March 18, 2011 10:00 pm

A mantra for all seasons

 
Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons at his Manhattan apartment

The decor in Russell Simmons’ homes is dominated by statues of Buddha. No matter where you stand, it’s almost impossible to avoid the gaze of at least one of them. In his New York City apartment, the huge space is dotted with these semi-smiling sculptures, a striking contrast to the concrete surroundings. They seem more at home in his house in the Hamptons: a pair is posted as sentries by the front door, while others stare out serenely across his tightly manicured rock garden and a smattering sit scattered throughout the house.

Their presence indicates eastern leanings – a long-term vegan devoted to Buddhism and the pacifist tenets of Ahimsa, Simmons practises yoga and meditates daily. His passion for yoga is so entrenched that Simmons has set aside an entire room for it in his Manhattan home. “My yoga room is more of a sacred place. It looks like a temple, really big enough for four people,” he says. “In the days I can’t make it to practise, I go in and put on my guru’s CDs and listen to them and their instructions.”

Today his daily rhythm is centred on chanting mantras – no surprise, since it was music that catapulted him to wealth and fame, albeit of a different kind. Simmons was a pioneering producer of raw urban rap in the 1980s; he earned millions from the iconic label Def Jam, home to the Beastie Boys among others.

Then he went from number ones to size zeros, ploughing the first fortune he amassed into starting another business, this time in clothing. He’s a rare entrepreneur whose second venture outdid the first: thanks to the global success of men’s and women’s labels Phat Farm and Baby Phat, his cumulative wealth is now estimated at more than $100m. Like Tommy Hilfiger, Simmons has the grunge backlash to thank for that fortune: the preppy, argyle-heavy style he produced was synonymous with the dapper, late-1990s rap scene. He still favours a tweedy style, albeit paired with an ever-present baseball cap, that Simmons wears whether on the beach or at a black-tie gala.

All the same, Simmons isn’t resting – he’s already launched yet another clothing line. “It’s yogic-inspired, philosophically inspired clothing, Hindu deities and these kind of things – fun stuff with Ganesh and Lakshmi T-shirts.” Called Atman – Sanskrit for “divine self” – this new brand was designed to spread his love of eastern mysticism to others. At least that was the idea. Unfortunately, fusing the sacred and the chic has proved troublesome: take the pair of jeans with rear pockets emblazoned with “aum” symbols. The Hindu vowel is intoned at the start of any prayer, so hardliners protested that sitting on it was sacrilege.

Simmons failed to divine the problems around another pair of trousers, this time with prayers wreathing the hems; they triggered complaints about dragging holy words along the ground. Characteristically – after all, this is a man who meditates daily – Simmons sloughs off such crises. “I almost lost my sunglass licence because on my reality show I said, ‘Jesus Christ!’ but I didn’t say nothing bad about him.”

Though Simmons is passionate about faith, reactionary religion – like that which triggered protests over Atman’s designs – is anathema to him. “Buddha, Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed, they’re all OK by me – I like Buddha, though, and I quote him more often than the other guys,” he says. Rather, inter-faith communication has become a personal crusade. Simmons is chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a global organisation founded in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It pairs imams and rabbis and then sends each into the other’s congregation.

Simmons’ fascination with other faiths was sparked long ago by his tough childhood in Hollis, Queens. Hollis was a typical city neighbourhood in postwar America: after the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs, many urban enclaves like this one in New York became largely all-black districts. “It was an African-American cultural ghetto, lower middle-class. We lived in a two-storey, modest house. I grew up with a mostly happy childhood – no one starved,” Simmons recalls. “My brothers and I had the attic room, and we called it the rocket ship. It was a place I could sneak a girl, or do things my parents couldn’t see. I was very fortunate that I had two very good parents. That saved me from going the way my friends did – mostly dead or in jail.”

Those friends’ lives were ruined by one thing: the arrival in the late 1960s of heroin. “Our corner, Hollis Avenue and 205th, became the capital of Queens in terms of heroin dealing at that time.”

And it was then that Simmons first witnessed the transformative power of other religions (he was raised a non-denominational Christian). “On my corner there was a mosque, run by the Black Muslims, and they also ran a rehab. They were salvation. You either got the army, or you got the Muslims if you want to do something with your life. They would take you off drugs, straighten you out and were so prominent in our community.” Religion provided stability, support and an exit strategy from the increasingly violent ghetto.

And he’s so keen to pass on his interest in faith to his two daughters (Ming Lee, 10, and Aoki Lee, eight) that he’s even designed their bedrooms to reflect it. “More thought went into the kids’ rooms than anywhere else in the house. One looks like a Disney room but the other looks like an Indian prayer room. I painted a mural on the wall – it’s really cool. It’s the room that’s most thought-out and they love that Daddy thought about it.”

His two daughters are now largely based in Los Angeles, where his former wife Kimora Lee lives with her second husband, actor Djimon Hounsou. And it’s only when talking about them that his zen mien slips slightly. Talking of his dream home, he becomes more Heath Robinson than Hindu mystic. “Outside my front door, you could be in New York, out of the back door would be Miami, the side door may be in London or different vacation spots. It doesn’t have to be that big – as long as there’s room for my kids.” And a couple of Buddha statues too.

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