Prairie Pop: Hip Hop Occultism

Popular culture–particularly music–has long been fingered by the far right as a satanic conspiracy. Rock and roll remained a scapegoat for decades, but more recently hip hop has entered the equation. Jay-Z, for instance, has received widespread scrutiny for the imagery used in his music videos, clothing, lyrics, photo-ops and interviews. In the music video for 2009’s “Run This Town,” the rapper wears a hooded sweatshirt bearing the phrase “do what thou wilt,” which has deep roots in modern occultism and was a key maxim of nineteenth century mystic-provocateur Aleister Crowley.

Jay-Z’s clothing line, Rocawear, is often emblazoned with Masonic symbols like obelisks, pyramids, the all-seeing eye and the occasional pentagram. Many suspicious minds have noted that his record company name, Roc-A-Fella, is an allusion to the elite Rockefeller family, a dynasty that is at the center of paranoid New World Order and Illuminati conspiracy theories. This is proof, it is said, that Jay-Z is in on the plot.

Kanye West also set off all sorts of conspiracy theory rumors after his appearance in Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” video. During an interview with Danni Starr on 96.3 Now, a Minneapolis radio station, he acknowledged as much. Asked “What is the craziest thing you’ve read about yourself and you were like, ‘Well, where’d they get that from?’”–a line of questioning that usually provokes an answer along the lines of, “I can’t believe people think I’m dating Jennifer Aniston!”–Kanye stammered, “Well, uh, the Illuminati thing. Because I, uh, I wanna know, at least I wanna know what it is.”

The occultic, Egyptian-laden symbolism used by Jay-Z, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop artists often gets interpreted as being purely Masonic (which is an odd connection, given that Freemasons are primarily old white men). However, it can be more directly traced to Afrocentrism and several quasi-mystical religious sects popular with African-Americans since the mid-twentieth century.

One such group is the Nation of Gods and Earths, which was founded in the early 1960s by a charismatic Nation of Islam student-minister named Clarence 13X. He opened his own street academy in Harlem, teaching a condensed version of the Nation of Islam’s Lost-Found Lessons, which rejected the idea of a supernatural “mystery god.” Instead, the black man was his own god–the master of his own destiny. The members of the Nation of Gods and Earths are commonly known as Five Percenters because of their belief that only five percent of the world’s people are enlightened.

The rest were poor, ignorant and uncivilized (85 percent of the population) who are preyed upon by bloodsuckers (the other 10 percent, holding positions of power in corporations and the government). Like many such sects, it takes a conspiratorial view of history. The only ones who could foil the plot were a chosen few “poor righteous teachers” who were put on the Earth to emancipate the mentally deaf, dumb and blind from their bondage.

The Five Percenters have been part of hip-hop culture from its beginnings in the South Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa was affiliated with the movement and its members sometimes provided security for 1970s hip-hop shows. By the mid-to-late 1980s, it had gained a large number of adherents. Artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes and the aptly named Poor Righteous Teachers began dropping references to the Five Percenters. They introduced slang terms like “dropping science,” “break it down,” and even “word.”

The Nation of Gods and Earths was but one of many African-American sects and secret societies that blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, which can trace their roots back to the Moorish Science Temple of America. Founded in 1913 by a man known to followers as Noble Drew Ali, it borrowed much of its symbolism and ceremonies from Freemasonry’s Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Better known as the Shriners, this Order introduced America to Arabic and Islamic imagery.

In his book Occult America, Mitch Horowitz writes, “a veritable who’s who of early black-power figures joined or came in close contact with Moorish Science in the 1920s”–including Nation of Islam architects Wallace D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam’s cosmology was as imaginative as it was convoluted. One of its science fiction-inspired origin stories involved a mad scientist named Dr. Yacub who created the white race to place blacks in slavery. There was also a spacecraft, The Mother Ship, which would eventually arrive on Earth and liberate them.

Far from being relegated to the obscure fringes of African-American society, these stories resonated with many, including Nation of Islam convert Muhammad Ali. The Nation of Islam’s teachings tapped into a strand of “Afro-futurism” that ran deep through twentieth century African-American popular culture. Figures like avant-jazz legend Sun Ra, dub reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Janelle Monae have used these tropes.

They mixed playful fantasy, wild costumes and out-there-but-funky music to express their alienation, while at the same time imagining a better world. Born in Birmingham, Alabama at the height of segregation, Herman Poole Blount–aka Sun Ra–took on a new name and claimed Saturn as his homeland. He began his career in the 1950s on the same Southside Chicago streets that embraced the Nation of Islam. The iconoclast never joined Elijah Muhammad’s organization but he was a member of a secret society named Thmei Research group, which shared the Nation of Islam’s fascination with outer space, science and esoteric knowledge.

Like the Nation’s bow-tied foot soldiers, Sun Ra could be seen on street corners lecturing and passing out his hand-typed tracts. Pedagogy was an integral part of the package. The jazz musician was, as critic John Corbett calls him, “a supersonic cosmo-science sermonist.” While looking toward the future, Sun Ra kept his feet firmly planted in the past: studying Africa, Egyptology, numerology, mysticism and biblical texts. He could not accept many of the Nation of Islam’s teachings, including the belief that white people were devils (“black people be devils, too,” he countered).

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Years later, these ideas were absorbed into hip-hop and fanned out into popular culture via song. On “Impossible,” from their hit 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever, group member U-God ends his verse with the line, “Our everlastin’ essence stay flyin’ over Egypt.” It’s a reference to the Afrocentric and Five Percenter notion that Egypt–the cradle of civilization–“is where the original black Asiatic man first emerged,” RZA says in his book The Wu-Tang Manual.

Rick Ross and Jay-Z’s 2010 hit “Free Mason” is similarly laden with Afrocentric and Five Percenter imagery. “We the lost symbols, speak in cryptic codes / ancient wisdom, valuable like gifts of Gold,” Ross raps before launching into the chorus: “Free Mason, freelancer / Free Agents, we faster / Big contracts, big contractors / Built pyramids, period.” Rather than a serious pledge of allegiance to occultism, it’s more of a masculine black power boast.

The Five Percenters and other African-American sects and secret societies emerged as a reaction to segregation, urban decay and a desire for self-sufficiency. In the absence of context, these coded allusions have been used as evidence that these men are New World Order conspirators. For many Tea Partiers, Illuminatiphobes and other paranoid white folks, Jay-Z and our Jigga-quoting Black President are part of an elite secret society that quite literally “run this town”–and world, for that matter.

They are convinced that common people have no chance of succeeding when these men are gaming the system. But as Jay-Z cleverly puts it in his verse on the previously mentioned Rick Ross track: “I said I was amazin’, not that I was a Mason.”

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