Have you noticed how a lot of musicians have been covering one eye when posing for photos? Or making some kind of triangle with their hands? Or both? And what’s up with all the occult imagery in videos for Jay Z’s “On to the Next One” and Kanye’s “Power”? Is it just because it looks cool and mysterious?
The conspiracy-minded say there’s something more sinister to it. This is evidence, they say, of a vast, nefarious secret society—the Illuminati—and its plan to institute a New World Order.
Like all of the best conspiracy theories, this one begins with an acorn of truth and ends up in a forest of speculation.
There really was a secret society called the Illuminati, and it really did aspire to transform society by surreptitiously placing its members in positions of influence. The group was formed in 1776 by a young Bavarian professor named Adam Weishaupt. Historian John Roberts described Weishaupt as equal parts lofty idealist and petty narcissist. On one hand, Weishaupt really did want to bring about a less religious, more egalitarian, rational society. On the other, he also really wanted to be head honcho of a spooky secret boy’s club. His Illuminati was designed to scratch both itches. He developed a convoluted hierarchy for his Order, gave recruits codenames (taking Spartacus for himself), and had them infiltrate local branches of the Freemasons and pick off their members.
Over nine years, the Illuminati grew to a few hundred members. But Weishaupt’s personality rubbed some members the wrong way, and they spilled the beans. Rumors about the secret society spread, getting embellished along the way into ever more sordid allegations. By the mid-1780s it had caught the attention of the Bavarian government, which put an end to Weishaupt’s fun by banning Illuminati activity under penalty of death. Weishaupt fled and gave up the secret shenanigans; there’s no evidence that he or anyone else tried to keep the organization going.
That likely would have been the last anyone heard of the Illuminati, if not for the French Revolution, which kicked off a few years later. Searching for an explanation for the unprecedented social upheavals taking place around them, some European authors suggested the Illuminati was pulling the strings. Sensational theories spread around Europe and America alleging that the Illuminati was still operating in secret, more powerful than ever, and that it aimed to overthrow all the governments of Europe.
How did the Illuminati go from orchestrating revolutions to promoting pop stars? The panic of the late 18th century died down quickly. For almost 200 years, the Illuminati took a back seat in conspiracists’ imaginations to other groups like Freemasons, Jews, Catholics, communists, business tycoons, and government bureaucrats.
Until it was revived by mid-’90s hip-hop.
“Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body / Secret society trying to keep they eye on me,” rapped Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, in a 1995 remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya.” The same year, “Cell Therapy” by Goodie Mob painted a bleak picture of what society will look like under the coming New World Order, invoking conspiracy tropes like martial law, concentration camps, and black helicopters: “Time is getting shorter / If we don’t get prepared, people, it’s gonna be a slaughter.” Also released in 1995, “We Can’t Win” by AZ begins with a monologue explaining how society is really structured: “This world is ruled and controlled by societies that exist within societies, that exist within societies, you understand? These secret societies is maneuvering within society to control society. That’s why society is outta control. Thirty-third and one third, I heard, the Illuminated ones.”
Over the next year or so, Ras Kass, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre all mentioned the Illuminati or the New World Order. Canibus went even further down the rabbit hole with his 1998 single “Channel Zero,” which begins by claiming the government is covering up visits by super-intelligent aliens, and explains that Roswell, cattle mutilations, and even astronomer Carl Sagan were part of the plot.
After a while, hip-hop’s paranoia turned in on itself. Rumors emerged suggesting that certain artists might be part of the conspiracy. The first to come under suspicion was Jay Z. His immense success, the conspiracists theorized, couldn’t have been earned through talent, hard work, or luck. He must have sold his soul to the Illuminati. One of the first and most vocal proponents of this theory was none other than Prodigy. Jay had sampled Prodigy’s line about the Illuminati on “D’Evils” from his 1996 debut album. But by 2008, Prodigy was convinced. In a letter penned from prison, he accused Jay Z himself of being a puppet—wittingly or unwittingly—of the Illuminati, writing “J.Z. conceals the truth from the black community and the world and promotes the lifestyle of the beast instead.”
The accusations spread far and wide, first to Kanye West and Rihanna when they appeared in the video for “Run This Town” with Jay—which had a distinctly spooky secret-society vibe, to be fair—and then to Nas, J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Nikki Minaj, and virtually every major hip-hop figure. The rumors have transcended genre—Lady Gaga, Madonna, Bob Dylan, and Justin Bieber are all alleged to be card-carrying members of the Illuminati. YouTube is flooded with videos deconstructing lyrics, music videos, and interviews looking for hidden meaning, some with view-counts in the millions.
Most hip-hop artists don’t buy into the Illuminati theories, of course. Tupac Shakur was an early critic. He titled an album Killuminati, released posthumously in 1996, explaining in an interview recorded shortly before his death that “I’m putting the ‘K’ because I’m killin’ that shit.” Referring to people who claim to know the truth about the Illuminati, Tupac asks rhetorically, “How did he know? How’d it leak to him? Who told him? Who told him? The pope? Who? ’Cause they like, ‘the pope’ and ‘the money.’ Aw c’mon man, get the fuck outta here.”
Peak Illuminati was achieved in 2011, and as Genius.com’s Rap Stats feature attests, the trend hasn’t let up. Virtually every major hip-hop star has dropped an Illuminati reference into their music—mostly to deny their membership and mock the rumors. In his 2010 track “Gasoline,” for example, Meek Mill referenced the influential Prodigy line, joking “Illuminati wanted my mind, soul, and body / They ask me would I trade it for all Maserati / I told him ‘no,’ he said 100 million, I said ‘probably.’”
Other artists see the conspiracy theories as pointless—or worse, a misdirection. Talib Kweli’s 2013 single “The Wormhole” artfully dissects the history, philosophy, psychology, and politics of Illuminati conspiracy theories, ending with a plea to examine the real sources of racial inequality: “Of course there are forces against you and that’s a fact / Don’t get caught in the distraction, it’s bigger than any rapper.” Talking about his 2011 track “Illuminati,” Wise Intelligent explained in an interview with HipHopDX.com that “My point was to bring the Illuminati out of the boogieman space. It’s not a boogieman; it’s legislators that are right now passing legislation that disenfranchises so many people.”
Kanye West addressed the idea in an interview with Paper magazine. “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. We don’t run anything; we’re celebrities. We’re the face of brands. We have to compromise what we say in lyrics so we don’t lose money on a contract.”
It might seem strange that hip-hop would give credence to Illuminati theories—especially given that the other main purveyors of New World Order doom-saying tend to be found on the political far-right (the idea of the New World Order gained prominence in the early ’90s when George H. W. Bush used the term in a speech about restructuring global politics in the wake of the Cold War. Some anti-government survivalists took it as a thinly veiled announcement of a coming totalitarian world-government, and some fundamentalist Christians saw it as a harbinger of the apocalypse).
But it’s not surprising that ideas about conspiracies would make their way into hip-hop. As Questlove of The Roots explained in an essay for Vulture, hip-hop “originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range.” The music offered a platform to give voice to issues that were largely ignored by the mainstream media. As Chuck D of Public Enemy put it, “Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective of what exists and what black life is about.” From Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 groundbreaking single “The Message” onward, there has been a strain of hip-hop that addresses issues like drug use, poverty, violence, and institutionalized racism.
And as activist Marc Lamont Hill put it, one way to rationalize being disenfranchised is to say “They [the powerful] don’t play fair. The game is rigged.” From allegations that AIDS was created by the government to the idea that certain brands of cigarettes, soda, and fast food are laced with additives designed to sterilize black men, conspiracy theories have long circulated within black communities. Given the history of very real institutional racism in the U.S.—including covert surveillance of civil-rights leaders, the infamous Tuskegee Study, and tensions over policing and the criminal justice system—it’s not hard to see why these ideas would resonate.
Cornell University Prof. Travis Gosa pointed out in a 2011 paper (PDF) that even if these conspiracy theories aren’t true, they can be rhetorically useful. They give voice—if in a deliberately hyperbolic way—to legitimate concerns about racial inequality. And they are provocative by design: The idea that the Illuminati is manipulating the music industry conveys the message that listeners shouldn’t be unreflective consumers of pop culture and shouldn’t passively accept dominant narratives and expert wisdom.
Of course, while music might be intended to inform or incite, it is also designed to entertain. And as a glance at bestsellers lists can attest, conspiracy sells. The search for hidden meaning and coded symbols adds another level on which a product can be enjoyed. Which might explain why Jay Z keeps putting occult references in his songs and videos, even while he explicitly denies being part of the Illuminati. “Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head,” Jay wrote in his 2010 book Decoded. And what better way to plant dissonance than canny use of subversive imagery. Hip-hop was predicated on sampling and remixing older ideas into something new and relevant, and Illuminati myths and symbols can be sampled the same way a drumbeat can.
Then again, there might be a more pragmatic reason why hip-hop latched on to the idea of the Illuminati. As Rakaa Iriscience of the trio Dilated Peoples pointed out in a 2014 interview with Hiphopdx.com, “There were a lot of organizations that existed. That one [the Illuminati] just happened to rhyme with body, party, naughty and a lot of other things. It sounds cooler than some of the other ones do.” Bandmate DJ Babu agreed: “Yeah, Templars doesn’t sound cool. Illuminati is way tighter.”
Rob Brotherton is the author of the new book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories published by Bloomsbury.