Language arts

The rise of “hotep”

The word's evolution online highlights divisions in the fight for black liberation.

Language arts

The rise of “hotep”

The word's evolution online highlights divisions in the fight for black liberation.
Language arts

The rise of “hotep”

The word's evolution online highlights divisions in the fight for black liberation.

Molly, one of several characters on the HBO series Insecure with a disastrous dating history, doesn’t want a “hotep” for a boyfriend. In episode 2, she laments the limits of her social network: “Apparently all my friends only know hotep niggas.” A flashback cuts to her at a bar being harangued by a man dressed in vaguely militaristic fashion. “I just want a queen that respects herself, who lays off of swine, who stands beside her king like a strong black woman should,” he tells her. “But my queen gotta be a freak, too.”

The man is just one example of a pop culture trope that’s been around for decades: the sanctimonious afrocentric man who holds, and spews, lots of ideas about how a black woman should be. But what sets this character apart from previous iterations — such as Don’t Be a Menace’s Preach, who pontificates about respect for the black race but loves to date white women and uses racial epithets for Asian people — is that on Insecure the stereotype is called by its modern name, “hotep.”

Even if you haven’t heard the word before, you may be familiar with the kind of person it’s meant to describe and the kind of person Molly is not interested in dating: someone (usually a man and sometimes dressed in kente cloth or a dashiki) who fervently preaches about the oppression of the black race and how we are all descended from African kings and queens. It’s a figure born from the emergence of Afrocentrism in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and its subsequent reemergence in the late ’80s and ’90s. It's easy to understand why — black nationalism emerged as an empowering system of belief in the face of centuries of subjugation and systemic oppression.

Rare Gratitude

But online, where the word has proliferated in recent years, hotep signifies a faux-wokeness associated with misogynoir, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and misguided understandings of history and science. “Hotep Twitter is the home of the #StayWoke crowd of men who claim to represent the roots of Africa or whatever…but deep down they display misogynist and homophobic traits,” warned Bossip in a 2015 post. “If you’ve never come in contact with one of these Hotep men, consider yourself lucky.”

How did hotep come to be a modern buzzword anyway, and what about it has people up in arms?

A neutral form of the word has been in use in some communities for decades. But as it’s gone from an indicator of social and political consciousness to a more specific descriptor categorizing a performative, contradictory racial pride at the expense of black women and black people who identify as queer, it’s recently became a site of controversy. Look no further than the divide between people who earnestly identify as hoteps and those who use the word mockingly. But how did hotep come to be a modern buzzword anyway, and what about it has people up in arms?

In afrocentric circles, hotep was — and still is — used as a greeting loosely meaning “I come in peace.” The original word can be traced to Ancient Egypt, where it meant “to rest, to be satisfied, or to be content,” according to Christian Casey, an Egyptian language PhD student at Brown University. The word is commonly used in reference to the sun or the moon as well as in rulers’ names, he said, but when “you’re talking about Egyptian words there’s always this sort of distance that exists because the language died out entirely and was lost to history and later redeciphered.” The word is often associated with a particular afrocentric belief system that lionizes Ancient Egypt, and traces a passionate, if not entirely accurate, line between African-Americans and Ancient Egyptian royalty — a stand-in for the immeasurable cultures and histories lost as a direct result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, chair of the African American studies department at Temple University, explained over the phone: “It’s just like saying ‘shalom.’” On its modern usage, he added, “Hotep is a very ancient greeting and it’s a very noble greeting… I don’t know why you would make that into a negative thing.” Asante, who is the author of a number of books about African history, Afrocentricity, and African-American culture said the word has been used as a greeting in the US for at least 40 years.

Tracking the precise rise of its recent meaning is difficult: The first available Urban Dictionary definition of hotep was posted in 2011 and, as with many Urban Dictionary entries, it has a clear, if defensive, take on the word: “‘Peace’ or ‘I come in Peace’ it is a common greeting with people well versed in true world history.” More critical, satirical definitions started appearing in 2015 with the following example offered as “Hotep Talk”: “The real George Washington was actually black, but the white man doesn't want you to know that.”

While many see its popular meaning as a legitimate criticism, its defenders say using it as a derogatory term is uninformed.

Like its surge in popularity, the evolution of the word can be difficult to pinpoint. But its multi-year transformation can be traced in part through music. On the 2008 track “Move” Q-Tip proudly asserts, “We made it cool to wear medallions and say ‘hotep,’” the “we” referring to A Tribe Called Quest, alongside whom he helped popularize afrocentricity in ‘90s pop culture. But by 2016, the word had taken on new baggage. On “Song About Sex” nerdcore rapper Sammus raps: “And for the hotep niggas, I'ma roast them/ quicker than they post up/ prose about the ‘hoes’ they/ hitting.” The verse goes on to condemn sexual predators and the chorus makes the feminist point of view of the song clear: “This is a song about sex in which I do not condemn women for the realities in which they are living, yes.” As an anthem for the protection of black women, “Song About Sex” posits “hoteps” as being at odds with black women’s liberation. In a Genius annotation, Sammus defined “hotep” as “a reference to a group of men, and while they claim to be pro-black their views are limited to supporting straight cis black men who are mired in toxic masculine relations.”

This opposition is at the center of controversy over the way “hotep” is used today. While many see its popular meaning as a legitimate criticism of cisgender, heterosexual, male-centered black liberation and resistance movements, its defenders say using it as a derogatory term is uninformed. “To me what this seems like is another degradation of ideas that are derived from black people,” said Asante. “These are words that come out of the history of Africa, and to demean them, to me, seems to show the ignorance of people.” Recent articles, like “The Word Hotep Deserves Better Than This” by D.L. Chandler and “Hotep Is the Modern Day A.B.S. And It’s Not OK” by C.R. Sparrow, both from 2016, echo Asante’s concerns.

Like hotep, afrocentricity is a contentious school of thought that is as criticized for its alleged ahistoricism as it is praised for challenging the kind of Eurocentric thought that is standard in academia and popular culture. Hotep is a great example of the fluidity of language and the ability internet platforms have to encourage such evolutions. But it is also an example of the ways we can use language to hold people accountable for their belief systems and behavior.

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