Killer Mike, or Michael Render, is a rapper from Atlanta and a member of the rap duo Run The Jewels. He has been outspoken on issues of race in America, writing an op-ed in USA Today about the use of rap lyrics in court and an op-ed in Billboard on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. He also delivered a lecture on race relations at MIT on April 24.
Harvard Political Review: What do you make of the riots happening right now in Baltimore in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray?
Killer Mike: Riots also happened after sports teams lost. Riots also happened after sports teams won. Riots happen in this country whenever emotion overtakes logic, and things that are fever pitch. The only thing about it is when you’re rioting on behalf of sports teams, it’s not called a “riot.” And when police are dealing with that, they don’t call the perpetrators “thugs,” they call them “out-of-control fans.” Because these sports teams are donating money to these employers and these sports teams do business with the media. So they’re not painting those fans too darkly, pun intended.
If you take people who have lived at the bottom of the economic ladder and if you take a powder keg that has been for 50 years building in this country, and it explodes, and it’s not pretty, and it’s ugly, and it’s primal, and it’s not logical, and it’s not right, but it happens, and it happens because a whole myriad of other things that give people dignity and humanity are not done, and when they explode you immediately call it a riot, you immediately say those people are “thugs,” and you immediately start to castigate them instead of trying to understand and fix the problem. … Baltimore is an opportunity for us to do something different. As society, there’s a real opportunity to organize there, and if we do not take full advantage of the opportunity to organize, then the riots truly meant nothing.
HPR: You talk about this a lot in your music, but I think it’s something a lot of people don’t understand. Could you expand on why there is such a profound distrust towards the police in communities of color?
KM: It’s not just black people. Black men have the worst dealings with police. But it’s when you’re driving down the road and you’re forced to stop at an illegal stop and present your name and ID and tell the police where you’re going. Checkpoints are not legal, yet they’re done to us every day. And they’ll say, ‘Well, it prevents people from drunk driving.’ Well, you don’t pick up that many drunk drivers, because people know not to drive drunk. So what you do end up doing is fining the shit out of people just to gain free money for municipalities. And I am as outraged about that as I am about any breaking of the public trust.
For me, when it gets to the point that the police are actually murdering American citizens on the street, I don’t know how we got to this point. I just know we’re at this point, and we have to regain control of the people we paid, and that is about being active on politics on a very local level. That’s about turning Fox and CNN off, and taking your ass to your City Council meeting and saying that this particular officer has been complained about this many times. And if he is not dealt with, then this is how we’re going to deal with the police department, by voting your ass out of office. It’s time that people do a sit-in in the police station. If you’re gonna arrest me, you ain’t even gonna have to go far, because we are about to sit in the police station. If you want to bring attention to it, you’re going to have to do it in that way.
But I think Americans are just going to slide back into the regular comfort of their everyday and I really think that it’s coming to the point where, because it’s just black men, people are almost used to seeing the police murder us. But, as I’ve said time and time again, whatever is allowed to happen to the least of us will one day happen to us all. If these police are doing this to us now, the group of people I represent in this country, it won’t be long before they feel comfortable enough to do it to you, or whoever is reading this.
HPR: Do you see this as a conscious effort to keep black people or poor people down?
KM: To say it’s a conscious effort to keep black people down or poor people down or say that there’s some grand conspiracy lends itself to the lunacy of conspiracy theorists, and that’s not what I am. What I’m saying is there is definitely a caste system in this country that we haven’t acknowledged and at the very bottom of that caste system is black men, and that’s evident in the fact that our unemployment can be double the national rate and no one raises their eyebrows, the fact that we can be murdered by the police publicly and there is no public unified outrage that’s visible, or that the press is willing to show. There are white people and people of different races and nationalities protesting, but the press doesn’t really show them.
Is there a systematic oppression of black people in this country? Absolutely. Is it because there’s some grand, evil scheme? I don’t know, but what I do know is that it profits someone. It profits someone to put black bodies in jail. It profits someone to stop and frisk black people. It profits someone to put up roadblocks and speed traps in black communities. It profits someone to make sure public schools are not performing at the rate they should be, because the amount of failures in public schools show you how many children are bound for prison.
Do the police want there to be a certain amount of community need for them? Absolutely they do. The police don’t want to eradicate their jobs, so they’re not going to complain about, ‘Hey, we have to stop and frisk people,’ because it works to keep their jobs. But our job is to fight, as a citizen of this country, to try to create communities where less police are needed. We should be trying to create communities where less policing is required. And I think that that needs to be our goal. We should not be paying people to occupy our communities as though we’re a foreign land.
HPR: How do you channel your frustration with these obvious injustices into your music?
KM: I just see the world as I see it, and I rap about it. I don’t only rap about that, I rap about stupid shit. I rap about talking shit about how dope I am, I do everything a rapper does, but every human has a point in the day, week, month, or year, they think about things that are deeper, and I do that, and people respond to it. But I don’t go into albums like I’m going to write the most politicized album. I am probably closer to the NWA or Geto Boys than I am to Public Enemy, in that you’ll hear some other ridiculous shit right after the song with a tremendous amount of emotion and depth because I’m trying to give to you my whole human experience.
HPR: There seems to be a subtle contradiction in your music, when you talk about how rappers “hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting,” but you also acknowledge that “the only people I see in the communities are rappers and ball players.”
KM: That’s not a contradiction in my music, that’s a contradiction in life. That’s the reality we live in. When people say, ‘Who do kids wanna be drug dealers and gangsters and rappers?’ It’s because that’s who they see. That’s who actually comes. And if doctors and lawyers and Senators and Congresspeople in Washington would make themselves more visible, then kids would have better examples.
HPR: Do you think black intellectuals like Cornel West should be more involved in protest movements like the Black Lives Matter movement?
KM: I’m a fan of Dr. West. I think he’s a very passionate man, his heart’s in the right place. And he has been protesting and yelling and screaming and kicking for years, and I think that brothers like Cornel West and brothers who are members of some of the street organizations and brothers who are out of the historically black colleges and universities and brothers like me need to get in the room and we need to discuss what could work for our community and what agenda could we agree on as a united front and to get our people on board.
I don’t think there’s a savior that’s going to come save black people. I think that people are saved by having a plan and by visualizing it and committing to it and seeing that plan through. I think that that’s what refugees who come into this country have to do as a community, I think that’s what the most successful communities within the country have done, and I think we need to emulate that success. So I think that brothers like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley and Michael Eric Dyson and Dr. Umar Johnson and Claud Anderson and all of those brothers are valuable apart and I think they would be even more valuable together, with women like Cynthia McKinney and Ameena Matthews. So I think that we definitely need to be organized and in a community, not just having one person try to carry the whole weight. I love Dr. West and I think that he needs to be one of the voices in the room, and we all need to get in the room soon.
HPR: How do you see your faith intersecting with the music you make?
KM: My grandmother was an adamant and die-hard Christian, and totally believed in the Gospel, and lived it and exuded it every day. Because of her, I’ve never been able to commit myself to that religion or any other in total because she so believed in it that anything that came up short of that, I just don’t have an ability to keep my faith in. Do I believe that there is a Supreme Being? Absolutely, I do. I believe in a Supreme Being, I just hope that Supreme Being believed in us. We’re violent and we’re vile, and we’re so hurtful to each other, it’s very difficult to believe that something like Christianity is for real. So it’s been very difficult and I grapple with religion. … But I can truly say the closest I’ve felt to whatever connects us all to one another in the universe has been in a recording booth and on a stage and doing rap music. I’ve said that on the album and I’ve mentioned that, that this is when I felt closest to God and having a spiritual experience, so I think that translates into my music. I can’t explain it, I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t know how it happens, I just know something connects and something happens.
HPR: Do you think there’s a danger with movements like Black Lives Matter in white people co-opting them and distorting the purpose of the movements with their involvement?
KM: You need people who represent the privileged class. You need them to show solidarity. But that’s a question that’s better asked of a grassroots organizer, because it’s more than my opinion or my thoughts about it. The organizing is happening now, and I think that they would be better served to answer that, and I think the information on that answer could help in real time.