December 7, 2023

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Lyor Cohen on Antisemitism in the Entertainment Business

7 min read

Note: The conversation that follows took place in September, two weeks before Hamas’ attack on Israel. On Wednesday, veteran music executive Lyor Cohen was honored at the City of Hope’s annual Spirit of Life gala, which raised $4.3 million to improve health equity in cancer care. He made the following remarks as part of his speech: “We came here tonight to eradicate cancer, but wouldn’t it be incredible if we could also eradicate hate.

“What happened on October 7th will never be forgotten, the brutality and slaughter of innocent women, children and men only because they were Jewish. It was an act of terrorism and barbarism. That is not open for debate. Many are being held captive. I want them returned to their families.

“I am sorry to hijack this special event to express my feelings as a human, just like I do when injustices happen to anyone targeted because of their race, religion or sexual identity. My heart also goes out to the Palestinian people and the region that has to endure unnecessary loss of life. I pray for peace. Will you join me?”

Now in his fourth decade in the music industry, Lyor Cohen is one of the top executives of the era, working as an artist manager, label chief and, since 2016, head of music for YouTube. He began his career in 1984, at the bottom of the ladder of Russell Simmons’ Rush Management, but soon was working closely with or co-managing Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and others; he also set a new precedent by turning Run-DMC’s love for Adidas sneakers into a lucrative endorsement deal. He went on to lead Def Jam Records and Warner Music Group before co-founding 300 Entertainment in 2012 (Young Thug, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna), which he continued to co-own after leaving for YouTube; 300 was sold to Warner in 2021 for some $400 million. Renowned for his hard-charging, often brash approach, Cohen has taken on a far more conciliatory demeanor at YouTube and has played a major role in transforming the streaming giant’s previously contentious relationship with the music business into a positive and collaborative one.

Cohen, 63, is the son of Israeli immigrants and, as he says, “a proud Jewish man.” He is also 6’5” and possessed of a large personality, and is not someone most people would choose to taunt for any reason, let alone his background; he was also one of the top vote-getters on Variety’s recent Hip-Hop 50 list of the greatest all-time executives in the genre. Yet even he has encountered antisemitism during his life and career, including from two prominent artists he worked with: Professor Griff (Richard Griffin), a member of Public Enemy, made a series of antisemitic comments in the late 1980s (which he later disavowed, saying that long conversations with Cohen helped him to find a new perspective); and of course former Def Jam artist Kanye West made even more deeply racist statements in 2022.

Variety spoke with Cohen last month about his perspective on antisemitism in the music industry; the conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you encountered much antisemitism in your life and career?

I have encountered some, but it’s around the edges. It’s actually kind of amazing that when I touched down in New York in 1983 [and later Rush Management], I only felt welcomed. But through the years, I’ve heard, for example, “I really want you as my manager because you’re Jewish and you’re good at business and will watch every penny.” They used to call me Lansky, which was their way of saying I’m a gangster, and they want a gangster on their side. Comments like that… and I did not let them slide, because I thought it was important for them to understand that it was hurtful — the generality of it. I said, “I understand you’re trying to pay me a compliment, but I would prefer you calling me Einstein or something. [laughter] There’s all different types of Jewish people.”

In terms of numbers alone, Black people and Jewish people have suffered more persecution than any other races in history. It seems like that shared experience could lead to understanding rather than conflict.

This is a generalization, so take it and condense it. When Jewish people were restricted to ghettos in Europe, they were primarily in deeply religious communities that were traditionally insular. There was no outreach to the [larger] community — it was more about self-preservation. So I think Jews could have done a better job to educate about why they look this way, what our beliefs are. I think we’ve always been really poor with PR [laughter] and outreach. That’s one thing. The other is, some people think that all Jewish people are successful and well off — why would there be any sympathy around prejudice? So I don’t think they were joined in a common struggle.

Some of the most important early hip-hop executives were white Jewish people. You didn’t encounter antisemitism in those days?

I’ve never encountered it, although I lived intimately the moment of Professor Griff. A lot of my Jewish colleagues in the music industry put a lot of pressure on me to stop being Public Enemy’s manager. They couldn’t understand, but the reason why I resisted leaving Public Enemy is because I learned in my Jewish upbringing that everything can be solved through education. And for them to see a proud Jewish person in the flesh, talking to them, living with them, being a part of the journey with them, I think is helpful and demystifying. If I had left, they may have hired, I don’t know, a Farrakhan figure or someone who wasn’t going to give them a perspective that I felt was important and demystifying. The source of a lot of Griff’s [misinformation] was Henry Ford’s book [the unabashedly racist series of newsletters published by the motor company founder in the 1920s and collected into “The International Jew”]. He used to carry it around.

And, of course, I think the recent comments that Kanye made are really hurtful and inappropriate on every level. I can remember having healthy arguments with friends where we respected each other’s perspectives, and we felt a better understanding of others through that discourse. But now, in this cancel culture, it feels like you cannot have a different opinion or a constructive dialogue. And everybody’s tense, everybody’s polarized, people are shouting at one another. Oftentimes, people don’t want to do the work to understand why some of the words they say are hurtful and out of bounds. I think Kanye really stoked the fire, and it makes me really sad and disappointed.

You’ve known him for quite some time.

I have.

Did you ever hear —

Never. Never. I was completely… I always saw that he was loose with his feelings, but I never heard a negative comment towards me or Jewish people, at least not in front of me. And I’ve had a lot of exposure to him. So I was really thrown off and surprised that he felt that way.

Would you be able to attribute what he said to his admitted bipolar condition?

I don’t know enough about that. I just feel that whenever you generalize and paint people with a very thick brush, you immediately lose the argument and you’re instigating harm. You’re promoting dark thoughts and darkness.

More than ever, we need people sharing ideas, having discourse in a healthy way. We all need to be better listeners and hear one another, and really get an understanding of people: where they’re coming from, what it’s like to be them. So let’s get back to constructive discourse, where we actually listen to one another and learn something new. I think people are worried that they’re not being heard through all of the polarization, and the dialogue is becoming less and less. It’s all sound bites. No one’s listening, they’re getting caught in the echo chamber of their own points of view. So it would be great if we could expand understanding. I was deeply, deeply angry and saddened by [West’s comments].

What would you say to him if you if you saw him today?

First of all, I would like to listen to him, and maybe pick up the genesis of this opinion — to be present enough to understand, just like I listened to Professor Griff. Then I’d try to educate him, because like I said, the core of what it means to be Jewish is that nearly everything can be solved through education. I try my hardest to walk around as a proud person that’s living a Jewish life. I’m communicating every day what it means to be Jewish.

… which is not that different from the basics of other major religions or beliefs.

Not at all.


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