Michael Render – better known as Killer Mike – is an Atlanta-based rapper, political activist and one half of the popular duo Run the Jewels. Render presented the second lecture in MIT’s Hip Hop Speaker Series, “Race Relations in the US,” in which he explored a wide range of topics including music, misogyny, community activism, cultural appropriation, social media and police brutality. Cultural anthropologist Ian Condry and author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, joined the discussion as a scholar, fan and distinctive MIT voice.
The series is presented by the Arts at MIT and TapTape, a music startup and winner of the MIT Creative Arts Competition in 2014, and brings together eminent hip hop artists with faculty and students at MIT.
Killer Mike’s candid commentary resonated profoundly with the audience, as his first remarks were met with roaring applause from students and guests. In a captivating introduction, Killer Mike announced:
I’m here because I’m qualified to be here. I’m qualified to be here because I believe the intelligence in this room is the only thing keeping us from the brink of self-destruction. I believe that you all are intelligent and innovative enough to radically change the racial dynamic in this country. I believe that without your thoughts and without a new process we will continue to stay in the same systemic state that keeps me a thug and you a prisoner of your privilege . . . I come to the table full of bigotry. I can’t be a racist, because I don’t have the power, but I do come with my own male chauvinism. I do come with my own cultural elitism because I went to a good school too. I come with all of that to the table but, when I come before you guys, I leave all of that shit outside the door. I empty my cup so I can learn.
Render’s opening address struck a similar chord to the deft, socially conscious lyrics found in his music. A true disciple of ghetto gospel, Killer Mike’s personal and artistic narrative challenges the ubiquitous economic, political and social inequality suffered by people of color in the United States. Killer Mike harshly criticized policies like stop-and-frisk as well as disparities in drug related offenses and incarceration that perpetually exploit black communities. Render considered these inequities not as isolated statistics, but as pervasive biases that pull at the fabric of our society. As he cautioned in an Op-ed for Billboard: “Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all.” In the same breath, Killer Mike expressed sincere support for law enforcement with the caveat that police officers should present themselves not as adversaries, but as invested members of the community.
The son of a police officer, but also a rebellious voice of political dissonance and honesty in hip hop, Killer Mike is a man of many dimensions whose artistry effectively fuses these contradictions. While Render dispelled any pretences that he was technologically savvy, he effortlessly spoke to the intersection of civil rights and technology. In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray (among countless others), Killer Mike did not offer listeners a problem solving technology for race-based injustices, but instead shared simple truths that might reengineer popular discourse.
Below is an excerpt from the evening’s conversation, including a selection of questions asked by Professor Condry, students and other audience members.
When Young Guru was at MIT he was asked by a student, “If you had a roomful of MIT students, what tool would you create?” Considering the endemic state of racism and your particular interest in social justice, is there a tool that you might like to develop with MIT students that could possibly solve, mend or alleviate some of these issues?
“I don’t know if a tool will solve these issues. I think a retooling of our thought process can, but I don’t know if there’s a tool that can fix the ego of men. I would just like to work on the hearts and minds of men and women. I think that it has to be a cultural decision that we in this country — and people, period — have to make. The way you do that is [to] retrain your mind. I think that plain people have to get fed up with looking for tools to fix our problems and fix our homes.”
Is there a dream technology you can imagine?
“Sometimes I think technology gets in the way. I thought Skype would bring us closer, but it didn’t seem to. Even with music, when we were able to use pro-tools and just zip things to each other, it kept musicians out of the same room. People ask me all the time, ‘How are you and EL-P so effective at making music together?’ Because we’re in the same room as each other. You know what technology we need? What technology would put humans in the same room? What technology can put us in a circle? That’s the technology I’m looking for. I believe in the power of human interaction. I’m afraid that humans aren’t interacting enough. I’m afraid that our only interactions with each other are happening in the cold crevices of keyboards that allow us to be mean to each other. I’m looking forward to the technology that is the proverbial campfire for us. The technology that brings us closer together physically is going to be the next big step.”
What are your thoughts on cameras worn by police officers?
“I’m happy that police will be wearing cameras, not only for our safety as the people that pay them, but for their safety too. My dad was a cop. One of my friends from elementary school, Jasper Collier, his dad was killed on the job so my heart and sympathies are with people who are brave enough to police. I think the detriment of cameras is it doesn’t replace real relationships with the community. A friend of mine, Alice Johnson, was the community liaison in Atlanta. She was actually making great strides in making sure the community and the police department in Atlanta were communicative, that policy came out of a group think, that it was not something that was just thought of in the police department and thrust upon taxpayers. She had begun to transform what community policing could be. Unfortunately, because cameras have become all the rage, and they seem to solve the direct problem of police brutality, her position phased out. At some point, even with the insertion of cameras into policing in Atlanta, I think we’re going to be a better city if the community and police are working in conjunction to shape policy for how our communities are policed.”
How have you seen social media and idioms like #blacklivesmatter influence or fuel race politics?
“Social media has been one of the greatest equalizers in terms of the ability to organize that I’ve seen in my life. When I went to college, you were rich if you had a word processor. I had to go to the homies’ room if I wanted to use a word processor. A friend of mine, Brian Coppleman, his son Sammy who is at Harvard was doing a demonstration at Harvard around the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His dad and I sent the message out over Twitter and because his dad is a popular guy and I’m a popular guy, people instantly knew about it. It brought the cause support, and it kept Sammy safe. Rather than doing it in the darkness of night, like my grandmother did so many years ago when she marched for Dr. King. Thankfully, we’re more interconnected. I just want to use our interconnection for more than gossip and fodder about the Kardashians. In your exchange via social media, make sure that you try to follow things that are substantive in your community and see how you can be a part of the process…I want you to use whatever rudimentary technology you have, whether it’s a word processor or an old flip phone, use it for more than your self satisfaction and gratification. Use it once a week to tweet out a story about something good. Use your Facebook as an opportunity to communicate and discourse with people. Use Instagram as a way to share information about things going on in your local community. I would also use technology as an opportunity to connect with people that don’t look like you.”
And what about #blacklivesmatter?
“Black lives matter. I think that hashtag is needed, because we live in a country where [they don’t]. I’m a frequent watcher of Bill Maher. I like his show a lot. I think it’s very progressive, but there are times in that show, that if you’re black, you’ll watch and say, ‘God damn, they still don’t get it.’ They were talking about unemployment about a year ago and when they talked about unemployment, they mentioned that black male unemployment was nearly double the national average. And then the conversation just went on. Well, unemployment amongst a group that is targeted as felons, when unemployment correlates with gang violence, drug usage and violence in communities amongst young adolescent males, if you don’t understand that that unemployment leads directly to the problems that are decaying black culture in urban America, it deserves a bigger discussion than a soundbite. It’s important that we let people know that black lives matter, because systemically they have not mattered in this country. People would then be alarmed that the graduation rate of black men is only 50% in some places in this country. Black lives matter, because to a group of people in this country and to a system they don’t. In the same way you have to say fuck cancer, which came out of the fight against breast cancer, because ignorance was keeping a lot of women with cancer from getting mammograms or from knowing what diets and products could grossly affect their health. Yes, hashtags are important, because in lieu of not being able to run out into the middle of the street and scream, it lets people know that there’s an emergency going on and we need your assistance.”
Run the Jewels recently released the music video “Close your Eyes and Count to Fuck” and it was a really powerful music video. Could you talk about the message there and the message you were trying to convey?
When we made “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck,” it felt like a rebel record. Remember, I’m the son of a police officer…I wanted to properly illustrate in that record the frustration of being a black man in a system where you are criminal just by being who you are. That song was favorable to violence against the system. That song [was] defiant against the system and in this case, the police. In real life, we simply accept that if a policeman shot someone they must have done something to get shot. That’s just not the truth of it all… My protest in that song was hard and direct, but I didn’t want to make a video that simply glamorized my fantasy of rebellion. I wanted to make a video to show people what it felt like. It essentially showed a fight in purgatory, between heaven and hell, when a cop and a black kid fight to the point of exhaustion. Real fights don’t last that long. My cousins who are police do not want to stop you on the first of the month to give you a ticket. They’re told by their sergeants to do that and those sergeants are told by their higher ups to do that to increase revenue for the state. I’m tired. The police are tired. I’m tired of being a black guy, when a cop gets behind me, being afraid. I don’t want to feel that way when I’m 80. The best way to show that in the video was to show this clumsy, awkward fight that never ends, that’s grueling, that both people are tired of.