“I was reaching out for something that told me what I already knew inside. So I identify with the idea of God in man. I identify with myself as being a God. That language drew me in.”
Estee Nack is a Lynn, Massachusetts-based rapper who tells me this while recalling the beginnings of his decade-plus involvement with the organization known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, or the Five Percenters (or sometimes the Five Percent Nation). The language he’s talking about includes terms familiar to any hip-hop fan, among them “peace,” “word,” “God” and its shortened form “G,” and even the ubiquitous crossed-arms b-boy stance. You know the Five Percenters and their ideas, even if you think you don’t.
The group was started in Harlem by a disaffected member of the Nation of Islam in 1964. The Five Percent name comes from the group’s belief that their adherents are the five percent of the population who know the truth—that black people are the “original people of the planet earth” and that the black man is God—and are determined to use it for good. Eighty-five percent of people, in the group’s belief, are the “deaf, dumb, and blind” masses. And 10 percent are aware of the truth, but used their knowledge to keep people ignorant.
Battle rapper Xcel first encountered members of the group when he was around 20.
“Them calling each other ‘Gods’ or saying ‘You’re a God’ gives you a sense of responsibility,” he says during a phone call. “Something goes bad, you can’t blame an outside entity. It’s on you. I liked the accountability it teaches.”
This new way of seeing the world also came with a new way of dealing with learning and language. The group used the Nation of Islam’s Supreme Wisdom Lessons as a primary text, but encouraged direct learning, one-on-one discussion, and personal interpretation. And over time, a Supreme Alphabet and Supreme Mathematics were developed. Every letter and number had a specific meaning—one that could be combined with the meanings of surrounding letters or numbers in creative ways.
They were also adept at breaking down words to find hidden associations or meanings. Founder Clarence Smith (also known as Allah the Father) used to spend long stretches expounding on just an individual word. In his hands, the word “helicopter” became “hell-lie-copped-her,” meaning the lie of hell had copped the black woman.
Naturally, young Five Percent adherents played an important part in the early days of hip-hop. Rising rapper Raz Fresco, who got involved with the Five Percenters in 2014, breaks it down.
“The Five Percent Nation, they’re very instrumental in the root of hip-hop culture from the very beginning,” he explains to me. “If you start to know about hip-hop, you start dealing with knowledge.”
The World’s Famous Supreme Team DJ crew were among the first hip-hop artists to claim any affiliation in the early 1980s. But by the time the Golden Age arrived, the doors had blown wide open.
Between the mid-1980 and the early ‘90s, it was more difficult to find a rapper who wasn’t influenced by the Gods and Earths than one who was. Whether it was Rakim (who wore their “seven and a crescent” Universal Flag symbol on his jacket for the cover of Eric B. & Rakim’s 1988 album Follow the Leader), Brand Nubian, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Poor Righteous Teachers (a group whose very name comes from Five Percent teachings), the Wu-Tang Clan, Digable Planets, Gang Starr, or countless others, rap and the Gods and Earths became basically synonymous.
And then they weren’t. With a few notable veteran exceptions (including JAY-Z famously donning a Universal Flag pendant during his Magna Carta Holy Grail press run in 2013-14), overt Five Percenter influence in rap declined as the 1990s went on and the bling bling, shiny suit era unfolded. Terms and ideas from the Five Percenters became so common that their origins were mostly forgotten.
Over two decades after the group’s high-water mark, where are things now? Is there room for knowledge of self in today’s trap-dominated landscape? Can the group ever return to ubiquity in hip-hop?
The rapper 6orn was exposed to the Gods and Earths from an early age in his native Roxbury, Massachusetts. They were “always around,” he tells me, though he didn’t become fully involved until 2008. In recent years, he’s changed his sound up from what he calls “boom-bap, conscious” music to something closer to today’s Atlanta-centric sound, with collaborators including Zaytoven and Quavo.
6orn compares his current approach to the way the Father used to get his message out. The Father, in a break from the Nation of Islam, allowed drinking and gambling in his fledgling organization, and would spend time doing both—recruiting along the way.
“I'm going to stay up to date,” 6orn tells me. “I'm going to tell you why. The Father, he would teach people. He would not go to people that already had some type of knowledge. He would always go around new people. He would go down to their level. So if they were on the corner gambling, he’s gonna gamble with them. While he's gambling with them, he's teaching them. He used to come around people and do what they were doing and teach them.
“That’s how I feel about my music,” he continues. “I'm going to get into this new world. That's just a strategy to get in there. I feel like you gotta do what the Father did, man. Just sneak in there, come with a disguise. Once you start talking to somebody, you have that conversation.”
The Father, he would teach people. He would go down to their level. That's how i feel about my music —6orn
For Raz, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Branson, being a Five Percenter who’s a rapper is less about turning doctrine into rhyme than it is about expressing a worldview. As he becomes more involved in the group, he tells me, “The way that I communicate my ideas and trust myself is going to change because the way that I process all information and the way that I process life is changing. It’s not just me studying these lessons, and that’s it. It’s me sitting down and coming to realizations. So it’s changing the way I completely operate as a person and as an individual. It’s a transformative process more than it is just study, sit down, and read process.”
That said, Raz’s music and visuals do contain plenty of nods to the Gods and Earths. “Actual Name” references the group’s ideas and lingo in the hook, and the video contains shots of a mural of the Universal Flag.
Estee Nack is trying to rebuild Five Percenter involvement in hip-hop on a local level. Working alongside artists like King Author and Tapout, he’s part of a community of hip-hop artists in his area who are involved in the NoGE.
“A lot of us [who] deal with the teachings, we’re talented, creative individuals,” he explains. “One way or another, we deal with the rap stuff. Generally, the Gods is creating. We gonna usually deal with some type of creative artful expression.”
Speaking with current rappers who are involved in the Gods and Earths and want to reflect and share their ideas in their music, it becomes clear that these are the primary approaches. Some, like 6orn, are trying to get into the mainstream before delivering messages. Others, as Raz is doing, are relying on their Gods and Earths-informed worldview to get their point across. Still more, similar to Estee, are working from the ground up.
But opinions differ on the question of whether getting the word out through rap is even necessary at all. While some want to bring back the Five Percent-dominated rap of the 1980s and ‘90s, others aren’t convinced that returning to the good ol’ days is the answer to anything. Xcel is firmly in the first camp.
“We need to bring Gods and Earths back,” says Xcel, who engaged in a notable contest that doubled as a theological back-and-forth with Christian rapper Loso back in 2016. “I think we need to bring back integrity in hip-hop. That's it. I’m not mad if you’re making money. I just think there should be a line on integrity, and getting back to caring about the craft.”
We need to bring Gods and Earths back. I think we need to bring back integrity in hip-hop. —Xcel
Estee Nack, though, has no interest in using rap to reach a mass audience.
“Those who hear the trumpets at the coming of God are the ones that are going to come to this,” he says. “I’m not really much concerned for those that don’t hear it. I’m just making sure that I’m being the best that I can be at what I do, and being able to positively influence my community.
“I’m not out here trying to convert people to the Five Percent,” he continues. “We’re the five percent—that pretty much explains what it is. The five percent gonna be the five percent, the 85 gonna be the 85, and the 10 percent gonna be the 10 percent. We all are going to play our role in this society, and I have no vested interest in trying to change that. I’m focused on my personal growth and development, and being able to share that with the people that are around me, or the people that can access me through the internet or through my music.”