GUY RAZ, host:
The only thing that could possibly upstage Jay-Z's new record right now is Dan Brown's new book, "The Lost Symbol." But if Brown thinks he's got the market cornered on Freemasons and the occult, well, he had better watch his back. Jay-Z has long rapped about such things.
(Soundbite of song, "D'Evils")
JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) Illuminati want my mind, soul and body. Secret societies trying to keep their eye on me.
RAZ: This is from an old Jay-Z song. It's called "D'Evils." The lyrics go: Illuminati want my mind, soul and body. Secrete societies trying to keep their eye on me.
For a few years now, bloggers, fans and conspiracy theorists have argued that Jay-Z dabbles in the occult. They say that the video for his new single, "Run This Town," only confirms it.
Anyway, if there's one man who can help us work it out, it's Mitch Horowitz. He is the author of the new book, "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation." We sat down with Mitch to watch the video together.
In this first scene, we see a torchbearer leading a crowd into a kind of a warehouse.
Mr. MITCH HOROWITZ (Author, "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation"): There are these underground caverns, and they seem to be in the catacombs of some kind of temple. You know, Jay-Z is very clearly drawing on some kind of mystery, religion, inner-temple imagery.
(Soundbite of song, "Run this Town")
Ms. RIHANNA (Singer): (Singing) Feel it coming in the air. Hear the screams from everywhere.
RAZ: Many in the crowd are pumping lead pipes and torches in the air, almost like villagers getting ready to chase Frankenstein's monster.
Mr. HOROWITZ: Some people read something occult into the people carrying torches. Lucifer translates into light-bearer. I think that's an exaggeration. This is fairly standard music video imagery.
RAZ: But when Jay-Z actually starts rapping, Mitch Horowitz hears something clearly related to the occult.
(Soundbite of song, "Run This Town")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Please follow the leader, so Eric B we are. Microphone fiend, it's the return of the God, peace God.
Mr. HOROWITZ: He just said peace God. That's the most significant part of this video. That's an expression from a mystery religion called the Five Percenters. And they believe that the black man emerging from the Asian continent is God and that all men are God in potential. And they greet one another by saying peace God. That is not widely known, and Jay-Z is selecting that very purposefully.
RAZ: And throughout the video, Jay-Z and his collaborators, singer Rihanna and the rapper Kanye West, all hold their fingers in a triangle shape in front of their left eyes. It happens to be the symbol of Jay-Z's record label, Roc-A-Fella. But bloggers also point to that symbol as proof of Jay-Z's Masonic connection.
Mr. HOROWITZ: It is a Freemasonic symbol. It's also a very American symbol. What Jay-Z is referencing is that mysterious eye and pyramid that we find on the back of our dollar bills. It suggests that worldly achievement is incomplete without some kind of inner vision.
It is a Masonic symbol, or at least it was inspired by Masonry. And it found its way to the back of our dollar bill in 1935 through Franklin Roosevelt, who himself was also a Freemason.
(Soundbite of song, "Run This Town")
RIHANNA: (Singing)Who going to run this town tonight?
RAZ: If you want to see that video for yourself, there is a link at our Web site, npr.org. But occult conspiracy or not, Mitch Horowitz thinks Jay-Z knows exactly what he's doing.
Mr. HOROWITZ: He's making a very definite statement. I don't know that he's a Five Percenter himself, but he comes from New York City. The Five Percenters began in Harlem. They were a tremendous influence on the hip-hop scene from its earliest roots in the late '60s right up through the '90s.
The Five Percenters have influenced not only the imagery, but the language of hip-hop. The expression word is sometimes thought to have come at a Five Percenter teaching. They teach word is bond.
RAZ: Now, Mitch, I've read it's not just Jay-Z who is sort of being talked about in this context. It's also Kanye West, Nas. I mean, there are a lot of rappers who are sort of thought of as guys who sort of dabble in the occult.
Mr. HOROWITZ: Yeah. Other folks include Rakim and Busta Rhymes, particularly the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, the founder of the Wu-Tang Clan includes Five Percenter teachings in some of the material that he produces, books and in other places.
And I think that the references that they're making, sometimes they'll speak of self-knowledge, knowledge of self, understanding. They'll even make references to things like higher mathematics. These are Five Percenter references.
RAZ: Now, there's another video related to this video, and it's the making of the "Run This Town" video. And in that video, Jay-Z is wearing a shirt, and on that shirt, there's a slogan that says, do what thou wilt, and that's gotten a lot of bloggers excited.
Mr. HOROWITZ: Yes, that has very deep roots in modern occult culture. The full expression is: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. That was one of the key maxims of the British occultist Aleister Crowley. So when Jay-Z appears in a hoodie with that phrase on it in public, that's exactly what he's referencing.
RAZ: Could we have been having this discussion, you know, 30 years ago about Led Zeppelin?
Mr. HOROWITZ: That's a great question, and the answer is yes. Jimmy Page also was a very shrewd observer and a student of some occult systems. Page's library at home probably looks like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. He was a real student of the occult. In fact, I would say a figure like Jay-Z is probably borrowing some of this material, but Jimmy Page, I think, was imbibing it even more deeply.
RAZ: Mitch, just level with us. Are you protecting these guys? I mean, I think they run the country. Jay-Z, you know, Jimmy Page, they're running the world.
Mr. HOROWITZ: I wish is all I could say because I take a very positive view of Freemasonry. You know, Freemasonry was a radical organization that came out of the Reformation. And at the founding of this country, Masonry was an organization that claimed the allegiance of some of the Founding Fathers.
Its principles were principles of religious toleration, religious liberty, ecumenism. So I take an entirely positive view, actually, of Freemasonry's role in our history.
RAZ: So Mitch, if you were our expert witness in a courtroom, based on everything you know, do you think Jay-Z is a member of a secret society or an occultist?
Mr. HOROWITZ: No. I think he's a very shrewd man. I think he's a keen observer of everything going on around him. He's a master at using subversive imagery. You don't find your way to Five Percenter material unless you are very aware of what's going on around you. It doesn't find its way into songs by accident.
RAZ: That's Mitch Horowitz. He is the author of the new book, "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation." You can find a link to his book and the Jay-Z video at our Web site, nprmusic.org.
Mitch, thanks for helping us out.
Mr. HOROWITZ: Thank you.
RAZ: And if you're curious about the secrets and mysteries behind this program, check out our Twitter feed. It's nprguyraz, all one word. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.