Nick Cannon and Public Enemy’s Professor Griff were both called antisemitic. Only one recovered.
Editor’s note: In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Forward is resurfacing some of our recent coverage related to the Black-Jewish experience and racial justice. This article originally appeared in September, 2020.
In 1989, the rapper known as Professor Griff made anti-Jewish comments that derailed his career.
More than 30 years later, when Griff appeared on the actor Nick Cannon’s podcast in July, their conversation about that moment nearly derailed Canon’s career — until it didn’t.
The divergent paths these two men traveled offer a kind of test case of celebrity teshuvah, or repentance — the broad theme of the Jewish High Holidays, which begin this weekend — and show the role that Jewish leaders can play in legitimizing, or not, the teshuvah of Black entertainers who have offended Jews.
Cannon, after issuing two public apologies for referencing antisemitic ideas, was embraced by rabbis and leaders of Jewish organizations who saw the podcast as a teachable moment. They spent hours with Cannon on private phone calls and public Zoom conversations to show him why his comments had been unacceptable.
“Teach me, fix me, lead me,” he told Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The process may have saved Cannon’s place in Hollywood, with ViacomCBS recently opening the door to working with him after announcing in July that they were severing their decades-long relationship.
But Professor Griff, 60, whose antisemitic remarks almost put an end to the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy, has mostly failed in his efforts at rehabilitation. Where his bandmates became cultural fixtures, Professor Griff — whose real name is Richard Griffin — is a notorious footnote.
Griff’s professional life has been bookended by two close encounters with the Jewish world: What happened to him in 1989 when he was truly canceled, and a 2019 conversation with a Philadelphia rabbi, during which he began to articulate his frustrations over living as a cultural pariah — and finally felt heard.
Ambassadors from Jewish organizations said in recent interviews that they simply do not think Griff has made the proper admission of guilt required for public forgiveness and re-entry into the world of mass culture. But in a series of conversations over the last several weeks, Griff told me that he is still seeking that cultural passport, and vindication for having his life “destroyed” by being labeled a Jew-hater.
He said he would do whatever it takes — but that the Jewish world won’t let him.
“I’ll go to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Black Power movement center, the Black Lives Matter, the White House, and I’ll apologize everywhere I need to apologize,” Griff told me.
“Come show me the error of my ways. Come show me what I said that was wrong, because Professor Griff needs to be educated. But no one calls, Ari.”
The Minister of Information
Griff grew up in Roosevelt, New York, on Long Island, alongside Carlton Ridenhour, who is known by his rap moniker, Chuck D.
Chuck D was the eventual frontman for Public Enemy, but Griff played a key role in imbuing the group with its famously militant Black Power approach to rap. Before Richard became Professor Griff, he had learned it from an Islamic study group he was part of while Ridenhour was honing his musical skills at Adelphi University, and through his admiration for Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Public Enemy blended proto-Black Lives Matter politics with hip-hop showboating: William Drayton Jr. — Flava Flav, the hype man — was known for his outlandish outfits and enormous clock-necklaces. But Chuck D’s stone-faced persona grounded the group, and its production team, the “Bomb Squad,” provided the industrial, controlled-chaos beats that channeled his righteous fury.
Griff, who traveled with suitcases full of books that he handed out to Chuck and the band’s entourage, was the “Minister of Information.” He mimicked the structure and community outreach of the Nation of Islam, modeling the group’s backup dancers, who were also security guards, on the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security force.
In the spring of 1989, Public Enemy’s second studio album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back,” was headed for platinum, and the group’s next single, “Fight the Power,” played in the opening credits of the most talked-about movie of the year, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Then, in May, Griff filled in for a press-weary Chuck D and was interviewed by the late reporter David Mills. Speaking at a Comfort Inn in the nation’s capital, Griff and Mills, who was also Black, spoke poolside, and after about 40 minutes the conversation turned to who controlled the music industry. Griff parroted canards and historical misunderstandings popularized in the Black community by Farrakhan.
Mills’ article in the conservative Washington Times is not available online, nor in digital archives, but other news accounts from 1989 said Griff was quoted saying things about Jews including “They have a history of killing black men.”
“The Jews can come against me. They can send the IRS after me,” he said. Using an anti-gay slur, he suggested that Jews would send hit men after him. “Listen, they have a history of doing this.”
In Mills’ chronicle of the conversation, which focused almost entirely on Griff’s anti-Jewish comments, Griff fingered “the Jews” for control of the international drug trade and the historical slave trade, and said that Jews “have a grip on America.”
The sound bite that has dogged Griff ever since — though he insists he never said — was that Jews are responsible “for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” In “Analytixz,” the book of collected interviews Griff published in 2009, he suggests he could not have said that because it would require him to “know about the majority of wickedness that went on around the globe, which is impossible.”
The backlash was swift after Mills’ interview was published and picked up by New York newspapers, with Jewish groups like the ADL condemning Griff.
Bill Adler, then the publicist for Def Jam, Public Enemy’s label, recalled in a recent interview that Griff told him that he was just repeating facts from books in his suitcase, some of which he’d received from the Nation of Islam’s research center.
They included a manuscript version of “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which would be published in 1991 and falsely claimed Jews played a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and in slave-owning in the antebellum South; “The Octopus: Documented Details of Many Tentacles of the Jewish World Conspiracy;” and “The International Jew,” Henry Ford’s infamous work of anti-Jewish propaganda that inspired Hitler.
“Just to hammer home the point I said, ‘Griff, look, Henry Ford would have readily upholstered the seats of his cars with your Black skin as with my Jewish skin,’” Adler said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Bill, I can’t help it, it’s in the book.’”
Chuck D didn’t endorse what Griff said, but neither did he condemn it, because of the pressure he felt to demonstrate Black solidarity, Adler said. (A representative for Chuck D did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It wasn’t terribly satisfying for me to talk to him,” Adler said of Chuck.
Apology made to whoever pleases
Executives at CBS Records, which distributed Def Jam’s work, threatened to cut the band off unless they defused the situation.
Public Enemy’s manager, Lyor Cohen, who like Adler is Jewish, as well as other Def Jam officials, pushed Chuck D to fire Griff publicly. Hank Shocklee, a member of the group’s production team, and Bill Stephney, the Def Jam executive who had given Public Enemy its name, told Chuck that without firing Griff, the group would never get another major record deal.
So he did.
“We are not anti-Jewish,” Chuck said at a news conference announcing Griff’s ouster a month after Mills’ May 9 article. “We are not anti-anyone. We are pro-Black.”
Afterward, Adler recalled in our interview, Chuck D went to the room backstage and began throwing things around and cursing. (Shocklee and Stephney did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Cohen did not comment.)
Griff told me that around the time of the firing, Farrakhan spoke to the band privately in his stately Chicago home and said Public Enemy should let Chuck D lead through the storm. Griff complied by stepping back while Chuck D met with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center several times, and appeared on radio and TV to talk about racism in the music industry.
Griff told me he now feels Chuck D threw him under the bus, and regrets ceding control of the situation.
On Public Enemy’s first single after the episode, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Chuck D exorcised his frustrations, drawing more criticism from the ADL, which deemed the lyrics antisemitic.
Crucifixion ain’t no fiction
So-called chosen frozen
Apology made to whoever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus.
Fear of antisemitism
That August, Chuck quietly allowed Griff to return to Public Enemy, but forced him to stay in the background; he received no writing credits on most of the group’s subsequent albums.
But Griff’s return and new title, “Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations,” rankled Cooper, who said he told Chuck D at the time, “we weren’t satisfied.” Abe Foxman, then director of the ADL, accused Public Enemy of a “repugnant charade characterized by cynicism and disdain for the public.”
The group continued to offend Jewish groups — by releasing a track called “Swindler’s Lust” in 1999 and by forming “Confrontation Camp,” a short-lived spinoff project that put Griff in a starring role. Chuck D eventually became an elder statesman of rap, and Flava Flav grew a reality TV show brand.
Griff started his own band, The Last Asiatic Disciples, which never had a hit single. He moved to Atlanta, started a family and a business called Sirius Mindz, through which he sells books he’s written, gives online classes on Black history and Hermetic philosophy, and sells a “brain tonic” of herbal extracts.
He is a silent partner in some other ventures, he said, because his name is too toxic to make his involvement public. He continued to make some concert appearances with Public Enemy, and was inducted, with the group, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. This year, he and Public Enemy are receiving Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Yet Griff remains bitter about what he sees as disproportionate repercussions from comments that he says were largely taken out of context, in particular the idea that Griff said Jews were generally “wicked.”
What Mills quoted him saying was: “I deal with Jews every day… I’m trying not to get affected by their wickedness.”
What Griff told me is that he was talking about individuals he knew, not the whole Jewish people.
“Individuals, and I stated that in my interview, but the way David Mills wrote it, it was like, ‘the Jews,’” he said. “‘Wickedness’ because of their dealings with Black people in the music industry. Not because they’re Jews. I don’t hate Jews because they’re Jews — I don’t hate Jews, period.”
Yet Mills, who went on to write for HBO’s “The Wire,” and win two Emmy awards for TV writing before dying in 2010, never stopped believing that Griff had espoused “Jew-hatred,” as he termed it in a 2007 blog post.
“The tragedy is that Professor Griff is a young man who sincerely wants to help his people,” Mills wrote in a July 1989, recap of the summer’s events. “Perhaps the most depressing revelation of the Professor Griff affair is that young Black minds are being poisoned with white-supremacist hate literature, in the name of Black empowerment. It is a stupefying irony.”
Griff said that in the aftermath of his 1989 comments he was ostracized by the Black community, too, though he has remained a part of the Nation of Islam. He said he still faces threats against his life stemming from that time. When he leaves his home, he said, he brings multiple loaded guns and sometimes bodyguards, even to visit local parks. (He declined to specify who the threats come from.)
“That’s what antisemitism has done to my life,” he said. “I hate the word, the phrase, ‘antisemitism,’ because it destroyed my life.”
So when the Professor got an invitation to speak at a synagogue last year, he thought it was a joke.
It came via Khalid el-Hakim, a teacher and historian Griff met in 2003 at a talk in Detroit, Michigan. El-Hakim operates the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, which showcases more than 10,000 artifacts from the slave-trade period through the advent of hip-hop culture.
The two shared a passion for teaching — el-Hakim has a doctorate in education — and admiration for Farrakhan: El-Hakim has said that Farrakhan’s exhortation to improve conditions in Black communities at the Million Man March in 1991 inspired the creation of the mobile museum. Shortly after they met, Griff began traveling with el-Hakim and the museum around the country, speaking to students, churches and community groups about American racism and Black resistance.
“He’s not this figure that people have in their minds,” el-Hakim said of the antisemitism allegations that always follow his friend. “If he was that guy, I would never invite somebody like that out on the road with me.”
In 2019, Rabbi Jeremy Gerber asked El-Hakim to bring the museum to Cong. Ohev Shalom, his Conservative synagogue of about 270 families in the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford. Gerber was running a series of interfaith programs with local Christian and Muslim leaders called “courageous conversations” around racial inequality, white privilege, Israel and other difficult subjects.
When el-Hakim asked if Griff could join, Gerber said yes.
Gerber, 40, told me that he looked back at Griff’s 1989 comments, and that he felt like he understood what Griff was trying to say — that the Jewish community is not free from sin in the history of American racism — and that that message still needed to be heard.
He said he received no pushback from his community in inviting Griff, because he has slowly “built up their tolerance” for conversations about race.
Jews are justifiably proud of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Jewish involvement in civil rights, Gerber noted.
“But there were Jews on the other side, and I think we don’t want to talk about it, and we don’t want to confront it,” he said. “But it is very difficult to be in a relationship and ask somebody else for the vulnerability of being open and honest about things that they said and apologize, if we’re not willing to be open and honest and vulnerable ourselves.”
Gerber said that he noticed that Griff was clearly guarded when he walked into Ohev Shalom.
In a panel discussion following a viewing of the mobile museum, Griff talked about his feelings around the word “antisemitism:” He said he did not understand how he could be considered “antisemitic” when the Semitic languages to which the word refers to, in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic, were and are spoken by African and dark-skinned people from the Middle East and East Africa — an idea he shared with The New York Times in 1990. (Arabic and Amharic, the language spoken by much of Ethiopia, are Semitic languages.)
But since the 1870s, the term has been associated with prejudice against Jewish people, not some broader Semitic people. (Academics increasingly prefer stylizing the phrase “antisemitism” instead of “anti-Semitism” to avoid that confusion; the Forward recently adopted this spelling in its style guide partially for this reason.)
Gerber said even so, it was still important for Griff to be able to express his misgivings about the subtle linguistic irony of labeling a Black person with a term that seems to refer to a nonwhite people, and that word having the power it does over famous Black people.
“Jewish people are very, very, very, very sensitive and have every right to be, every right to be,” Griff said, referring to the Holocaust and the history of Jewish persecution, “but Black people have every right to be equally as sensitive when it comes to all the things that have happened to us and that is happening to us right now, as we speak.”
Who wants to talk to Professor Griff about “the Jews”?
Griff, Gerber and el-Hakim thought they had made some progress. They planned to have more public talks together, but the pandemic put that on hold.
Then the podcast happened, and Griff felt both unfairly maligned and sidelined all over again: Instead of Chuck D answering for him in 1989, now it was Nick Cannon. Same meetings with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, same cultural reinstatement. Griff says he received another round of death threats over the interview.
The lack of Jewish outreach to Griff was notable given that two other Black cultural figures who made antisemitic social media posts around the same time — the rapper Ice Cube and NFL player DeSean Jackson — received well-publicized overtures from prominent Jews. Jackson was invited to tour Auschwitz with the leader of a Holocaust commemoration group; Ice Cube had a friendly conversation with the head of the Zionist Organization of America.
Yet Cannon’s comeback began with an extended apology — which Cannon later said was motivated by conversations with Black Jews who explained the significance of his remarks — something Griff has never given publicly.
Cannon wrote on Twitter that his comments “reinforced the worst stereotypes of a proud and magnificent people and I feel ashamed of the uninformed and naïve place that these words came from.”
The apology convinced Cooper to meet one-on-one with Cannon. During the meeting, Cooper said that Cannon, a doctoral student in theology at Howard University, quoted the rabbinic sage Maimonides on repentance: That if a person wrongs you, they only need sincerely ask for forgiveness three times. If you refuse them on the last time, they can be considered to have atoned.
As for Griff, Cooper said, “I have no idea if he wants to apologize, or feels he has nothing to apologize for.” He added that Griff was welcome to visit the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance when it reopens.
Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, also said it was Cannon’s apology made him seem worth the investment of the group’s time and reputation.
Cannon “has enormous reach, and if a person with enormous reach allows themselves to be reachable by the forces of good and truth, then we need to help in that process,” Marans said.
He and other AJC officials spoke with Cannon privately, and then hosted him for a Zoom conversation that received more than 57,000 views. The only friction came when Cannon declined to denounce Farrakhan, saying that he can “condemn the message, but I can never condemn the messenger.”
“We appreciate the honesty of the answer, Nick,” Marans said, “and I know it won’t surprise you that that still remains for us not fully satisfactory.” The comment reminded me of what Cooper said about Chuck D reinstating Griff, and Adler about his conversation with Chuck.
The AJC didn’t make a similar effort with Griff, Marans said, because Griff hadn’t demonstrated a willingness to learn, and had not “apologized both credibly and substantively,” as Cannon had.
Indeed, Griff had continued defending his conversation with Cannon, denying in a July 16 video that Cannon had spread “crazy antisemitic conspiracy theories” and insisting, “There’s nothing antisemitic about what we said on that interview.”
Marans of the AJC said he saw “little comparison between these two cases at the moment,” referring to Cannon’s repentance and Griff’s resistance.
“We don’t forgive on behalf of the Jewish people,” he noted. But he also said his group’s outreach in such a situation can’t risk conferring legitimacy on the wrong person, because “the credibility and good name of either a Jewish organization or the Jewish community is at stake. And that’s not an unimportant matter.”
But Griff feels that Jewish groups, by only bringing certain Black public figures onto their platforms, effectively choose who gets the stamp of cultural approval and who doesn’t.
He said that Marans, Cooper and others involved in these public rehabilitations represent a cultural reality in which people have to “bow down and submit themselves to making sure Jewish people are safe and happy at the end of the day — not the entire Jewish people, but these particular individuals that position themselves to speak for the vast majority of Jews.”
“This is what’s being said among Black people outside of the earshot of white Jewish guys like you,” he told me, responding to the idea that Chuck D, Nick Cannon and himself had not “satisfied” the white Jewish men they were talking to. “‘They will never be fucking satisfied… You can go fucking do back flips, apologize to until the fucking cows come home. You will always be antisemitic.’”
Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, agreed that these very public exchanges can inadvertently fall into a familiar racial power dynamic: The Black man has to jump through hoops held by white people in order to regain access to money and platforms controlled by white people, even when those white people are Jews who may have faced their own discrimination and prejudice.
“It’s patronizing. They’re treated as children,” said Gordon, who is both Black and Jewish. “There are white entertainers who spew a lot of antisemitic garbage, and we don’t see them being brought to school.”
What can get lost in asking Black entertainers to have these conversations on Jewish terms, Gordon said, is nuance around the deeply complicated and contradictory history of Black-Jewish relations. That spans the historical reality of white Jewish racism and involvement in the slave trade as well as the influential community of Black Jews. (Jews participated in and profited from the slave trade in the U.S. and South and Central America, but scholars agree that overall, they did not own slaves or financially contribute to or benefit from slavery at a higher rate than the general population.)
These are “communities of people trying to educate each other in real time, and it’s gonna happen in a sloppy way,” he said.
Griff has never disavowed what he said in 1989, but he says now that the broad brushstrokes came out of ignorance.
“I was 29 years old and my information about Jewish people came through the lens that other white people have set up,” he said, referring to Henry Ford’s book. “I should have handled the information that I received and put it under the microscope and done some deeper cross-referencing before I started running my mouth in interviews.”
He still wants to talk with Jews about Jews and racism, Jews and slavery, Jews and the music industry. Who wants to have that conversation with him?