Leading By Example: Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and Justine Simmons Open Up About Their Marriage
In a time when life feels fragile and love can seem fleeting, there are signposts reminding us that life holds immeasurable meaning and love can last a lifetime if we have vision and faith and accrue the tools to sustain what we hold dear. Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons is a living example of iconic musical accomplishment and steady business acumen, but more importantly, as he sees it, he is living example of how to live one's life in faith and love. As Rev Run and his wife Justine Simmons speak with me about their marriage and their new book, Old School Love: And Why It Works, it further brings home the lesson that faith and love are actions we must take every day to ensure a life of substance; one where our relationships and being of service to others takes center stage.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Rev Run’s rap group, Run-D.M.C. pioneered a powerful hip-hop sound that acted as a wrecking ball to break new ground and cross into the mass consciousness. Run-D.M.C. helped pioneer rap music's journey from underground urban sensation to mainstream cultural phenomenon. According to Rev Run, the fame, wealth, product endorsement deals and magazine covers did little to quell what was lacking within. His first marriage had ended, and he felt he had no spiritual center from which to rebuild. For him, Christianity was the catalyst that helped him find his center and higher purpose, which created the foundation from which to build his marriage to his beautiful wife, Justine Simmons. Audiences then fell in love with their blended family on the long-running MTV docu-series Run's House, and subsequent television shows on The DIY network and the Travel Channel. Their new book, Old School Love, certainly saves the best for last as they open up like never before, sharing the ups and downs and intimate details about their life and their marriage.
Rev Run’s performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards was, indeed, a full circle moment for the artist, reverend, and mentor to millions. Below, Rev Run and Justine discuss what makes their marriage and their family rock-solid, and the journey that has gotten them here.
I want to compliment you on a job well-done. I've read many celebrity-authored books, and rarely do I feel compelled to recommend a book. This one, I’m going to recommend. I’m a single mom, like your two daughters, Angela and Vanessa, who you write about in the book. Dating can be disheartening, and I found this book inspiring as well as healing.
Rev Run: What made you feel that way? I’m very interested…
Reading about your loving, old-fashioned courtship makes me feel quite hopeful that such a thing exists. The two of you are emotionally responsible with one another. I love how you speak about being mindful during a conflict, and not being cruel or hitting below the belt, but really taking care of each other's feelings.
RR: Well, thank you!
You’re very welcome. I watched your family's show, Run's House, when it was on, but this book is different. The two of you get very intimate and really take your fans inside your marriage, and even into your sex life. That's private stuff. What made you want to share those parts of your marriage?
RR: People have been asking us for the longest to do a book, so we wanted to be very transparent and give people as much help as we could as to the dynamics of why we're here, and how we arrived at this place together. The only way to do that is to go as deep as we could into ourselves, to pour it out to you.
Justine, what do you have to say?
Justine: Joey and I so wanted to help people in their marriage, so much so, that we wanted to give them our all and say, "This is what we are doing, and hopefully if you try it this way, it could help you in your own marriage." We know it's not easy. We were blessed to have mentors that were trying to make their marriages work, so we had that early on to look at and see how to make our own marriage work. We just wanted to make sure we gave you all the lessons we've learned over the years.
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Are you that couple in your social circle that people go to for advice about their relationships?
RR: We feel it when we walk down the street. We feel people wanting to look up to us. Because of the television show, Run's House, not just close friends, it almost feels like the world, whether they know us or not, feel that way. Run's House was so impactful in that way. I don't really get cornered by couples per se, but I get cornered by the world at large, to just feel admired by them.
JS: Maybe one or two couples have come to us, but I’d rather not say names. If you notice, on Run's House, we showed ourselves going to church and different things like that. We tried to lead by example. Even on our cooking show (Rev Run's Sunday Suppers) and our renovation show (Rev Run's Renovation), we always tried to lead by example.
RR: Do as we do, not what we say. That's what was so good about our reality shows. Michael Jordan never told people, "Here's how to dunk the ball." He just dunked, and [the late] Kobe [Bryant] became inspired. You can feel our truth, and it's been inspiring.
JS: So many people would comment on my husband's Instagram, asking us to please put out a book, or saying, "You guys should write a book!"
Rev, what have you done differently in your marriage to Justine that you didn't do in your first marriage?
RR: I was young. I was on the road, and when I came back home and off the road, I didn't have what I needed. I was too young. Later, I went to church, and I had time to slow down and really be more attentive.
Like other famous families, your marriage and your family are also a brand and a business. Are there ever times when the brand clashes with your personal relationship?
RR: No. We never leaned too hard on making it a brand. It was always a tool to help. Run's House wasn't about trying to sell clothing or sell jewelry, or to sell anything. We were trying to convey a message of family, of love and of being connected. That's all it was ever about. We never tried to turn it into a booming business.
JS: My husband also really tried hard to not take things in that direction, like, "No, we're not doing that, because it might start this."
RR: Right, it might bring a wedge between me and my wife. We were very careful with that. I put a little bit into business, but I think I put more into my family than I do into chasing business deals, my ego, and trying to be the top entrepreneur, or the top rapper, or top anything anymore. I can see the pitfalls coming towards me, and I’ve watched it too much. I can just feel that if I put too much energy in another direction it will hurt my family. My intuition knows best.
Your faith in God and the guidance that both of you get from your bible study, it's a tremendous part of your life and your marriage, and it's woven throughout your book. We know that everyone has different beliefs when it comes to God, religion and spirituality. Do you think it's possible to get through this earthly life, to weather the storms, and to be able to answer the big questions, without having a relationship with God?
RR: No. I believe that you do the best you can; you push, and then you hope for the serendipity and the grace. You want that favor. I read a quote that once said, “I don't believe in miracles, I depend on them.” I love that quote. Justine had a friend years ago and she used to just say, “Jus, He did it again!” I thought it was so cute. I didn't know how religious her friend was, but that used to always touch me and tickle me. God really likes to come and play with us, talk with us, help us, encourage us. I know that faith without works is dead. But works without faith is also dead.
Let's talk about parenting. I am of the mind that if a child is starting to go off course, or anyone you love for that matter, my feeling is the last thing they need is screaming and yelling, and punishing, and being made to feel further isolated. I feel that if a child is making poor decisions, it's because they're in pain and in need of healing. I think the best thing you can do is to move closer to them, communicate with them, show them compassion, hug them, and listen to what is causing that pain or confusion.
RR: Yes, people around me were very shocked because when my daughter Vanessa first got pregnant, everybody thought all these things about how I would react, because it feels like I’m such a disciplinary type of figure. But I’m actually loose on people, because I don't want the same reaction to my mistakes. I go hard to make life better if I can, but I don't judge. I’ve let many of my children walk through whatever they had to walk through until they figured it out. The Bible says, "Teach your child, and they should go when they get older and they won't depart from it." I’m a firm believer in that.
JS: These days you can try your best and kids are going to do what they want. As parents, of course, we can try to shorten the distance for their mistakes, but some of them want to make their own mistakes. It’s not easy, but you're going to have to let it go and let them learn from their mistakes.
RR: Let them learn and let them figure out their life for themselves.
Was there ever a make or break moment in your marriage, a time when you thought, "This is either going to split us up, or it's going to make our marriage rock solid."?
JS: For us, no, not at all. The word "divorce" isn't in our circle. Phrases like "split for a minute," or "need a break, and you do your thing for a minute," those words and statements weren't even in our [vocabulary]. We don't let that into our marriage at all. No separation option, no divorce option. You don't bring those in.
RR: Don't even bring that up in conversation. We've been very fortunate to not have had to experience that. We've been very blessed in that area of marriage, so I don't want to take all the credit. We're going to give it to God, but we conduct ourselves with a lot of love and with a lot of respect for one another. When you have that respect, you're not going to do something so hurtful to get to that place. The thing that breaks up relationships is the lack of respect. That's it. If I think I'm about to do something that is going to make her very mad, I don't do it. I do annoying husband stuff, like put my clothes on the floor and little stuff that she can get over, but I try my best not to do anything that is extremely hard to forgive.
JS: I don't want him walking around angry at me all day, and he doesn't want me walking around angry at him all day, so we're trying to make each other happy and you would think more people would think like that.
RR: We forgive a lot. A lot of people are selfish instead of selfless. You've got to be more selfless and less selfish. You've got to meet in the middle. It's all about giving. It’s all about forgiving and giving and respect. Period.
JS: And we argue all the time
RR: All the time, like an old couple does. One of my favorite memes is an old couple sitting in the rain, pissed off, but the gentleman is still holding the umbrella over her head. It's a beautiful cartoon picture that I've posted before, and I see it all over the internet.
That sums it up.
RR: Yeah! I’m mad, but I’m not going to let the rain get on you.
Rev, I want to back up a bit and talk about Run-D.M.C. In those days, you hadn't found your faith yet, but as a young man something gave you the faith and the courage to believe that you could, not just become a hip-hop artist, but that you could revolutionize pop music culture. What fueled you?
RR: I was just making music. I give a lot to God because you're making music, you're having fun and you have a lot of people working with you. The mainstream thing has a lot to do with our producers. Larry Smith, Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin… all these people around you. Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay weren't alone. There were producers, record companies, managers, publicity people. No man is an island. I knew I had a God given [talent] and you go really hard because you're born with this ambition. You have ambition and competitiveness to back up the talent. All of it added up to success.
Speaking of the late Jam Master Jay, how do you process loss? And how do you process the death of a loved one, especially when it appears to be under tragic circumstances, at least from our side of things on earth?
RR: I get very spiritual during times of loss. I’m able to mourn and comfort those around me as I mourn. I get comforted by comforting, and by being comforted by loved ones.
Do you get angry at all?
RR: I don't, no. I don't get into those emotions often. I’m a very non-confrontational type of person. I’m a "live and let live" person, so I don't get caught up in too much conflict with people. At least, I try my best not to.
You both talk in your book about your little girl, Victoria, who died shortly after birth; and then the adoption of your daughter, Miley. The way I interpreted all of it was that Victoria came to you briefly to teach you some profound lessons about love, loss and about trusting in God. Miley came to you as the child you were meant to raise for a lifetime. Does that make sense?
RR: Agreed! You hit that right out of the park. You said it perfectly.
JS: We could not have said it better than you.
RR: I was humbled. You don't have babies; God gives you babies. Justine originally wanted to adopt and I said, "Let's just have a baby." God showed me after we lost our baby Victoria, that for me, personally, you don't make babies. That was the first lesson. The second lesson was that my wife is so sweet, she had wanted to adopt. Finally, the third lesson was that Miley needed us and we needed Miley. Sometimes Justine forgets that she didn't carry Miley, and that's the real crazy part.
JS: So many women who cannot have babies, I want them to know that adopting is so amazing. Because I carried Victoria full term, it would make me forget that I didn't carry Miley. And she has so many traits of mine. We eat the same types of things, and sometimes I just say, "Girl, you came out of me," and she laughs.
What advice do the two of you have for single people of this generation who are dating and looking for a partner?
RR: Go where you're celebrated, not where you're tolerated. Go where you're adored, not where you're ignored. If the person is not answering the phone, not answering your texts and they're playing little games and you can feel it, be ready for the red flags. People will show you who they really are. Believe them.
JS: That's good. And if you have children, make sure they love your children as much as they love you. If they don't show that, you'll see it in the beginning and that person is not for you.
Rev, do you see yourself as a teacher, first and foremost?
RR: I believe I’m here to inspire people. I inspire through music, and I think I inspire through my marriage.
What are your thoughts on celebrities as role models for young people? Good thing, bad thing? Can it be a positive thing in the right context? Or do you think role models should be sought within your family, community or place of worship?
RR: Everything around you can inspire you. Beyoncé inspires you to go hard when you make your music. Jay-Z and Puff Daddy inspire through their entrepreneurship. Leonardo DiCaprio inspires people as a great actor and with how hard he works. And you have those that are your mother, your father, your pastor, but there's inspiration everywhere.
JS: I have to concur with my husband. You can learn through anything. You can even learn from a homeless person, from how they endure and how they get through a whole winter. They're so resilient. They make it through. Even a homeless person has something to teach.
RR: The Bible says, “Go to the ants, you sluggard; consider their ways and be wise." Ants work hard all day long. You can learn something from an ant, according to the Bible.
Words by Allison Kugel
Photo Credit: Rev Run and Justine Simmons' personal collection
This article is dedicated in memory of Kobe Bryant (1978 – 2020), Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli and other victims of the Calabasas helicopter crash.
Old School Love: And Why It Works (Dey Street Books) by Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and Justine Simmons is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.