The open letter – a proud tradition in media that stretches all the way back to the early history of newspapers in the 19th century. Unlike most other aspects of print media, the concept behind the open letter has aged rather gracefully in the modern milieu of social media. In a world where any statement made on Twitter is, by default, opened up to a public forum, a formal open letter has a more immediate impact.
And you know who loves writing open letters? Rappers, apparently. Lupe Fiasco wrote one addressed to white supremacy as a concept after the Charleston church shootings in 2015. C-Murder wrote one from prison to his former No Limit partner in (theoretical, not actual) crime Master P. Lauryn Hill wrote one on Tumblr after her release from prison thanking her fans for their support. Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, Wiz Khalifa, Chuck D, and T.I. (on more than one occasion) have all engaged in the art, but leave it to now-disgraced Def Jam founder Russell Simmons to hold the open letter in high regard.
Simmons had previously written an open letter to his deceased friend Chris Lighty, but it is his letter to fellow rap superstar Jay-Z that remains the most fascinating. When HOV reflected that he didn’t quite understand the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, Simmons attempted to explain it to him.
“I would agree that for many it was hard to understand the purpose of the movement if you did not attend any of the General Assemblies, or march hand-in-hand with the millions of protesters around the country,” he wrote. “The months during the height of the beginning of the movement were unlike anything we had seen before in our nation. A protest led by no one, but always led by leaders. Organized through social media, yet no organization at the forefront. This was a true people’s campaign.”
Simmons admittedly makes some good points, but it’s hard not to come off as pedantic and lecturing in Simmons’ case. He just sounds terribly sanctimonious talking to Jay-Z, an intelligent and successful individual in his own right. Simmons tries to place himself as the voice of the people, but the reality of his actions make him about as far removed from the common man as any figure in hip hop. Jay-Z never publicly responded to Simmons’ open letter, but he did make a song called ‘Open Letter’ where he calls himself the “Bob Dylan of rap”, which is a pretty awesome non-direct response in and of itself.
I can’t tell where we as a public stand on Russell Simmons these days. Obviously, he is an abhorrent human being, having been accused by twenty separate women of sexual misconduct and assault over his entire career, but it doesn’t seem like he’s been properly admonished or punished for his (alleged) crimes. He stepped down from Def Jam, fled to Indonesia to avoid extradition, and then… just released an NFT with Snoop Dogg? Are people still interested in buying what this guy is selling? Why is Snoop Dogg still in his corner? Many questions and few answers float around the current Russell Simmons situation, but it doesn’t seem like he’s taking a quiet retirement route.