NEW YORK – Hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons said Tuesday he's selling bling to help raise money for the development and empowerment of Africans.
The 49-year-old entrepreneur announced his "Green Initiative" jewelry, which is manufactured and designed by Simmons Jewelry Co. Twenty-five percent of proceeds from sales will go toward the Diamond Empowerment Fund, which will support institutions, like schools and colleges, in South Africa and Botswana and help boost economic development.
Simmons' recent visit to South Africa and Botswana to tour diamond mines and factories coincides with efforts by human rights groups to raise awareness about so-called conflict diamonds, which have fueled and funded wars in Africa. Fighting forces sell the gems to raise funds for weapons. Millions have been killed in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Simmons Jewelry Co. President Scott Rauch said the company's diamonds are conflict-free.
"Our purpose was to see how we could have an affect on the diamond industry," he told a packed news conference Tuesday.
"Africans need this industry," Simmons said, touting the economic benefits to the region, like the funding of many HIV/AIDS clinics.
Hollywood has also taken up the issue with "Blood Diamond," a new film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, which shows how conflict diamonds financed civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. The film will be released nationwide on Friday.
Some officials say loopholes remain in the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, which is the diamond industry's response to growing world concern about blood diamonds. It was established in 2002 and aims to stem the flow of conflict diamonds by forcing participants to certify the origins of the diamonds being traded.
"The U.S. government can play a pivotal role to be sure that the Kimberly Process works," said Amy O'Meara, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International.
O'Meara also said consumers can help by asking retailers questions and showing interest in where their diamonds come from.
"The Kimberly Process is very new, but it does work, and we're trying to make it better," Simmons said.
Simmons isn't new to the role of activist, having created the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in 2001 to engage young people in community development issues. He's also widely known for his role in co-founding Def Jam Records, which gave birth to the hip-hop careers of well-known artists Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.