Russell Simmons: The latest celebrity antivaccinationist?

I hadn’t planned on writing about this again today. (How many times have I started a post with that phrase? I forget, but a lot. Sadly, developments frequently make me change my plans about blogging.) Here’s what made me change my plans It was a pair of Facebook posts on hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons’ Facebook page.

Here’s post #1:


And here’s post #2:


This, of course, is the news report regurgitating antivaccine talking points broadcast in Atlanta late last week by Ben Swann, an all-purpose conspiracy theorist and, apparently, now antivaccinationist, who is anchor for the CBS46 news. Apparently Russell Simmons is the latest celebrity to throw his hat into the antivaccine ring, fresh on the heels of the anchor of the early evening newscast for a major market CBS affiliate going full on conspiracy theorist and antivaccine just the other day. Indeed, he’s credulously posting this video from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.:

It’s a video that RFK, Jr. made in the run-up to the antivaccine rally held in Atlanta a week ago. It’s full of the same talking points I’ve extensively rebutted over the course of a year, ever since RFK, Jr., risibly declaring himself “fiercely pro-vaccine” published a book full of fear mongering about thimerosal in vaccines. (How quaint. How 2005.)

What antivaccine rally? On October 23 and 24, the antivaccine movement joined with what is now basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church of Scientology, namely the Nation of Islam, to hold a protest in front of the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters and then the next day a rally at Grant Park. It was the culmination of a relationship cultivated by the antivaccine movement in the wake of Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of a 2004 study that failed to find a link between age at MMR vaccination and autism, a reanalysis that used a statistically naive and simplistic approach to torture the data and ignore relevant confounders in order to show that earlier age of MMR vaccination increased the risk of autism among African American boys (but in no other group). Basically, Brian Hooker’s “reanalysis” was so incompetent that even the editor of a brand new journal realized his mistake and and retracted the study article.

This whole thing came about thanks to William Thompson, a CDC scientist who was co-author with Frank DeStefano and others on the relevant 2004 MMR study. Basically, somehow he became buddies with biochemist turned antivaccine activist Brian Hooker and had several phone conversations with him in which he complained about his CDC colleagues and accused them of scientific fraud and “covering up” the result allegedly showing that MMR vaccines increase the risk of autism in African-American boys. Too bad Hooker was recording these conversations. In any case, thus was born the “CDC Whistleblower” saga around 15 months ago, the fruits of which include the Atlanta antivaccine rally a little more than a week ago.

I do know who Russell Simmons is, although I’m not that familiar with him. I know, for instance, that he’s been very successful in the music business, having founded the hip-hop music label Def Jam. I know that he’s also been very successful in the fashion industry, having founded successful clothing lines. I know that he’s incredibly rich and very influential in the hip-hop world. So why would he be susceptible to the siren call of the antivaccine movement? Why would he find RFK, Jr.’s misinformation- and pseudoscience-filled video convincing? The answer, I believe, lies in the involvement of the Nation of Islam in the “CDC whistleblower” controversy.

You might recall that in my post on the rally, I mentioned that Tony Muhammad, the Nation of Islam minister who gave speeches comparing the vaccine program to Pharoah’s slaughter of Israelite babies, to Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and to the dragon in Revelations waiting to devour the savior as soon as he is born, also said that he was going to be meeting with hip hop artists and high profile African Americans to try to warn the about the “danger” of vaccines for African American boys. One wonders whether Tony Muhammad has been in contact with Simmons. Yes, I think that’s exactly what happened, judging from this article written by Simmons in 2009 praising Minister Louis Farrakhan:

This past week, it was my honor to host the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan at my apartment in NYC. He was joined by his sons Louis Jr., Mustapha and Joshua Farrakhan, along with their personal chef and at least 75 security personnel. It was quite a scene to see how they set up shop at my apartment. This was a week where I didn’t miss my 6 am prayer because I could hear them already awake and ready to start the day off right. This was a week where the word “Allah” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. And was a very special time when I got to hang with my “second dad” and my other brothers. We reminisced about the three marches where more than three million people marched on Washington. We talked about how we brought Snoop, Ice Cube and other LA rappers together with members of the east coast rap community and how he helped mediate the beef between 50 Cent and Ja Rule and countless other instances where he was there to help hip hop. And of course we talked about his keynote address at the hip hop summit that created the Hip Hop Summit Action network. We even mentioned a subject that the Minister doesn’t care to discuss, his legacy. He has talked about the oneness of god for years, about the sameness of all religion and all people. He has given his followers spiritual roadmaps to happiness on Earth his whole life. I want future generations to know him as I do, so I am working to have his thoughts on this subject made into a book. I believe that his memoirs are going to be one of the most interesting and inspiring autobiographies ever written.

So that is my goal.

So Simmons admired the leader of the Nation of Islam. Russell’s Wikipedia page states that in January 2011 he stated that he is a non-religious practitioner of Yoga and practices Jivamukti Yoga and is a vegan. He is also a friend and admirer of Deepak Chopra and practices Transcendental Meditation. So he’s into woo now, too.

Even if he isn’t a member of the Nation of Islam, it’s not too much of a stretch to speculate that he probably still admires Minister Farrakhan. Indeed, just last month, heavy hitters in the world of hip-hop music gathered in Washington, DC for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, including Russell Simmons, Snoop Dog, J. Cole, Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, Young Jeezy, “Empire” star Bryshere “Yazz” Gray, Chuck D, Jay Electronica, “Love & Hip-Hop New York” star Yandy Smith, her husband, Mendeecees, Jasiri X, “Real Houswives of Atlanta stars Porsha Williams, Phaedra Parks and Sheree Whitfield, Kam, Ty Dolla $, as well as the godfather of Hip-Hop Africa Bambaataa. Not surprisingly, Tony Muhammad was there. Indeed, Simmons has supported Nation of Islam initiatives led by Muhammad dating at least back to 2002. At the very least, he proudly posts images from the event on his Instagram account:

@iamdiddy @snoopdogg @chuckd. Were in attendance as were hundreds of thousands of others.

A photo posted by Russell Simmons (@unclerush) on

The most likely explanation for Simmons’ posting antivaccine propaganda on his Facebook account is the influence of Tony Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, particularly given what he chose to post, antivaccine pseudoscience from RFK, Jr. and a credulous news report of the Atlanta rally by Ben Swann. I did some Google searches to see if I could find any evidence of past antivaccine statements from Simmons. I couldn’t find any, but I was running out of time and it’s possible looking harder might yield something. More likely, before this Simmons didn’t think much about vaccines one way or the other, and then Tony Muhammad contacted him and tried to persuade him to support the cause.

Thus far, Simmons has only posted two bits of antivaccine propaganda that I can find on his Facebook page. It might be possible at this stage to convince him with evidence and reason that he’s made a big mistake. However, given his long and apparently friendly relationship with Minister Farrakhan, Minister Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam, succeeding in persuading Simmons to admit his error is likely to be an uphill battle. That’s the real danger of the involvement of the Nation of Islam in promoting the “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy and promoting the false message that the CDC somehow “covered up” data showing that vaccines are harmful to African American boys. As fringe as the Nation of Islam is, it has a lot of contacts in the world of hip-hop and rap who might be swayed by the pseudoscientific pronouncements about vaccines and autism being made by Minister Muhammad. If, as Russell Simmons has started to do, these hip-hop and rap artists start spreading the message themselves, then real damage to public health could result, particularly given the understandable suspicion many African Americans have about the medical community based on incidents like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Worse, this damage would likely take the form of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in one of the populations in this country with the most difficult access to adequate health care resources. Unlike the children of the almost entirely white and affluent leaders of the antivaccine movement, many more African American children stricken with vaccine-preventable diseases will not have access to the level of care that the children of affluent parents do.