University of Louisiana Monroe
Monroe, Louisiana, United States
Conspiracy theories are once again a topic of heated debate in both popular and scholarly media. Critics on one side of this debate often take for granted an “underlying assumption that conspiracy theories should be subdued if not eliminated” (Uscinski 444). Other scholars have expressed concern over the ways the “conspiracy theorist” pejorative stifles dissent and regulates political rationality (Rankin; deHaven-Smith). Bratich argues that social anxieties about issues like emerging technology and race “get managed” through the public debate about conspiracy theories as an “object of concern” (160–61). This paper asks, what are the consequences when “conspiracy panic” spreads beyond concerns about dubious claims by government officials and political pundits and begins to shape the critical response to artistic productions? An answer to this question can be found by examining the relationship between conspiracy theories and hip-hop. As a genre, hip-hop has a longstanding interest in conspiracy theories, particularly among artists known for their engagement with social issues (Beighey and Unnithan; Gosa). I start by contextualizing the conspiratorial lyrics of two historic MCs: Rakim and Tupac Shakur. I then examine a recent release by the rapper Nas. Several critics cited the perceived conspiracism in Nas’s lyrics as reason for their lukewarm response to it. I offer a counter-reading that situates the lyrics in question within Nas’s broader rhetorical strategy of giving “voice to things to which nature has not given a voice” (Quintilian 161). Ultimately, this paper makes two claims: first, hip-hop artists deploy conspiracy theories as a rhetorical technique for addressing social and political anxieties; and, second, by adopting a strict literalist frame for interpreting lyrics, we echo earlier attacks on the genre and risk undermining hip-hop’s legitimacy as a genre and as a powerful tool of what Shane Miller calls “coded social critique” (40).
Keywords: classical rhetoric, hip hop, popular culture, conspiracy theories, social justice
Josh Chase is the L.M. McKneely Endowed Professor of English Literature at the University of Louisiana Monroe, where he teaches rhetoric and technical communication. His research examines conspiratorial rhetoric in public discussions of popular culture, ideology, science, and technology.
Chase, J. (2022). Don’t sweat the technique: Rhetoric, coded social critique, and conspiracy theories in hip-hop. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 9(3). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v9-issue-3/dont-sweat-the-technique-rhetoric-coded-social-critique-and-conspiracy-theories-in-hip-hop/
Chase, Josh. “Don’t Sweat the Technique: Rhetoric, Coded Social Critique, and Conspiracy Theories in Hip-Hop.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 9, no. 3, 2022, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v9-issue-3/dont-sweat-the-technique-rhetoric-coded-social-critique-and-conspiracy-theories-in-hip-hop/