On a cold Saturday afternoon in Detroit, a line stretches down the street outside the Max Fisher Concert Hall. They've come to hear some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Russell Simmons, Ciara and Doug E. Fresh. And they're not just here to perform.
They're here for a financial literacy summit, a session that forgoes diamonds and chain necklaces for workbooks and financial literature that tells fans how to manage their money.
"This book, this book is the answer to a lot of your problems, brothers and sisters," said rap star Doug E. Fresh.
On this day, rappers whose music videos could pass as commercials for champagne, diamonds and pricey clothes have pushed aside bling and will focus on the basics, giving a lecture on finance that's unlike anything you'd ever get from Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley.
"See, I like to tell you real stories because I think that you can relate to real stories," Fresh told the audience.
Using Celebrity to Promote Literacy
It's the third year for these traveling financial road shows, sponsored by the man who's been called the CEO of hip-hop, Russell Simmons, founder of the preeminent hip-hop record label Def Jam. Now Simmons has pioneered the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which promotes voting and financial responsibility.
"The Hip-Hop Summit was founded so that we could have artists use their celebrity to lift up the community," said Simmons. "I was told once by a civil rights leader that the last leg in civil rights is financial literacy, that economic empowerment was the last thing that communities of color in this country needed. It's something that's not taught, frankly, in our school systems, not only in the projects where our artists come from, but middle America and trailer parks, anywhere. It's not taught. It's an important component to education that's just been left out."
According to Janet Marzett, vice president of human resources and administrative services for DaimlerChrysler Financial Services Americas, 45 percent of students have an average debt of $3,000.
"And what is staggering is some of the school administrators that report that students drop out of college because of credit card debt and not academic failure," she said. "So it's really important to talk about how do we build our future and how can we live out our dreams? And it starts with these summits like today."
Message Delivered by Voices They Can Trust
So for two hours, hip-hop's stars with a few finance types thrown in for good measure, give their audience the "financial 411," delivered by voices they trust in language they can relate to.
"Throwing D's on your truck or your chest is not going to improve your FICO score," said female rapper Remy Ma. "It's not going to put any money into an account for your children to go to college. You have to think of longevity and long term."
R&B singer Ciara told the audience: "Sometimes you see artists with so many pieces of jewelry on but they don't really own those pieces. Also it starts with you being a leader. Like you having your plans, live within your means."
Fresh's words of wisdom? "Always keep your bills low and your grind high."
"You drive the car, the $400,000 car around the corner and park it and instantly the thrill goes away," said Simmons. "You find it's a waste of money. And no matter how big your house is, you can only sit your ass in one seat at a time."
The artists share personal experience; their failures are equally as instructive as their success.
"You know everybody makes mistakes," Detroit rapper Trick Trick said. "I bought all kind of cars, rims, tires. I once had rims on a car that cost more than the car before. I made those kind of mistakes, but not no more. I learned and it's my job as somebody who's been through an experience and learned well from the experience to carry that message on to my younger brothers and sisters."
The hip-hop songs and videos that feature many of these artists are staples on MTV and BET, so aren't they part of what's fueling the materialism the summit is preaching against?
"Well, I believe it influences the youth a lot, especially in the urban areas," said Chauncey White, a 25-year-old preschool teacher and aspiring rapper. "They see the fast money. They see the cars, the rims. They see the girls in the video and they don't understand the business end of the industry."
White says the lure of bling and easy credit hooked him in college.
"When I was 18, I received a couple credit cards. I accepted all of them of course. Activated all of them," he said. "I went to trips to Toronto. I went on trips everywhere. Treating my friends. I went shopping. I didn't know that if you didn't exactly pay this on time, this is going to drop your credit score. You're going to have a problem registering your business. You're not going to get the same tax breaks."
Fresh agrees that hip-hop fuels materialism, "but you know what's funny, honestly, black people always wanted to look good. Honestly speaking. They always wanted nice new sneakers."
With so much bling present in the lives of these very artists, are the artists themselves the right people to teach the message? Simmons believes so.
"The artists are examples of the kind of materialism we have here in America," he said. "Every commercial is designed to make you want something you don't need. The artist, when you see them in person, you learn they were dedicated, focused, hardworking people or they wouldn't be there. That inspires you to be the same."
"Lots of artists have made tremendous mistakes in terms of their first checks and their first successes -- monetary success -- and how they spent the money. And had to go back and start over," he said. "And they've learned their lessons and they teach their lessons. #0133; He's someone that you respect and that you look up to, then he's the very best teacher you could have."
Changing the Hip-Hop Industry 'From the Inside Out'
Simmons has sold the music part of his business. His empire is now divided between philanthropy and sales of luxury goods.
Some see Simmons' business plan as slightly hypocritical, marketing to the very people he is telling to be fiscally responsible.
"My job is to change the industry from the inside out," said Simmons. "I don't think walking away from economic empowerment for young people is a smart choice. I think it's about inspiring young people to own their own business and build a relationship with their communities, instead of only buying products from other companies."
To Simmons, that means encouraging entrepreneurship in the black community.
"We love Ralph Lauren. We love Tommy Hilfiger. But I also love Sean John. And I think it's fine that we make clothes," said Simmons. "These jeans are $400, but they're nice. They're made out of special fabric. If you want them, buy them. If you do buy them, I promise you that they are all part of a cycle of giving because I don't need the money."
White agreed. "I don't think it's hypocritical simply because they're trying to tell you the business aspect of this. You have actors, you have models, they go out, they're very flamboyant, spend a lot of money. Rappers do the same thing. They understand that this is a business."
Ultimately, many of the fans may have suffered through the financial talks to hear a performance from their favorite artists.
Besides the celebrity sightings, important lessons were given: Stack the paper, don't get the D's until you've already bought the crib, and remember, the lifestyle these videos sell is mostly an illusion.