How my demons look: rap’s complex relationship with the devil

From Doja Cat and Lil Nas X to horrorcore pioneers Three 6 Mafia, rappers have long courted controversy by using satanic imagery in their work. But in a society that demonises Black people, it's not all for the shock factor.

In the months leading up to the release of Doja Cats fourth studio album Scarlet, the Grammy award-winning artist underwent a visceral change of identity. Her hair and eyebrows: buzzed. Her skin: covered in tattoos, ranging from a tiny demon cat and an animal skull, to a scythe, a bat skeleton and a gothic spider.

Look at me, look at me, I’m naked,” she rapped in the music video for Attention, the first single from the album. In that moment, she also unveiled her alter ego and the album’s namesake, Scarlet, a nude, blood-drenched version of Doja.

Since then, the satanic undertones of Doja’s new persona have only become more explicit. Mm, she the devil /​She a bad lil’ bitch, she a rebel,” she rapped on the album’s second single Paint The Town Red. On album track Fuck The Girls, the Californian star boasts that she’s yelling 666″, while Demons asks listeners, How my demons look?” To top it off, Doja transformed into a black demon with red eyes and a diamond necklace for the song’s horror film-inspired music video, terrorising actress Christina Ricci and her family. Scarlets cover art is equally gothic: a duo of spiders, interlocked by their mouths, drawn by artist Dusty Ray, who also created a very similar spider-themed album cover German heavy metal band Chaver.

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Doja described Scarlet as the birth of a new creative, or new thought, or new way of style that you’re expressing”. But her new appearance hasn’t come without criticism. Headlines such as Is Doja Cat A Satanist?” appeared in the press, while her Instagram comments have been filled with accusations of demonic worship and satanism. You clearly sold your soul to the devil. Unfollow,” commented one user. Maybe that was the point: in the lead up to Scarlet, Doja has repeatedly addressed her relationship with her stans, criticising their invasive dedication while visually transforming into an artist that refuses to conform to the expectations they place upon her. The quirky girl next door who brought us Say So was gone, replaced, apparently, by Satan.

But Doja Cat’s not the first rapper who’s stoked controversy by incorporating demonic imagery and satanism into their videos and songs. And it’s hardly the first time Black music has been associated with the devil. In fact, ever since colonisation brought enslaved Africans to the Americas, African Americans have been read as demonic. Drums were banned amongst slaves because of their ability to communicate and conjure rhythmic movements into the body. Blues and jazz, genres derived from the singing traditions of African Americans in the fields, were classified as devil’s music. Those who found success in the industry were even accused of having sold their souls to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune – just look at the legends around blues musician Robert Johnson, Ferdinand Jelly Roll’ Morton and Jimi Hendrix.

So when hip-hop entered the mainstream in the 80s and 90s, it’s no surprise that the genre was subjected to punishment by the nation’s legal and court system. During the Satanic Panic of the era, heavy metal bands were accused in the media of indoctrinating young teens with concealed satanic messages in their songs – and, in the extreme cases of Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, were sued for inciting suicide (both cases were dismissed). Gangsta rap groups like N.W.A. were the target of law enforcement, surveilled by the FBI and conservative politicians, and subjected to police violence because songs like Fuck Tha Police. Both genres were provocative, but that rappers were often penalised more severely for their music – which generally contained less references to the occult – reveals a truth about America: for some, creative expression is a nuisance; for others, it’s a crime.

Despite this, some artists decided to lean into Black music’s association with the demonic, birthing horrorcore, a macabre subgenre of hip-hop that drew inspiration from violence, horror films, Satan and the Southern Gothic. Pioneers like Esham, Geto Boys, Gravediggaz and Flatlinerz began rapping about the devil, dismembered body parts, torture, necrophilia and horrific, grotesque violence. Meanwhile, Three 6 Mafia embedded occult worship into every part of their aesthetic. The album cover for the group’s gritty debut album Mystic Stylez, for instance, featured a blood-dripping graphic title, a white holy cross and two of three members wearing serial killer masks. It was, like, this young, cocaine-snorting, gangsta-ass Memphis shit,” said fellow Memphis rapper 8Ball of the legendary artwork. There’s no God. It’s all debauchery.” The subgenre sparked controversy, but the formula worked: Flatlinerz’s debut album U.S.A. (Under Satan’s Authority) charted on Billboard, while Three 6 Mafia’s earliest, darkest work is still inspiring rappers to this day.

The popularity of horrorcore declined during the 2000s, but hip-hop’s relationship with Satan was resurrected during the blog era. Tyler, the Creators debut mixtape Bastard opened with him describing himself as Satan’s son”, while Odd Future made references to the occult in their lyrics and imagery, often using the Mark of the Beat and inverted crosses in artwork. Lil Uzi Vert also uses the inverted cross, devil horns, skulls and more satanic symbols in their work, and some critics even believe that their name is an ode to the devil – say Lil Uzi Vert” too quickly or too slowly and the word Lucifer (kind of) comes out. Bloggers and YouTubers were quick to denounce both rappers as satanists in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but they didn’t care what the public thought. Instead, they capitalised on the backlash, using the controversy and hysteria to achieve notoriety.

Rap’s relationship with demonic imagery extends beyond the shock factor, though. DMX, for instance, used his demonic alter ego Damien to interrogate his troubled psyche. First introduced on his debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot on the track Damien, DMX went on to use the alter-ego to create a trilogy of songs across three albums, using the character to have an ongoing conversation with the demon in his mind.

Then there’s Lil Nas X, who, in the music video for Montero (Call Me by Your Name), descended into hell via a strip pole, where he mounted Satan, gave him a lap dance, killed him and then took his title as the devil. For Nas, the imagery was used to reclaim the cultural belief that gay people go to Hell, reframing eternal damnation as a place where a Black gay man can be king. The outrage sparked among right wing politicians and conservatives was further exacerbated by the rapper’s decision to sell unofficial Nike trainers, which included a bronze pentagram, samples of human blood in the shoes’ soles, and a reference to the Bible verse Luke 10:18 that states: I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

The prevalence of satanic imagery in hip-hop doesn’t mean that everyone in the community is on board, though. The demonic influence is getting more and more blatant in this thing,” said Punch, the co-president of Top Dawg Entertainment, in a recent series of tweets. The gradualism was numbing, now it’s just out loud.”

Punch’s comments are rooted in the centuries’ long relationship between African Americans and Christianity. Hip-hop may have originated from blues and jazz, but those genres came from the singing traditions of the Black Church and gospel. As such, there will always be a direct call back to divinity in all iterations of Black music. There’s little wonder that Black artists dabbling in the occult makes people uncomfortable.

Still, it’s not like these artists are actually practising Satanists. After Lil Uzi Vert performed an unreleased song at Rolling Loud, which received the controversial line make a City Girl believe in Satan,” the rapper clarified that the lyric was not a reference to the devil, but an affirmation that he can make a girl do anything that he says. Similarly, Tyler has refuted claims that he worships Satan, while Lil Nas X reportedly had to reassure the BET Awards that he wasn’t a satanist to perform at 2021’s ceremony.

Even the horrorcore pioneers deny that their music represents their faith. I usually just laugh [accusations that we’re satanists] off because we’re far from that,” said DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia in an interview with VICE. I mean, Juicy’s daddy is a preacher for crying out loud. We grew up in the church.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with Rock The Bells, Esham set the record straight: My music had nothing to do with horror or just trying to be scary. It might’ve been the political topics or just some of the subject matter I was rapping about that shocked people, even back in those days – back in the 90s.” Very rarely do these rappers actually engage in Satanic worship; they’re simply playing with the long held belief that Black people are demonic and have the ability to hypnotise people through music.

But whether rappers use demonic imagery to make a political statement like Lil Nas X, to critique the parasocial relationship between fans and artists like Doja Cat, or to cause controversy, both the artistic practice and the outsized reaction it receives from the media and public will always be inextricably linked to the oppression of Black people. The usage of demonic imagery in hip-hop continues to be of relevance today because the conditions that created horrorcore – white supremacy and racism – are still terrorising Black people in America. Rapping with the devil has always been used as a tool to critique the horror of being Black in America, from Ganksta N‑I-P to JPEGMAFIA. That reality has not changed.

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