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Rappers fueled anti-Semitism in '90s, professor says

Rappers obviously didn't invent anti-Semitism, but in the early 1990s, some of them certainly "did play a role in spreading it and giving it authority and credibility," said Glenn Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell, in his public lecture "Bad Rap: Public Enemy and Jewish Enmity," Sept. 21 at the A.D. White House.

Citing the rap group Public Enemy's 1990 hit single "Welcome to the Terrordome," recorded during a period marked with tension between blacks and American Jews, Altschuler quoted the controversial rap group lyrics:

Crucifixion ain't no fiction

So called chosen frozen

Apology made to who ever pleases

Still they got me like Jesus.

Launching the new Jewish Studies Lecture Series, Altschuler, who also serves as dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions and vice president for university relations at Cornell, noted that rap first emerged in the 1970s in response to racial problems in America, serving as a way for black artists to fight back and express the black experience through song.

"Freshly articulated, imaginative and inventive visions of what it meant to be black in the United States found audiences eager to deride, degrade and disrespect authority, tradition and race-based hierarchies," said Altschuler.

As the genre spread across the United States in the next several decades, rap and hip-hop became "the music of choice not only for black youth, but for non-blacks as well, especially those young men and women starved for authenticity," Altschuler noted.

While the foundations of rap lie in empowerment and expression, Public Enemy emerged in the '80s, taking their expression to a new level of politically charged and blatantly anti-Semitic statements and song lyrics, Altschuler said. Seven months before the release of "Welcome to the Terrordome," one of the group members, Richard "Professor Griff" Griffin, made a number of anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. "'Jews are wicked, and we can prove this,'" Altschuler quoted him as saying.

"Publication of these statements in the Washington Times ignited a firestorm in the mass media, and Public Enemy scrambled to respond," said Altschuler. Griffin was asked to leave the group, but shortly thereafter rejoined the group and "Welcome to the Terrordome" was released, making the group's condemnation of Griffin's statements seem superficial, and resulted in more public outcry, Altschuler said.

During the question-and-answer session, Altschuler said that Public Enemy's anti-Semitism persisted even after the controversy surrounding Griffin. In their 1999 album "There's a Poison Goin' On," Public Enemy mocked the movie "Schindler's List" in the song "Swindlers Lust" with anti-Semitic lyrics like, "Laughin' all the way to the bank; remember dem own the banks" and "Mo dollars, mo cents, for the big six, another million led to bled, claimin' they innocence."

In the last decade or so, Altschuler said, tensions between blacks and Jews have subsided, the mass media has turned to other issues, and rap culture has moved on. Gangsta rap was introduced in the '90s, shifting the focus of rap culture from racism to "street life, smoking weed, violence and booty, be it women or cash money."

"Rappers revised, rewrote and recycled 'history,' shining a demonic light on race, racism and the exploitation of black people by Jews," said Altschuler. "And then as businessmen attuned to the mainstream market do, and beat reporters must, they moved on to another hot topic."

The lecture was sponsored by the Department of Jewish Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Michelle Spektor '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Blaine Friedlander