For America's early voting rally at Sugar Creek Park - and the most populist.
The music executive joined with OFA's Early Vote Express bus tour on Saturday to travel across North Carolina as a surrogate speaker for the Obama campaign. Simmons, who was joined by his daughter Angela Simmons and supermodel Chanel Iman, stopped earlier in the day at Johnson C. Smith University for a Get Out the Vote rally and to fire up the volunteers at an Obama campaign field office in the city.
Whether Obama can carry North Carolina again largely depends on if the African-American community, in counties like Mecklenburg and Guilford, will turnout like it did for the historic 2008 election.
With Simmons speaking at historically black Johnson C. Smith, and eventually taking the bus on to Greensboro, it was clear his mission at Sugar Creek Park was to rally the president's minority base for the coming election. His role at the rally was undoubtedly to draw a crowd, which was eventually bussed to polls.
Simmons is a popular hip-hope figure and, as founder of the legendary Def Jam recording label, is also one of its godfathers. With several fashion lines and a reality television show focused on his family, he is the closest a human being can come to being his own brand.
But at a makeshift podium in Charlotte, in front of couple hundred of local voters, Simmons calmly used rhetoric that sounded straight out of the Occupy Movement.
Decked in his customary Yankees cap and sweater, Simmons railed against money in politics, corporate influence in America, income inequality, the prison industrial complex, and the decision to go to war with Iraq, which Simmons said bankrupted the U.S.
"It could not be more crystal-clear," Simmons said, referring to the choice between Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Simmons was focused less on the policy differences between the two candidates and more on the threat posed to America from powerful special interests.
"There is a law now that allows corporations to give unlimted money to politicians," Simmons said, referencing the Supreme Court case Citizens United, which lets corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts on campaigns through Super PACs. "So who are you going to work for, the people who spent money for you, or the people who voted for you?"
"Our democracy is flawed," because of that outside money, he said. "Almost everything that disempowers our middle class is because of some corporation paid for some legislation that destroyed our opportunities. Our education, our health care and our social security should not be up for grabs."
Simmons then turned his fire against Romney. "I have met people who could roll out of bed and spend money to fund his campaign, and it wouldn't even affect them. They have their man running, 'Money Mitt' is their man."
Simmons said that the trickle down economics, he accused Romney of espousing, would only further hurt the middle class and that the country could no longer afford it. "So let's stay on our hustle until the time comes, and vote early," Simmons closed.
Four years ago, the hip-hop community coalesced around then-candidate Obama in idealistic hope of what a black president could achieve. But as Saturday's rally showed, after years of struggle in their communities, cultural icons like Simmons are hardened by reality this time around and focused more on progressive structural reforms than rhetorical hope and change.