I’m not sure if Eminem has yet managed to escape the grasp of the Illuminati—the secret society of string pullers whose ranks he joined years ago in exchange for wealth, fame, and power—but I know he’s been trying very hard. Numerous people online tell me so. There is, for starters, a Yahoo Answers page that poses the question “Is Eminem trying to break free from the Illuminati?” and offers spirited excavation and analysis of the hidden anti-Illuminati messages Eminem embedded in his song “Not Afraid.” There is a four-page message-board thread titled “Is Eminem an Illuminati slave?” A YouTube video called “Eminem vs. Illuminati” explains, via solemn text and creepy music, that when the Detroit M.C. titled a song “Cinderella Man,” it was not because the redemptive plot of the 2005 Ron Howard film Cinderella Man echoes Eminem’s own comeback from drug addiction, but rather because, like Cinderella with her wicked stepsisters, Eminem was “forced to do the chores for the Illuminati by sending subliminal messages through his music.” Ignore any comment-section sheep who bah that this is ridiculous: When that video ends, the hunt for truth has only just begun. From a list of suggested related videos, you can choose “Eminem: His illuminati sacrifice Part 1”; “Eminem Fights Back Against The illuminati”; “Eminem against illuminati 2011!”; “Eminem My Darling Illuminati” and on and on. Some of the Eminem/Illuminati videos have been viewed 5,000 times. Others, close to 300,000.
Welcome to the world of pop-music trutherism, a bustling, grassroots exposé industry in which Eminem is one of many performers called out by anonymous instigators for Illuminist sympathies. The best conspiracy theories go all the way to the top, and this one goes all the way to the top of the charts. Jay-Z? An “Illuminati puppet.” Lady Gaga? An “Illuminati whore.” Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, Rihanna—Illuminati agents all. (Michael Jackson and 2Pac, it turns out, were victims of Illuminati-ordered assassination.) The Illuminati investigation unfolds sloppily but vigorously across countless sites, from YouTube to Twitter to fan discussion boards to dedicated shops like VigilantCitizen.com. The trained eye can spot Illuminati sartorial choices, like goat-themed jewelry and T-shirts, worn in ostensible tribute to Baphomet, a horned pagan deity who intrigued Aleister Crowley. There is Illuminati semaphore, such as framing one’s eye with the palms tipped together in a pyramid shape or otherwise isolating an eye to evoke the “all-seeing eye” on the back of a dollar bill, an image with Masonic origins. There are Illuminati lyrics, like Eminem’s mention of a “New World Order” on “Lose Yourself” or the references he and Jay-Z have made, separately, to a mysterious, powerful figure they call the “Rain Man” (the theorists are apparently unfamiliar with Dustin Hoffman’s IMDb page).
Spend some time sifting through this stuff and your eyes will roll so far back into your skull you’ll look like you’ve been possessed by Baphomet. The theorists’ “revelations” are presented, variously, in portentous tones and with exclamation-point-riddled urgency: The Illuminati, intent on global domination, treat pop music as a powerful mind-control weapon, weaving secret messages and dark imagery into hits and videos; there is much inveighing that we “wake up” to the “brainwashing.” The Illuminati truthers make 9/11 truthers seem as rigorous and compelling as Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate. The evidence they haul out boils down to little more than far-fetched, oblivious misreads (i.e. Eminem and Cinderella), a stunning allergy to the possibility of metaphor (Lil Wayne rapped that he sold his soul to the devil—smoking gun!), and a hysterical attitude toward occult imagery befitting Ned Flanders. With so many voices chiming in, and with so many of them doing so anonymously, it’s hard to say which of the “theorists” are just having a laugh, but the most prominent—like Vigilant Citizen or the Philadelphia morning-radio host Miss Jones, who grilled 50 Cent at some length about secret-society infiltration in hip-hop—communicate total earnestness.
The Illuminati-in-pop meme has tremendous traction. References to the secret society began popping up in hip-hop songs back in the early ’90s, but with the rise of broadband Internet, Illuminati conspiracies have enjoyed the same steroidal super-boost as pornography and cat photography. The theorists occupy music’s margins, and yet their message has splashed into mainstream waters. In late 2009, a CNN reporter saw fit to ask Lady Gaga to address the Illuminati rumors (she balked at the question). Rihanna mockingly acknowledged accusations of Illuminati entanglement in her “S&M” video. (Fake headlines flash onscreen describing her as a “Princess of the Illuminati.”) And on a 2011 song with Rick Ross (who may also be under Illuminati control), Jay-Z dedicated a verse to denying his membership in the Freemasons: “I said I was amazing, not that I’m a Mason.”
Who are the Illuminati, and why are so many pop-music observers obsessed with them? The Illuminati were an actual group, founded in Bavaria in the late 18th century by a philosopher and law professor named Adam Weishaupt. In The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, the historian Frederick C. Beiser describes the Illuminati as “a secret society devoted to the cause of political reform and Aufklärung”— the German Enlightenment. In Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, the author Glen Alexander Magee notes that the group was marked by its “opposition to traditional religion, superstition, and feudalism” and its “advocacy of scientific rationalism and the rights of man.” It is hard to say precisely why the Illuminati became wedded in the paranoid mind with devil worship, but seeming reasons include Weishaupt’s anticlerical streak and a popular “history” of Freemasonry written in the late 19th century by Frenchman Léo Taxil, who purported to expose Masons’ Satanic rituals. (Taxil later revealed that his “journalism” was actually a satirical hoax.) The melding of secret societies and occultism persists today, of course, in pop-cultural representations of creepy, chamber-congregating Skull and Bones members or masked, orgy-prone captains of industry in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Weishaupt’s Illuminati ran afoul of Bavarian Elector Karl Theodor, who caught the seditious wind and issued a decree in 1784, Magee writes, “commanding them to disband.” Born as a reformist bogeyman opposed to, and ultimately snuffed out by, entrenched power, the Illuminati went under in 1787, but it has lived on in the conservative imagination. In a 1995 New Yorker article about the rise of conspiracy theories in America, Michael Kelly mentions the Illuminati as major phantasms in the so-called New World Order theory, the basics of which were laid out in, among other places, the John Birch Society’s 1958 Blue Book. (The Order of the Illuminati figures centrally into the Rev. Pat Robertson’s 1991 book, The New World Order, too.) In the New World Order theory, Kelly writes, the Illuminati are just one link in the nefarious chain of “secret and semisecret societies arcing across time and cultures” from “early-Christian-era agnostics,” through the Freemasons, to “twentieth century schemers.” The perceived goal of shadow puppeteers such as the Illuminati is “to destroy the established Christian order of Western nations and replace it with an atheistic, socialistic global government.”
If that last sentence gets your Tea Party bells ringing, it should—and if you thought people on the Internet wasted far too much energy sussing out Eminem’s secret-society affiliations, do a search for “Obama” plus “Illuminati.” There is a strong religious-right flavor to much of the talk of pop-Illuminism, a barely concealed fear that Lady Gaga and Jay-Z are agents of the Antichrist, here to subjugate the masses and turn “our” children homosexual and/or black. Illuminati suspicions attach, in some degree, to virtually every music star—Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, even Celine Dion! Nevertheless, it seems more than mere happenstance that Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are the biggest targets: a politically outspoken, wildly rich black charmer and a gender-bending, pro-gay weirdo. The pop-Illuminati hunt is a throwback to the time when parent groups would scan the music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath for hidden occultist mojo, but given a Fox News-era culture-war update.
In a counterintuitive twist, however, Illuminati paranoia turns out to grip not just those on the far right who fear a godless/black/gay assault, but also those at the other end of the political spectrum. On the (black) far left, abiding fears of control and co-optation by the (white) power structure find voice via Illuminati theories. (Michael Kelly used the term “fusion paranoia” to describe this strange left-right overlap.) Mobb Deep’s Prodigy has been hip-hop’s most outspoken critic of Illuminati shenanigans since he rapped “Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body/ Secret society, tryina keep they eye on me,” in 1995; the video for his 2008 song “Illuminati” depicts a dystopian nightmare of omnipresent surveillance and national I.D. cards. Despite blog posts he’s written about secret-elite rituals in which babies are burned sacrificially, Prodigy distances himself from the frivolous fringe looking for Illuminati on the Billboard Hot 100: “Jay-Z’s a fucking crumb compared to these niggas,” he said in an April interview, dismissing the chatter about Illuminati pop stars as “dumb.” Prodigy locates his anti-Illuminism within greater traditions of black agitation (his eyes were opened, he says, by the writings of the radical Dwight “Dr.” York) and social responsibility: “I was doing bullshit, buying mad diamonds … promoting the wrong type of lifestyle, but I snapped out of that shit, got myself together, and refocused on what this shit is supposed to be: Like, what are you trying to promote to the people?” Prodigy has spoken of his preference for Ron Paul over Barack Obama, and he is aligned in this regard with other rap gadflies like KRS-One and Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, both of whom appear in the film The Obama Deception, casting the president as a minion of the New World Order.
The New Yorker’s David Remnick observed in his 2005 piece about Katrina conspiracy theories that they belonged to a long history of such theories (AIDS as weapon of a CIA-orchestrated genocide; Tropical Fantasy sodas as tool of a KKK sterilization plot; etc.). These theories, he wrote, represent “counter-narratives” that indicate and express, however fancifully, the very fraught place that blacks still occupy in American society, despite popular narratives of social progress, the growing black middle-class, and so on.
In a similar way, Illuminati paranoia within rap circles counters and deflates hip-hop’s celebratory master narrative of outsize black success; the Illuminati theory, in this iteration, is symptomatic of broader anger and alienation. The only way Jay-Z, or any black man, could become so successful in America, the thinking goes, would be to capitulate to, and become a pawn of, the people who have always called the shots. When Kanye West raps, on “Power,” “In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen,” he makes an implicit complaint about the limits of black mobility. Ironically, some pop truthers took the line, along with the song’s symbol-rich video, as a confession of Illuminati affiliation.
West has addressed the Illuminati rumors, teasingly, on Twitter. “Is illuminati and devil worshipping like the same thing … do they have a social network that celebs can sign up for?” he tweeted, adding, “Question… can you devil worship on the new iphone??? LOL!!!” West’s jokes point to one glaring reason why the pop-Illuminati theory has proven so catchy: It’s great fun to turn the act of listening to pop into a symbolism Easter-egg hunt worthy of The DaVinci Code. And why can’t West and Jay-Z have some fun in return? West doubtless knew that the “Eye of Horus” was central to Illuminati lore when he commissioned a gigantic Horus necklace. Jay-Z must have been aware that flashing the image of a Baphomet-ish skull in the “On to the Next One” video would titillate theorists. Recently, West has taken to wearing a variety of garments featuring Rottweiler designs. Spotting the same dogs in the artwork for the Watch the Throne single “H.A.M.,” one Illuminati truther connected them, naturally, to “Hades’ hellhounds.” The rottweilers are, it happens, a recurring motif in the current Givenchy line, in which Rottweiler T-shirts sell for $265. Illuminati members, one hopes, get a discount.