Former rap artist now paying attention to ‘the whispers’

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Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons (foreground) and Juan Castillo. (Photo by JoAnne Wilcox)

During a visit to Yale on Dec. 1, hip-hop music icon and MTV television reality show star Joseph “Reverend Run” Simmons summed up his philosophy about parenting and other relationships by paraphrasing a Cherokee proverb: “Listen to the whispers so you don’t have to hear the screams.”

Simmons addressed a full crowd in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, where he took part in a discussion on “Family Values” that was moderated by Juan Castillo, the operations manager of the radio station WYBC 93.4 FM. The event was part of the Yale African American Affinity Group Speaker Series.

A lead vocalist for the 1980s hip hop group Run-D.M.C. who is now a practicing Pentecostal minister, Simmons — popularly known as “Rev. Run” — used the proverb to illustrate one of the qualities he believes is most important in relationships: being attentive. He said he lives by the proverb as a husband and a father to six children.

“You have to be able to hear what people are saying before they say it,” he told his audience. “You have to listen.”

Describing his style of parenting, Simmons said he believes in giving children the right foundation (he quoted the biblical proverb “Teach a child the way he should go, and he will not depart from it”) and then letting them discover their own way.

“I don’t try to control my children,” he said. “I don’t hold them back. I let them go. … I did the groundwork, now it’s God’s turn to step in. … I let them figure out what they want.” He added that he also encourages them to talk to him about anything, and says that when they do, he listens to them “without judgment.”

On the popular MTV reality show “Run’s House,” Simmons has opened his family life and its dramas to the world, and said that he views the show as a way to perform his ministry. “MTV is my pulpit,” he told his audience. He added that the show — because it draws his family members into spending more time together for filming — has been a “blessing.”

Simmons acknowledged during the discussion that he has not always lived a life that would make him a role model, and said he discovered his own spirituality when he was at the pinnacle of his career.

“My top was actually my bottom,” said Simmons, who then went on to describe how —while sitting in a hotel jacuzzi at a point in his life where food, women and drugs were at his command — he realized that the fame and success that he had achieved was not making him happy.

Prior to that spiritual awakening, he said, “I wanted more, more, more — the biggest house, the biggest car.” In the hotel room, he recalled, “I realized that all I thought was going to be fulfilling wasn’t.”

Carrying around the “biggest Bible you can find” in his early days attending church, Simmons found that his new spirituality wasn’t an easy transition.

“You try to take this to the ‘hood: I want to be a reverend who raps,” he said. “That’s a hard sell.”

As a reverend, he says, he chooses to “lead by example more than by words” and refrains from constant preaching.

“It’s not always pounding that brings a person in [to church], it’s letting them grow,” Simmons told his audience. “I believe that if you let God bless your socks off so big, they’ll want to follow you.”

Evoking laughter and cheers from his audience when he occasionally mixed humor into his remarks or broke out with some rap, the former Run-D.M.C. singer noted that his image as a reverend hasn’t won him the popularity he once had as a performer.

“I’m not cool no more,” he quipped.

Asked for advice on how to deal with urban youth violence, Simmons advocated mentorship and expressed his belief in influencing others not by what one says but by how he or she acts. Exposing youth to good role models is of prime importance, he said.

“Kids need to see people they respect on the street level,” he told his audience. “We need people who can capture the mind of the community.”

In his own life, Simmons said, he makes God a priority and lives by his faith.

“I’m not swayed by what people want me to do, I’m swayed by what God wants me to do,” he said. “I don’t need their applause; I only need God’s applause.”

The event concluded with a trivia quiz about Run-D.M.C., which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and with an a cappella performance by Soul Tempo.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,