If you ask one of your friends what exactly a “hotep” is, they may have a few issues when trying to explain. The descriptors they’d use, like “pro-Black” or “conscious,” aren’t inherently negative, but the way that hotep is used by young people often has a negative connotation. But how could this be? Hotep is word with ancient Egyptian roots that means “be at peace;” so, why has it become associated with homophobia, conspiracy theories, and memes?
“Over the past decade or so, the working definition of ‘Hotep’ has morphed into an all-encompassing term describing a person who’s either a clueless parody of Afrocentricity…or someone who’s loudly, conspicuously and obnoxiously pro-black but anti-progress,” Dwayne Wong wrote for Huffington Post in 2018.
The first time I saw someone who fit this description was actually a parody—Damon Wayans’ portrayal of Oswald Bates on popular comedy sketch show In Living Color. Equipped with a kufi, a prison jumpsuit, and a wealth of meaningless information, Bates was a caricature of Black men who joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) while imprisoned. Of course, this skit has roots in the story of Malcolm X, who famously joined the NOI while imprisoned in 1952.
If you live in New York City and frequent the subway, you’ve seen members of the NOI urging the Black community to become more socially aware. They discuss the impending apocalypse, and how we can get back in touch with our highest selves if we follow a certain path. They’re pretty harmless. But, they’ve become conflated with hypervisible pro-Black men, like Dr. Umar Johnson and Tariq Nasheed, who use their ideological stances to put people, namely members of the LGBT community and Black women, down.
Because of the transgressions of these men (and their following) and their affiliation with symbols like anhks, we’ve come to clump all Black people with militant leanings and stamp them with the “hotep” label. We’ve turned them into a joke, hence the origin of the meme format.
Popular Charlotte rapper, Mavi, spoke on this via Twitter late last year. “Reg problack shit getting lumped in [with] hotep memes,” he tweeted. “[D]a worst part is the peril of using ‘hotep’ in this way was thoroughly critiqued warned abt n dismissed.” This was tweeted after hotep memes flooded Twitter during the 2019 holiday season. His concern likely stems from the fact that one day, people may not know the history of the word “hotep”, or the people who directly influence the modern faces of it. Because of this, we could come to a point where “hotep” is exclusively associated with negativity.
I’ve created and shared more than my share of hotep memes. But, I also regularly speak on liberation for the Black community through my work and I faithfully buy oils. So, I guess I’m a bit of a hotep. I can acknowledge pointed attacks on my Black peers who are women, a part of the LGBT+ community, or both, through humor. I can also understand why the term being used exclusively as a joke without any historical context doesn’t excite people.
The point is not to demonize either side. Instead we can discuss how we can get into the complexities of the term, while also having fun with Black lingo. Peace.
Photo Credit: Twitter