He was one of many to express appreciation for Cohen throughout the evening, during which industry titans (such as Lucian Grainge, Sylvia Rhone, Jon Platt, Julie Greenwald and more) mingled with hip-hop royalty (such as Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Ludacris, Diddy and others). After all, the genre’s 50th anniversary just to happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of City of Hope‘s philanthropic partnership with the Music, Film and Entertainment Industry (MFEI) — making Cohen, considering his contributions to and impact on hip-hop, as well as his generous spirit and advocacy for accessible and affordable care for all, an ideal recipient of the City of Hope 2023 Spirit of Life Award.
And though his honor was revealed back in March, the event itself came at an unexpectedly fitting time, as it seemed the entire music industry was waiting to hear from Cohen (the son of Israeli immigrants) on current events unfolding in Israel and Gaza. It seemed that he, too, had been waiting for this moment and platform to share them.
“With all that’s going on in the world, Lyor, you powered though,” said Evan Lamberg, City of Hope’s MFEI board president. Lamberg also called Cohen – current global head of music at YouTube and Google – “indomitable,” noting his 93-year-old mother was in attendance, among many other members of Cohen’s family.
But before Cohen himself could speak, there was the business of fundraising. Diddy kicked things off, becoming the first to donate at the entry point of $100,000. Dozens followed, ultimately raising over $4.3 million. (Over the course of its 50-year partnership with City of Hope, the MFEI has raised a total of $150 million to cure and prevent cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.)
Next up was the long-awaited performance, for which the crowd was spoiled with a never-ending parade of hip-hop and R&B greats as DJ Cassidy brought his Pass the Mic Live! franchise to the stage (much of which Jay-Z, seated at the Sony Music table next to Platt, bobbed along to). After Cassidy dedicated the set to Cohen (“an icon behind the scenes”), what followed was a 30-plus-minute jaw-dropping show during which the mic was passed nearly 20 times to artists and groups including: Slick Rick, Kurtis Blow, Big Daddy Kane, MC Serch, Nice ‘N Smooth, EPMD, Redman, Onyx, Warren G, Domino, Musiq Soulchild, Dru Hill, Ja Rule, T.I. with Swizz Beatz and Public Enemy, who ended with an all-star rendition of “Fight the Power.”
Just before 9:45 (45 minutes after the event’s scheduled end time), Cohen’s congratulatory video started to play, featuring everyone from Busta Rhymes and Slim to Kevin Liles and Julie Greenwald. Chuck D then returned to the stage to introduce Cohen, delivering a particularly memorable opening line: “[Run-]D.M.C. says hip-hop succeeds where religions and governments fail – and that’s ironic at this particular time right now.”
It’s a sentiment that set the tone for Cohen to deliver his own anticipated speech, which began with the sound of a computer glitching as the lights switched off (“Lights!” exclaimed Chuck, to which Lyor motioned all was well… it was all part of the plan). Cohen opted to open with an excerpt of the famous “final speech” delivered by Charlie Chaplin in the 1940 film The Great Dictator, in which he ultimately calls for unity.
“We came here to help eradicate cancer, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also eradicate hate?” said Cohen once the lights came back on. He spoke of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack at a music festival in Israel, saying it will never be forgotten and calling for the immediate return of those who were kidnapped and are still being held hostage. “I’m so sorry to hijack this special event to express my feelings as a human,” he said, “just as I express them when injustices happen to anyone targeted because of their race or religion or sexual identity… My heart goes out to all the Palestinian people in the region that have had to endure unnecessary loss of life. I pray for peace – won’t you join me?”
He proceeded to express gratitude for his family, many of whom were in attendance and many of whom, as he said, couldn’t make it “because they are burying Israeli children.” He then thanked the room for “a lifetime of tolerance and kindness and unwavering belief in the mission,” calling out Greenwald (“for always trying to make everyone better with love”), Liles (“you’re a selfless warrior”), Russell Simmons (“thank you for this wonderful life that I live”) and the “great music and great artists that I’ve had the honor of serving.”
Lastly, Cohen addressed “the additional controversy,” saying “I’m so sick and tired of people thinking that celebrity and fame trumps great music and artistry. We’re in a funky monkey moment but don’t get it twisted, quality will always prevail.”
LL Cool J then closed out the night (alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff and Adam Blackstone) with a medley of hits including “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Before stepping off stage, he addressed Cohen directly: “We went through a lot… and it all ended up really great.”
And as the crowd started to shuffle out, he shared one final message – and it perfectly underscored the ethos of the entire night: “Erase the Hate.”