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Bowie High Students Tune In To Hip-Hop Messages of Success

Visit by Russell Simmons Surprises Excited Teens

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B08

He only had to speak three words to make the crowd get wild.

"How y'all doin'?" hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, grinning, asked the 800 students in the Bowie High School auditorium yesterday morning.

Def Jam music co-founder Russell Simmons visited Bowie High School to encourage students to follow their dreams, think big and work hard. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)

The teenagers began shrieking as soon as the celebrity entrepreneur walked onto the stage. They got even louder when he was joined by his brother, Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons of the legendary rap group Run-DMC, and two top music-industry executives.

"All right, y'all ready to get it crunk early in the morning?" said host Kathy Brown, program director for an area radio station.

Their answer was a definitive yes.

The assembly was titled "Make Your Future Phat" -- the "phat," of course, being familiar to students raised on Russell Simmons' Phat Farm clothing line or wife Kimora Lee's Baby Phat line.

The event was about empowering young people to follow their dreams, think big and work hard. Financial responsibility is "the last leg of the civil rights movement," Simmons, 47, told the students.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) was there, saying he was an example of someone raised by a single mother who made good. Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby was there, as well, though he took no questions from reporters on an FBI investigation into his dealings with an educational software company that employed his onetime girlfriend.

The students were selected to attend the assembly because of their good grades or extracurricular activities. The identity of the speakers had been kept secret, and rumors about who would be attending circulated in the hallways for days.

Students were not disappointed. Randolph Lee and Herman Henry, both 15, said that Russell Simmons was a big surprise and that he looked just as he does on TV.

"It was hot," Randolph said.

Steele, who helped organize the assembly, said he hoped the event would help him "connect with our young folks where they are."

"You have a lot more power than you think you have," he said to the students. "Your circumstances are not a prediction of ultimate outcome."

Steele told the crowd about his youth with an abusive, alcoholic father who died when Steele was 4. He told them about being raised by a mother who made him come home early in the evenings to finish his homework, and about graduating from Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University's law school.

The lieutenant governor kept his speech brief. He knew who the real stars of the show were, and he quickly ceded the spotlight. "I'm gonna shut it down and turn it up for the rest of the crew," he said.

Then the hip-hop icons shared stories about their trials. Russell Simmons said he had to buy his clothing line out of bankruptcy before it became a multimillion-dollar business. His brother said he worried that Run-DMC was a dumb name when the group formed in the 1980s. And Kevin Liles said he was an intern fetching coffee before he became president of the Def Jam record label, a position he resigned from last year.

"Some people that you admire, they look like an overnight celebrity," said Joseph Simmons, 40. "But you don't know their struggles."

At the end of the assembly, Steele took a moment to plug public service, offering the star-struck students an internship in his Annapolis office after the music mogul offered one in his business.

"We're not as glamorous as the music industry," Steele said, "but government work isn't bad, either."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company