Satan and rap music have had a complex relationship since the early ’90s, with the biblical figure still seen as taboo by rappers, critics and fans today.
Rap and Satan are having a moment. Contemporary rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert, SahBabii, and Trippie Redd have incited controversy for referencing Satanic images in their music and aesthetic. More recently, Lil Nas X has received backlash for his “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” music video, which features him giving a lapdance to Satan. However, the relationship between the two isn’t a recent phenomenon. The truth is that the biblical figure has been referenced in rap since the early ’90s.
Although Satan’s influence on music is commonly associated with rock — thanks to bands and artists such as Black Sabbath, Slayer, and Marilyn Manson — rap has also had a fascination with Satan. But the pairing is complex considering the genre is rooted in black American culture, and religion is an integral part of black American culture.
According to a national Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, black people are the leading race in believing in God. They’re also leading in the importance religion has in one’s life, with 75 percent stating that it’s very important. This is in stark contrast to the percentage of black people who don’t believe in God (two percent), and don’t believe religion is very important in their lives (four percent). Additionally, nine percent of black people are unaffiliated with any religious group.
In other words, religion is an integral part of the black identity in the United States, with Christianity being the primary religion practiced.
This is why the use of images or themes related to Satan in rap is seen as controversial. In 1993, after being signed to Columbia records, Big L released a promotional single titled “Devil’s Son,” which featured the following lyrics:
“On my skull the 666, no tricks
When I catch fits, my mom picks up the crucifix
And I kill chumps for the cheapest price
I’m rollin’ with Satan, not Jesus Christ
Enemies, I got several done
Big L straight from hell, the motherfuckin’ Devil’s son”
Because of the lyrical content, “Devil’s Son” was banned from radio at the time. Two years later, the Harlem rapper released his debut album, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, which included the track “Danger Zone.” The song featured lyrics such as “It’s the triple six in the mix straight from h-e-double hockey sticks,” and “Every Sunday a nun lay where my gun spray / Fuck Carlito, we doin’ shit the Devil son’s way.” Columbia hardly promoted the album because of its lyrics, and Big L was dropped from the label shortly after.
In 2010, Lord Finesse, who produced some of Lifestylez, discussed “Danger Zone” and its ties to horrorcore rap — a subgenre based on horror-influenced topics such as death, torture, and Satanism — which was rising at the time thanks to groups such as the Gravediggaz.
“Horrorcore was out [at the time], [and so] with the Gravediggaz…[L was] like, ‘Oh, y’all think that’s ill? Oh OK, alright,'” Finesse said to HipHopDX. “He was smarter than what he would lead you to believe on that album. But, it’s like, [for] Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, I’m portraying this character, and this character I’m portraying has to be believable…It was a mixture between what was going on in Harlem and fiction.”
The idea of portraying a character is a sentiment Three 6 Mafia founding member DJ Paul agrees with. There’s no Three 6 without Satan.
“We were into horror movies and serial killers,” Paul said. “It’s more like a character I’d say. Like Robert De Niro playing the devil [in Angel Heart] or Al Pacino [in The Devil’s Advocate].”
Paul was raised in a religious family. Every Sunday he went with his parents to church; he still goes to this day. But Three 6 gave him the chance to explore his darker tendencies — to tell his real-life story of chaos and violence through his love of horror.
“Satan worshipper or thug would be my profile, read my file / I been a mean child for a while within a mystic style,” Paul raps on Mystic Stylez, the title track from the Memphis group’s 1995 debut album.
As Three 6 transformed from underground Memphis rap heroes into mainstream stars, the group’s references to Satan became less common. They even had to change their original name — Triple Six Mafia — once they signed to a label. Still, Satan followed. “Stay Fly,” arguably the group’s biggest hit, is also central to one of rap’s most bizarre conspiracy theories. During the song’s chorus, a woman sounds like she’s singing “You are God / You are king / Lucifer.” A number of forums were dedicated to the theory. And even though it has since been debunked — it’s actually Willie Hutch‘s vocals on “Tell Me Why Our Love Turned Cold” pitched up — it still speaks to how intertwined these dark themes were with the group.
Although Paul sees how Three 6’s aesthetic influenced rap, he regrets some of the group’s lyrical content.
“Sometimes we went too far,” he said. “Some of the stuff I talked about back then I would never talk about now.”
Paul thought Three 6 took it far with its references to Satan. But Tyler, the Creator took it even further. When Tyler and his Odd Future collective first sprung up in the early 2010s, the group was immediately branded as a bunch of devil-worshipping misfits.
From having merchandise adorned with 666 and inverted crosses to the lyrical content (Tyler’s 2011 debut album Goblin is full of satanic references) the group’s references to Satan were a topic of discussion on numerous forums during their rise.
However, Tyler played with fans’ perception of him, alluding to how he’s seen as a devil worshipper on Goblin‘s title track: “Oh, that’s a triple three six, isn’t he a devil worshipper / Cause I’m too f**king ignorant to do some research?”
Shortly after releasing his 2009 debut mixtape Bastard — ironically on Christmas — Tyler did an interview where he talked about the Satanic references, as well as revealed that he was atheist.
“My grandmother once told me I was from hell since I was so evil. I kinda took that and flipped it,” the artist said to Cakes & Brains. “Since I didn’t have a father, I sorta went to ‘this devil guy’ as a role model.”
Like Paul and Big L, Tyler was playing a character. But unlike his predecessors, Tyler had more freedom to experiment with Satanic references. He came up in the internet age — a time where a new generation of rap fans are more tolerable of taboo topics than previous ones were. Now, contemporary rappers are using Satanic imagery in a more evolved way. For some, it’s not to incite controversy or fear — it’s to enlighten.
SahBabii created the viral song “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” in 2016. He’s also the creator of Unknownism, a life philosophy that he described as “accepting the fact that you don’t know everything and you question everything.”
Created by SahBabii when he was only eight, Unknownism has gradually gained a devout following. A search of the word on Instagram will bring back numerous fan accounts that have Unknownism in their name. The word is also spread through hashtags on captions and often accompanied by a hashtag of 666.
But just as there are fans supportive of Unknownism, there are critics who believe the philosophy is just another form of Satanism.
“‘Pull up wit a stick, let it hit’ I used to like the song until I went to [SahBabii’s] IG page….He doesn’t believe in God but has made his own religion called Unknownism,” one Facebook user posted. “The symbol is an upside-down cross, which is disrespectful to me and what I stand for.”
“Really gotta watch what these musicians into. Upside down crosses, Unknownism, 666. Parents, you need to update yourself with what these musicians pushing on your kids,” another user wrote.
For the 21-year-old, 666 or an inverted cross has nothing to do with Satan but black affirmation.
“Six six six, that’s six protons, six electrons, six neutrons — that equals Carbon 12,” SahBabii said. “Carbon helps make melanin so that’s the scientific makeup of people of the same skin color as me.”
As for the inverted cross, it’s a response to Christianity being forced on black people during slavery.
There’s no scientific evidence that supports SahBabii’s Carbon 12 theory. Still, the appropriation of Satanic references as black empowerment hasn’t only caught on with SahBabii’s fans but other rappers too. SahBabii said that Trippie Redd and Lil Uzi Vert learned of Carbon 12 through Unknownism.
“I learned it from SahBabii,” Trippie confirmed over email. Trippie first referenced the theory after being called out by fans for using 666 in his song titled “TR666.”
“Now, why I say TR666? Because Trippie Redd is black, but Trippie Redd is also dark,” the rapper said in an Instagram story via Complex. “I make dark music, but I’m black, so I use it as a metaphor.”
Lil Uzi has been more enigmatic with why he uses Satanic imagery. Unlike SahBabii or Trippie, the Philadelphia rapper hasn’t spoken on it. Influenced by Marilyn Manson, Lil Uzi seems to be following in the rock provocateur’s footsteps, using Satanic imagery as a means of inciting controversy. This, along with the rapper’s name interpreted as a play on Lucifer, has resulted in numerous forums focused on if Lil Uzi is a Satanist or not.
It’s also caused him trouble with other rappers.
“All y’all ni**as wearing upside-down crosses, even my little partners, stop that s**t. You look lame,” Offset said in the since-deleted clip. “All that worship the devil s**t. Get with God, man.”
Lil Uzi responded by posting a picture on Instagram of a smiley face with an upside-down cross and the number 666, tagging Offset in it. The Migos rapper replied to the post, writing “I will pray for you, my brother.”
Most recently, Lil Nas X’s “Montero” music video caused controversy for a scene where Lil Nas gives Satan a lapdance after descending down a pole to hell. Despite the scene (as well as the rest of the video) being a reclamation of his queerness against regressive religious views toward queerness, many failed to see beyond the surface of the scene’s imagery, with critics labeling the video Satanic or sacrilegious.
“I grew up in a pretty religious kind of home — and for me, it was fear-based very much,” Lil Nas said in an interview with TIME. “Even as a little child, I was really scared of every single mistake I may or may not have made. I want kids growing up feeling these feelings, knowing they’re a part of the LGBTQ community, to feel like they’re O.K. and they don’t have to hate themselves.”
Unlike the previous instances highlighted, where rappers either made references to Satan and Satanic images for shock value or world building (or both), Lil Nas uses Satan to provide a commentary on how people use Christianity to vilify queerness. How being gay is seen as sexually immoral and Satan is to blame, rather than seeing how this can harm someone who identifies as queer, leading them to not only suppress a part of themselves but feel shame toward themselves, too.
Yes, the scene is provocative (to add to the provocation Lil Nas also launched a pair of “Satan Shoes” that were made using Nike Air Max 97s, resulting in Nike having to release a statement clarifying the company wasn’t involved with the shoe, as well as sue MSCHF, the art collective behind the shoes), but it’s more than just shock value for Lil Nas. It’s him finding comfort in his sexuality while forcing people to reckon with how they condemn queerness because of their faith.
In a genre where everything from gun violence to drug use is discussed, Satan is still very taboo. But as rap’s evolution has proved, the biblical figure isn’t leaving the genre anytime soon. It’ll continue to come back again and again in new and interesting ways. And no amount of prayer is going to stop that.
This piece was originally published in 2018.