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An Online Prophet Clams to Be a God. His Followers Keep Getting Arrested.

The video showed a chaotic scene: On a clear September morning, a Georgia police officer loaded down with weapons and gear was holding open the door of a vehicle, looking exasperated as a group of young Black people protested loudly. 

“Y’all see him harassing us in the rising, right?” said the person filming the incident from inside the car. “It’s eight o’clock in the rising, we’re being harassed by a racist cop.”

“We’re sovereign beings!” said another one of the people. 

Later, after two of the five—Lee, 26, and Key, 27, to whom we’re referring by their online aliases—were arrested, two distinct narratives would emerge. The first, shared across social media in the hours and days that followed, held that the young people, who were on a spiritual quest and had rejected a racist, materialist society in favor of learning to live in and with nature, had been minding their own business and resting in a car alongside a road in Athens, Georgia when the police officer, motivated by racism and possibly working at the behest of more powerful forces, singled them out for harassment and abuse.

In the second, documented in a police report, the officer ran the plates on the car after noting its occupants behaving in a strange manner, and discovered that it was uninsured. Lee, the driver, refused to provide identification or his name and date of birth, and exited the car after being told not to, the officer wrote; Key pushed him, and scratched and clawed at him when he attempted to place her in handcuffs. The officer noted that there were a number of machetes in the car, which were turned over to a friend of the pair. Both Lee and Key were charged with obstruction, and Lee was additionally charged for driving with a suspended license and without insurance. (Both were arraigned on November 15 and pleaded not guilty; status hearings in their cases are set for January 2023. Lee’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment, while Key’s declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.) 

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Screencap via Instagram.

What both sides agreed on was that Lee had refused to produce identification. As the police had it, this was obstruction; for the young people, it was a matter of conscience and religion. 

“We can’t even do no spiritual practices outside,” asked one of the people in the car, “without getting arrested and harassed?” This man is an aspiring influencer named who goes by FreeSoultheGod, or FreeSoul, online, and he was 14 minutes into a livestream he broadcast later on the same day as the arrests, explaining his perspective on them. “I don’t want to have no ID. I don’t want to be identified. I don’t want a fucking slave card saying I am this number. That sounds like a fucking prisoner to me.” 

At this point, FreeSoul’s wife, a lash technician who goes by Arythegoddess, or Ary, online, asked him to step outside the Chuck E. Cheese from which he was livestreaming, because he had become so loud and agitated she was worried they’d be thrown out. Along with Ary and a friend—who had been at the scene when Key and Lee were arrested and goes by TehutiDivine, or Tehuti, online—FreeSoul made his way out into the parking lot, monologuing all the while.

“If Bill Gates is investing billions to dim the sun, what the fuck is going on with the sun?” he asked his viewers. “China is making a fake sun! Y’all don’t pay attention to anything but hip-hop, you dumb motherfuckers. We came back to this planet for y’all! Bitch, y’all all about to die and you don’t even know it!” 

(FreeSoul and Ary did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and blocked a Motherboard reporter who reached out via a direct message on Instagram. FreeSoul’s attorney declined to comment. Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Program, which counts Bill Gates among its donors, is not exactly trying to dim the sun. The researchers are studying an entirely theoretical—for now—concept to “spray aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space,” as Politifact reported. The idea is controversial and viewed as a desperate last-ditch measure. )

The incident—the confrontation, the arrests, and the fantastical way they were recast in FreeSoul’s telling—was part of a larger pattern. A group of young Black spiritual seekers, interested in esoteric and New Age ideas, have become enthralled by an influencer and rapper named Rashad Jamal. FreeSoul, for instance, said on a separate livestream that he’d come to Georgia to support Jamal, who’s currently incarcerated there, and to lead a mass meditation aimed at freeing him. 

Jamal, also known as Divine Insight, has attracted a large and devoted audience to his University of Cosmic Intelligence, a video platform that contains his lectures and rap videos; the UCI also has a store, which sells crystals and other New Age items. His beliefs are plentiful and eccentric: he preaches that Black and Latino people are gods; that polygamy is essential to the spiritual and family structure of the conscious man; that he himself is a semi-divine being sent back to Earth “to enlighten and inform and increase the frequency of the planet, and to rid this planet of its parasitical invaders”; that the government is engaged in activities like weather modification and shutting off “stargates” to alternate dimensions, by which he means rainbows; and that NBA players are synthetic robots. 

Jamal and his followers have also referenced ideas that are heavily influenced by sovereign citizen rhetoric—convictions, for instance, that they’re not bound by the laws of the United States, and that documents like IDs represent allegiance to a slave system they say they’ve rejected. They’ve also aligned themselves with some other, extremely fringe conspiracy theories. Followers have, for instance, expressed the belief that birds aren’t real and are instead government tracking devices, a conspiracy theory that began as a joke and has very little real-world traction.  

A growing number of these people have, like Jamal himself, been charged with crimes ranging from the minor to the extremely serious. As Motherboard reported earlier this year, two women accused in the killing of a motorist in Alabama appear to have, at the least, followed Jamal online, as did a young man charged with killing his own mother with a sword, also in Alabama. Motherboard has since identified five additional recent arrests of people who support, follow, or are tied to Jamal, raising the total number to eight. (Jamal, who is currently incarcerated and appears to be without a lawyer, could not be reached for comment, including through an intermediary.)

Some of the alleged crimes concern family members or romantic partners; Jamal himself has been in jail in Georgia for months on charges of sexually abusing the child of his previous romantic partner and one count of cruelty to children. (Jamal denied these allegations in an address posted to YouTube, claiming “the oppressors” fabricated them because he was “trying to expose their lies, plots, and plans within their Satanic kingdom.”) Not long after the Georgia incident, FreeSoul was himself arrested on charges of sexual abuse of a minor; he has denied the charges, which date back years to a period when he himself would have been a minor, and is currently free on bond.

Do you know anything we should know about Rashad Jamal or anything else? Contact the reporters at tim.marchman@vice.com or anna.merlan@vice.com. For extra security, download the Signal app to a non-work device and text us there at 267-713-9832.

Like FreeSoul, a man who goes by Huncho Prophet, or Prophet, online was picked up on charges unrelated to his relationship with Jamal. In a solicitation for money posted on GoFundMe, though, Prophet depicted the arrests as part of a grand spiritual struggle, insisting he was “falsely imprisoned under the political prisoners act,” which is not a real law, and adding that the powers that be are “desperate to stop eye and god Rashad Jamal” because, in his words, “i grew too powerful on the energy charts.” 

Experts in Black religious traditions say there’s nothing unusual about Jamal’s message, or the way it’s gained purchase among aspiring influencers and artists from seemingly middle-class backgrounds. There is a long history of movements that center Black people in a way American society does not, and however strange beliefs about aliens or gnostic claims about a false reality may seem, they’re in some ways perhaps best understood as something to be taken more seriously than literally. That’s especially true given how peaceful such groups generally are in their interactions with outsiders, wanting more than anything to be left alone.

A review of the overall pattern of wild videos, arrests, and personal fallout surrounding Jamal’s followers, however, makes clear that they are increasingly radicalized. The justified anger members feel toward a racist system has blended with a set of esoteric, conspiratorial, and paranoid beliefs that they seem to be picking up through online spaces like TikTok and Instagram, with real and dangerous consequences—both for the spiritual seekers themselves, and for the people they come into contact with. 

Followers of Jamal and other esoteric Black influencers have, meanwhile, become convinced the pattern of arrests is a conspiracy against them.

“There’s a target of attacks on the conscious community,” declared a TikToker who goes by Golden Insight. That community, he added plaintively, “is being targeted by higher elites. When do we stand up for what’s right?” 

For Darshell Smith, the accusations that Jamal and his followers are being “targeted” are deeply offensive. Smith was in a relationship with Jamal—to whom she refers to by his previous artist’s moniker, “Jetta”—for three years, and it’s her child from a previous relationship whom Jamal is accused of sexually abusing. (The pair also have a child together.) After her child disclosed the sexual abuse to her, Smith said, she had no choice but to go to the police. As a result, she said, she’s been targeted with harassment and threats from Jamal fans and followers. 

“I’m being attacked by Black people,” she said recently. “And I am Black. So that really bothers me the most. I feel like with any race, that’s your home. After everything we’ve been through, why would a Black mother come and lie on a Black man who’s supposedly trying to uplift the people in a positive way?” 

Smith describes the relationship between her and Jamal as violent and coercive from the start. The two met, she says, when they were both musical artists working out of the same recording studio. Smith says that Jamal was less a true romantic partner than someone who followed her home from the studio and never left. She alleges Jamal was abusive, claiming he subjected her and her children to screaming rants and once held her at gunpoint. (Court records show that Smith filed a family violence petition and a motion for a protective order against Jamal in September of this year; the contents of those records aren’t public. Jamal has denied committing family or sexual violence against Smith or her child.) 

“I felt like a hostage every single day for almost three years,” she said. 

Smith was also present for Jamal’s pivot from aspiring rapper to New Age influencer. She says she even helped him set up his YouTube page, where the University of Cosmic Intelligence got its start. 

“That was a good thing for me because he started focusing more on that, truthfully,” she said. Previously, Jamal had begun subjecting her and her family to endless lectures: “We’d have to sit there while he talked. He was trying to preach to us.” She was glad to see that behavior move online and away from the focus on her. 

Now, she said, she’s being accused of participating in some sinister government or cabal plot against him—all for pursuing justice for her family. 

“I am the face for my child,” Smith told Motherboard.  “I’m doing what some women have been afraid to do.” 

She’s also watched with concern as Jamal’s University of Cosmic Intelligence became a far larger—and stranger—phenomenon than it once was. She was aware of what she called “weird little meetings,” where UCI followers have gathered across the South for in-person mass meditations. 

“They’re doing weird shit,” she said dryly. 

And while mass meditations and attempts to get in touch with nature are harmless, Jamal’s followers, even before this latest round of arrests, were involved in a number of disturbing incidents. As Motherboard previously reported, two women who were seemingly fans of Jamal’s were Yasmine Hider and Krystal Pinkins, who were arrested in Alabama after the shooting death of a college student named Adam Simjee. 

Police allege that Simjee and his girlfriend, Mikayla Paulus, were traveling near the Cheaha State Park in Alabama this August when Hider flagged them down, claiming her car wasn’t working. According to Paulus’ mother, who spoke to news outlet WBRC, the pair attempted to help Hider before she pulled out a gun and demanded their keys and cell phones. When she tried to walk them into the woods at gunpoint, Simjee pulled out his own gun. Hider was shot in the torso and Simjee in the back. He died at the scene, as Paulus tried to revive him. 

Pinkins was standing in the woods nearby as the shooting took place, according to a statement from the Clay County sheriff’s office. Hider is said to have called out for her help, but Pinkins fled; the sheriff’s office said that a tracking unit with the Alabama Department of Corrections later found her and what they called “a large group of tents” that appeared to be a “base camp.” As police were ordering Pinkins to the ground, they said, her five-year-old son emerged from the woods holding a shotgun, which he initially refused to drop. (The USDA Forest Service told Motherboard in a statement that it was “not aware of an off-grid community presence on National Forest lands in Alabama.”)

Both women remain in custody in Alabama as their cases proceed; Hider is charged with murder, kidnapping and robbery, while Pinkins is charged with murder, kidnapping, robbery, and endangering the welfare of a child. Law enforcement agencies, as well as the attorneys involved, were placed under a gag order by a Clay County District Judge in mid-August; the judge also ordered Clay County Sheriff Jim Studdard to remove a social media post he’d previously posted about the incident. (Hider’s attorney, who is able to discuss some aspects of the case, declined to comment past saying that he has demanded a preliminary hearing and that his client “is recovering from the gunshot wounds she received at the time of the incident.” Pinkins’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Another follower of Jamal’s, 23-year-old Damien Washam, is also accused of murder. Police say killed his mother with a large sword in January, while also attacking his brother, who is autistic, and his uncle, who was bedridden with cerebral palsy. (His case has been bound over to a grand jury; his lawyer, who has previously declined to comment, did not respond to another request.) Washam’s father Hubert told Motherboard that Damien had an increasing interest in Jamal after learning about his videos through an online chat in Call of Duty, and estimated his son spent “three to five thousand dollars” on crystals from Jamal’s University of Cosmic Intelligence online store in the months leading up to the attack. 

Washam describes his son as having been an essentially normal kid before the attacks; the online presences for Hider and Pinkins also suggested women leading quiet lives as a college student, in Hider’s case, and a home health aide and aspiring writer, in Pinkins’. The central mystery is how their lives so quickly spun out of control and in such devastating ways and what, if anything, this has to do with Jamal’s ideas—especially considering that for all their baroque strangeness, none of his videos appear to advocate for violence.

FreeSoul’s online presence suggests a trajectory very similar to the ones that Hider and Pinkins appear to have followed. The earliest postings on his Instagram account are anodyne, having to do with friends and college football; in May 2021 he posted about how he’d lost $50,000 trading foreign currency and was down to his last $250, but excited about where he was and eager to make it to the top. 

Just over a year later, FreeSoul—who has asserted that he was developing his ideas before encountering Jamal’s, and explicitly denied being in a “cult”—was presenting himself very differently online. He posted a video claiming the government is allowing pedophilia through supporting the concept of “agefluidity.” A few days after that, he touted the benefits of urine therapy.

“God is love, love is God,” he says in the video, in which he walks around outside, ebullient. “All you need to heal any sickness—cancer, herpes, AIDS, I don’t care what it is—all you need to heal yourself is your own water from your own will. Your urine. You could drink your urine and I promise, I don’t care what sickness you got, it’s going to cure it. I have backtested it. I have done it myself and as you can see, I look very healthy.” He asserts that aging is simply dehydration caused by eating foods with a positive charge, corrupting the “divine water system,” and that the human body is 97% stardust.

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FreeSoul. Screencap via Youtube.

In the weeks that followed, he began posting far more prolifically. He talked about how happy he was about the ongoing awakening and Black people calling themselves gods, and how they were fighting oppressors and “low-vibrational” human beings who would seek to set them against one another; talked about sending messages through the astral plane and a secret plan to build an army to fight low-vibrational human beings; wrote about the coming war and how enemies would try to call his side conspiracy theorists, cultists, or scammers; and, on August 22, posted to hype an upcoming mass meditation meant to “set intent” for September 9. 

The next day, he posted a video of Rashad Jamal, and the day after that he posted a video in which he denounced enemies who had been “sending spells” directed at the mass meditation he’d been doing in support of Jamal. “You ain’t stopping shit,” he told them, castigating them for not supporting Jamal by posting his videos and spreading his teachings. “Y’all still want to live in this fake-ass world!”

Two days after that, he posted a video in which he talked about a discussion with his friend Tehuti in which they talked about opting out of the system. A few days after that, he monologued at an unnamed enemy who claimed to be close to Jamal, claiming he’d broken a mind-control spell. (“Y’all be careful of motherfuckers claiming to be close to Rashad. Fucking occult. Sorcery! Trying to steal your essence.”) The following day, he posted an impassioned plea for people to rise up and defend Jamal.

Nine days after that, and three days after the scheduled mass meditation, he posted an image of himself and two other young men in the woods, tagging Lee, Tehuti, Ary, Jamal, and the University of Cosmic Intelligence. (Key, who had previously posted about partying with Jamal on social media, appears to have also been traveling with the group.)  Over the next several days he posted pictures of the group in the woods with machetes before going dark for a week, and then posted the video of the incident in which Key and Lee were arrested—not far from where Jamal was being held in Barrow County.

(“SMD!!!! You Not gettin no info outta me Dude,” Tehuti wrote in response to a request for comment.)

By the end of that day, FreeSoul had posted a link to a GoFundMe his wife had set up for their comrades. And later that night he posted a 23-minute video of him walking, alone, in the woods. “Five of us against the world,” he said repeatedly. He refused to look into the camera, he explained, because inside of it was a mirror, through which his enemies could send spells. He talked about being on a crime spree, with him and his compatriots walking into stores and taking what they wanted, and about Dr. Sebi and how he was killed, and about how an alkaline diet cures all diseases. (Dr. Sebi was an herbalist and healer who preached the benefits of an alkaline diet and falsely claimed it could cure a number of diseases and ailments, including HIV and blindness. Sebi attracted a large and devoted following, predominantly in Black communities with a focus on perceived natural healing. He was arrested in Honduras in 2016 and died in custody there, leading to persistent conspiracy theories and suspicions that he was murdered by the government for his work, rumors that Sebi’s grandson attempted to debunk in 2019.) 

For FreeSoul, everything in the supposedly “real” world was becoming more clear, and he didn’t like what he saw. 

“Everything we was ever taught was a lie,” he said on the livestream. “They ain’t never told us the truth about shit.” 

Much of what we know about Jamal’s followers and their various legal travails is due to a livestreamer who goes by Duhkulu on Youtube and Instagram. (He asked that we withhold his legal name due to ongoing threats against his family by some of the people he covers. He frequently shares those threats on Instagram; one irate fan of Jamal’s recently told him that his infant would “die” because of his livestreams.) 

Kulu, as he’s also known, began covering the “conscious” and New Age Black communities when he was living in California and a friend of his became a follower of another charismatic leader. Kulu looked into the ideas that his friend was suddenly posting about. He found them farfetched—“I was like, What the heck?”—and started making videos of his own. 

“I was making videos for him to see,” Kulu told Motherboard, “trying to, I guess, break him free or get him out.” 

Since then, Kulu has grown particularly concerned with the ways that charismatic, extremely online “conscious” personalities try to sway a young Black male audience, and focuses his videos on airing these leaders’ dirty laundry or debunking their claims. 

“My major goal was to to keep younger males from following these guys,” he said. They include Jamal, self-proclaimed “master teacher” and Moorish sovereign citizen Nature Boy, and Young Pharaoh, a rapper the Anti-Defamation League calls “an antisemitic conspiracy theorist.” Kulu became concerned by how these men were using their online platforms to “convert and radicalize” younger men “to follow and obey them.” He’s also noted the ways that these influencers “pull from one another,” figuring out “what works and what doesn’t” to spread their messages. Jamal, for instance, saw explosive growth on YouTube after Young Pharaoh was deplatformed there; Kulu believes that’s because Jamal was able to see a hole in the market, imitate some of the other rapper’s talking points, and move into the space he left behind. 

As he’s watched the explosive growth of the “conscious,” deeply conspiratorial community in online Black spaces, Kulu has also developed a few conspiracy theories of his own. 

“This whole sector is being used obviously to make money,” he said, with people like Jamal hawking crystals, classes, and paid access to them and their platform. “But I also think it’s being used by specific individuals to radicalize youth against authority and other races.” (He’s referring, for instance, to Jamal’s claim that white people are “reptilians.”)

“They’re able to preach this message of hate and destruction” to their followers, Kulu said, with serious consequences when those followers practice what they’re being preached. 

While Kulu reports on the “conscious” online Black community, he’s also part of it, describing himself as “very spiritual.” He also shares some of the less mainstream beliefs common in that community; for instance, he believes that “melanated people,” the term Jamal and others use for Black and Latino people, lived as Native people on the land mass that is now the United States before Columbus arrived.  (“I do have that belief,” he said, “but I respect other people’s beliefs around the world.”) Kulu has also echoed more controversial ideas about the relationships between Black and Jewish people; he wrote on Instagram that he viewed the backlash against Kyrie Irving’s antisemitic statements as an attack on Irving as an indigenous person. (Irving is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.) Kulu told Motherboard he did not intend his comments to indicate hostility towards Jewish people: “I’m not antisemitic at all.”

As Kulu first reported on YouTube, two other followers of Jamal’s have also been arrested recently; both men appeared in videos with Jamal, posted supportively about him, and extensively espoused ideas echoing his own. The first is a man who goes by Smoov9etherbeing, or Smoov, online, and was, according to court documents in Morgan County, Georgia, arrested on a family violence charge in June. An affidavit alleges that Smoov punched his victim in the chest with a closed fist and then “engaged in a physical struggle with the victim for control of a gun.” (Smoov has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and is set for trial in late November; through his lawyer, he declined to comment. A court clerk told Motherboard that a mental evaluation is scheduled in the case, which could take time and push back the trial date.)

In the last video Smoov posted on his Instagram page before he was arrested, he was outdoors at what appeared to be a campground. “We made it to the spot,” he said, jubilantly. (Numerous Jamal followers have posted about themselves spending time together at what appear to be the same campgrounds throughout the South.)

 “This shit,” he added a moment later, “is coming back to us. Shout out to all the Cherokee Indians. That’s all of us. We’re all Cherokee. We’re the Indians, we’re the gods, we’re everything. Remember who the fuck you are.” Through his lawyer, Smoov declined to comment.

The other arrested Jamal follower, Prophet, was taken into custody this summer as well, arrested in Indiana in July on charges of “dealing in marijuana weighing between 30 grams and 10 pounds,” possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance, all felonies that carry between six months and 2 ½ years in prison if convicted. Court records show that by the time of his first court date in August, Prophet was already in jail in Van Buren County, Michigan, charged with driving while intoxicated and three felony counts of assaulting, resisting, or obstructing a police officer. According to records, two of those assault charges were dismissed, and Prophet pleaded guilty to the third in September. He declined to comment through his lawyer, who said that he was released from custody earlier this month.

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Prophet. Screencap via Youtube.

In a GoFundMe created on August 1 and apparently posted by his wife, Prophet claimed he was being held as a political prisoner, adding, “My bond is $100,000 for resisting arrest and there is body cam footage showing i never resisted and never harmed any officer.” Before asserting that someone was “desperate to stop” him and Rashad Jamal, he wrote, “this was an attempt to stop the rise of the next black messiah and i refuse to be another victim of this wicked evil disgusting system.” (Thus far, no one has donated to the campaign.) 

Many of the ideas espoused by Jamal, FreeSoul, and such less-prolific followers as Prophet and Smoov—like the idea that a driver’s license or other form of identification is unnecessary and locks its holder into a system of slavery controlled by elites—are a reflection of a specifically Black school of sovereign citizenry. Smoov’s reference to himself as a “Cherokee,” for instance, relates to a sovereign idea which holds that Black Americans are truly Native American, and thus hold a special claim over the land. 

Rachel Goldwasser is an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project; she tracks sovereign citizens closely, along with other extremist groups. Black sovereigns can fall into a few distinct camps, she said; some are part of the so-called Moorish tradition, which is believed to have emerged in the 1990s on the East Coast, while others don’t quite fit into that mold. (Among other things, many Moorish sovereign citizens believe they historically inhabited and have a rightful claim to the land now known as Rhode Island.) But in virtually every case, Goldwasser says, the reasons why Black people might become sovereign citizens are distinct from white sovereigns. 

“The foundational reasons and some of the origin stories that they use to decide to become sovereign are different,” she told Motherboard. “So much of what we see with any kind of group that is African American is really rooted in slavery and racism and rootlessnes, not often knowing where ancestor specifically came from or what their names were. And needing to find—or, frankly, make up—that place.” 

Some of what Jamal and his followers espouse is also keeping with a long tradition of esoteric Black thought. Those ideas are deeply shaped by racism, injustice, slavery, and the brutality with which Black Americans have historically been treated, and their need to escape those forces—sometimes by looking to the heavens. 

Dr. Stephen Finley is an associate professor in African & African American Studies at Louisiana State University, and the inaugural chair of that department. He’s also written extensively about esoteric beliefs in Black American communities; his most recent book examines extraterrestrial beliefs within the Nation of Islam. 

Many esoteric beliefs in Black American communities “emphasize a hiddenness of reality,” Finley said, “a reality that has to be decoded, where Black life and the meaning of Black life is always something that has to be uncovered.”

Esoteric belief systems among Black people have often reimagined the meaning of Black people in the universe, Finley added. “One of the things that they may not be getting from other religious traditions is a sense of Blackness not as inferior, on the margins, as slave and former slave, but as something central to the meaning of the universe, something that holds within it the secrets of the entire universe,” he explained. “These forms of Blackness hold the key to the meaning of life on the planet.” 

The Nation of Islam’s founder Elijah Muhammad, for instance, was engrossed in the idea of life on Mars and Venus, Finley said, a fascination that takes on particular poignance when you consider that he envisioned Black beings on Mars and Venus “who were eight feet tall and lived 900 to 1200 years,” he says. When Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any American demographic group, Finley said, these images of divine and long-lived Black aliens helped “to envision robust Black life.” 

Among Black sovereigns, Finley often sees a less direct relationship to violence or insurrection against the government as compared to similarly-positioned white groups. Instead, he said, he’s seen more of an emphasis on self-determination and living independently of a racist system. 

“They’re not trying to be anti-government,”  he said. “They just want to be left alone. And they’re not even advocating for violence against the government like some of these sovereign citizen groups. That’s something you rarely find in any religious group. It’s just not a part of them. What they’re seeking to do is live a life in a world that has negated them while finding new meaning that allows them to flourish.”

Goldwasser, the SPLC analyst, does have some theories about why individual acts of shocking violence—Damien Washam’s alleged murder of his mother, for instance—might occur among people exploring sovereign beliefs. 

“The belief system that you have separate yourself from the United States, and very specifically don’t need to follow laws related to the United States anymore, seems to create a catalyst in some cases for people,” she said. “When they encounter law enforcement or when they determine they’re going to commit what was in the past considered a crime to them, the incidents arise where maybe it’s out of fear sometimes, a perceived sense of self-defense, or just the belief that the person is claiming authority over you when you feel they don’t have it that can definitely lead to violence.” 

Finley sees a strong relationship between much of what Jamal and his followers share and more established Black sovereign groups like the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a group of people headed by a charismatic leader named Malachi Z. York and who famously moved from Brooklyn to rural Georgia and built an opulent temple. (The Nuwaubian Nation collapsed when York went to jail on trafficking and child molestation charges and the government confiscated the property upon which the temple had been built.)

Other conspiracy theories the group have shared, though, are far odder. On September 29, FreeSoul posted a video that has since loomed large in the growing folklore around his arrest.

“Where is the blood?” he asked, as he flashed a machete at the camera. He then cut a dead bird in half. 

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FreeSoul. Screencap via Instagram.

“This is the bird,” he declared. “Nothing! No insides! No blood! This shit’s fake, y’all, I killed it and caught it!” His wife exclaimed knowingly off-camera. “CIA getting exposed for real today!” he said, claiming that the bird had no blood and no organs and that its feathers were plastic, as Ary and Tehuiti marveled. (Several days later, Ary would directly connect FreeSoul’s arrest to his having proved that “THEY” put fake birds out to surveil people.)

On Sep. 30, FreeSoul posted a video from the woods. “The whole system is a BUSINESS and a FUCKING CULT RAN BY REPTILLIANS DRAINING US OF OUR LIFE AND OUR PLANET,” he wrote in an accompanying description. Two days later, his wife posted a link to a GoFundMe he’d set up to support him. 

“He caught a video surveillance bird and exposed it on social media yesterday, and today they arrested him for some random shit he did not do,” she wrote. “They’re trying to keep him silent they dont want us all coming together and taking a stand to fight for our freedom from the enslavement they have us all under with mind control and fear.”

Court and police records present a different picture of FreeSoul’s situation. A filing from October says that he was a fugitive from justice, having had a warrant out for him in Bexar County, Texas, dating to an April 2021 indictment on charges of sexual assault of a minor. (The first docket entry in the case dates to December 2016, when FreeSoul himself would have been a minor; authorities in both Texas and Georgia declined to provide Motherboard more information on the charges, why they were pursued years after the initial allegation, and his arrest, citing the nature of the offense.)

In a livestream a week after his arrest, a shaken Ary claimed that the police were trying to kill her husband. She said that police and a judge had talked to him about Rashad Jamal, and about being a cult leader, and while she said that neither she nor FreeSoul were a member of a cult—“All we do is spread awareness and let people know what’s going on. Straight facts. All we do is speak facts. That’s all that is, that’s not no cult shit”—she also suggested that his situation had to do not with the underlying charges, but with the message he’d been spreading.

“Why do you think the judge is even talking about that shit? Why do you think they’re not letting him use the restroom? Why do you think they’re keeping him locked in the car when it’s hot as hell where he can’t breathe, to the point where he will faint?” she asked. “Why do you think they’re doing this shit? They don’t do that shit for no reason. They’re doing it because they know what he speaks about, and they don’t want the awareness to—they don’t want people to know what he’s talking about. They don’t want the knowledge and facts to get out.”

The belief that the authorities imprisoned FreeSoul as part of a conspiracy to suppress the conscious community has spread far beyond those whom it directly affects. Jamal’s mythology has continued to grow, as the pattern of arrests seems to confirm his claim that he’s being targeted by the government and the sinister system of control underpinning it. The TikTok influencer who claimed that there was a “target” on the conscious community, for instance, also claimed that FreeSoul had been arrested after exposing that the CIA and the government make fake birds. 

Finley, the LSU professor, points out that no matter how esoteric the group’s beliefs, they could be entirely correct that they’re being singled out by authority figures because of their Blackness. 

“They may be a group that feels like they’re not bound by public policies and laws because they answer to forces who are transcendent, rather than of this earth,” he said. “But at the same time they’re still Black people who are outside the bounds of mainstream in a world where even if you’re mainstream you have problems. I’m a professor at LSU and I’ve been detained going to my car. These things are complicated.” In other words, the legitimate racism and injustice of American society could continue to reinforce Jamal and his followers’ sense of persecution. 

That’s unlikely to get better in the near future, as the legal situations entangling Jamal and his followers have continued to slowly unfold. Jamal remains locked up, as do Smoov, Hider, and Pinkins. (Court records indicate that Lee and Key are witnesses in Smoov’s case; his attorney declined to comment.) FreeSoul, meanwhile, is out on bail, and appeared recently on Kulu’s livestream to argue with him; he and his mother claimed the sexual abuse charges against him stemmed from his dating a girl when he was a teenager whose family didn’t approve of their courtship, and he remains evidently firm in his beliefs about the nature of reality.  

Darshell Smith, whose child Jamal is accused of abusing, has mostly tried to ignore Jamal’s fans and followers, who continue to message her on social media, accusing her of being part of the conspiracy against him. “I just want them to stop harassing me for protecting my child,” she said. 

She’s also skeptical that Jamal and his community are being targeted in any concerted way. “I don’t think the government is paying him any attention,” she said. If anything, she adds, “He wants to be targeted,” because it would reinforce his narrative, the message of dangerous truths and relentless persecution. 

For her, the matter is far simpler. “This has nothing to do with his ‘university,’” she said. “This has everything to do with what this man has done. Period.”

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