As I mentioned, yesterday I attended Russell Simmons’ press conference to reveal the results of his fact-finding Africa mission. In attendance was Russell Simmons, Dr. Ben Chavis, Kimora Lee Simmons (Russell insisted she’s still his wife), Rev. Run(Run DMC), the Dipset’s “capo” Jim Jones (again I say, WTF does he have to do with diamonds beside speaking ignorantly about it? update: Jim Jones quote below), actor Jeffrey Wright (said to be doing work in Sierra Leone), Scott Rauch (president of Simmons Jewelry Company), and a bunch of DeBeers and World Diamond Council people. I must admit I was still skeptical about the purpose of the trip and what I felt the results would be. From the video released last thursday, I began to have some hopes about the degree to which Russell was going to find the facts and re-enforce my image of him as the godfather/guru extraordinare of our hip hop generation. I went into the conference with an open mind, and looking to hear from Simmons himself that the mission was a successful one. Ultimately I was disappointed by the whole event.
While news sources report about Simmons’ Green Initiative, and (get this) Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) , which will “raise money for the development and empowerment of people and communities in Africa where diamonds ar a natural resource”, one key point resounding throughout the press conference was, why didn’t Russell’s entourage visit the countries which are at the heart of the blood diamond debate. As a representative of Global Witness and another reporter (I think she was from AOL Black voices) mentioned, the controversy surrounding diamonds relates more directly to countries like Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, none of which were visited by Simmons delegation. Instead the focus of the conference and the trip was on Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique, three countries which, despite reports of displacement of Native Bushmen in Botswana, have very little to do with the conflict diamonds controversy. It’s like saying there’s no racism in America and pointing to Condoleza Rice as an example. Now, some people would say that these three countries are part of the discussion since their diamond production process is a “role-model” for other diamond producing African countries, but there are still many faults even with that. During his short speech a representative from the Debswana Diamond Company, was reminded by Simmons to disclose to the press that the company at the heart of the “successful” diamond mining in Botswana was a 50/50 ownership with DeBeers, the primary company accused of profiting from the blood diamond trade. Simmons had mentioned earlier in the conference that 85% of Botswana’s profits go back to the people of Botswana for education, AIDS treatment, general health insurance and a good portion of the profits from his Simmons Jewelry Company would be re-directed to “help Africans”. But the question kept coming up; why didn’t the delegation leave the confines of the structured Botswana tour and venture into even the smaller towns within the country where reports of exploitation and human rights abuse were coming from. Couple that with the fact that the Simmons’ DEF fund contribution will go to the same Botswana that they claim is so successful in providing for it’s people and you can see why I’m not convinced.
While I think Simmons, and Chavis can do a great deal of good in Africa, my main concern is with the timing of the whole thing. With all the stories going around and reports of the diamond industry spending $15 million on preemptive measures in regards to the effect of the Blood Diamond movie, I can’t believe that Simmons got himself in the middle of this. True, he has a business to run, AND Amnesty International approached him first, but at least he could have attempted to make the “fact-finding” mission look impartial. Everything about the whole mission pointed to a spin campaign on the part of the diamond industry, to the point where a representative from the World Diamond council got up to make a speech about how they are “appreciative of the attention” the movie has brought on their efforts with the Kimberley Process. Even Russell mentioned that he was happy that Leonardo DiCaprio was talking of not boycotting diamonds. As I exited the press conference I ran into the President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, who had reportedly just taped an interview for the Charlie Rose Show which will air tonight on PBS. Russell, I still have faith in you. Do something to make it right.
Quotes from the conference:
â€¢ Russell Simmons:
“My (only) agenda is to uplift African people … and all people”
“(I want to ) help strengthen the Kimberley Process”
“Diamonds empower Africans”
â€¢ Dr. Ben Chavis:
“The diamond industry promotes good in Africa”
“(I encourage the media to) get the opinion of people who live and work in Africa”
“…most disturbing thing to me (from the trip) was seeing that the reality (of the African diamond situation) was not being covered (by the media)”
â€¢ Scott Rauch
“This continent needs help”
â€¢ Sheila Khama (De Beers Botswana Chief Executive)
“Please cut us some slack. A lot of good has happened in Botswana because of diamonds.”
â€¢ Jim Jones
“As rappers we spend tens of millions of dollars a year on jewelry alone. Not just me myself, I’m talking about as a general effort. It’s a service that goes back to the African people that’s been mining all the diamonds that we wear. We should learn about purchasing from them, as opposed to just giving everybody our money because we like what we see.” source