In the fall of 2020, while quarantined and bored, Gavin Ruta and Carlos Juico started a podcast. Friends since St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Pickering, outside of Toronto, the two figured they’d mostly talk about streetwear. Then, while recording the first episode, Juico offhandedly mentioned a conspiracy theory he’d once heard. Just this crazy thing about how Christmas actually grew out of an old Siberian holiday run by shamans and fueled by hallucinogens.
And when they posted the clip on TikTok — “Boom,” says Ruta. Since then, Ruta, 21, and Juico, 22, have built a loyal social media audience on the back of a never-ending fount of theories. On YouTube, where they post full-length episodes of their podcast, Jumpers Jump, they have just under a half-million followers. On TikTok, where they post minute-long quick-hit theories, they have more than 6 million.
They’ll touch on anything: how Fidel Castro is Justin Trudeau’s dad; how the head of programming at Nickelodeon has a foot fetish. But one of their biggest successes was a theory about Drake’s verse on “Sicko Mode.” The theory suggests that the lyrics are a coded confession that he and Kim Kardashian had had liaisons. And the two hosts have a number of other theories about rap music. DONDA was a seance. DONDA features secret binaural beats. An obscure rapper predicted the pandemic in 2013. 6ix9ine was an FBI agent the whole time. Tupac is Playboi Carti. Tupac is alive.
Of course, hip-hop has been intertwined with conspiracy culture since the late Nineties, when fans were first saying that Tupac was alive. But the past few years have seen heretofore unimaginable events, from the pandemic to the Capitol riot, in quick succession. You don’t have to be a conspiracist to believe that the world isn’t quite what it seems. Couple that with TikTok, and you get lost quickly.
For example, it only took hours for fans to come up with wild theories surrounding the tragedy at last year’s Astroworld Festival. Before details of what unfolded were clear, musings about satanic rituals, and “needle pricks” abounded. The language of conspiracy theories has become so common, artists themselves have started to tap in. In recent weeks, Kanye has used Instagram as a sounding board for a number of vague posts about Pete Davidson (who is reportedly now dating Kim Kardashian), Billie Eilish, and even Hillary Clinton. By now, it’s an unavoidable element of pop culture at large. The myriad fan-generated theories intertwine with long-standing suspicions about the rich and powerful, making for a reality that always seems stranger than fiction.
In 2011, a Cornell University professor named Travis L. Gosa published a paper — “Counterknowledge, Racial Paranoia, and the Cultic Milieu: Decoding Hip-Hop Conspiracy Theory” — arguing that hip-hop embraces an “eccentric fusion of stigmatized knowledge,” which includes conspiracy theories alongside “apocalyptic prophecy” and “numerology” and “helps preserve hip-hop’s deviant status.”
While the prevalent conspiracy theories are “empirically inaccurate,” Gosa writes, they are nonetheless valuable because they are “rooted in an attempt to articulate inequality” and to hold “government responsible for the well-being of all its citizens.”
Gosa points out the tendency for conspiracists to traffic paranoiac homophobia and argues that “the discursive strategy” of the conspiracy theory righteously sounds an alarm before ultimately failing its adherents. “Rather than seeking systemic solutions,” the theorists “search for individual conspirators.”
Gosa was largely examining the pre-digital age of independently published books sold on street-corner card tables before TikTok accelerated the pace of creation and exposure.
Juico and Ruta say they get a lot of their theories from 3 a.m. Reddit binges, or from fan contributions on the Jumpers Jump Discord. And Juico admits that he’s been watching conspiracy videos, from YouTubers like Matthew Santoro and Shane Dawson, since the second grade. Conspiracy theorizing is now elemental to his way of thinking. “Sometimes, it’s just me in the shower,” Juico says of the theories discussed on Jumpers Jump. “Yo, honestly, sometimes it just comes to me.”
A.D. Carson, a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia, has a simple answer to the question of why conspiracy theories are so prevalent in hip-hop. “We understand that hip-hop is not a unique place that you go to for sexism or misogyny or for any of the phobias,” he says. And just like the world is sexist and misogynist, there’s this: “The world fucking loves conspiracy theories!”
Hip-hop takes in a mass conspiracy culture and, in its inimitable way, booms it back out stronger and odder. “The Overton window moves slowly, but sometimes it moves sharply,” Carson says, citing just one recent example: a QAnon theory that JFK Jr. is coming back from the dead to run as Trump’s 2024 VP. “The Overton window in hip-hop has always been fairly wide open. Who’s gonna tell you you can’t write a rap song based on” alternative histories like “The Unseen Hand or The Isis Papers?”
In the Nineties, you could trace the contours of the proliferation of conspiracies in hip-hop. Prodigy, for example, is almost certainly the first person to rap about the Illuminati. He warned us of the shadowy elites who “want my mind, soul, and my body.”
Prodigy undoubtedly learned about the Illuminati from reading William Cooper’s underground classic Behold a Pale Horse, itself a staple of hip-hop conspiracists. Many other conspiratorial rappers from the era were influenced by the ideology of the Five Percenters, who believe the world is divided between the 85 percent who know nothing, the 10 percent who control the 85 percent, and the five percent who know the truth.
I admit to Carson that, while I find outsider texts full of insane shit like Behold a Pale Horse endearing for their sincerity, I have a hard time seeing TikTok as similarly earnest. On social media, it feels like all that bonkers stuff just gets reduced to shareable content. He waves off my concern: “Books are technology, as well. The technology of TikTok democratizes. It’s not a different thing. It’s just happening in a different context.”
“Sometimes,” Carson continues, “these conversations set up a false binary. Like, legitimate history and illegitimate history, or history versus conspiracy theories. But we have to come to terms with the fact that a lot of what we’re given as history is conspiratorial information that a lot of people agreed on.”
Maybe you remember this one: Chingy, the one-hit wonder, telling us that ISIS wasn’t real. In 2014, he wrote on Instagram, “I want everyone to beware that #ISIS is another made up terrorist group created by the #USandIsrael to create a major problem which sets off a major solution which is #WAR. Don’t be fooled by your tv programs showing you heads being cut off and all that; they stage things to create wars so that they (illuminati you can call them) can control population and natural resources while depopulating the world’s civilization down.” It was an easy punch line, a quickly forgotten bit of internet ephemera. Chingy doesn’t believe in ISIS!
But since then, foreign-policy commentators have persuasively argued that the dangers of ISIS were either purposefully or unwittingly overblown. As The Atlantic’s Simon Cottee wrote in 2019, “the Western media have consistently overestimated the group,” and in the process created a public image of ISIS as “a Terminator-like” entity able to come “back from the dead to terrorize and destroy all who stand in its path.” Dianne Feinstein, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, once famously declared that ”the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated.”
OK, so: No, the Illuminati didn’t create ISIS. But, yes, American institutions did inflate the threat of ISIS and did terrify its own population for professional gains. Yes, the world is this ugly, this crazy, this fucked up. What Chingy said wasn’t factually right, but maybe, emotionally, it was.
Carson’s bigger point on ahistorical sources like hip-hop conspiracies is that even though “the proliferation is problematic as fuck,” they help to teach you to “scrutinize everything.” In their most idealized form, what conspiracy theories are doing is teaching you how to think critically.
There’s a pervasive feeling that we’ve moved into a dark and unknown world full of lies. This suggests another false binary: that a world of ultimate truth once existed, a past reality where there was a mass media that we could all trust all of the time. “We have to ask, in our culture, what is the utility of mythology?” Carson says. “I don’t know if folks are really arguing about the accuracy of the historical narrative so much as they are arguing whose myths we are going to abide by.”
When I ask Juico and Ruta if they ever feel weary of trafficking in TikTok conspiracies, they say yes. But not because they worry they’ll improperly influence their followers, or because they worry healthy young minds will be warped by all this time spent in the darkness. No, they worry they might irritate the local megastar. “Drake’s not too far away!” Juico laughs. “He’ll be here in 15 minutes!”
Is that all you’re worried about? Maybe accidentally annoying a celebrity?
Juico smiles, showing his braces, and admits one other thing: “Sometimes I do get scared, like, Illuminati might be at my door or some shit.”
Ruta plays along, explaining how he’ll wiggle out of said Illuminati’s clutches: “Carlos, you’re the main conspiracy guy. I’m not it!”
Cackling, Juico shouts back, “They’re coming for you too, bro! They’re coming for you too!”