It was the beginning of an entirely new school of thought in hip-hop, one as intelligent and informed as it was suspicious and paranoid. Prodigy was referring to the Illuminati conspiracy theory: the idea that there’s a network of shadowy, powerful individuals bent on controlling society by rebuilding it as a “New World Order” under a totalitarian worldwide government. Around the same time, CeeLo Green made reference to it on “Cell Therapy,” claiming, “Traces of the New World Order/Time is getting shorter if we don’t get prepared/People it’s gon’ be a slaughter.” Mentions of the Illuminati in hip-hop quickly spiked from there: Jay Z sampled Prodigy’s line from “I Shot Ya” for “D’Evils” on his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt, sparking rumors that persist to this day that he is associated with the organization; U-God encouraged listeners to “get your shit together before the fuckin’ Illuminati hit” in 1997 on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Impossible.”Rap’s Illuminati talk wasn’t just a one-time fad, however. The fervor died down a bit, right up until 2008, when Prodigy published an open letter he’d written in jail to URB magazine, alleging that his old rival Jay Z “promotes the lifestyle of the beast.” Hip-hop culture—the innovator of so many popular fashions, styles, and sounds—rarely sees trends with such extended lifelines. And as usual, this trend among rappers has crossed over to pop culture in a big way.
Today, the Illuminati theory is as relevant as ever, often used as a way to justify the continued success of artists—Jay Z, Beyoncé, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Kanye West—who are accused of being puppets of this mysterious web of faceless figureheads. There’s an endless stream of books, podcasts, and blogs examining the Illuminati’s use of media and entertainment to carry out its agenda, and there are innumerable YouTube videos about the Illuminati with millions of views. The Illuminati is always somehow part of the conversation when a celebrity like Whitney Houston or, more recently, Prince passes away prematurely. Its signifiers—triangles, covered eyes, devil’s horns—are consistently evoked in music videos and press photos.
What’s so perplexing about the Illuminati theory and its continued life is that it’s just that: a theory. Despite the term’s prominence in hip-hop and pop culture, there is no proof that the Illuminati still exists, and not a single artist has admitted to being affiliated with it. Then why, for more than two decades, has the existence of an unconfirmed secret society been consistently connected to the music industry? Why do the rumors refuse to go away?
Secret societies have existed for centuries, and at one point, the Illuminati was real. In 1776, a German professor named Adam Weishaupt founded the Bavarian Illuminati, also known as the Order of the Illuminati, as a response to the Roman Catholic Church’s power over philosophical and scientific thought. Weishaupt aimed to recruit from within the Freemasons—a secret society that still openly exists today—to disseminate ideas of the Enlightenment. Over the course of the next decade or so he accrued an estimated 2,500 members, according to Michael Barkin’s A Culture of Conspiracy.
Though the Bavarian Illuminati disbanded by 1787 and seemingly remained inactive in the centuries that followed, rumors of its existence continued into the 20th century. They surged when President George H.W. Bush, in a 1991 speech marking the end of the Cold War, mentioned forming a “New World Order.” Some interpreted the speech as a sign that the Illuminati had been reconstituted, or had never left.
It makes sense that hip-hop would gravitate toward such a conspiracy theory. The black community has plenty of reasons to be distrustful of the government; many so-called conspiracies have, in time, turned out to be true. For example, in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which involved 399 black men with syphilis. The “study” lasted 40 years before a special panel intervened — the afflicted men were never informed that they had syphilis and were never given penicillin. A $10 million out-of-court settlement followed in 1974. In another infamous incident, the Church Committee, a U.S. senate commission, confirmed that the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiative carried out illegal operations to interfere with, spy on and systematically disrupt the Black Panthers and many Civil Rights organizations.
Rob Brotherton, an adjunct assistant professor at Barnard College and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, explains that these real-life government conspiracies targeting black people planted the seeds for Illuminati theory’s popularity today. “Hip-hop served as this [soapbox] for people to talk about issues that were relevant to them, things like discrimination, poverty, the criminal justice system, which are often seemingly slanted against African-Americans,” says Brotherton, who chooses to be “professionally agnostic” about his belief in the Illuminati. “It’s a short leap to go from noticing some kind of injustice to thinking about whether there’s something behind it. Hip-hop was just a good candidate to revive this myth.”
“IT’S A SHORT LEAP TO GO FROM NOTICING SOME KIND OF INJUSTICE TO THINKING ABOUT WHETHER THERE’S SOMETHING BEHIND IT.” —ROB BROTHERTON
But why would the Illuminati target hip-hop, as rappers like Prodigy claim? The theory goes that the Illuminati recruits musicians as puppets in an attempt to influence the masses by sending hidden messages through their work. Prodigy, who started studying conspiracy theories as a high school freshman in 1989, explains that this powerful group of individuals looks to entertainment because it’s the easiest way to tap into the public’s individual energies and control them. “It’s not just about hip-hop—it’s about the entire music industry,” he says. “They’re fucking with people’s senses, their sexual energies, mental energies. They know how to manipulate the chakras in your body and set them shits off, turn them on and turn them off. If you study that type of stuff, metaphysics and all that stuff, you’ll see it’s very real.”Prodigy, now 41, however, is quick to dissociate the term “Illuminati” from modern-day networks of secretive elites, which could go by any name but uphold similar maleficent beliefs. He says it extends beyond any singular group—there are many entities conspiring to manipulate the masses for their own benefit. “It’s not all the Illuminati doing this,” he continues. “It’s a company trying to make a few millions of dollars, controlling people’s senses, emotions, and shit like that. It’s definitely happening. It’s happening in hip-hop. It might not be as deep as people think. Sometimes, the record company [is] driving sales up, making videos more sexual. They’re just trying to make a dollar. Or sometimes, it could be deep as you think. You never know. But you can’t put everything in the same box. You’ve got to really know how to separate facts from theory and fiction. You can’t just blame everything on the fucking Illuminati.”
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Identifying Illuminati symbols is the nuts and bolts of conspiracy theorists. They claim that puppets of the Illuminati tend to evoke a handful of recurring poses and images, such as the Eye of Horus, the Egyptian symbol for the all-seeing eye (featured in Katy Perry’s video for “Dark Horse,” set in ancient Egypt). Another go-to is the pyramid: In gematria, an Assyro-Babylonian-Greek code tied to Judaism, its three sides represent the spirit realm (Jay Z throwing up his signature Roc sign, a diamond made with your hands, is one of theorists’ favorites). Then there’s the number of the beast, which refers to 666, represented by making an “OK” symbol with your hand (Beyoncé does this reference to her hometown of Houston). And don’t forget devil horns, in which you make a clenched fist and then stick out your index and pinky fingers (both Eminem and Barack Obama have been photographed making this gesture).
The deeper you look, the more you’ll find. You could go so far as to decode Blue Ivy’s name—some believe it’s an acronym for “Born Living Under Evil, Illuminati’s Very Youngest”—and that wouldn’t be the most outlandish theory. “It’s so easy to do, and it’s satisfying when you can find some symbol that seems to be hidden away,” explains Brotherton. In psychology, this is referred to as “confirmation bias.” “Once you start looking for it, it’s incredibly easy to find, especially when the supposed symbols are fairly generic. Things like evil eyes or covered eyes, a circle around the eye, pyramids—they’re everywhere. Once we find them, it’s easy to incorporate them into the belief system to say, ‘Look, I’ve found a plot.’”
Lecrae, an independent rapper who has won two Grammys and scored a Billboard 200 chart-topper with his 2014 album Anomaly, is just one of many MCs and singers who has been accused of invoking Illuminati imagery in his videos. It happened to him twice, after triangles appeared in his visuals for singles “Manolo” and “Sideways.”
“I can’t smile without somebody claiming it’s symbolic, so it doesn’t matter what I do at this point in time,” he says with a laugh. “I think about it after the fact. Like, here we go, there’s a triangle behind me. But it’s just shapes. That means every trigonometry class is the Illuminati. Every optometrist that makes you cover your eye when you go for an eye exam is Illuminati. Some of this stuff is outlandish to me.”
But, he continues, “I believe in secret societies. I joined a fraternity. There are all sorts of secret connections and relationships that go on. I just think there are people in power, and people in power can make decisions.”
Some theorists see specific uses of imagery as too spot-on to be coincidental. In his book, Sacrifice: Magic Behind the Mic, a deep dive into hip-hop’s connection to the Illuminati that investigates blood sacrifices, Isaac Weishaupt (a pseudonym inspired by the original Illuminati founder) refers to the Bohemian Grove, a California campground that hosts powerful and affluent men each year and boasts alumni like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Its mascot is a representation of the ancient Greek deity Athena: an owl, the exact one that Drake uses as his logo for his label OVO Sound. At each Grove gathering, the men perform a ritual called the Cremation of Care, a mock sacrifice to a statue of the owl. Illuminati conspiracists put this organization in the crosshairs for idolatry and Satanism.
“IT’S THE EXACT SAME LOGO OF THIS OWL THAT DRAKE BE USING. THAT’S KIND OF STRANGE TO ME. WHY HE TAKE THAT OWL, THE EXACT SAME ONE, THE EXACT SAME LOGO?” —PRODIGY
“They claim it’s a mock sacrifice or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of fuckery going on over there,” Prodigy says of Bohemia Grove. “It’s the exact same logo of this owl that this motherfucker Drake be using. That’s kind of strange to me. Why he take that owl, the exact same one, the exact same logo? I’m not saying Drake is a part of something. All I’m saying is, you want to know some weird fucking shit? Check that shit out. That whole group of people with the owl shit and just doing all this fuck shit in this world, they’re the worst people on the face of the planet. Fuck all of them and anybody that’s down with them. People need to make a petition to find out what the fuck [Drake] is using that owl for.”
But for every allegation of Illuminati, there’s a rapper or musician disavowing the rumors. Beyoncé recently shut the conspiracy theorists down on “Formation,” sneering, “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.” In 2011, Kanye addressed rumors that he was an Illuminati puppet during a freestyle at New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club. “A black man interested in art, speaking from the heart and playing my part/And all this Illuminati talk, like my first single wasn’t ‘Jesus Walks,’” he rapped.
It wasn’t the last time he addressed the conspiratorial chatter. “I heard a comment—a joke—about the Tidal press conference being an Illuminati moment,” he wrote in a Paper magazine cover story, referring to the string of A-list artists who gathered to launch the streaming service in March 2015. “If there was actually an Illuminati, it would be more like the energy companies. Not celebrities that gave their life to music and who are pinpointed as decoys for people who really run the world. I’m tired of people pinpointing musicians as the Illuminati. That’s ridiculous…. Fuck all of this sensationalism. We gave you our lives. We gave you our hearts. We gave you our opinions!”
Some artists play into the conspiracies, possibly to further a sense of mystique. In the making-the-video clip for the heavily Illuminati-imaged visuals for “Run This Town,” Jay Z was spotted wearing a sweatshirt brandishing the phrase “Do What Thou Wilt,” the official dictum of the Ordo Templi Orientis and Aleister Crowley, an occultist who founded the philosophical religion Thelema and believed himself to be a prophet at the turn of the 20th century.
The Illuminati’s continued existence will probably never be proven or disproven. But the fact that the rumors refuse to die points to a sense that people feel increasingly powerless in the face of rapid societal change, increasing inequality and continued injustices against minorities and poor people. It’s human nature to find a scapegoat for your problems, especially when they seem so insurmountable. If it isn’t the Illuminati behind it all, it’s certainly somebody.
“It doesn’t even matter who they are,” says Prodigy. “These people are so powerful we don’t know who the fuck they are. They’ll never let their identity be known. Money means nothing to them. It’s about power and control. It’s that old fight for your soul, against good versus evil. It’s a power trip thing. They want power and they feed off of power. If you do the research, you’ll see that something is happening. Somebody is in control of it.”
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