Bashar Jackson, famously known as Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, was the victim of a tragic home invasion this past February when four men broke into the Mount Olympus, California home he was renting. When city police arrived at 2033 Hercules Drive, they found the 20-year-old suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead after reaching Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a non-profit Los Angeles hospital.
Since his passing, whenever I hear Pop Smoke’s music, I think of Greek mythology, Roman gladiators, and how Hercules was said to be the strongest man that ever lived. I associate strength with Pop’s confidence, charisma, and voice. That icy New York tone gave his vocals the dangerous cool of a hustler tough as concrete and strong as steel. Kicking off his sophomore mixtape, Meet The Woo 2, with “Invincible,” said it all.
Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, embodied invincibility. His strength and resilience made him legendary, but unlike other heroes in the Greek mythology pantheon, living in harmonic servitude is how he gained the people’s lasting admiration. All the stories of Hercules being a sex-craving, raging hot-head pale in comparison to the recognition he earned after completing The Twelve Labors.
Rappers, under entirely different circumstances, have their own 12 labors they must overcome to be famous. Releasing albums, shooting videos, performing shows, and negotiating deals aren’t the same as fighting monsters and saving maidens, but neither profession is for the weak. No matter how easy it may look, only the rappers who step into the lion’s den unknown and step out the people’s champion will reach hip-hop’s Mount Olympus.
Hercules-type rappers sound like gladiators in the heat of battle. Think Rick Ross’ “Hold Me Back,” Chief Keef’s “Faneto,” 3ohblack’s “All Talk,” or Rico Nasty’s “Rage.” It’s the largeness they exude that makes them appear as strong as a Greek god. Pop Smoke had that largeness. “DIOR,” “Scenario,” “Welcome To The Party,” and “44 BullDog” all exemplify the power he projected. That’s how I’ll remember Pop—Canarsie’s champion, the one with Herculean bravado and a voice that could spook a Cerberus.
Both hip-hop and Greek mythology revolve around the trials and tribulations, love and envy, legends and lies, and of the powerful and the powerless. How celebrity culture idolizes men and women of rap is not that different from the way deities were admired back in Ancient Greece. Sure, JAY-Z can’t throw lightning, but as the most famous rapper on hip-hop’s Mount Olympus, he is the Zeus of rap, with Beyoncé as his Hera.
Zeus was not the most faithful husband. Some of the greatest characters of Greek mythology, Hercules included, were born because of his constant infidelity. But all that cheating came with risks. One example, as Bernard Evslin explains in Gods, Demi-Gods, and Demons, Zeus was warned if Metis, his pregnant lover, bore a son, the boy would grow up and kill him. What the prophecy foreshadowed is no different than JAY-Z’s “Meet The Parents,” except the son would survive.
Zeus’ solution was a simple one. He ate Metis; devoured her whole. Immediately after, the King of Gods suffered a severe migraine driving him to bang his head against rocks and stones. The agony consisted until Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera, struck his father with a head-splitting mallet. Armed with a spear, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, daughter of Zeus and Metis, made her exit from his broken skull.
A kindred spirit to the story of Athena’s birth is South Park, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion. The 25-year-old supernova accelerated her climb to rap’s upper echelon by consistently releasing hot verses and catchy hooks. After the success of her 2018 breakout single, “Big Ole Freak,” rappers in Megan’s pool of emerging talent started to sound quieter, appearing less confident. If tenacity was a weapon, Megan wielded hers like the mallet that freed Athena.
Historically, women in rap have always found a way to split heads, break egos, and escape the confines of hip-hop’s deep-rooted patriarchy. Megan is no different. With the lyricism of a brazen slick-talker and the loveable charm of a sweetheart from the South, the Houston native has become a model of power, passion, and perseverance.
In comparison, Athena was a well-liked and beloved goddess. “Scholars prayed to her for enlightenment, inventors for inspiration, judges for clarity and fair-mindedness,” wrote Bernard Evslin on how academics, creatives, and upholders of justice sought her wisdom and strength. Megan’s core fanbase looks to her and her story for similar inspiration. She enlightens, inspires, and encourages simply by living and thriving in this spotlight. Watching the rise of Megan Thee Stallion is like watching a fresh face take on their 12 labors. Each obstacle she overcomes adds to her legend.
Although legend says Athena lived as a virgin, there’s another Greek legend who speaks to the more sexually liberated lyricists: Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.
“Love was her profession, her pleasure, her hobby,” Evslin wrote, describing the goddess that was courted by all the gods. Wherever she walked, flowers bloomed, and the birds sang. But don’t let the love title misrepresent her—Aphrodite was fascinated by violence. As one of three gods friendly with Aries, the God of War, she was about action, a characteristic that reminds me of Cardi B, the Bronx, New York City powerhouse who intimidates and seduces like a goddess that lives between the spaces of love and war.
In 2020, Cardi B isn’t the only woman rapper building her kingdom by making men sweat and women fawn. You can hear newcomers like Saweetie, Mulatto, Flo Milli, CHIKA, and Bktherula all the different feminine energy spreading through hip-hop. There isn’t a woman rapping who isn’t embracing self and hustling to stay in the forefront. This will lead to more rappers thriving in the game as modern-day Athenas and Aphrodites.
When putting rappers and these mythical figures into contrast, it’s not always a definite overlap. Multiple artists have varied characteristics. There’s some Hercules in the story of Megan Thee Stallion; some Aries, the God of War, in Pop Smoke’s aggressive lyricism. Every rapper has a song that sounds like lightning bolts thrown by Zeus. But with Hades, the God of the Underworld, there is but one rapper who is perfectly aligned: Future. Future is Hades based on Evslin’s description in Gods, Demi-Gods, and Demons:
“He was somber, loathed change, and was given to slow black rage. He was a very jealous, very thrifty god. He sought always to enlarge his kingdom and forbade his subjects to leave his realm.” –Bernard Evslin
After reading that character analysis, I thought of Future and his song “My Collection.” The way he sings of women as possessions is kindred to a god who believes to have you once is to have you always. The connection doesn’t stop there. Hades and Future, born Nayvadius Wilburn, both exude the darker sides of living as kingdom-building, women-snatching, money-getters.
Future’s 2015 mixtape 56 Nights sounds like Hades’ playlist to celebrate another conquest. Every song is devoid of morals, righteousness, or light. It’s dirty, out-the-mud rap. He sounds like the kind of guy who rides in a golden chariot drawn by four black horses. Doesn’t, “I made your lil’ brother hang out the window, I had ‘em shootin’ up the block,” sound like something the ruler of Tartarus would say?
“They called him ‘Pluton’ or the ‘rich one,’ but he was patient, the most patient of Gods. He outwaited all strategies, and finally always caught the one he was waiting for. In Roman Mythology, Hades was known as Pluto.” –Bernard Evslin
Despite being the God of the Underworld, Hades had the demeanor of a trap rapper. The aggression that appears in the music, along with the pursuit of pleasures, riches, and war, reflects his role in Greek mythology: chaos and cool. Embodying both is what makes some of rap’s most villainous personas idols of amoral impulses.
The more I look into the lives of Greek gods and goddesses, the more I understand how human emotions afflict even deities. They have all this power, these gifts, and yet, love, lust, rage, envy, greed, and the fear of death afflicted them. Rappers, especially in our modern times, represent all the feelings a person is faced with in pursuit of their legend. There’s not an artist today who isn’t documenting their rise to Olympus. The ones who make it will be remembered forever, and ever.