How a Jewish Teen’s Kanye West Obsession Echoed His Dad’s Own Hip-Hop History

Kanye West Public Enemy
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With each passing day, more companies pile on Kanye West for his repeated anti-Semitic statements. First it was Balenciaga, then Vogue; it took a while for Adidas to follow but they came around as well. Four different Hollywood talent agencies have spoken out against West, who has yet to back down. 

But West wasn’t the only one feeling the pressure to change his tune. So was one of his biggest fans: my son. 

Like many Jewish people, my wife and I were disgusted by West and made our feelings known to our 14-year-old at the dinner table. So did my father-in-law, who pressed his grandson on whether he would continue to consume music released by this “rabble-rousing, ignorant anti-Semitic swine,” as he characterized West in our group text. 

I sent my son a link to an article when Balenciaga made its announcement, asking, “Will you sever ties with him too, now?”

“No,” he responded.

Maybe his refusal to disavow West should shock me, but it didn’t. Truth be told, what I felt wasn’t outrage, but a distinct sense of deja vu. The reason why goes back to more than 30 years ago, when my own teenage hip-hop heroes also gained notoriety for making anti-Semitic comments. 

In 1988, I was a 15-year-old student attending a modern Orthodox Jewish yeshiva. While my rabbis would have preferred I was passionate about the Torah, the reality was I was far more interested in pop music, everything from Duran Duran to Poison.

It was about that time that the rap genre began to creep up the Billboard charts. At first, I stuck to vanilla mainstream acts like Run DMC and Salt-N-Pepa. 

But I soon found myself curious about a rap group called Public Enemy that never got its songs played on the radio stations to which I listened, but was generating headlines because someone affiliated with the group, known as Professor Griff, had angered the Anti-Defamation League by referring to Judaism as a “gutter religion.” 

In response to the backlash, PE fired the individual in question. But the following year, the group made similar headlines again due to the lyrics of their new song, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” in which lead rapper Chuck D declares, “Told the rab, get off the rag,” “so called chosen, frozen” and “apology made to whoever pleases. Still they got me like Jesus.”

As the ADL once again led a fresh round of condemnation of PE, I wanted to see for myself what the hubbub was all about. Though I was barely familiar with their work, I purchased their 1989 album “Fear of a Black Planet.”

PE was like nothing I had ever listened to before, its sound a dense but intricate mix of beats and samples far more intense than what I was used to hearing. And whatever fascination the anti-Semitic lyrics held for me disappeared as I grew intoxicated by verses that spoke to issues of Black America, driven home by the stentorian boom of Chuck D’s voice, alongside the clownish jabber of his sidekick, Flavor Flav

The best way I can explain the impact “Planet” had on me is to compare it to how Bob Dylan revolutionized music for my parents’ generation. I found myself obsessed with a style of rap completely unlike my largely bubblegum musical tastes to date. 

It wasn’t long before a PE poster went up on my bedroom wall. That did not please my father, who was glad at least that my Poison poster came down because he wasn’t too keen on his son displaying grown men with lipstick, whose long tresses were bleached, feathered and covered in Aquanet.

My parents’ unease with my changing musical habits was only compounded as PE became something of a gateway drug for me. I ventured far beyond hitmakers like Run DMC to groups that rarely cracked the playlists of my go-to radio stations, from A Tribe Called Quest to Ice T.

To feed my new addiction, it wasn’t long before WPLJ and “Friday Night Videos” (recorded on VHS because I couldn’t watch TV on the Sabbath) were replaced by Hot 97 and “Yo! MTV Raps.” 

All these years later, I marvel at what an unexpected detour my tastes took, and how clearly it traces back to PE’s anti-Semitic lyrics piquing my interest. Looking back now I can see that surely there was a bit of an adolescent rebellious streak that motivated my curiosity. 

Whenever anyone raised the subject of his “Terrordome” lyrics with me, I adopted the defense Chuck D offered in the press: his words were not intended to be anti-Semitic; they were explaining his own feelings of persecution from those who criticized him during the Griff episode, he reasoned. 

And I think I may have actually believed that. But as a more sophisticated adult now, I’m a little more skeptical about that rationale. It’s not that I think Chuck D was really anti-Semitic; what I’ve concluded in retrospect was that he learned from the “gutter religion” imbroglio that controversy is the best free marketing to sell albums. 

Ever the provocateur, he went on to bait the Jewish community again in the ensuing years with lyrics that got less and less attention as PE went from critical darling to passe by the time the 1990s ended. Nevertheless, PE remains my favorite group and I listen to their best work to this day. 

When my son started to get old enough to listen to music, I hoped I would pass on my love of hip-hop. In a twist I’ve come to see as karmic, he gravitated to the genre fairly early in his life — but to the exception of any other kind of music. He’s actually become something of a hip-hop snob, deriding my own tastes as “basic.” 

By the time he entered his teen years, he stopped listening to any of my “old school” music; he finally grudgingly agreed to listen to “Planet” with me in the car on a recent road trip we took, but only because he wanted to make me happy on my birthday. 

While he listens to a wide range of hip-hop acts from Kendrick Lamar to Tyler, the Creator, Kanye West stands head and shoulders above the pack. My son has not only made his way through West’s entire oeuvre, but he follows the rapper’s every move, from driving his ex-wife nuts on social media to his latest stunts as a fashion mogul. I’ve had to discourage any talk of buying ridiculously expensive West merchandise including his Stem digital music player ($200) and Yeezy sneakers (at least $250). 

It’s come to the point where I see West less as a person and more like a virus eating my son’s brain. 

Were it not for my own teenage history with PE, perhaps I would demand my son purge West from his thoughts and Spotify playlists or find somewhere else to live. But frankly, there is only so much I am going to lean on him about this, and there’s a number of reasons why. 

For starters, imposing a West ban is simply impossible. While my father could confiscate a cassette or CD if he wanted to (he didn’t, though my mother did take away my copy of the scandalous Nabokov novel “Lolita” from me as a teen, but that’s a whole other story), there’s nothing I can do in the digital world, where he can access West (and God knows what else) from many different platforms without my knowing. 

Does it sit well with me that at the rate he listens to West on Spotify that he may be doing more singlehandedly than anyone on Earth to boost the sum West earns from royalties? No, but I’m not losing sleep about it, either. The fractions of a penny the artist gets on streaming platforms is a drop in the ocean of revenues West collects. 

In addition, my son is smart enough not to be defending West the way I did Chuck D; the pressure he’s getting makes him understand the implications of his actions. The more his family bears down on him, the more he’s started to be critical of West even if he’s reluctant to swear off his music, too. 

He at least opened the possibility of turning his back on West in his latest exchange with his grandfather. Ever the snob, he entertained the notion of putting his ears on a West-free diet, declaring, “Well, his music has gotten progressively worse since 2019, so we’ll see.”

He’ll never admit it, but my son is enjoying his little rebellion much the way I did when I was 15. I’m not going to get worked up about West because my own similar experiences makes me remember what a teachable moment my PE years were for me. 

It was then I learned about the age-old dilemma that creative geniuses from T.S. Eliot to Woody Allen have made their fans wrestle with: Is it possible to separate artists from their works when their actions are contemptible? 

West also introduces an additional layer of complexity to that equation because his actions seem due in part to his suffering from bipolar disorder. When I hear my son talk about the fine line between genius and madness, I’m at least grateful he’s thinking about the thorny issue of holding someone responsible for their behavior when it’s beyond their control.  

There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, but I take heart knowing my son is at least asking himself the questions.  

In the meantime, just like his father did with PE when he was a teen, he compulsively spouts lyrics as if he has a hip-hop version of Tourette’s syndrome. What’s even more annoying is that so much of West’s work is preoccupied with Christianity, as I learned during a recent Jewish holiday. 

As we spent the afternoon in our backyard building a sukkah, a tent of sorts that commemorates the kind of huts the Old Testament indicates our ancestors lived in after their exodus from Egypt, he sang aloud to himself a West song entitled “Jesus Lord.” 

Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he does.

Andrew Wallenstein is President and Chief Media Analyst of Variety Intelligence Platform. He has been with Variety since 2011, previously as Co-Editor-in-Chief.