Hip hop!s grim undertones

By Mark Goldblatt USA TODAY Oct. 29, 2002

The mainstream media are slowly catching up with the buzz on hip hop Web sites about a possible connection between John Allen Muhammad, indicted in the Washington area sniper case, and a virulently racist black group called the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, to which several of today's most popular rap acts have acknowledged longstanding ties.

The Associated Press has reported that notes left at two shooting scenes contain language and symbols associated with the Five Percenters, who splintered off from the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1964 and consider themselves a culture, not a faith. Muhammad was once a NOI member, but the FBI declined to comment on any connection between the sniper's notes and the Five Percenters, whose leaders also did not comment. If the connection is proved true, however, the repercussions will be felt throughout an element of the hip hop community that already is rife with suspicion and animosity toward white society.

The group’s philosophy rejects most accepted authority and history. It teaches that 85% of people are ignorant followers and another 10% try to lead those ignorant masses to enrich themselves. The enlightened Five Percent who remain have true knowledge and must wage war against the 10% for control. The details of what the Five Percenters believe and how they act on those beliefs are disputed. Some in law enforcement deem the group a racist gang. South Carolina’s prison system has rated all Five Percenter prisoners security threats.

Black male Five Percenters are "Gods" and will refer to themselves as God. One letter from the sniper contained the demand that police call the author "God" and a stock Five Percenter phrase, "word is bond," along with five stars, also used by the group. A tarot card left at another shooting stated, "I am God."

'Open season’

As the Anti Defamation League and a few scholars have noted, Five Percenter theory stands behind the apocalyptic visions of race war expressed in the rap music of some of the more influential hip hop performers. Goin Bananas, Da Lench Mob raps: "We’re having thoughts of overthrowing the government ... it’s open season on crackers, you know; the morgue willl be full of Caucasian John Does ... oh my god, Allah, have mercy; I'm killing them devils because they're not worthy to walk the earth with the original black man ... I won’t rest until they're all dead."

Sunz of Man, an offshoot group of the wildly popular Wu Tang Clan, repeats similar ideas in the song Can I See You: "Camouflaged for the mission; use your third eye to see the Israelite; detect those who tell lies ... carry .45s in these last days and times ... I was born to survive a soldier, and I strive, with a duty to civilize these 85s ... an original black man with a plan to run these devils off our ... land; now listen real close while I explain the operation."

A rap by the group Brand Nubian is even less subtle: "It's all about brothers rising up, wising up, sizing up a situation, but getting fit within the Nation ... I sing sounds of math on behalf of the Gods and the Earths ... now face your maker and take your last breath; the time is half past death."

Wide influence

These acts' appeal is largely limited to hard core hip hop fans, but even artists who've crossed over to mainstream audiences and whose videos turn up regularly on MTV, such as rappers Busta Rhymes, Rakim and Nas, have flirted with Five Percenter concepts. What's unnerving is that these acts are not only among the most critically acclaimed hip hop stars, but they are acclaimed precisely because they're considered the most politically sophisticated rappers.

The question, of course, isn’t whether hip hop performers have a constitutional right to express crazy, or even racially incendiary, ideas. Clearly, they do. The question is to what degree their fans are taking them seriously as they try literally to drum an us against them mind­set into young black people.

Pubic Enemy's Chuck D., the first overtly political rapper, once called hip hop "the black CNN." It will be a terrible development if it turns out that John Allen Muhammad was tuning in for the news.

Mark Goldblatt, the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of hip hop culture, lives in New York