Why All the Silly Devil Talk Should be Taken Seriously

MC Hammer recently released a video “Better Run Run” [see below] where he insinuates that Jay-Z worships the devil.

But this is more than just regular rap beef, one artist’s put-down of another. If you know where to look, the internet is awash in conspiracy theories about pop culture icons (Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Britney Spears, etc.) and their affiliations with evil. The usual suspects, a crowd of virtual vigilantes, include The Vigilant Citizen, Marco Ponce, G. Craig Lewis, and Professor Griff.

If we look at this through the lenses of race, gender, and class identity in the U.S., we begin to see that it is no accident that talented, powerful, popular, and rich African American male rappers, along with female artists, are being targeted by these claims. There is no better way to temper black men’s influence on tween and teen audiences, for example, than by claiming they are evil. (MC Hammer is himself black, but he seems happy to undermine a fellow artist by perpetuating the stereotype that successful black men are associated with the devil.)

Claims about female popular culture superstars and the occult are equally disturbing. Historically, autonomous women who threatened patriarchal power were labeled witches—women who had sex with the devil in exchange for power and therefore had to be executed. Today’s claims about female popular culture icons eerily resurrect similar arguments.

In an unsurprising affirmation of the lascivious black woman stereotype, the devil (in this parallel paranoid universe) most frequently possesses black divas like Beyoncé and Rihanna through sex acts. Ponce declared Lady Gaga “the queen witch of the industry right now.” He mused, “I always think to myself like I wonder what she’s done—human sacrifice, blood rituals, orgies, you know? I wonder what she’s gone through to get where she’s at?” Lady Gaga cannot be a talented platinum-album-selling, award-winning woman who achieved a mass international following through dedication and hard work. Instead, she is a witch. [See also: “Lady Gaga’s Secret Religion.”]

Finally, popular culture and the occult associations are a class issue. Jay-Z and Beyonce are a top-earning couple who made $122 million between June 2008 and June 2009. If they keep doing what they’re doing, their great-grandchildren will have old money one day—money that’s passed down through generations. (Jay-Z’s enterprise is named Roc nation in a nod to the Rothschilds and Rockefellers.) It could certainly be said that many of these upwardly mobile rap stars pose a direct threat to the color of wealth in our society.

Furthermore, one in seven Americans is currently living in poverty. When people are poor, they want to know how the other half (or upper one percent as the case may be) stays so rich. Hip hop artists known for their bling are a popular target. If poorer people begin to believe that the rich are only rich because they made a deal with the devil, they won’t feel so badly about being poor—at least they still have their morals.

Conspiracy theories ebb and flow in waves associated with how confident people feel about their social environments. When times are hard and unemployment rates are high, individuals get creative in where they look for explanations. Joshua Gunn, author of Modern Occult Rhetoric explains, “Whenever there’s a sense of social anomie and crisis these things do tend to flare up.” He also noted that “white guys who feel disempowered in some way” are most likely to be conspiracy theorists.

Another clue that many of these claims are catch-all conspiracy theories is the conflation of disparate vocabularies. Occult (a word which simply means secret, or hidden) is not a term necessarily linked to evil. The negative connotation has been added over time. The claimants also conflate masonry, Egyptian mythology, Satanism, and the Illuminati, as if they were all the same.

Accusations linking popular culture artists with the occult were raised during the social upheaval of the ’60s and the ’80s. During those times, rock music and heavy metal were the targets, respectively. Those artists were primarily white men. But because white men are represented so positively in other cultural arenas, no one went on to surmise that white men, as a group, were under satanic influence. For black men, it’s a different story.

The latent racism is further perpetuated by a lack of contemporary exposés about white men who invite affiliations with evil. Eminem’s “My Darling” is a conversation with the devil, yet neither Vigilant nor Ponce have written about him. Hip hop’s quintessential model of white-boy angst is simply “frustrated,” whereas African Americans are demonic.

Adam Lambert is the only white male artist maligned by someone like Ponce, but as “the first openly gay mainstream popular artist to launch a career on a major label in America” his sexual orientation makes him an easy exemplar of deviance.

The selective nature of these vitriolic assertions reflects social anxieties. The perceived precarious position of Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy requires its adherents to protect their identity by being intolerant of others. A recent NAACP report found similar resistance to diversity and similar conspiracy claims in their survey of Tea Party nationalism.

Ostracizing undesirables (i.e. rich black men and independent, vocal women) is not inconsistent with the Tea Party’s desire to take back our country. The important unspoken questions are: who are we and take back our country from whom?

These bizarre claims based on free-association analyses of lyrics, videos, and public appearances of popular culture icons reveal fears about difference and a desire for homogeneity that is simply impossible. If individuals were to act on the rabid intolerance driving these assertions, conditions would be ripe for a twenty-first century witch hunt.

And that would be truly horrifying.