Jay-Z, LL Cool J Honor Lyor Cohen at City of Hope Gala

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The City of Hope organization held its annual Spirit of Life gala in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, honoring legendary music executive Lyor Cohen and featuring a rich assortment of performances as part of DJ Cassidy’s “Pass the Mic Live!”

Industry executives, hip-hop veterans and featured performers descended on West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on October 18 to celebrate Cohen, who was an integral part of Def Jam’s rise and currently sits as Google and YouTube’s global head of music. Jay-Z, Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri and Diddy — all of whom who have worked with Cohen over the years, for better or worse — were all in attendance to witness the 64-year-old’s coronation, with a focus on supporting City of Hope’s mission to enhance cancer and diabetes research and treatment in the United States.

Ja Rule and Irv Gotti at the City of Hope 2023 Spirit of Life Gala held at Pacific Design Center on October 18, 2023 in West Hollywood, California.
Tommaso Boddi for Variety

With an introduction from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Cohen took the stage to accept the Spirit of Life award at the end of a three-hour event. Born in New York to Israeli immigrants, he first took the opportunity to address the global conflict between Israel and Palestine, offering words of dismay at the horrors unfolding around the world.

“We came here to help eradicate cancer, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also eradicate hate? What happened on October 7 will never be forgotten. The brutality, the slaughtering of innocent children, women and men, just because they were Jewish,” he said. “It’s an act of terrorism and barbarianism. That’s not open for debate. Many are still being held captive while we speak, and want them returned to their families.

“I’m so sorry to hijack this special event to express my feelings as a human, just as I expressed them when injustice has happened to anyone targeted because of their race or religion or sexual identity,” he continued. “We don’t have time for whatabout-ism. My heart goes out to all the Palestinian people in the region that has had to endure unnecessary loss of life. I pray for peace. Would you join me? Tonight, my speech was going to be about gratitude, gratitude for a lucky life, mostly full of health and gratitude for being part of a growing, healthy family. The simple things, like having children and watching them grow up in awe. To be productive members of society.”

He went on to honor his children, his ex-wife, his current wife and his 93-year-old mother Ziva, who was in the audience. Cohen also shouted out Atlantic Music Group Chairman and CEO Julie Greenwald and Atlantic Records Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman, as well as Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, who came all the way from Bali to attend the gala.

“And then, of course, the great music and the great artists that I’ve had the honor of serving,” he concluded. “Yes, I’m a servant. I’ve enjoyed being a servant, taking care of business and letting others shine. For each Grammy, for each sold-out show, for all the Academy Awards, you name it. I was on that stage, invisibly singing and saying amen. I was glowing with pride. Thank God for this life that I’ve been allowed to live, full of love, health and purpose.”

To commemorate the occasion, DJ Cassidy, who got his start as an intern at Def Jam under Cohen, curated an formidable lineup of musicians to perform for 30 minutes as part of his “Pass the Mic Live!” series. As Cassidy manned the turntables and sang and rapped along with every artist who graced the stage, each act took turns performing one or two songs throughout the medley.

“Now this musical journey is brought to you by my hip-hop heroes,” said Cassidy. “Icons who have shaped the culture over the last five decades, and it’s dedicated to an icon behind the scenes, Mr. Lyor Cohen.”

DJ Cassidy at the City of Hope 2023 Spirit of Life Gala held at Pacific Design Center on October 18, 2023 in West Hollywood, California.
Tommaso Boddi for Variety

What ensued was a parade of some of the most important figures in hip-hop history, all of whom have been guided in part by Cohen’s hand. Slick Rick kicked off the string of appearances with “Children’s Story,” followed by Kurtis Blow with “The Breaks,” Warren G with “Regulate,” and Musiq Soulchild with “Just Friends (Sunny).” Additional performances came from MC Serch, EPMD, Nice & Smooth, Redman, Dru Hill, Sisqo, Ja Rule, T.I., Swizz Beatz, Domino, Onyx and Public Enemy, who brought out the majority of the musicians to join them on “Fight the Power.”

During a brief intermission, rapper and “Drink Champs” host Noreaga worked the crowd, walking around and chatting with those who had donated money to City of Hope. A high point: When he spotted Jay-Z in the building and cornered him. “Say something, Hov,” said Noreaga. Jay was quick to respond: “I ain’t gonna do that. Get out my face, dog.” Laughter ensued.

Throughout the evening, the mood was light, yet consistently acknowledged the issues at hand. Several cancer survivors and those treated for diseases by City of Hope gave inspiring testimonials, while a silent auction raised money for their fund. The Coachella festival gave $100,000, as did Diddy. Altogether, City of Hope’s music, film and entertainment industry group raised $4.3 million to facilitate health equity in cancer care.

To cap off the evening, LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff took the stage to perform “I’m Bad,” “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Rock the Bells.” It was a fitting ending to the night, a look back at the road everyone had traveled to get to this point, and a nod toward the man who helped them get there.

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