Early this week, Scarface—former member of the Geto Boys, first-rate MC, hip-hop legend—sat down for a chat with the music-themed website Kollege Kidd. He wasted little time getting to his point: Hip-hop, he said, was being deviously destroyed by Jews in a plot to make black Americans seem stupid.
Bigotry, like music, is about gradations and shades and is best experienced in full. Lest you think I’m being too sensitive, or channeling my inner Abe Foxman, or missing some larger point, here untouched, and with apologies for its inanity and profanity, is Scarface’s opening tirade:
I feel like we losing [hip hop]. I feel like the people that are in control of what hip hop does is so fucking white and so fucking Jewish until they don’t give a fuck about what the culture and the craft and what it really is about. I don’t know if the motherfucker is trying to really… Let me say this shit right, because I want it to be as offensive as I can fucking make it. These ol’ ass punks that’s running these record labels, in the powerful positions to dictate what the black community hears and listens to, you know what I mean? I fucking hate that shit. Like that shit pisses me off. Like there’s no fucking way that you can tell me it’s not a conspiracy against the blacks and hip-hop, because you put up fucking records that make us look stupid, make us look dumb, you brainwash a generation of hip-hoppers with this fucking crud.
What to make of such drivel? The high-minded approach counsels countering hate speech with dispassionate truth. Which would be: Hip-hop is obviously not lost. Among today’s practitioners are Kanye West (rapper, producer, founder of G.O.O.D. Music, home of talents like Kid Cudi and Big Sean), Rick Ross (boss, Maybach Music Group), Tyler the Creator (mastermind behind Odd Future Records and cultivator of the luminous Frank Ocean), Jay-Z (greatest rapper alive, former acclaimed president of a major label, future potential president of the United States), and Lil’ Wayne (whose Young Money Entertainment is home to Nicki Minaj, Mack Maine, and Drake). Ignoring the immense influence of these stellar artists on shaping the contemporary hip-hop scene is an affront not only to reality but also to their remarkable achievements, which Scarface—a good artist who lacks any business sense—is all too ready to erase in service of his rank theories of victimization and abuse.
You could also, of course, argue that his comments were just so much bravado, the sort of mindless machismo that’s very much in style in hip-hop. Just this week, for example, Lil’ Wayne apologized after the lyrics of one of his songs compared the rapper’s vigorous love-making abilities to the beating that killed Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy murdered by racists in Mississippi in 1955 after daring to talk to a white woman.
But such level-headedness is largely beside the point. Intolerance flourishes irrespective of objective facts, feeding on wild ideas and unchecked fears and malice. And it’s a string of bigotry that has long existed in the music. In 2004, for example, Mos Def rapped that “some tall Israeli is running this rap shit.” It was a reference to the Israeli-born music executive Lyor Cohen, whom Def singled out—together with white men in general, corporate greed, and drugs—as one of the core reasons for the decline of hip-hop. But Def’s statement was still somehow tolerable—because it was part of an analysis of the use of blacksploitation-style imagery to appeal to white audiences, which the rapper disdains. On the other hand, Scarface’s comments were just pure anti-Semitic garbage. Which leaves us, some of whom count ourselves among his fans, grasping for a way to make sense of it.
In fact, for us at least, the news is good: Nasty outbursts such as the one delivered by Scarface this week are very frequently a sign that a community, an industry, an art form, are moving into a more mature stage. Evidence of this theory was on hand this week in another tale touching on black-Jewish relations. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Grossman profiled Leonard Jeffries and his nephews, a story of one generation’s bigotry giving way to another’s inclusive approach. Jeffries, you may remember, is the former City University of New York professor who claimed that Jews were instrumental in financing the slave trade and later used their control of Hollywood to tarnish the image of African-Americans.
His nephews (one biological, the other merely a young associate bearing the same last name), however, have rejected the incendiary politics of racial divisiveness for a more progressive approach: Hakeem Jeffries is now a promising congressman representing Brooklyn, and Shavar Jeffries is a law professor aspiring to succeed Cory Booker as the mayor of Newark. Reading the story, it’s hard not to see the uncle’s hateful claims as the death spasms of a particularly noxious ideology. Jeffries made his comments in the early 1990s, winning him no fans except a handful of like-minded zealots; a mere decade later, Barack Obama offered a radically different vision of race in America and rode it all the way to the highest office in the land. And it’s the same vision that Hakeem and Shavar Jeffries now offer, a vision, with any luck, that will permanently replace the old approach of those who value conspiracy and conflict above all else.
The same is true for hip-hop, which is in the midst of rapid growth, rising in stature not only economically but culturally as well. For at least two decades now, it’s being discovered by more and more fans of all ethnicities and socio-economic levels, exported abroad, and adapted by different cultures. As it takes its place at the fore of the American musical landscape, it’s only logical that some will make one last attempt at discord. I’ll never be able to listen to Scarface the same way again, which is a shame, but I’ve plenty of other artists with better ideas to choose from. To riff on the tagline of Rick Ross’ latest mixtape—titled The Black Bar Mitzvah and featuring a cover showing the Teflon Don donning a huge Star of David—the best kind of music, like the best kind of politics, like the best kind of party, is one where everyone’s invited.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.