Sadat X is a hip-hop legend. He’s known for invulnerable albums like 1990’s One for All with Brand Nubian and his ’96 solo Wild Cowboys, which mixed joyous references to Mic-a-delphia and Thelma and Louise with meaningful commentary on everything from the power of schools to the racism of the NYPD. He’s smart, creative, funny, a cratedigger—everything you’d expect and want out of a Golden Age rap hero. But he’s also a massive anti-Semite and homophobe. Which, sadly, is the reason he told me to eat a dick on Twitter last weekend.
I should note that there are plenty of valid reasons for Sadat X to call me a dick. I’m 24, and I just moved into a loft in Brooklyn. I went to this weird Orthodox yeshiva high school based on Kohlbergian moral development, and I write under my full name because of that other guy, who is probably the world’s greatest living writer. My main hobbies are watching YouTube videos of R. Kelly, owning records, reading Pynchon, and wearing plaid. I spend too much time on Twitter following sarcastic assholes (like musicians), interesting assholes (like reporters), music venues (for upcoming shows), and the TV goddess Alison Brie. (I will never apologize for my love of Alison Brie.) I also like following people who are genuinely dedicated to their craft, which was probably what I was thinking when I decided to follow Sadat X. He can be a funny, charming dude, as his wine reviews make clear.
Sadat X was apparently having a bad weekend. He had seen two guys kiss, which brought on a rant about how unnatural gay men are, and then started retweeting messages claiming “it’s no coincidence that the rise of homosexual ‘rights’ coincides with an increasing level of Jewish control,” and how the majority of slaveholders in America have been Jewish. I ignored the proverb by Jay-Z, from the Book of “Takeover”: “A wise man told me not to argue with fools,/ ’cause from a distance you can’t tell who is who.” I tweeted at Sadat X a link to Cornel West talking about Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. I mean, you have to start somewhere, right? A small back-and-forth, and then the dick-eating. Specifically: “EAD!” I was a little bummed I only merited an acronym, but he was having a busy night, what with legions of gay and sundry other hip-hop fans saying how insulted they were.
Of course, if the full extent of anti-Semitism in rap was has-been dudes telling me to perform various anatomically (and digestively) impossible tasks, that’d be fine. But nothing Sadat X said, on Twitter or elsewhere, has the power of when, say, Professor Griff of Public Enemy was citing Henry Ford’s The International Jew, or when Ice Cube moaned that MC Ren “let a Jew break up my crew” in reference to N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller and his entanglement with the Jewish Defense League. Those were moments that stopped me midway through songs, killed all the energy of the music. This was more of a head-shaker. Outside of hardcore hip-hop fans, no one’s really going to care about one rapper’s questionable comments on Twitter about the Jewish people.
Luckily enough, we’ve also got Kanye West.
There’s no real point in re-hashing every controversy the illustrious Mr. West has been a part of. But if you haven’t heard of him—ego! He’s got a big ego, that’s pretty much what it all comes down to. And he’s very talented. So talented that he made an album with Jay-Z called Watch the Throne. And such an ego that when he compared his own track to the Holocaust on said album, no one batted an eye.
Tellingly, the other German reference on Watch the Throne, concerning “Other Other Benz,” got more of the hype. But there it is, leading off the dubstep-influenced “Who Gon Stop Me,” just after the bass kicks in: “This is something like the Holocaust/ Millions of our people lost … Now who gon stop me.” It hangs above the chorus like the shiniest of jewels. Like so much of Watch the Throne, this reference to the Holocaust only exists because it can, a rarefied word that can be plucked from only the tallest tree in the greenest forest, which coincidentally only Kanye and Jay-Z can afford. Even though the Third Reich has apparently been on “Ye’s mind a lot lately,” no one really knows—or feels the need to explain—exactly what the offending “this” is, leaving the listener to guess at which of Kanye’s many interests are being referred to here: the awesomeness of his own beats, the awesomeness of Watch the Throne in general, or the plight of African-Americans.
There’s no point in comparing Sadat X and Kanye’s comments directly. Hate-filled rantings and dumb lyrics are very different things. But when taken together, it’s difficult not to see a common thread—a refusal to acknowledge the Jewish experience. Kanye’s chorus reminds me of when Susan Boyle covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a re-appropriation of a Jewish experience for no other reason than it being handy. Boyle takes an experience deeply entrenched in the Old Testament and thinks by getting the technicalities right she’s entitled to make it her own. If you pause and look around enough, it’s the type of thing you see all the time, especially if you grew up Jewish in America. Saying this country is rooted in “Judeo-Christian traditions”—ignoring the fact that it wasn’t 50 years ago when houses in this country had leases preventing us from living there—Kanye’s not there, not by a long shot, but “Who Gon Stop Me” gives him the keys to this grand American tradition. I say we push back. To appreciate the Jewish experience as ongoing, to look at Jewish artists and Jewish culture with renewed vigor. And, when need be, angrily proclaim our place in history.
And that’s not to say that no artist should ever touch the Holocaust. They should! (Well, maybe Sadat X shouldn’t.) It’s an event that didn’t only affect Jews, and some of the best works related to it, like Paragraph 175, a documentary on the Nazi persecution of gays, discuss that very fact. But if you want to talk about it, talk about it. Back on Brand Nubian’s first album, when Sadat X was still Derek X, he put it pretty well on “Concerto in X Minor”: “Now, the civilized man’s main goal is to teach/ And I try to achieve this with verbal outreach.”
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.