Mark Winston Griffith
Big Pimpin’, Russell Simmons Style
For some time now, hip hop impresario and would-be social justice activist Russell Simmons, through his company UniRush Financial Services, has been offering the Baby Phat Prepaid Visa RushCard. The RushCard promotional material claims the Baby Phat Visa card "offers you the convenience of a credit or debit card but uses only the money you put on your card. With it you can pay bills, shop online and around town and even get cash at ATMs. You can use it everywhere Visa debit cards are accepted. Get your card card NOW with no credit check and start saving!"
Understand, that although the Visa RushCard is used like other forms of plastic to make purchases and withdraw money, it cannot extend credit, nor is it tied to a checking account like a traditional debit card. It's more like a high priced electronic wallet into which you must load money, such as through direct deposit or through retail cash loading locations like MoneyGram. The RushCard claim that it will help you save money is like saying popping Viagra will help you maintain your virginity.
How generous of Russell to offer the gift that keeps on taking. In addition to the $19.95 "activation fee", and the "unlimited purchases each month for a maximum of $10 in transaction fees (ATM transactions are an additional $1.50 each)", the not-so-fine fine print on the RushCard reveals "you may be charged additional fees by the institution that owns the ATM...loading locations will charge anywhere from $3.95 to $5.95 per load up to $1,000."
In other words, if you buy a card, load $100, and then another $100 on it, and use it 5 times, you could conceivably spend $40 in fees. Not even credit cards are capable of such gouging. And if your card is stolen and "used in commercial card or ATM transactions, or PIN transactions not processed by Visa or Interlink", screw you, you're liable.
To be fair, there are lots of celebrities peddling these kinds of exploitative products, more than you can count. But Russell Simmons, who has led voter registration drives, advocated against the Rockefeller Drug laws, dropped progressive polemics with his Def Poetry Jam productions, and positions himself as a defender of disaffected youth through his activist organization Hip-Hop Summit Network, uses an effective mixture of culture, politics and commerce to strike his particular pimp pose.
Writers like Anya Kamenetz and Tamara Draut of Demos have meticulously detailed the financial culture, and burdens, of young people, otherwise known as generation debt and generation plastic. Russell, being the astute business man that he is, clearly knows that 50.4 percent of the spending done among 18- to 24-years- is done using plastic or on-line transactions. And by saying in the RushCard promotion that there are "no check cashing fees" and by offering to facilitate direct deposits, tax returns and government benefits, the Simmons card stalks low-income consumers who are estranged from banks, hovering like a vulture to gobble up each dollar that comes into their lives.