Surrounded by secrecy, if you know about Freemasons at all, it's probably of their reputation as a shadowy powerful group that's somehow quietly ruling the world, with supposed connections to the Illuminati. Auckland rapper and Freemason Rich James sees it very differently. It is a tradition dating back to England in the 1700s, he says. A fraternity. A place where men can come together, access Masonic teachings, and undergo a spiritual journey using the Masonic system of degrees, which are earned through ceremony and a process that’s designed to enlighten people through knowledge. Rich is a third degree Master Mason which took him a year to achieve. He says today, the secretive part about Masonry is the knowledge they share within the fraternity. It’s used as part of their ceremonial processes and treated as sacred because, he says, fidelity is an important virtue.
At 28, Rich says Masonry gives him a framework and example of how to be a man and how to do it well. Born in Pasay City, Manila, in a section he calls the slums, he spent the first 10 years of his life in Auckland, living in fear of deportation because his adoption was a private one. His Kiwi mum knew someone who knew someone in the Philippines who wanted to put their son up for adoption. “There were like social workers coming round to check on us and like lawyers in the picture and as a kid with a real inquisitive mind I'd always be trying to figure this out and mum would always be quite open with what was going on.”
Two years ago, around the same time that he found his blood siblings on Facebook, he also decided to become a Freemason. “When I found them all on the internet it really did help me, because at that point in life I was beginning to be a lot stronger in myself and I was able to just deal with my feelings and thoughts around being adopted and all of that a lot better.”
VICE: Hey Rich, so how did you link up with the Freemasons?
Rich James: So my sister’s dad is a Freemason and I’d always known—my mum had told me she just always thought it was this weird thing and then I got in touch with them. We don’t actively recruit so you have to make that first step yourself, like your intrigue will come from your own heart and then you make the step to seek and go find more about it. So I did that, I took the step and then got linked in and joined a lodge.
What was that experience like in the beginning?
A huge part of Freemasonry is charity and as an organisation we are one of the world’s biggest charities for a lot of causes. The first time I ever went to a lodge I got invited to a dinner and at the time I was working in the social sector where money was real hard to get and I saw the lodge gave fuck loads of money away to three different community groups and I just sat there thinking, ‘Wow, I wanna be able to do that.’ So that was my first experience of Freemasonry. I really think that is a special thing because that meant everything to me and there was nothing asked in return—and that to me is real huge. They don’t go brag about it, and that spoke wonders to me.
How connected do you feel to the other men in your lodge?
Real connected. We get told to prioritise family, work, and then Freemasonry, so family first and then work, then lodge. But I’ve only ever missed one meeting. I’ve got friends that are 90-years-old—sometimes I'll go pick them up for lodge and we’ll have a yarn about their life and I just get insights into these other people. Like some of my friends fought in wars: a couple of them were in World War II, another one fought in the Malayan Emergency. These guys have these lives and stories and hearing about how their lives have panned out and the amazing things they’ve done or achieved helps me put my life into perspective. I really feel Freemasonry has a huge impact.
Have you ever felt disrespected or undervalued in that environment?
I’m like a little brown tattooed dude who raps and was born in the slums, so being able to meet and chat with people from all ends of the scale—we have wealthy people within Freemasonry and people who are without—[enables] this culture where we see each other as the same regardless or worldly possessions or achievements and we’re all there to grow together.
In your own words, what do you tell people when they ask what Freemasonry is?
It’s just a good journey to be on really. Personally, it’s really added to my life and understanding of myself, the world and others. It has hundreds of years of tradition that is tried and tested, and great things can come out of it. It’s just incredible to be part of that lineage and whakapapa.
Why is it important that Freemasonry is secretive?
You think of tradition and you think of oral tradition and then also the passing on of sacred wisdom or knowledge—that's a process, so with Freemasonry, really, it’s a gate to this wisdom, to these understandings. We’re riding on the backs of people that came before us for hundreds of years. [Knowledge] is passed down and handed down and done in a way where we treat it as sacred, so it’s passed down and has to be done in fidelity.
How do Freemasons choose which charities to give to?
We have lodges in different areas so all around the world there’ll be lodges in every different city and that lodge will generally donate to causes or groups or anything around it. Most lodges will have a charity officer and they’ll just identify things. All of the Grand Lodges of a country or place or a jurisdiction, they’ll have active charity as well. We’re huge on scholarships, like Jacinda Ardern received a Freemason scholarship—if you read our magazines, she’s all through them. But in New Zealand we give a lot towards neuroscience and a couple of real big neuroscientists in New Zealand are Freemasons too.
Do you have to pay to be a part of it?
Yeah, so you pay for your lodge upkeep throughout the year—it’s just like your dues, and then also part of that money will go towards charity. Most of it will go towards your lodge for running costs so you can keep the power on and pay the bills. We all pay the same and it’s part of that egalitarian system of living.
Can people from all religions be involved?
You do have to believe in a deity. It doesn't have to be a prescribed religion but you do as a person have to be at the point in your life where you do believe in something greater because our understanding and search and quest for that is what connects us. That faith aspect—faith means different things to different people so we can’t dictate what your faith should be, but through Freemasonry we can be guided to explore our faith further.
Why is it only for men?
I really just think that goes down to how it has been. In England at the moment we have female-only Masonry, which the United Grand Lodge of England acknowledges, which is huge for Masons because within Freemasonry you’re only legitimately a Mason if your Grand Lodge is recognised by other Grand Lodges. So now what we’re going through in England is that the society just wrote it into the constitution that if someone who joins as a man goes through the gender-affirmation process and becomes a woman—they’re still a Freemason and you can't kick them out of your lodge. Then we also have in the States conflict between—what I'm noticing in the Southern states—is a few Grand Lodges are: one) not accepting gay people into Masonry and then, two) they’re not recognising what's known as Prince Hall Masonry, which is the masonry that was set up during the slave era so African Americans could participate.
A good friend told me once that men learn from other men, and that resonated with me. Really my understanding of me as a man and how I can do that well came from examples of other men doing that well... I think mixed lodges—I think you'd really lose that room for the huge aspect of being able to help each other understand your uniquenesses. So for the record I'm very for all-female lodges and I think the future potentially holds that.
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