Why does Hip Hop have an antisemitism problem?
In October 2022, I made the fateful decision to remove my Kanye West poster from my bedroom wall. The poster was given to me as a Secret Santa gift by my flatmate in first year and, to this day, Ye is my third most played artist on Spotify (behind J Hus and Headie One for those interested) despite me not having played his music for months. Kanye’s journey from being one of hip hop’s most progressive and positive voices for change into a narcissistic, Trump supporting opportunist and subsequently a completely delusional Neo-Nazi can only be described as tragic. Watching one of the most influential artists of this generation press the self-destruct button on his entire career has been difficult but perhaps we should have seen this coming years ago. It was way back in 2018 that Kanye argued slavery was a choice, 2016 when he first endorsed Trump and 2013 when he declared that he opposed abortion and thought he was a God (and also that Sway doesn’t have the answers).
On our side of the pond, the ‘Godfather of Grime’ himself Wiley was dropped by his management and banned from social media in 2020 for comparing the Jews with the Klu Klux Klan, which he has refused to apologise for. Antisemitic incidents in the UK rose to an all-time high in 2021 following the escalation in conflict between Israel and Hamas but in 2022, the number remained high as offenders latched onto the war in Ukraine for inspiration instead. The prevalence of antisemitism in hip hop culture is a complex issue and there isn’t much consensus about how it came about or how we should deal with it but, in 2022 particularly, it seems to have gained new legs. Wiley and Kanye are not the first rappers to make these kinds of comments and it looks like they won’t be the last either.
Unfortunately, antisemitism has been deeply entrenched in hip hop culture from the beginning. Being born out of the civil rights movement in the late 1970s, hip hop was primarily a politically charged, revolutionary art form before it became commercially focused. Public Enemy, who received the lifetime achievement award at the 62nd Grammys, made numerous antisemitic comments in their music back in the 80s, including a song titled Swindler’s Lust (a mockery of Schindler’s List) and lyrics blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Christ in one of their most famous songs Welcome to the Terrordome. Co-founder Professor Griff said in 1988 that “if the Palestinians took up arms, went to Israel and killed all the Jews, it’d be all right,” prompting Chuck D to remove him from the group at a time when they were receiving mainstream attention with their single Fight the Power.
Equally important in the early development of hip hop is Ice Cube who, alongside Eazy-E and Dr Dre, helped birth the gangsta rap era with his graphic and controversial lyrics. On his iconic 1991 diss track No Vaseline, Cube dissed his former group NWA, accusing Eazy of “let[ing] a Jew break up my crew,” referring to the group’s manager Jerry Heller. Whilst he has since apologised for making Heller’s ethnicity the subject of his attack, he continues to affiliate himself with the Nation of Islam, an openly antisemitic political organisation and has posted numerous tweets engaging with Jewish conspiracy theories. Most shocking of all is that, in 2015, he was sued for ordering one of his associates to assault a rabbi, although he continues to deny this.
Even JAY-Z, hip hop’s first billionaire, came under fire for promoting conspiracies in his 2017 single The Story of O.J. asking fans “you ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?” This is despite working very closely with Jewish people from the beginning of his career and even filming a television documentary for Def Jam Records equating antisemitism with racism in 2006. Fans have defended this line, arguing that it exaggerates and challenges an existing attitude within the African American community. Jay himself said he found it difficult to take the criticism serious arguing the purpose of the song was to explore stereotypes and saying that “if you don’t have a problem with the exaggeration of the guy eating watermelon […] and that’s the only line you pick out, then you are being a hypocrite.”
One myth that has become particularly prominent in the community is that of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who claim that African Americans are the true descendants of ancient Israel. For example in 2019, Kodak Black, albeit not the most politically astute rapper in the game right now, began to identify as an Israelite after being converted in prison. A year later, Nick Cannon was fired by CBS for making a similar claim on his podcast but has since recovered his reputation by educating himself through conversations with Jewish leaders and is the only person to have done so. Elsewhere, rappers praised for their political consciousness such as Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco and Jay Electronica have also been subject to intense scrutiny for their commentary on the music industry, referring to “tall Israelis,” “dirty Jewish execs,” and “the Synagogue of Satan.”
History professor Glenn Altschuler argues that whilst rappers did not invent antisemitism, they do play a significant role in spreading it and giving it credibility. Arguably what was more disturbing about Kanye’s social media meltdown wasn’t what he was saying, which although still unacceptable could be treated as a series of bipolar episodes, but what his fans were saying. I had to scroll quite far down his comment section to find any words of condemnation because the top comments all expressed support and solidarity. Equally concerning is what people aren’t saying. The only rapper to publicly condemn Ye for antisemitism was Pusha T, who’s most recent album was produced by him and entered the Billboard charts at number 1. Even Drake, who has been subliminally dissing him for years and has a Jewish mother, could only manage a vague comment about “linking with the opps” on his most recent album.
In a 1998 survey, it was found that 34% of black people held antisemitic beliefs, compared to just 9% of white people. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the issue could be traced back as far as the end of the American Civil War, where Jewish shop owners and landlords who had already been pushed out into the suburbs started doing business with arriving black customers. He claimed that Jewish landlords had been charging black tenants a 20% colour tax and that any feelings of resentment since were as a result of these confrontations. Jews also played an important role in achieving mainstream acceptance of black culture within the entertainment industry, which has been viewed negatively by some commentators like Jeffrey Melnick, who concluded that “while both Jews and African Americans contributed to the rhetoric of musical affinity, the fruits of this labour belonged exclusively to the former.”
Lyor Cohen, the tall Israeli that Mos Def referred to, is often cited in conspiracy theories as an example of a powerful Jew within the industry. Cohen started out as a manager for Run DMC before quickly taking on the responsibility of LL Cool J, Rakim, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest and even Public Enemy. He was then made a label executive for Def Jam, where he helped sign colossal names like JAY-Z, DMX, Ja Rule and Mariah Carey. At Warner records, he continued to bring the next generation through including Bruno Mars, Lupe Fiasco, Wiz Khalifa and TI. Finally, in 2016, he was made global head of YouTube music, a platform with a virtual monopoly on music videos and unprecedented industry influence. Cohen is no doubt one of the most essential figures in the development of hip hop but instead, his story plays into a narrative of a top-down industry with hungry execs at the top and starving artists struggling to get by.
Joe Berkowitz, a Jewish journalist who has written extensively on hip hop, pointed out that there is an “atmosphere of permissiveness” for casual antisemitism within the culture. In other words, rappers continue to get away with casual similes like “my flow tight like I was born Jewish,” because their label execs, who are often themselves Jewish, don’t hold them accountable. Of course, the same thing is also true of misogyny, homophobia and disability, which are frequently used as punchlines or insults. Rappers tend to present themselves as outlaws and play the villain role, rebelling against what the government or high society deems to be acceptable. There is no better example of this than Eminem, the bestselling artist of the 2000s, who consistently surrounded himself in a field of controversy to provoke certain groups of people and sell records. Ultimately though, there is no excuse for this because record labels should be taking responsibility and doing more to prevent the normalisation of harmful attitudes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a severe lack of understanding about what modern antisemitism is and why it’s so harmful which is a failure of education. In his most recent album, Kendrick Lamar provided us with an insightful account of his views towards his transgender aunt, critiquing himself, his community and the church’s views on queer people in the song Auntie Diaries. He explains that, when he was younger, he didn’t know any better and frequently used the f-slur in jokes aimed at his friends, although his actual use of the f-slur in the song received backlash from the gay community. Cases like Nick Cannon prove that education is part of the problem and that open dialogue is needed but there is also substantial evidence to suggest that higher educated people have greater antipathy towards Jews. The Antisemitism Policy Trust has criticised the UK education system for only teaching about antisemitism within the context of the holocaust and called for improvements to the PSHME curriculum as well as better online regulation.
Isolating these different explanations is unfair because the truth is, it’s probably a combination of them all. Hip hop is, at its core, protest music so its tendency to offend is very much deliberate. That being said, artists do need to reconsider what it is they are protesting against because the attitudes they sustain towards other oppressed groups are damaging and nothing short of blatant hypocrisy. In the case of Kanye, it was certainly encouraging to see such a swift reaction from Adidas, GAP and Balenciaga, who all immediately cut ties with his Yeezy brand. However, with Adidas reporting a $540 million loss due to unsold products and Ye still sitting in the top 30 most monthly listeners on Spotify, he might now be too powerful to cancel. Being a hip hop fan is already difficult enough with there being roughly 3 major untimely deaths per year and 51% of rapper deaths being homicide compared to just 6% for other genres. I don’t know what’s worse; your favourite rapper dying a hero or living long enough to become a biggot.