Why Hip-Hop Loves Conspiracy Theories
The rapper B.o.B. has announced he's convinced the world is flat. But questioning everything you've been told is part of the very fabric of hip-hop itself.
Over the past week or so, Atlanta rapper B.o.B.—the guy responsible for such pop-rap hits as "Nothin' on You," "Airplanes," and more recently, guest verses on T-Pain's "Up Down" and Ty Dolla $ign's "Paranoid"—made a splash on Twitter after presenting a bunch of evidence arguing that the world was flat. The comments went viral, culminating with a back-and-forth between the rapper and renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tried to convince the rapper that the world was, in fact, round. Yesterday, B.o.B. dropped a diss track against Tyson.
His obsession with the flat-earth theory aside, B.o.B.'s career has taken something of a left turn in the past couple of months. He's released two free EPs titled WATER and FIRE (False Idols Ruin Egos), both of which showcase a bizarre intersection of the rapper's ear for pop hooks and his newfound skepticism for the entire canon of human reason.
On WATER's "Uncomfortable," he completes the triple Salchow of paranoia: claiming to have woken up from the Matrix, shit-talking Charles Darwin for being a Mason, and topping it off by claiming NASA is just showing us CGI pictures of stars. On "The Crazies!!!," he utters the double entendre, "That jet fuel gon' melt them steel beams, girl."
As for FIRE, well, there's a track called "False Flag," and that should tell you all you need to know about that. It's strange and utterly fascinating music, some ungodly combination of the B.o.B. of old and extremist rhetoric straight from a Pharoahe Monch record, custom-made for the nonexistent Woke Wednesdays night at Atlanta's Magic City strip club.
Still, this is part of a long and rich tradition of rappers espousing off-kilter views about the world around us. Before B.o.B., there was Chris Brown tweeting that the government was using Ebola as a way to control the population; Chingy's Instagram; and Lil Wayne's "Georgia Bush," which accused the government of exploding the levees around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Before that, Prodigy of Mobb Deep chopped it up with Alex Jones to drop science about the Illuminati. And while we're on that subject, let's not forget the ever-frequent suggestions that Jay Z is himself a member of the Illuminati.
That's not even to mention the various rumors swirling around the premature deaths of icons such as Tupac, Biggie, Pimp C, Eazy-E, and Aaliyah, which seem to reach higher and higher levels of unreality each year. Or the belief that US President Ronald Reagan introduced crack and AIDS to the black community, a theory has been repeated throughout hip-hop at such a steady clip that it has ceased to be conspiracy, and has entered into the realm of reasonable opinion.
For some, kooky ideas like these are something of a charming quirk of the genre. "They're a part of hip-hop," said the rapper, producer, and writer J-Zone, who documented his decades of experience as an outsider in hip-hop's inside lane in his book Root for the Villain. "It's always been an art form where people are trying to test and second-guess you. I think anything that sparks debate is hip-hop, no matter how far-fetched."
"Still," J-Zone said, "it gets to the point where it gets ridiculous."
"People I knew personally," said Houston rap legend Bun B, were convinced that "the year 1995 was supposed to symbolize a major revolution in the world. That kind of talk came around again with Y2K." And due to false death rumors, Bun joked, "hip-hop's killed Too $hort probably eight times."
Bun B, meanwhile, has been at the center of a few hip-hop bizarre theories himself. "There was a notion that J. Prince and I killed Pimp C to get rich," he told me. "I'm not rich," he added. "And what the fuck was I supposed to gain from killing Pimp C?"
Others have accused Bun B of being a member of the Illuminati. "I'm not in the Illuminati," he laughed. "I had to have that conversation with Professor Griff." (A onetime member of Public Enemy, Professor Griff is responsible for one of the most notorious hip-hop conspiracy theories, that "the Jews finance... experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa.")
To both J-Zone and Bun, hip-hop's tendency towards distrusting mainstream narratives come as a side effect of years of institutional racism faced by the black community. "Hip-hop was born out of neglect and despair, so it has no respect for authority," J-Zone said. Part of any rapper's job, he added, is to "question, attack, and distrust everything."
J-Zone said that as an African-American, "you go to school and they skim over your history. It's just that you were enslaved, then Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks happened, now it's gangs and drugs and poverty. They slide over everything you accomplished, and you're forced to think, 'Everything the establishment told us is a lie.'"
Bun B echoed this sentiment. "If you think of ten things that seem strange and then find evidence for four of 'em, you start to question the other six. When people say, 'This is a result of systematic oppression of entire races of people' and then you look at the Tuskegee experiments, you look at Guantanamo Bay, it does give you pause about blindly assuming certain things."
As for B.o.B. and his theories about the earth actually being flat, Bun B told me the public shouldn't read too much into that stuff. "B.o.B.'s a good friend of mine," he said. "He's one of those guys who because of the music he's made, has seen a lot of the world, and probably had some preconceived notions that were dispelled as he went around and saw things. And once you start question some things, you start questioning everything."
In a way, the issue is not that B.o.B. is necessarily saying odd things within the context of hip-hop, but the cognitive dissonance of hearing B.o.B.—a guy best known for his work in the pop sphere—warn of impending, government-aided-and-abetted doom and gloom. "Once someone deviates from their [archetype]," Bun said, "it throws people off."
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