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3 June 2020updated 07 Jun 2020 9:08am

Killer Mike: the sound of a movement

How the rapper voiced America’s pain.

By Sophie McBain

On 30 May, the rapper and activist Killer Mike stepped behind the podium at a mayoral press conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The heavyset, bearded black man wore a T-shirt with the slogan “kill your masters” and a gold replica of a Cellini sculpture on a chain around his neck. When he spoke, his voice cracked with emotion. “I didn’t want to come,” he began, looking down at his hands, “and I don’t want to be here.”

Five days earlier, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, a father, a restaurant bouncer, a rapper and a former high school football champion, was killed when a white policeman knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe” and lost consciousness. His death sparked protests that spread from Floyd’s adopted hometown of Minneapolis across the US, and which were met with appalling force by the police. On the evening of Killer Mike’s speech, protesters in Atlanta set cars on fire, defaced the CNN headquarters and vandalised shops. 

Introducing himself as the son of an Atlanta policeman, the rapper, known offstage as Michael Render, called for calm. “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with the enemy. It is your duty to fortify your house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise,” he said. The speech, which went viral, was electrifying. “I’m mad as hell,” Render said, his voice almost a growl, his cheeks glistening with tears, “I woke up wanting to see the world burnt down because I am tired of seeing black men die.” But he argued that lasting change happens through political engagement and action. 

Two days after Floyd’s death, Render had posted on Instagram a clip from his upcoming album, his fourth as half of the political hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. The lyrics were eerily fitting; Floyd’s killing was both shocking and grimly familiar. “And every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free/And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’” 

Render has long been involved in community activism and politics in Atlanta. The 45-year-old was raised by his grandparents in Adamsville, a poor, mostly black neighbourhood of the city, and now lives in Atlanta with his wife and four children. He owns two barbershops there. 

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Render got his break collaborating with the rap group OutKast, winning a Grammy for his appearance on the 2001 hit “The Whole World”, before releasing Monster, the first of five solo albums, in 2003. Rolling Stone has described him as “the Noam Chomsky of the strip club”. 

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In June 2015, Render endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, telling reporters that he started supporting the Democratic socialist “after smoking a joint and reading his tweets”. He has also said that Sanders is the only candidate who has consistently advanced Martin Luther King’s social justice agenda. Render supported him again during this year’s Democratic primaries. He told the New Yorker that he and Sanders message regularly. 

But Render’s politics are not easy to categorise. He diverges from most US progressives by being passionately pro-gun ownership, and in 2018 featured in a video by the NRA in which he said he had forbidden his children from participating in gun control marches. “I told my kids on the school walkout, I love you, if you walk out that school, walk out my house,”  he said on the clip. 

He later issued a limited apology, saying he had not known the video would be released to coincide with March for Our Lives, the gun control protests spearheaded by survivors of the Parkland school shooting. He remained resolute in his support for black gun ownership, however, arguing it is both necessary for self-defence and a constitutional right that African Americans should invoke. 

In 2012 Render lumped Barack Obama with George W Bush and Bill Clinton as “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters”. Four years later, when Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, he said that a vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton were a vote for the same thing. In a New Yorker interview he clarified his meaning: “African Americans do not have an agenda that’s truly recognised in this country,” he told the magazine, and he did not believe that they would have benefited from a Clinton presidency. 

In numerous interviews with white TV hosts who ask him to speak for all black people (Stephen Colbert asked this explicitly, as a joke it seems, but he was asked all the same), Render explains in his characteristic rapid fire that African Americans’ interests are varied and complex, and regularly overlooked and simplified. 

And then sometimes, the answer isn’t complicated at all. “Do you think there’s a systemic attempt in the US to isolate the poor and minorities, to put them in communities that can be controlled?” Colbert asked Render. “It’s not an attempt at all,” he replied. “It’s successful.” 

This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe