‘Trying Hard to Look Inside’: Hip-Hop’s Strange & Enduring Fascination With Conspiracy Theories

IMG_0926 2Several weeks ago the Hip-Hop community and the music world at large suffered an immense, heartbreaking loss when Ermias Asghedom, better known by his stage name Nipsey Hussle was gunned down in front of his own clothing business in South Central Los Angeles at the age of thirty-three. In literally the blink of an eye a brilliant voice, immense talent and tireless advocate for the community of South Central L.A. was silenced forever; all in a senseless, cowardly act of gun violence. Unfortunately, it is a story that has become all too common and one we have all seen play out far too many times not just in Hip-Hop; but in a broader, raging epidemic of gun violence that takes the lives of thousands of people annually every year in this country. While the untimely, tragic deaths of entertainers (Hip-Hop artists in particular) sadly are not an uncommon phenomenon in our society; the outpouring of grief of this magnitude for the passing of a single Hip-Hop artist is unprecedented and on a magnitude, unlike anything we’ve seen in over a generation. Immediately following the news of Nipsey Hussle’s passing an outpouring of grief could be seen coming in from all over the country. With tributes from friends and musical collaborators, entertainers, athletes, candlelight vigils in various cities across the entire country; not to mention the plethora of video and photo tributes all across the internet, with countless personal testimonials people of all walks of life detailing their own personal stories and experiences with a artist that has been almost universally fondly remembered as a tireless and non-stop advocate and philanthropist for his home community. In a very rare instance of consensus in our deeply divided and troubled society, it is almost universally recognized that Nipsey Hussle was not just a talented entertainer, he was a tireless proponent of the community he came from. So much that the last act of kindness he committed before being murdered in broad daylight, was making a spur of the moment trip to his own business to get clothing for a childhood friend that had just been released from prison and wanted to freshen up before reuniting with his family. Now, today on April 11th, 2019  L.A., the Hip-Hop community and the entire world is saying its final goodbyes as Nipsey Hussle is finally laid to rest.

 

While hundreds of thousands of tributes, memorials and dedications have played out across the internet and various social media platforms in the days following the death of Nipsey Hussle, many of them highlighting the good deeds that unfortunately went unnoticed while he was alive; his tragic and untimely death has unfortunately highlighted a persistent and troubling trend following the deaths of many high-profile Hip-Hop artists to pass away in recent years. That trend being, the proliferation and perpetuation of misleading and purposely deceptive conspiracy theories that commonly arise following the deaths of prolific rappers and popular Hip-Hop artists. There is arguably no other genre of popular music in the U.S. that has the same propensity of perpetuating false, and deceptively misleading conspiracy theories as prolifically and regularly as those in Hip-Hop. Almost immediately following the news of Nipsey Hussle’s passing a wave of conspiracy theories quickly began to spread like wildfire that the South Central emcee had been killed for darker, more nefarious reasons than intracommunal violence. The most prominent and persistent of these theories being that Nipsey Hussle was targeted for his role in producing a documentary covering the 1987 trial of Alfredo Bowman, better known publicly as ‘Dr. Sebi’. Dr. Sebi, (who should noted, was not an actual practicing or licensed physician) was a controversial Honduran herbalist and self-proclaimed healer who claimed to cure all disease with herbs, his own line of self-made health products, and a unique vegan diet based on various pseudoscience claims which he called “African Bio-Electric Cell Food Therapy”. Dr. Sebi is almost universally derided by professional doctors and the medical community as a quack, due in large part to his outrageous claims that his diets and remedies could “cure such pathologies as arthritis, asthma, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, herpes, heart and vital organ dysfunctions, leukemia, mental disorders, obesity, tumors and a variety of female and male problems”.

 

Needles to say, Dr. Sebi was no stranger to controversy and legal drama. After starting a herbal healing practice in the state of New York, New York City charged him with a criminal charge of practicing medicine without a license in 1987. In a trial (which was the main focus of Nipsey Hussles developing documentary) a jury eventually found Dr. Sebi “not guilty” because jurors were not persuaded that he was actually making medical diagnoses or prescribing medicinal substances. Sebi was however, later successfully sued by the New York Attorney General for consumer fraud, on the basis that he was making false therapeutic claims about his line of health products. While most professional physicians will tell you that cutting red meat from one’s diet and that the consumption of mostly fruits and vegetables will by in large lead to a longer and generally healthier life, Dr. Sebi’s other claims that his products and diets could cure life threatening conditions and even fatal diseases has been empirically proven to be patently false. Outside of alternative-lifestyle enthusiasts and new-age medicine advocates, Dr. Sebi has been derided as nothing more than a modern-day snake oil salesmen that preyed on the desperation of sick, dying people and their families desperate for a cure. Nonetheless, controversy aside did not damper Sebi’s appeal; during his lifetime Sebi’s celebrity clients included the likes of Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, Steven Seagal, John Travolta, Eddie Murphy and even Michael Jackson (whom he claimed to have cured of his addiction to painkillers). Despite this roster of high paying clients, Dr. Sebi was notorious for being constantly involved in various financial and legal troubles over the years. This all came to an end on August 2016 when Sebi died at age eighty-two due to complications of pneumonia while being transferred to a hospital from a Honduran prison where he had been held for several months after being arrested for money laundering charges. Even though it is widely accepted that length of time spent in custody and the conditions of the jail (which are known to be notoriously harsh in Honduras) contributed to his death; many of Sebi’s followers question his arrest and death, claiming that there was a conspiracy to silence him because his teachings differed from the medical establishment.

 

Now, if you’re confused right now asking yourself what in the hell does any of this has to do with the shooting death of Nipsey Hussle in L.A. last week, don’t worry. No you’re not going crazy, nor are you missing some key detail that’s blatantly obvious to everyone else. To be short and concise, hundreds of thousands of people across the world subscribe to the belief of a long and complicated conspiracy theory that Nipsey Hussle was assassinated as part of a wide-ranging cover-up plot sanctioned by the pharmaceutical, medical, and regulatory agencies before he could complete his documentary of Dr. Sebi and his ‘triumph’ over the pharmaceutical industry. In turn, the conspiracy theory has only given more fuel to run on, largely in part due to another persistent urban myth that a large number of holistic doctors have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances (this myth has been debunked by Snopes and derided as ruse propagated by Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News). While it’s laughable to a fair amount of people to think that a Hip-Hop artist like Nipsey Hussle was somehow the key figure that was going to ‘bring down’ the entire pharmaceutical industry through the release of a documentary covering the decades old trial of a quack new-age medicinal healer; for hundreds of thousands of others, not only do they take this query seriously, they genuinely believe it! And when I say hundreds of thousands I really mean hundreds of thousands. A video uploaded to YouTube on April 1st 2019 entitled ‘This INTERVIEW MADE Nipsey Hussle A MARKED Man! (2019 – 2020)’ has already racked up over half a million views. Another, entitled ‘Nipsey Hussle Shot and Killed – Find out why! Dr Sebi Conspiracy’ uploaded just the day before on March 31st, literally the very same day Nipsey Hussle was killed has amassed over three-million views as the date of this publication! And this is far from being the only false rumor to spread about Nipsey Hussle following his death either. In the days that followed in the wake of his passing, rumors began to circulate of news that rapper Jay-Z had set up a fifteen million trust fund for Nipsey Hussle’s kids. However, when reporters began investigating it was soon proven false and concluded that the sourceless claim originated from an obscure Hip-Hop blog that was created mainly to sell advertising and had a history of spreading sensationalist news.

 

In the several days that followed the shooting, a man by the name of Eric Holder was named as the primary suspect in the murder of Nipsey Hussle and shortly after he was apprehended by the police and taken into custody and charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. It’s almost universally accepted by both police and investigators that Nipsey Hussle was indeed shot and killed by Eric Holder. Investigators paint the story that Holder, a twenty-nine year-old aspiring rapper and gang member who was an acquaintance of Nipsey Hussle held a brief conversation with the rapper in front of his business just minutes before fatally shooting him. At some point Nipsey and Holder got into a dispute in front of the store and Holder returned with a gun and opened fire. Keep in mind all of this was captured on a surveillance’s video camera, so there is little disputed Holder was indeed the triggerman. Now of course, in the absence of details regarding a motive or reasoning as to why Holder would murder a man in broad daylight just moments before he had held a conversation with, conspiracy theories have cropped around Holder himself as well. Everything from Holder being a police informant snitch, a government agent sent to assassinate Nipsey Hussle, to questioning how he could retain Christopher Darden, (who infamously helped prosecute O.J. Simpson on murder charges more than twenty years ago) to represent him in his defense have all made their rounds all across social media platforms online.

 

Like most conspiracy theories birthed on the internet (and just to be clear, most of these rumors and conspiracy theories are almost universally birthed and originated online), one has to do a lot of mental gymnastics, selectively choosing which facts to acknowledge and ignore mountains of contradictory evidence to rationalize these insane, fringe positions held in these conspiracy theories. Rumors, conspiracy theories and outright lies are nothing new. As long as human beings have been communicating with one another; whether visually, verbally or through the art of of established language we have used the craft of deception to deceive others. One could even argue that deception itself is in our very nature, a lingering by product of human evolution and a means of survival. However, not even a quarter way into the 21st century; in a more linked and connected world lies, rumors and even the most preposterous assumptions can be given a global audience with a few clicks on a keyboard and the tap of a mouse. The most obvious and blatant factors contributing to the increased volume and frequency in regards to such conspiracy theories is the Internet and social media. In the past, what often began as urban legends; rumors and murmurings about artist which took months or even years to gain traction and widespread acknowledgement from the public can now spread to hundreds of thousands or even millions in a matter of hours. Passed along through viral tweets, Facebook posts and countless other platforms like a perverse game of telephone. There is a saying, which ironically enough is often misattributed itself that goes along the lines, “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is still lacing up its boots”. While this saying has been around for at the very least a hundred years, in the age of the digital revolution, high speed internet and social media galore never before has this saying been more true and relevant than right now at this very moment. With implications and consequences that go far beyond Hip-Hop or the eve the broader music industry.

 

Now, of course, conspiracy theories inside the realm of Hip-Hop are seldom harmful in and of themselves; outside of perhaps the emotional anguish suffered by friends and family of artists that passed who have to endure the constant annoyance of them, they rarely pose little threat to the general public. However, outside of Hip-Hop certain conspiracy theories have the real potential to reap serious and even dangerous consequences. Where the real harm in these baseless theories lies in is the fact that they muddy and obscure the true issues at hand that really need to be discussed. Instead of discussing conspiracy theories about Dr. Sebi, big pharma, government assassination plans and uncover agents. We should be talking about gun violence, we should be talking about envy within our own communities and social circles, we should be talking gang culture which not only entrapped Nipsey himself as a youth but, arguably ultimately was contributing to his demise. But, instead, what see playing out all across not just social media and the internet but in real life as well are people chasing their own tails and shadows derived from their own overactive imaginations. Trying to untangle an indecipherable web of half truths, fabrications and outright lies trying to get to the bottom of some strange, dark, conspiracy that was in all likelihood were concocted on the Internet for the exact purpose of sowing discord and confusion. Several years ago I published an article entitled Don’t Believe the Hype: “Fake News” in post-fact U.S. Media, and it outlined ways journalists and the border general public could exercise critical thinking skills to weed out purposely misleading and deceptive news stories. Among other things I had this to say, “We are in an era where a significant amount of groups and individuals have realized they can make a great deal of money relatively easily and quickly in a media ecosystem where verification by both writers and the audience simply doesn’t exist. Essentially people believe what they want to believe (facts be damned)”. And herein there lies the kicker, facts be damned, it still didn’t stop hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of people across the internet help spread the various rumors and conspiracy theories that arose after Nipsey Hussle’s death. It didn’t stop them from spending like wildfire across social media; even though numerous social media users have warned of questionable logic and authenticity of such positions. Even when many asserted from the very beginning that Nipsey Hussle, (who himself was a former gang member) was likely a victim of intracommunal violence and the result of some personal disagreement or conflict; people still insist on pushing talks outlandish and insidious covert assassinations and conspiracy hit-jobs which ultimately derail conversations of real issues that should be addressed following such tragedies.

 

Whether or not these conspiracy theories are started in genuine concern or good faith is besides the point, what does matter however, is the propensity for hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions of people to casually or even eagerly abet in their proliferation across the internet which in turn results in confusion, uncertainty, doubt and ultimately ignorance in the realm of the real world. Normally I don’t enter into the realm of conspiracy theorists to debate anymore, I don’t think it’s productive, and sadly I don’t expect concrete facts and evidence to dissuade hardcore conspiracy theorists anyway. That just simply isn’t how their belief system works. What they pick and choose to acknowledge largely depends on their biases, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they craft these theories around their already pre-existing biases and notions that effectively to reinforce them. By in large most conspiracies are at best scant in the facts and evidence; and seldom hold up under the pressure of thoughtful, principled, critical analysis. At the end of the day, they are misinformation campaigns, and the point of modern day misinformation isn’t to just misinform or push an agenda. It is designed to also exhaust the public’s critical thinking on a mass and individual level, to muddy waters and to annihilate truth. Misinformation is designed not only to obliterate truth but to destroy any sense of belief or confidence in the very concept of objective truth. It is meant to sow and spread the seeds of confusion and chaos, so that even when the truth is reported it is almost always surely lost and swallowed up in a sea of half-truths, lies, fabrications, hoaxes and baseless, flagrant conspiracy theories that are tailor made to continually turn a wheel of perpetual confusion and disillusionment. Sharing patently false and easily debunked almost theorist does more than just merely misinform, they destroy the institution of public consensus. When we can’t even come to an agreement on simple things that are obvious and clear as day, staring us right in the face; then how can we possibly expect to tackle complicated and nuanced matters in our society? When everything is a ‘conspiracy’, eventually nothing, even real cover-ups, and atrocities committed by the elite and powerful are conspiracies any longer. When everything, even obvious inherent truths are up for debate; then even obvious injustices and abuses of power are eventually disregarded as normal. Now I get it, nobody wants to believe that their favorite artist or that an amazing human was cruelly and needlessly murdered over gang violence or some petty, senseless personal dispute. But, for all insensitive purposes, it appears that this is exactly what happened. And it’s tempting for people to buy into the belief that people they respect, admire and look up to were silenced for more noble causes like their beliefs, words, and actions; than to accept the fact that oftentimes people’s lives are taken for the pettiest and most trivial of circumstances.

 

Is it true that many Hip-Hop artists in the past have died very suddenly and tragically? Yes, absolutely. However, this alone does not mean that every death regardless of how tragic, untimely or unexpected it maybe is part of some larger, nefarious to systemically target and assassinate specific Hip-Hop artists. But, for many this is not only an easy conclusion for many to jump to; to them its the obvious one. Hip-Hop by its very nature is and has been a very rebellious and anti-establishment art form. Birthed in the deepest, darkest corners of the Bronx, innovated by children that had to endure failing schools, dilapidated housing, survive gangs, drug dealers, junkies, and crooked cops. It comes as no surprise that Hip-Hop has historically been critical of U.S. institutions that have not only been historically biased and unfair; but, systematically designed to be purposefully harmful and unimaginably cruel to communities color. From Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique and so many others have seen their livelihoods targeted for infusing lyrics and messages that are critical of the ruling status quo in their music. So, whenever artists who are even the slightest bit critical of these institutions in their music befall some tragic fate; it’s an easy leap for many to reach that they were targeted for their said criticism or actions in the community. Especially when deaths happen in peculiar or suspicious circumstances and concrete facts and details are scant in the immediate aftermath. There is a fine line between cautious skepticism and blindly parroting meritless talking points echoed in factually bankrupt conspiracy theories. As a person who outside of music very regularly writes about cases of police misconduct and other abuses of authority by those in high ranking positions of power, I more than understand the need for healthy skepticism when regarding statements made by law enforcement. Especially when said statements are those regarding people and communities that authority has historically been abusive and antagonistic towards. However, we can’t allow this rightly merited weariness of official statements from authority to lower the bar so low that we completely abandon critical thought and are unable to sniff out the most obvious and blatant bullshit when it is so obvious and in our faces. Obscuring the death of Nipsey Hussle and other artists who have died with baseless and flimsy conspiracy theories does nothing to help their legacy. In fact, if anything it only helps obscure and deflects the attention that rightfully belongs on their legacies and could perhaps even help prevent future tragedies. We owe to these artists and their loved ones to not perpetuate myths, fallacies and lies that only contribute in confusion and ignorance; and ultimately it starts with us holding ourselves responsible in not abetting in its proliferation.

 


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