“Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” This was the title of 50 Cent’s 2003 album, and it summed up the Hip Hop attitude of a generation. It was about money, drugs and drug deals, and “booty.” Sure, these are still, to a greater or lesser extent, important elements of the genre.
Though it’s been around since the 1970s, Hip Hop, perhaps more than any other genre, has demonstrated an ability to adapt and evolve, especially in its attitude and its focus.
In recent years, some of the genre’s artists have since introduced arcane symbolism (including occasional references to Freemasonry) and spirituality, marrying these to lyrics about earthly opulence and political and social protest. If Hip Hop artists were once criticized for immorality, this shift has provoked fascination and condemnation. Some African-American preachers, in particular, routinely condemn artists, who, they claim, are promoting the occult or anti-Christianity. Broadcast on iTunes and YouTube, their message can be summed up as: Hip-Hop is a tool of the Devil.
The fear of mysticism, the occult, alternative religion, and so on, has a long history, propagated both on the Left and Right of the political spectrum, though fear of the “Illuminati” emerged from the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, as historian Arthur Versluis has documented in The New Inquisitions (Oxford University Press, 2006).
On the Left, the fear of the occult was expressed by leading thinker of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s ideas helped shape what has come to be known as “political correctness.” For him — as he expressed in his “Theses Against Occultism,” the supernatural was irrational and bourgeois. It is interesting to note that segments of the current Left-wing has actually embraced alternative spirituality, yoga, and in some cases occultism, despite Adorno’s ranting.
More significantly, though, was the accusation of a worldwide network of Satanic, ritual child abusers. Although no evidence was ever found to corroborate the claim (and one “expert” was later revealed as a resident in a psychiatric hospital), it gained enormous popularity in Evangelical Christian circles, and, later, in the mainstream media.
As the claim was ultimately found to be false — or, more charitably, unproven — the hysteria took on a new expression. Satanism and the global aspects remained a part of it. As Versluis has said, “The new fear was […] of a shadowy secret order that wanted to control the world, create a single world government, and usher in the Antichrist. The new fear was of the ‘Illuminati'” (The New Inquisitions, p. 116).
“The Devils Is A Lie”:
Rapper Rick Ross tells us “the Devil is a lie.” No doubt Evangelicals would claim that that is just the that the Devil would want to convince us of. Nevertheless, Hip Hop, as we’ve already noted, actually has used some esoteric imagery.
Jay-Z’s streetwear label, Rocawear, has also adopted Masonic-like imagery (such as the Square and Compasses) for some of its printed tee-shirts. And provoking some controversy, in a video about the making of “Run This Town” Jay-Z is seen wearing a black hoodie with “Do what thou wilt” printed in white on the front.
The words were taken from the Victorian English Magus and Freemason Aleister Crowley, who claimed to have received a revelation over the course of three days. This heralded the dawning of a new era and new religion, the central maxim of which is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” Much misunderstood — sometimes intentionally — the maxim commands individuals to live in accordance with their true selves, which are themselves expressions of cosmic or Divine law.
Like many other occultists of the time, Crowley was also a Freemason (initiated in Mexico and Paris in Lodges not affiliated with any of the major English-speaking Grand Lodges), and invoked Pharaonic Egyptian gods and imagery in his occult rituals and poetry. Egyptian civilization, of course, is invoked in contemporary Hip Hop, but this is probably more influenced by Black nationalism (we’ll return to this momentarily).Rick Ross himself raps, in “Free Mason”:
Allow my flow time to sink into the temple
Free Mason, freelancer, free agents, we faster
Big contracts, big contractors
Built pyramids, period, we masters…
Though, Jay-Z raps, in the same song, “I said I was amazing, not that I’m a Mason.” If Rick Ross invokes Freemasonry as symbolic of power and connections (not necessarily esoteric knowledge), Jay-Z, in “Free Mason,” tells us that the motivation for Illuminati-phobia is old-fashioned jealousy:
Devil want these n[….]s hate they own kind
Gotta be illuminati if a n[….] shine
Oh we can’t be a n[….] if a n[….] rich?
Yet, in Jay-Z’s lyrics we also find hints of an esotericism. In “Run This Town,” for example, he raps:
It’s the return of the god
And ain’t nobody fresher
I’m in Mason.
We don’t need to look to Crowley, however. The fusion of Masonic-inspired imagery, esotericism, Egyptology, and politics is not a new one in African-American culture, even if it has resurfaced, and come to public attention, in recent years though Hip Hop. It is, in fact, highly traditional, if, paradoxically, unorthodox.
Marcus Garvey, the first Black nationalist to found an international organization (the Universal Negro Improvement Association) dedicated to the uplifting of people of African descent, was reportedly a Freemason. The uniform for his organization was also inspired by one worn by the Masonic Knights Templars, a degree within “York Rite” Freemasonry. (High street parades by Knights Templar Freemasons were common during the first half of the 20th century.)
Similarly, Noble Drew Ali, a contemporary of Garvey, also drew heavily from Freemasonry for the religion his founded (Moorish Science), including some of its ceremonial regalia and titles for officers. Like Hip Hop today, Noble Drew Ali fused Freemasonry, esotericism, Black nationalism, and the “positive thinking” of the New Thought movement.
Hip Hop may perplex much of society today — so much so that it is condemned from the pulpit — but it would not have looked or sounded so strange to Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, or many other early Black nationalists (including Prince Hall (c.1735-1807), the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry, the first organization in America for Black men).
Curators and Creators
Contemporary creators are, to a large extent, curators. They pull together intriguing aspects from a range of sources without necessarily endorsing them, or, at least, all of what each thing may represent. Still, from meditation and yoga to the occult, non-traditional spirituality is a significant interest for many creative people in the West today. We shouldn’t expect Hip Hop artists to be any different. There is, as we’ve pointed out, a long history of the influence of Freemasonry, esotericism, and spirituality — and its fusion with politics and social concerns — within Black nationalism.
From this perspective, rappers are doing something quite traditional. It’s an interesting, and quite cerebral and challenging, mix, especially compared to much popular musac (which is often dressed up as being somehow edgy). When it comes to some of its more sophisticated artists, Hip Hop is a far more interesting and nuanced genre than critics give it credit for. It doesn’t, as some preachers claim, have an agenda to promote the devil or the “Illuminati.” It’s agenda appears to be creativity and exploration of the self and the world. And that is okay by me.