DEBORAH: Professor Altschuler is the vice president for university relations, the Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions and the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell. He received his PhD in American History from Cornell in 1976 and has been administrator and teacher here since 1981. He is the author or co-author of nine books and more than 400 essays and reviews.
In addition to his scholarly essays, he has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, The Jerusalem Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and many others, including The Chronicle of Higher Education. His op-eds and book reviews appear regularly on the Huffington Post, on NPR's "Books We Like," and on Forbes.com. For four years, he wrote a column on higher education for the Education Life section of The New York Times. He was a regular panelist on national and international affairs for the WCNY television program the "Ivory Tower Half Hour" from 2002 to 2005.
Professor Altschuler has won several awards for teaching and undergraduate advising at Cornell. He is a recipient of the Clark Teaching Award, the Donna and Robert Paul Award for Excellence in Faculty Advising, and the Kendall S. Carpenter Memorial Award for Outstanding Advising. He is also a Weiss Presidential Fellow.
Professor Altschuler has been an animating force in the rapidly growing program in American Studies. He teaches large, electric courses in American popular culture and has been a strong advocate on campus for high quality undergraduate teaching and advising. And we thank him very much for joining us today and presenting his lecture, "Bad Rap: Public Enemy and Jewish Enmity." Thank you.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Thanks very much, Deborah. I should confess that I will not break into song at any moment. So you need not fear, or maybe you should.
Sponsored by the Black Student Organization of Columbia University as part of Black History Month, the talk on American education by Professor Griff, a member of the rap group Public Enemy, on February 11, 1990 was an invitation to a confrontation. After all, eight months earlier, Griff had told David Mills of The Washington Times that Jews were responsible, quote, "for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe. They have a grip on America and a history of killing black men."
And so, even before Griff addressed the audience of 400 men and women in, yes, Altschul Auditorium, community activist Lisa Williamson sought to defend him. Antisemitism, she claimed, was the McCarthyism of the 1990s, and the decision of the Columbia Board of Managers to withdraw funds from Black History Month demonstrates white use of economic power to control blacks. "If you take away your pittance for a celebration that should occur year round because we are your historical mothers and fathers," she said, "you can keep it. You can keep it, and you can choke on it."
Outside the hall, 18 speakers and 1,500 listeners held a protest rally. Awi Federgruen, a professor in Columbia's business school, declared that he would not take guidance on the subject of education or any other subject from a man whose daily preoccupation consists of the foundation and publication of the most slanderous and bigotrous statements we've seen this century. Federgruen had had enough. "We have stood by silently and passively as we watch waves of pogroms roll through Eastern Europe. Enough. As we stood passively and silently in the years 1933 to 1945 as we saw 6 million die. Enough."
As even their name their enemies acknowledged, Professor Griff, whose name was Richard Griffin, the Minister of Information who didn't sing or write songs, and Public Enemy had eviscerated notions of rap and hip hop culture as a passing inner city musical fad. Inheritors of disparate strands of the black power movement, the group had captured the attention of young people with monologues and diatribes about race, society, and politics in the age of Ronald Reagan. With record sales of more than a million for their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy had a legitimate claim on the title, "the most extreme group to achieve sustained commercial success in rap." When Public Enemy was on top, rapper Ice-T recognized, "you rode the tip." With their incendiary literate lyrics and in their public appearances, they were laying bare the gulf between blacks and Jews in late 20th century America.
As many of you know, rap's birth in the 1970s coincided with a round of white flight to the suburbs and the decay of inner city black neighborhoods rife with crime, failing schools, unemployment, and grotesquely inadequate social services. Along with graffiti art and the dance form known as b-boying, the other main elements of hip hop culture, rap music emerged as a way to express outrage at economic, educational, and social oppression in the United States. Best understood as the creative intelligence of the black street culture, hip hop took its inspiration from the house parties of the Boogie Woogie Down Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc spun break beats, samples, and loops to which dangers and break boys responded on the dance floor.
Eventually, the spoken word artist, or MC, taken from master of ceremonies, rapped a modern Grillo narrative over the top of mixes created by DJ's simultaneous spinning of many records and beats. Before long, hip hop culture spread across the continent, from West Coast to East Coast, down south to South Side, and throughout the world. From the earliest rappers-- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC, and Fat Boys in the late '70s-- to the proliferation of artists in the '80s, rap lyrics struck political chords, implicitly or explicitly addressing racism and social justice with a distinctive voice and, through a new cultural medium that accentuated the commercially appealing aesthetic of the urban b-boy look and combined it with the funk, rock, and rhythm and blues based beats.
The street cred, the look, the rawness of the presentation, the ingenuity, and the energy of hip hop made it the music of choice, not only for black youth but for non blacks as well, especially those young men and women who felt starved for authenticity, left out of or oppressed by America's political economy, or adrift in an ocean of material possessions and blandness. Freshly articulated, imagined, and invented visions of what it meant to be black in the United States found audiences eager to deride, degrade, and disrespect authority, tradition, middle class mores, and race-based hierarchies. Whether it was the proto-gangsta west coast realism of NWA or the hippie hop imagination of De La Soul, the smooth delivery and style of Juice Crew member Big Daddy Kane, or the dirty south nastiness of 2 Live Crew, rap appealed, appalled, scorched, screeched, and sold.
Out of Long Island, New York, circa 1986, came a catalyzing force appropriating the hip hop form for a take no prisoners discourse on black power politics, Nation of Islam ideology, economic self-determination, black identity, autonomy, and education-- the prophets of rage, Public Enemy. If Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, co-founders of Black Panther Party for self-defense, considered themselves the children of Malcolm X, then Chuck D-- Carlton Ridenhour, and Flavor Flav-- William J Drayton Jr, Terminator X-- Norman Rogers, and Professor Griff might well be regarded as Malcolm's grandchildren. Choice cuts from each of their albums provided a black man's perspective on black America.
Behind dense mixes and hard funk beats arranged by The Bomb Squad, Chuck D issued scathing attacks on racism and called on blacks to do whatever it took to lift themselves up. By virtually all accounts, Public Enemy was a charismatic group. Lead singer Chuck D, one critic wrote, "bounced about the stage in an Oakland Raiders cap and jacket, moving with the sidestep shuffle and wiry intensity of a prizefighter. He spat out his dense, militant rhymes and percussive outbursts, which he acted out with shadowboxing punches. Riding out the thick, hypnotic rhythm track manipulated by DJ Terminator X, his voice had a spellbinding authority akin to Elvis Presley and James Brown."
In four albums, released between 1987 and 1991, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Back, Public Enemy dominated the public rap landscape. Dubbed by Chuck D "the CNN of news for the black community," the group was controversial, in your face, and eager to stir the pot with a "white man with a foot on our necks" consciousness. No subject was off limits.
Public Enemy had something to say about the n-word, "I Don't Want to be Called Yo Nigga;" the controversy surrounding the establishment of Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday, "By the Time I Get to Arizona;" what every American needs to know about slavery; "Can't Truss It," the definitions of black ownership; "Bring the Noise," the ravages of crack cocaine and alcohol on black families; "Night of the Living Baseheads," "1 Million Bottlebags," black consciousness; "Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)," Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, "Don't Believe the Hype," the racial biases of the mass media; "She Watch Channel Zero;" police, ambulance and emergency services in the inner city with "911 is a Joke;" the criminal justice system-- "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."
Public Enemy emerged at a tense time in the tangled and turbulent relationship between blacks and Jews. With the rise of black nationalism and black pride in the 1960s, Jews who had played a prominent role in the civil rights movement, from the founding of the NAACP to Martin Luther King's March on Washington, were singled out for criticism by some black militants and excluded from their organization. The charge that Jewish merchants made windfall profits circulated widely in inner city neighborhoods.
Blacks clashed with teachers, administrators, and union officials, many of them Jewish, over control of the public schools in Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and Brooklyn and in cities across the nation. They fought with Jews, who had been victimized by quotas themselves throughout the first half of the 20th century, over affirmative action. And many blacks supported a Palestinian state, condemning Israel as a colonialist power contemptuous of human rights.
Black leaders with street creds in the 1980s exhibited enmity for Jews. In January 1984, during his campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymie-town" during a conversation with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman. After denying that he made the remarks and then accusing Jews of conspiring to defeat him, Jackson apologized in a speech to Jewish leaders in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Not surprisingly, Lewis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, was among Jackson's most vehement defenders. Already on record with remarks favorable to Adolf Hitler, assertions that Judaism was a gutter religion, and claims that Muslims were the chosen people, Minister Farrakhan praised Jackson for meeting with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Jews hated Jackson, he insisted, because Jackson extended his hand to American Indians, Mexican Americans, Arab Americans, and anyone who was poor. Quote, "When you attack him, you attack the millions that are lining up with him. You are attacking all of us."
Enter Professor Griff. In May '89, Public Enemy's Minister of Information proved to reporter David Mills and the readers of The Washington Times that he wasn't anything like the typical entertainer who goes out there talking about girls. No, he'd let it all hang out. Endorsing allegations of artistic control and exploitation of black singers and songwriters by white and Jewish Managers, producers, and executives throughout the 20th century, Griff opined that, quote, "90% of the business is operated by Jews." Since he was working with Jews in Def Jam, Public Enemy's record company, Rush Management, its booking agency, and a Jewish publicist, manager, photographer, and art director, Griff added, with uncharacteristic understatement, "Chuck D doesn't know how Def Jam Records will react to this story. A lot of people are not ready for the truth."
And then Griff tossed a few more Molotov cocktails. "Jews are wicked," he told Mills, "and we can prove this." Their wickedness included but was by no means limited to culpability in the slave trade. Griff would later acknowledge that his information came from "International Jew," a rant by Henry Ford, a rabid antisemite. When told that Ford's claims were unsubstantiated, incorrect, or fabricated, Griff stuck to his guns. Quote, "I'm sorry. It's in the book."
The publication of The Washington Times piece ignited a firestorm in the mass media, and Public Enemy scrambled to respond. In a release sent to retailers, like by CBS, which distributed Def Jam, Chuck D insisted, "We aren't anti-Jewish. We are pro black, pro black culture, and pro human race. We aren't here to offend anybody but to offend that system that works against blacks 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
And, in what critic Armond White called, "a rap show trying to smooth white feathers," Chuck D held a press conference to explain that Griff had been asked to leave the group because his comments, quote, "are not in line with Public Enemy's program at all." Assured by Def Jam's President Russell Simmons that the other members of the group did not share Griff's views, CBS seemed pleased. The group recognized the problem quickly, a spokesperson claimed, acted on it swiftly, and they made the right decision in eliminating the cause of the problem.
Although these moves appeared to diffuse the backlash, which included a boycott organized by the Jewish Defense League, Chuck D was not done. Indicating that CBS was refusing to release PE's next project, he told MTV's Kurt Loder he was disbanding the group. "It's our way of boycotting the music industry. We got sandbagged. There was a conflict between the group's idea of how to discipline Griff and the industry's idea of how to discipline Griff." A few days later, however, Russell Simmons denied that CBS had applied pressure, indicated that Public Enemy would disband for an indefinite period to reassess its plans for the future. Reports circulated that the group might sign a multi-million dollar contract with MCA.
With these fits and starts, Public Enemy was responding to fierce cross pressures. Although many blacks agreed with Juan Williams, the distinguished reporter, critic, and intellectual, who was appalled by rap music's, quote, "ugly trend-- racism, sexism, and gay bashing," a significant number of Public Enemy's fans, according to journalist Marcus Reeves, saw the apology and Griff's dismissal as a devastating defeat, further proof that whites and, in this case, Jews were still pulling the strings. In July, at the Slave Theater in Bedford Stuyvesant, a day before the release of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, which featured Public Enemy's rap "Fight the Power," Al Sharpton gave voice to these concerns. Flanked by bodyguards from the Nation of Islam's Fruit of Islam, Sharpton shouted that the charge of black antisemitism was just a tactic and "this ain't no haven of justice." Spike Lee told "The Real Deal," "Public Enemy put the message to music." Apparently, Billboard reported, Sharpton was considering a counter boycott by Public Enemy supporters of CBS products.
Responding to its core constituents, Public Enemy affected a reorganization as deft as Flavor Flav switching out of the trademark clocks around his neck. In August, Chuck D repeated that Griff's statements were wrong, emphasizing that Griff's real beef was with Israel and its involvement in South Africa, which hurts his people, black people. Chuck D said that his colleague wasn't clear in his thinking and he wasn't 100% right.
No longer Minister of Information, Griff had been appointed Public Enemy's Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations with special responsibilities for local youth programs. "He's definitely going to talk. You can't tell any man to be quiet. This is America," Chuck D acknowledged, then hastened to add, "but he won't be dealing with any kind of major media. He's going to tell black kids to be the best that they can be."
Representatives of Jewish groups were outraged. By firing and then rehiring Professor Griff's, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith fumed, "The rap group Public Enemy has engaged in a repugnant charade characterized by cynicism and disdain for the public. A leopard doesn't change its spots, and exposing youth to Griff's unadulterated antisemitism can only exacerbate already existing tensions within our society."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation agreed. Conceding that Chuck D did not share Griff's prejudices, Cooper claimed that, "The issue is that you have an unreviled bigot who is not going to pay the price. When individuals in the black community cannot or will not speak out against bigotry when it emanates from one of their own, they are actually helping the forces of racism in America."
As critics fired away, a few rappers circled the wagons around Public Enemy. Ice-T, Tracy Morrow, was the most prominent among them. A rapper from the streets of South Central Los Angeles by way of Newark and Summit, New Jersey, Ice-T, the self-appointed creator of the crime rhyme, was a rising star with a gold album in 1987 and another in 1988. In October, 1989, he released Iceberg/Freedom of Speech, which included "This One's for Me," a rock riff on Professor Griff.
Without endorsing or condemning Griff's comments or Public Enemy's reorganization, Ice-T called on all his brothers to "help my man out." "When Public Enemy was on the top," he rapped," "you rode the tip. But now they've got problems, and you suckers run. Who's Chuck real friends? Does he really have one?
You yell PE this, PE that, fist in the air, proud to be black. Now they got static, and you run like punks. I ain't heard an MC stand up for him once."
"Rap rivals should be ashamed of themselves," Ice-T added, "if they were waiting in the wings hoping for Public Enemy to fall so they could fill the group's shoes. That's what's the matter with black people anyway. We ain't do down with nothing. I don't care what you say, yell, or lie. Don't even bother. How low will a brother go for $1?"
For Ice-T, Public Enemy's service to the community outweighed any antisemitism, hatred, or holes in their thinking. And most importantly, blacks stand behind and in front of their own people. "You know what I'm sayin'? Griff is my man. I don't care what he said. You know what I'm sayin'? And I ain't going to let them go out like that. You know what I'm sayin'? Chuck, Ice got your back. Anybody out there's got problems with Public Enemy, come talk to me."
And so with this invocation of free speech, the controversy began to die down as controversies inevitably do, until Public Enemy decided-- and clearly it was a conscious decision-- to blow oxygen onto the cinders. Just in time for Christmas, the group released a single, "Welcome to the Terrordome." An aggressive sonic collage, the rap had something to say about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, riots in Virginia Beach, the assault on the Central Park jogger, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton. With two lines, Public Enemy went on record, so to speak, about its views of Jews. As they "told the Rab to get off the rag," PE asserted, "Crucifixion ain't no fiction. So-called chosen, frozen. Apologies made to whoever pleases-- still they got me like Jesus."
This time, Chuck D's claims that the lines weren't meant to be offensive and are being misinterpreted by people who don't understand rap language didn't pass the smell test. Jeffrey [INAUDIBLE], director of the Civil Rights Division of the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the song's blatantly antisemitic lyrics, including the repulsive and historically discredited charge of deicide on the part of Jews. "The dismissal of Griff, [INAUDIBLE] added, "was a sham." "I think it's fair to say we understand the language of bigotry only too well. Despite Chuck D's effort to put the most favorable cast on his words, it's only too clear to us what is intended."
Rabbi Cooper, who had given Chuck D a tour of the Holocaust Museum in the aftermath of The Washington Times interview, called the rap "a slap in the face to every Jew." Several Jewish organizations called on all Americans to boycott Public Enemy's records and stop attending their concerts. Russell Simmons might legitimately warned against censorship-- "Chopping up records is not what I do." But a diminishing number of people, black and white, agreed with him that Public Enemy has done a lot more good work than harm.
Adding insult to insult, just before his lecture at Columbia, Professor Griff had an altercation with Jewish rapper Michael "MC Serch" Berrin at Def Jam's New York offices, which ended with the epithet "Jew bastard." Aware of the damage Griff's wildest imaginary Jewish conspiracy theories were doing to Public Enemy, Simmons banned Griff from the premises. And Public Enemy dropped him for a while.
A bit bloodied, Griff remained unbowed. As his appearance at Columbia University approached, student, staff, and faculty disagreed about whether he should have been invited at all. We've already seen that in my opening comments. And whether his critics should boycott the event.
The Columbia Board of Managers, a student group that sponsors public events, withdrew financial support, leaders indicated, because the black students organization implied that poet Maya Angelou would be the speaker, informing them about Griff a mere week before the lecture was scheduled to take place. Columbia has a disciplinary statute saying, "Any speech that denigrates another because of race, religion, or sexual orientation will be dealt with in the most severe manner," said David Miladinov, president of the Board of Managers. "I thought co-sponsorship would make me partially responsible."
Acknowledging that inviting Griff was a mistake, Jack Greenberg, dean of Columbia College, told students that withdrawing money for the talk was also unwise. The best way to handle this is just to leave him alone. Nonetheless, three petitions protesting Columbia's support of the event by the senior class, the Council of Jewish organizations, and an ad hoc Jewish group garnered thousands of signatures.
Griff supporters weighed in as well. Citing free speech, the Columbia College Student Council decided not to rescind the $9,000 appropriation it had earmarked for the black students organization to use at its discretion for Black History Month. And the BSO defended its choice, reminding students, faculty, and staff of the popularity of Public Enemy. Griff would speak on education, Alethea Jones, a junior from Brooklyn and the president of the BSO insisted. "We want to hear him on that." Hector Carter, chairman of the group's political committee, added that the BSO did not necessarily endorse Griff's comments on Jews. "We're not saying, yes, he's right or, no, he's wrong."
A few students tried to put Columbia on the defensive. In a letter to the editor of the school's newspaper, one of them proclaimed, "If you were so concerned with equality and justice for all and if you are all concerned about creating divisions on campus, where are your letters of protest concerning Columbia's curriculum, which forces students of African descent to study Western civilization, the very civilization that has oppressed those of African descent for hundreds of years?"
Griff tried to be conciliatory after his own fashion. He offered to meet with officers of the Columbia Board of Managers. But he indicated he would tell them, quote, "I have to break up the old relationship between blacks and Jews. No more master and slave relationship, no more landlord and tenant. No more employee/employer relationship. We are mature. It's 1990, and we should get together at the bargaining table."
As members of the Columbia University community filed into Altschul Auditorium, protesters on 118th Street greeted them with chants of, "Black rights, yes. Bigotry, no," and, "Jews united will never be defeated." Black members of the New Alliance Party responded with, "No more Zionist, no more lives. Black leadership is on the rise." At Columbia, Dean Greenberg told the crowd, "We must rededicate ourselves to fighting racism."
Inside the hall, Griff let it all hang out in a talk that lasted about 30 minutes. "The American educational system is designed to support a supremacist, white elite government," he asserted. "It suppresses the nature of the black man. Columbia's curriculum, like those of colleges and universities throughout the nation, was designed to brainwash blacks."
Convinced that, quote, "This integrating stuff won't work," Griff told blacks, "We have to be separate. As long as you're connected with the slave master, it won't do you any good." As if to clinch his case, he charged that AIDS had been invented by whites and somehow injected into black Africans. Perhaps because sponsors of the event informed audience members that any questions not specifically related to the topic of black education would be deemed irrelevant and have to be rephrased, the exchanges following the talk were anything but hostile. When Griff was done, Rebecca Grant, a spokeswoman for the BSO, announced that the views expressed by Richard Griffin are not necessarily those of the Black Students Organization, and the event ended without an untoward incident.
Weeks later, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet. The album included "Welcome to the Terrordome" and a brief shout-out in between tracks to Ice-T and Ghetto Boys for "This One for Me." Proving that there's no such thing as bad publicity, another round of mass media kind of condemnation probably helped the album, which debuted at number 10 on the Billboard charts and went on to become the group's best seller.
1991 proved to be an even better year for antisemitic rappers. Two months after race riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which began when a member of a Lubavitch sect struck and killed Gavin Cato, a 17-year-old black, continued with the revenge murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a graduate student from Australia, and lasted with spasm of wrath of rock throwing and looting for three days. Ice-T, another rising rap star who had just left NWA, released "Death Certificate." Ice Cube excoriated blacks were trying to be like whites or Jews, demanding that they ask themselves, "Who are they equal to?" To make sure Jews didn't break up black crews, he advised, "Get rid of that devil real simple. Put a bullet to his temple."
"This unabashed espousal of violence against Jews," Timothy White, editor of Billboard, informed his reader, "crosses the line that divides art from the advocacy of crime." And for the first time in the magazine's history, he asked record stores not to carry it. "Death Certificate" debuted on the R&B hip hop chart at number one, was number two on Billboard's chart, and sold over two million copies. The timing seemed perfect for Ice Cube to gush about the latest Nation of Islam publication, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a compendium of conspiracy theories.
And then, mysteriously, tensions between blacks and Jews began to recede. Or, to be more precise, the mass media moved on, as did the ever opportunistic rappers. Dr. Dre, another former member of NWA, and Snoop Dogg, his protégé, introduced gangsta rap. And Ice-T capitalized on it before moving "actor" in front of the "rapper" in his résumé. They glorified street life, smoking weed, violence, and booty, be it women or cash money.
MTV, a fledgling outlet in the 1980s now cool hunted black culture and featured rappers. In the 1990s, a much less political though no less controversial rap went mainstream, with artists Coolio, Cypress Hill, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, DMX, Outkast, Tupac Shakur, Mystikal, to the Notorious B.I.G., Wu Tang Clan, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, and the Fugees, and several others of my favorites, raking in huge revenues for record companies, management companies, and themselves.
"We don't even give a damn about no Grammy," Flavor Flav declared defiantly, and group members may have meant it for a time. In any event, Public Enemy was slow to remove Jew baiting from its repertoire. In the summer of 1999, the rappers mocked Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List with a single "Swindler's Lust." Among the finger in the eye lyrics was Chuck D's rap, "Mo' dollars, mo' cents for the Big Six, another million led to bled, claimin' innocence. Is it any wonder why black folks goin' under?"
Having rejoined the group, Professor Griff contributed a rap about stolen knowledge-- a rant, really, about stolen knowledge-- to which Chuck D responded, "Laughing all the way to the bank. Remember, dem own the banks and dem goddamn tanks. Now, what company do I thank? Ain't this a bitch. Heard they owned slaves and a ship that sank."
Chuck D insisted that "Swindler's Lust" was not antisemitic. "The song is anti music industry, directed at an industry, not a people." The release got a rise out of the Anti-Defamation League, but just about nobody was paying attention to what, by then, seemed like a summer rerun. The New York Times buried the story on its back pages.
Public Enemy, of course, didn't invent antisemitism, but the group and other rappers did play a role in spreading it and giving it authority and credibility. Hip hop culture, for better and worse, recycles the anxieties, aspirations, fears, phobias, and fantasies of the black street. Like so many young people, white and black, alas, rappers don't know or care all that much about history.
Community activist Richard Green has noted the bitter irony of black teens and 20-somethings who were and are, quote, "growing up on their own out there. So when they see a Lubavitch, they don't know the difference between "Heil Hitler" and whatever else. You ask them who Hitler was, and half of them wouldn't know. Three quarters of them wouldn't know, just like they don't know who Frederick Douglass was or Booker T or Mary McCloud Bethune.
Rappers revised, rewrote, and recycled history, shining a demonic light on race, racism, and the exploitation of black people. And then, as businessmen attuned to the mainstream market do and beat reporters must, they moved on to another hot topic. Thank you.
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Rappers didn't invent anti-Semitism. But, for a time, some of them spread it - and gave it authority and credibility. Public Enemy revised, rewrote, and recycled "history," shining a demonic light on race, racism, and the exploitation of black people by Jews. And then, as businessmen attuned to the mainstream market do, they moved on to another topic.
Glenn Altschuler presented this first talk as part of the Program of Jewish Studies' lecture series. Sponsored by the Program of Jewish Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Studies.