A leading Jewish advocacy group has accused Public Enemy of espousing
anti-Semitism in the single "Swindler's Lust."
The accusation by the Anti-Defamation League, which complained about
the song in a letter to the rap band's label, Atomic Pop, is reminiscent
of an incident a decade ago in which Public Enemy's Professor Griff (born Richard Griffin)
was dismissed from the group after telling a Washington Times
reporter that he held Jews responsible for the "majority of wickedness
that goes on across the globe."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said
the lyrics to "Swindler's Lust" (RealAudio excerpt)
are rife with anti-Semitic overtones that blame Jews for the plight
of poor blacks. References to banking and millions of people dying are
code words, according to Foxman, for such bigoted assertions as the
notion that Jews control financial and other industries.
Professor Griff was brought back into the studio for last year's He
Got Game, a soundtrack album for the film by the same name, but he
plays only a minor role on There's a Poison Goin' On, the album
on which the song appears. He has, however, joined Chuck D in a new
rock band called Confrontation Camp.
Foxman said the rock band's name, a play on "concentration camp," is
another insulting appropriation of Jewish history.
"We don't have the luxury to play games," he said. "The gas chambers at
Auschwitz [one of the concentration camps where Jews were
systematically murdered during the Holocaust] did not begin with bricks.
The gas chambers began with ugly words, hateful words, and they were
permitted to evolve into bricks because people found excuses for them."
Neither Public Enemy leader Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour), his manager,
Walter Leaphart, nor Atomic Pop president and chief executive officer
Al Teller wished to comment on the charges, an Atomic Pop spokesperson
said Wednesday (June 23).
But the spokesperson, Liz Morentin, wrote a letter to Foxman Tuesday
saying there are no anti-Semitic references in the song.
"We support artistic freedom, and we are aware that art is always
subject to interpretation," Morentin, the label's vice president for
media relations, said Wednesday, quoting from her letter.
Shortly after the song was first released, as a downloadable single,
Chuck D said he was unconcerned that the track would spur allegations
of bigotry. "I'm a wordsmith," he said. "I knew I was going to raise
some attention. There was no harm intended towards anyone."
He went on to say, however, that African-American musicians have been
wronged historically by a variety of people, including Jews and other
"The truth is the truth," he said. "I think ['Swindler's Lust'] is a
hell of a title. People gotta check out the song and tell me whether
I'm right or wrong."
The title itself was one of the ADL's complaints. Foxman said Wednesday
the band added insult to injury by titling the song with a pun on the
celebrated Holocaust novel and Academy Award-winning film "Schindler's
List," which tells the story of a German businessman's efforts to save
thousands of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.
The spare cut, "Swindler's Lust," is a scathing attack on the music
industry, with references dating back to the early blues era. Chuck D
claims the industry has been run by executives whose greed is
detrimental to artists. It includes the couplet, "Laughin' all the way
to the bank/ Remember dem own the banks."
"[Allegations of] controlling banks and controlling the industry have
been classical canards of anti-Semitism fed ... into the black
community," Foxman said.
He also criticized the lyric, "Mo' dollars mo' cents for the Big Six/
Another million led to bled claiming their innocence," saying the
proximity of the words "six" and "million" are a thinly veiled
reference to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Morentin brushed aside those interpretations. She said the "Big Six"
was a shorthand music-industry term for the six corporations that
long dominated the record business; the six companies recently were
reduced to five (Universal, Sony, Time Warner, BMG and EMI) with the
merger of Universal and PolyGram.
"Another million," she said, refers to the Million Man March
demonstration of 1995, which brought a massive gathering of black men
to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate racial pride. Morentin added that
the line about the banks has to do with a record label's role as de
facto banker when it lends artists money to make records.
Foxman called the label's response "completely unacceptable."
Ironically, the ADL's criticism comes five months after a spokesperson
for the league said the organization had investigated the song and
found nothing wrong with it.
The lyrics do not specifically mention Jews, which at the time was an
important distinction to Myrna Shinbaum, ADL director of media
"We listened to 'Swindler's Lust' and found no apparent anti-Semitism,"
Shinbaum said. "ADL believes it is just as important to say what is
not anti-Semitism as what is."
But Foxman, who first denounced the track in a June 17 letter to Teller,
said the ADL did not have a copy of the lyrics until recently, and
the group could not accurately discern them by listening to a downloaded
copy of the song.
The song was reissued in May as part of Public Enemy's album There's
a Poison' Goin' On.