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Rabbi's Focus on Anti-Semitism Thrusts Him Into Role as Commentator on Pop Music

January 27, 1991|STEVE APPLEFORD | Appleford writes regularly for Westside/Valley Calendar

Rabbi Abraham Cooper's search for worldwide anti-Semitism with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles has often put him in close contact with presidents, prime ministers and other figures of recognizable importance. The last two years, though, have presented a new and unexpected dimension to Cooper's job as associate dean of the center, throwing him into an unpredictable world of pop stars and record company executives.

This is the result of some outspoken criticism Cooper has fired in the music industry's direction, targeting such mainstream and cult artists as Guns N' Roses, Public Enemy and Madonna for selected song material that he sees as insensitive or blatantly racist. Most recently, he attacked the extended CD of Madonna's "Justify My Love" for its use of a line from the New Testament that he said reflects anti-Semitic sentiments.

But before the Wiesenthal Center became so active in the music scene--after inflammatory comments made by a now-former member of Public Enemy--Cooper said his interest in contemporary music drifted little beyond the oldies radio station he listens to in his car. His concerns were focused more on following potential flash points for racism among American hate groups and elsewhere. In October, the center also published a list of 207 Western companies that have sold weapons to Iraq.

Cooper explained that until he walked into his home one day and heard his 11-year-old daughter singing a Guns N' Roses song, he had never heard of the platinum-selling hard-rock act. Not long after the center openly criticized the bigotry expressed in that band's song "One in a Million," the rabbi found himself regularly asked about his opinions on rock, rap and other modern sounds by Rolling Stone and the mainstream press.

"I'm absolutely shocked," Cooper said recently. "I don't see myself as a music critic. We also don't see ourselves at the front and center of the censorship issue. But when we see the potential marriage of popular culture and racism and bigotry, then we feel very strongly you have to blow the whistle loud, clear and early."

The effect of the center's critical remarks is such that Public Enemy leader Chuck D. accepted an invitation last spring from Cooper for a friendly discussion at the center. And within days of a meeting between Cooper and then-CBS Records chief executive Walter Yetnikoff, a memo was circulating among 7,000 CBS employees, calling for a company policy regarding racism in popular music.

Cooper added, though, that he sees little in rock and pop to cause him much concern. "Generally, the report card has been very good."

Instead, he praised many pop and rock bands for addressing such issues as world hunger and South Africa's apartheid government. Cooper said he sees the positive impact of contemporary music as filling a void he's felt since his youth after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

It's only when the center becomes aware of a potentially racially insensitive release, Cooper said, that he acts quickly. The center released a statement questioning Madonna's "Justify My Love" remix just one day after being alerted by an industry sound engineer about the CD single. The words heard in the new mix of the song that Cooper found objectionable were pulled from the Book of Revelation, reading in part: "And the slander of those who say they are Jews, but they are not, they are a synagogue of Satan."

Although he said he found that quotation personally more troubling than either the race-baiting "One in a Million" or Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome," Cooper was satisfied with Madonna's response to the controversy. She denied any intent of racism. "If she had the information and knowledge beforehand," Cooper said, "I don't think she would have put those words on the record."

Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center's pop music-related activities have themselves come under some criticism. Danny Goldberg, a music industry executive and chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, has complained that the attacks on the artists amount to "suppressing free speech."

Nonetheless, Cooper said the center would watch the music industry at least as long as artists are recording music he finds troubling. "In terms of dealing with people in the music world," he said, "it's been an education."

SOUND AND VISION: Muralist Richard Wyatt still remembers waking up as a child at home in Compton to the sax sounds of his father's John Coltrane records. That music and other jazz works led to much of his own artistic inspiration, Wyatt said.

"Although I had a lot of technical training in art, I really learned to draw and paint while listening to jazz artists and their approaches to music," said Wyatt, who now lives in West Los Angeles. "If I had a problem with a painting, I'd maybe put on a record and solve it."

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