Rapper and Activist Killer Mike

The rapper and activist discusses the importance of community and political activism.

Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, made his music debut appearing on the Outkast track "Snappin' & Trappin'" from their 2000 album Stankonia, and later appeared on their 2001 single “The Whole World”, which won the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. After signing to Columbia Records, his first single, "A.D.I.D.A.S.," made waves on the music charts in 2003, and the subsequent album, Monster, cemented his place among Hip-Hop's most prolific voices. Three years later, he released the first volume of his mixtape series I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, which he would follow up with two other acclaimed installments. His 2012 effort R.A.P. Music was produced exclusively by producer El-P, with whom he would partner up to create the rap duo, Run the Jewels.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with activist and rapper, Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, one-half of the super group, Run the Jewels, whose latest album “Run the Jewels 3” has received widespread acclaim. What are we talking about tonight? Knowing Mike, a little bit of everything, and you don’t want to miss it.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Killer Mike in just a moment.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: So pleased to welcome back to this program rapper, activist and one-half of Run the Jewels, Killer Mike. The super group is known as one of hip-hop’s most intense and fierce truth tellers. Their latest CD is called “Run the Jewels 3”. It was released earlier this year to widespread acclaim. Mike, always, sir, an honor to have you on this program.

Killer Mike: Oh, man, happy to be here.

Tavis: You been good, man?

Mike: I am, I am.

Tavis: I am pleased. I’m always delighted to see you. You want to deal with this first [laugh]?

Mike: What? This t-shirt [laugh]?

Tavis: I know I’m gonna get some phone calls, some emails, some texts.

Mike: Well, if you look on the back of the record, it’s actually the last song on the record.

Tavis: I know, I know, I know.

Mike: It features Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine, but that is very much my mentality. And what I mean in that, I think years ago I may have heard someone in the past who said as the Buddhist says it, “If you should walk along a path or a journey, meet your master, kill him.” I mean, as a human being, you’re born free. You are literally born free.

So I get these thoughts in my head and I make them t-shirts saying we spend most of our time, a lot of times, fighting for freedom, searching for freedom, wondering where freedom — you’re already born free. The creator, the universe, whatever, decided we should be here, decided that, and a lot of times freedom is something you give up.

And truly who your master is, it is you. Your master becomes your addictions. Your master becomes your need for attention. Your master becomes your need for acceptance or to have a certain perceptive to your oppressor, and you have to kill that desire within yourself.

So ultimately killing your master is not about an outpouring of violence and taking anyone down to become the next despot or the next dictator or the next person that imposes your will. It is to impose your will on yourself for your greater good.

So killing my master is less to do with fighting against the forces of evil and more to do with fighting for the forces of good. Man, if you happen to be a physical slave for real and someone is willing to keep you enslaved, then it is your duty to absolutely kill them, to live free as you were born to be.

Tavis: I want to come back to that in a second. We just had a conversation on this morning a week or so ago celebrating a major anniversary for the Black Panthers when they took over the State Capitol here in Sacramento over the issue of guns and who had a right to carry a weapon in the public. And Ronald Reagan, as you know, went after the Panthers. You know the whole story…

Mike: He was governor right then.

Tavis: Governor Reagan, exactly. So we had a whole conversation about that and I thought about you. I said I can’t wait to talk to Mike again about where he is in this present moment, in this era of Trump, on Black folk and guns. I promise we’ll come back to that in just a second.

Mike: Okay.

Tavis: Before we get too far afield, though, you mentioned freedom. I was in a conversation with somebody, an older brother many years ago. I’ll never forget this line. You quoted a Buddhist admonition, but this brother said to me years ago that there are only two types of Black folk in the world, two types of people, period. Either you’re running scared or you’re running free [laugh]. Either you’re running scared or you’re running free. Does that resonate with you?

Mike: Yeah, man. That’s like an old man would say. Like I think about my grandfather often. You know, old Black people, a lot of times, they say white folk is cold at words. My grandfather, who was probably a Libertarian [laugh], when you think about his political description, he just wanted to pay his taxes and leave him alone.

The census people would come, how many people in here? Two little girls, a woman, a man and this boy. Then slam the door. So for me, you know, my grandfather was very much, well, just stay out of white folk’s business.

What I realized in retrospect talking about or looking at, he’d think about who paved our streets. He’d think about who our city councilman was. My grandfather really didn’t think above mayor. Once you got above mayor or city council, that was white folk’s business [laugh].

What he was saying, he was as an African American, your stronghold is Atlanta. You should worry about the business of Atlanta or, translated, worry about local politics. Gubernatorial politics and national politics to him, that was white folk’s business. So you’re either running free or running scared is enjoy the freedom you have, push to fight to keep it. Usually that’s the 50 miles around you.

Make sure your schools are good, your streets are paved. Make sure your city council is reflective of the neighborhood that you’re in. Make sure your mayor is reflective of the wishes you see, police chief, prosecutors. Worry about that stuff first so that you’re running free and you’re not running scared.

Because you’re being fed stories every day from the federal boogey man or gubernatorial, you know. Enjoy your strengths and strongholds and build on them. You know, I honestly believe that’s what we got to do and just stay out of other business that doesn’t directly concern or can’t affect you immediately.

Tavis: When you put yourself, with all due respect to your grandfather, all up in white folk business [laugh], when you came out and endorsed Bernie Sanders and traveled with Bernie Sanders, and there are a number of questions there, I will start with this one. What would your grandfather have made of you being smack dab in the middle of white folk business?

Mike: Boy! Well, first he would have told my grandmamma he kept me around them Democrats too much because I have been campaigning for Democratic candidates my entire life, since I was six or seven years old, whether it was Andy or…

Tavis: Andy Young.

Mike: Andy Young or Maynard Jackson running for mayor, whether it was people who were running for city council. I was taught — I grew up in Atlanta. I grew up in a Black neighborhood, grew up with Black schools, grew up with Black politicians. So good or bad, I saw me, right? That’s how I learned all politicians could make mistakes because the ones who make mistakes look like me.

That’s how I learned Black politicians could be successful because Atlanta’s a successful city right now. All Black mayors in my lifetime, so I know that we can be great. I know that we can be bad, so I judge us fairly, right? He probably would have told me I pivot it too much to the dance with my grandmother.

But after he heard the things that Bernie was saying, which were in line with the things that I had been taught about Dr. King and his philosophy, this was the first time I saw on a national level, besides Jesse’s run maybe, someone who acclimated themselves to the Voters Rights Act, decriminalization of marijuana, ending the drug war, making sure that Black people and all poor people — not that all Black people are poor, but in the south we have an inordinate amount of poor people even in  a city like Atlanta — making sure that there is a base whether it be minimum wage or income, making sure universal healthcare was a real possibility.

Those are all the things that I learned about Dr. King, so I just went through a point in my life where I could no longer toe the Democratic line because that’s what I was told to do. And I had to adhere to the virtues and the principles that I had been told all my life we are supposed to — TECHNICAL DIFFICULTY — because I had been taught that these are principles I’m supposed to stand for.

Tavis: You skipped Obama directly. You went from King to Jesse Jackson to Sanders. Did you mean to skip over Obama?

Mike: Yeah, I did. And that’s not a slap on my president because he has been next to Black Jesus which – the flea markets in ’88 — that negro has been the greatest wall hanging picture for any Black barbershop or household. So I can look at a child straight-faced and say you can be…

Tavis: You may have Black Jesus. He may have Black Jesus at this point.

Mike: May be Black Jesus. You know what I mean [laugh]? But the reason I don’t is because he compared himself to Reagan and there’s no room for a Reaganite in there. I’m not saying that Sanders is better, but I am diametrically opposed to most of the policies of Ronald Reagan.

Therefore, if you put yourself in a Reagan light, then I can’t put you next to a King or Kingian nonviolence because we know Reagan was not that. A great politician, a great centrist from the Republican side, someone who managed to defeat the Soviet Union, absolutely.

We got the King holiday negotiated under him, thanks to people like [inaudible] absolutely. But can I follow that in terms of a political philosophy into the highest office of the land? I can’t. Is he the greatest symbol in my house next to Black Jesus? Yeah.

Tavis: Okay. How are you navigating this Trumpian moment, given where we all know you stood with Bernie Sanders? How are you taking this?

Mike: How have progressive Black people been progressive Black people for most of their lives and dealt with it? We have been making concessions and dealing with devils most of our lives. I don’t mean, oh, he’s the devil, let’s take him — no, what I mean is that’s how we characterized Nixon. That’s how we characterized Reagan.

That’s how you have to characterize, you know, Nixon in particular, but Lyndon Baines Johnson — we have dealt with this character as president before. If you’re a Black in the south, you have dealt with the politicians he’s appointing for most of your life. Jeff Sessions didn’t just pop up. Sessions has been in Alabama for most of my life.

Newt Gingrich, who’s not in the administration, but spoke on it, Newt has been in Georgia most of my life. You know, so for me, when you’re talking about these people the further north you go on up the coast, it becomes the boogey man. But if you’re from the south, he’s not a boogey man.

You know these people. You know what they’re gonna do. You know their moves, which I think makes it easier to organize against the moves they’re making if we use this as an opportunity to organize and not an opportunity to name blame, to name call and to sulk, you know.

Tavis: Do you see organization or do you merely see, powerful though they may be, arresting though they may be, do you see organizing at the moment, Mike? Or do you see just protest?

Mike: I see, well…

Tavis: Do you see resistance or do you see organization?

Mike: Plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. I see plotting, planning, strategizing, no. I see organizing when the organizer becomes a front. Right now, we’re plotting out, we’re strategizing ways to disrupt the system, and that’s good. That’s the first level of process. We get it. I get having an idea, I get planning it out, I get strategizing, I get getting out into the streets.

But let’s make sure in organizing we have an agenda. As African Americans, our allies have agendas. You know, our allies that we fight with, for, they have an agenda, right?

We know the immigrant population has an agenda. We know gay and lesbian rights have an agenda, right? We understand that our other minority friends have agendas. We have to develop a real agenda and that has nothing to do with asking people what they think.

That agenda has everything to do with deciding what is best for African Americans. If public schools are not working for African American boys in particular, then we make sure our girls keep graduating and keep graduating college at a higher rate than any other group of people because that’s what our girls are doing.

But if your boys are not as interested, like Walter E. Williams, a Black economist says, send your boys into trade immediately. My [inaudible] lives next door to [inaudible]. You know what I’m saying [laugh].

Shouts out to Rudy. He came from Panama, Black Panamanian guy with $10 in his pocket. Now has 20 trucks and employees. He got that because he understood a trade and everybody’s gonna need a trade. Ain’t nobody got time to be racist in their restaurant when the air goes out. They have to call someone who’s an expert.

Your boys should be mastering trades now. Your boys should be going to barber school, carpenter school. Your boys should be highly competitive in the trades. We should come up with that agenda, right? We should demand that Black colleges reinstitute two-year trades as well as having four-year programs. We can do these things ourselves.

And if we’re not doing these things ourselves in a city like Atlanta where you have 70% to 80% of the schools that are named for Black educators and emancipators, yet you don’t have a 70% graduation rate, you can’t blame parents for pivoting to charter schools. They don’t want to, but we aren’t producing the excellence that we need to sustain our community.

We don’t keep our dollar in our community over six hours. If you’re talking about white American, Jewish American and/or Asian American, the dollar stays in their community 24, 26 and 28 days. Our dollar does not stay in our community six hours. That means that places like Atlanta need to be replicated.

Atlanta’s not perfect, but Atlanta is a place where you can type in Black restaurant and bar and get 50 selections. I need to see that in Nashville. I need to see that in Memphis. I need to see that in New York. I need to see that in Compton. I need to see that in Watts. Because when we start doing that, you start to alleviate the need for government in the way that we need government.

Tavis: And to the white folk who are watching right now, the good white folk who see that as reverse racism, you say what?

Mike: If you’re a good white person, you can’t see that as reverse racism. You have to see that as economic survival. One of the most pleasurable experiences that happened to me in the past few months is I was in a restaurant that me and Dick Gregory liked to go to in Chicago. We were in there and the first time I went in there in January, I got kind of noticed.

When I went back this time, I was hell on noticed, right? A lot more white people were in there this time and they knew me from the Sanders campaign. But when we circled around to come back out, I took a picture with the owner and it was a white lady waiting inside.

I said I got to get a picture with you because you were so nice about when you recognized me, you didn’t call me out. She says, “What are you doing here?” I say, “I’m just hanging…” She say, “I know what you’re doing. You’re supporting Black business and we are too.”

That’s what I need. I need an ally. I don’t need someone from the sidelines saying, “But, Mike, what about my feelings?” I care about your feelings. That’s why I shop at a lot of white stores [laugh]. I care about your feelings. That’s why I don’t give you to read what my auntie would have given you.

But I need you to be a supportive ally in more ways than just marching with me. March your dollar to a Black bank. When I did the Black banking with Usher about a year and some months ago in February, what surprised me and what enthused me most was seeing hordes of Black people come in and open accounts.

But with that, we challenged the businesses that do business with Black people to do the same. And white and Asian business owners from our community in Atlanta also opened up bank accounts with Citizens Trust.

Up and down the East Coast, whether it was Boston or out here or in Miami, white business owners would hit me and say, “I opened up a bank account with One United. I opened up a bank account with Carvers.” That’s an ally. An ally has not only a vested interest in spirit, but they put it out there for real.

So for the good white people that would get offended and call that reverse racism, I’d encourage them to go watch any Jane Elliott speech because you may still hold some things in you that you haven’t gotten rid of and Miss Elliott does a very effective job at helping you recognize that and rid yourself of it.

Tavis: I saw a piece the other day and I wish I could — I read so much stuff. It was either New York or The New Yorker, and I’m not sure which one, but if you go online, you can find it. A piece just came out the other day that was really doing some analysis on the Black vote in this last election. I’ve been waiting on this piece because I knew it was going to come. Negroes at some point were going to get blamed for this.

Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They been hitting me up [laugh].

Tavis: I saw the piece. I said there it is. It’s just a matter of time. I knew it was going to come. So the argument that was written in this particular story, the argument that was advanced in this story, was that negroes didn’t turn out in 2016 like they had in 2012, like they had in 2008. And if the negroes had turned out, Hillary wouldn’t have lost in these places. She would have won the election.

So it’s not about Hillary, it ain’t about James Comey, it’s that negroes didn’t turn out to vote. So we are the reason why the Democrats didn’t win the White House in 2016. So, again, I kind of expected at some point once they had time to look at the data, they would put that on Black folk. How do you read that argument?

Mike: If we’re that important, why don’t you treat us better? To the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party knows that when high numbers turn out, they win, and they have a greater chance of winning. I was asked after Sanders was no longer campaigning. I was asked would I support Hillary. I was like, “Absolutely! What do you got for Black people?”

Everybody acted like, oh, what do you mean? Why would you ask for something for your vote? Why wouldn’t you? I vote for my city councilman because I think they can get my streets paved. And if you can’t get my streets paved, you ain’t getting my vote next time, player. You know what I mean?

I vote for my mayor because I expect the next mayoral vote, I’ll probably be voting for Senator Vincent Fort who stepped out of the line the Democratic Party supported in Atlanta. But one of the first things he came out on besides the minimum wage was decriminalization of marijuana. Atlanta’s a Black city. 83% of marijuana arrests which puts our boys in a probation program are Black men.

Why would I want that to continue when I need these boys going to trade school or going to college? That was common sense. Made all the sense in the world. So as for me, if I’m that important to you, why don’t you treat me as though I’m important to you? So what I said was, “I will come out and back any Democratic candidate that publicly says this is what I have.

And I did that because CNBC and a young lady challenged me to do that. She said, “I’ll get behind Sanders if you do that, right?” I was like, man, this soul sister’s just challenged me. Later I found out the soul sister, her boyfriend was white [laugh]. I said this is around, baby. But her challenge made sense to me and resonated with me in respect to the Democratic Party also.

We have given you 60 years of loyalty and all we have gotten from you are silly answers like ‘We gave you some government funding. We do for women and children”, which is very important, but wouldn’t it be better to help grow strong men so that we don’t need — I don’t want us to be the picture of government assistance when we’re not.

By numbers, we’re not the most people on government assistance, but we’re always the person you drag up — even out to the Clintons in the past — dragging up two Black mothers. Just shameful, right? I want to tell y’all thank y’all, but no thank y’all.

And the only way we do that is to know the vote is currency. It’s worth something. If this party or any party is not willing to do something that’s measurable to contribute to the 240-year wealth gap that they have now, this country’s only 240-something years old, 240, 241 years old. There’s a 238-year get wealth gap.

When King died, King was talking about land grants. He was talking about farms. He was talking about subsidizing those the same way that has happened from beginning of time in this country.

Someone doesn’t want you to get economically powerful. Someone needs your vote to stay dependent, so they need to keep giving you and parceling you stuff out. When you decide who that someone is and you ask them for more, you’re not wrong to say, “I’m gonna sit on my hands if I don’t get it.”

You weren’t wrong when Stokely Carmichael told you to do it. You weren’t wrong when Killer Michael told you to do it. You’re only wrong if you don’t vote in your best interest. I don’t care what anyone tells you. If your vote does not do something for you, then you are wasting your vote.

Tavis: Let me ask you a personal question because I’ve had to address this myself and I think any of us does or should if we expect to navigate our way through this. On a personal level, how are you navigating the Trump era?

Like every day you wake up and you get another CNN alert that scares the crap out of you — I mean, like how are you personally navigating until you get a chance to do something about that? How are you navigating everything?

Mike: First thing, I talk to old people. I talk to old people and have very honest conversations. I don’t mean old like we don’t need them. I mean old like filled with wisdom. My father is just at 61 years old. His wife is at the same age. I asked her what was it like in Louisiana where you were? I’ve asked Reverend James [inaudible] wife, so what is it gonna be like?

All of them have said the same thing to me. This is far from the worst thing we’ve been through. I’ve seen worse mayors, governors or presidents than this. This ain’t the first dumb person that’s led a bunch of us. Don’t you worry about it. What you need to worry about is worry about your money, worry about yourself, worry about your community.

You need to maybe stop watching CNN and Fox every morning and start to watch Walter E. Williams, start to watch Tom [inaudible], start to watch some more conservative Blacks. I’m not saying become Conservative, more Republican, but what I’m saying is learn to become financially independent.

Learn to make sure that, okay, I’m taking care of my own credit and the money. I’m making sure I’m banking Black. I’m making sure I deal with small local or Black business or Black small and local business.

I’m making sure I create a network. I’m making sure I own — like Baltimore now should be owned by rappers and athletes. Rappers and athletes should be dumping as much money as they can into buying Baltimore because the time D.C. overfills, you’re gonna go right into Maryland next, right?

We should be buying in the same way people have bought up Detroit, the same way Atlanta is now gentrifying and buying. And more than rappers and athletes. Street dudes who managed to make it out, who got a construction company or own a tow truck company. We have to start to do for ourselves.

But a lot of old people are telling me that in the Depression, during the depth of Depression, they knew communities of Blacks that were not failing because some people grew, some people slaughtered animals, some people fished, some people had money to lend each other like a bank.

But if we don’t start doing that, then we’re going to continue to be the mistress of any political party that we feel will have us. I’m tired of that position when I know our community is strong enough to be self-sustaining.

Tavis: And a lot of those Black folk you just referenced did not give up their guns…

Mike: I’m never gonna…

Tavis: Which takes me full circle…

Mike: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: To Donald Trump. Donald Trump just gave a speech a few weeks ago, as you know, to the NRA. We talked earlier about the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers taking over the State Capitol here and getting into a tête-à-tête with then Governor Reagan about the right to carry. What do you say to Black folk about their guns in 2017?

Mike: Google Robert F. Williams. He was the person that inspired the Panthers even becoming Panthers. He was a Black Marxist. He was in the 50s. He was a person that the NRA gave a charter to in North Carolina so that Blacks could defend themselves, later Black people like Deacons of Defense. He also sold them ammunition when they couldn’t buy ammunition locally. The NRA did.

So the NRA has a value to me. My father’s been a member, I am a member. I think my father might be lifetime. I’m a member. It has had a value to me my entire life. My entire life, my father and uncles have been members of the NRA. I personally think that one million Black men this week should go online and just get a year’s membership and see how you like it.

They didn’t hold that thing in Atlanta for nothing. They could have held it in Minnesota. They could have held it in Oklahoma. They could have held it in north Texas. They held it in Atlanta because they really don’t have a problem with you having guns. I was talking to Colion Noir who’s absolutely…

Tavis: You believe that?

Mike: Absolutely, I do.

Tavis: I’m not sure I buy that.

Mike: You don’t have to buy it.

Tavis: I agree with everything you say. I’m not sure…

Mike: You don’t have to…

Tavis: Here’s my point. If we wanted to do something about the gun control issue in this country, give every negro a gun in America, that problem goes away.

Mike: But let’s do it then. Let’s test the theory and see.

Tavis: I’m all for it, I’m all for it.

Mike: Let’s see. Tavis and I want a million men to join…

Tavis: But that’s not because they want us to have it.

Mike: No, no, no. I didn’t say they wanted us to have that. They don’t want us to not have it. As long as they have their rights, then you get you rights to the sideline, cool. White men don’t want to give up their guns and I’m with that.

If you don’t want to give up your guns and I have that right — not privilege — but I have that right too, then I’m standing on your side of the room when they say who’s for guns. Simple as that.

You don’t have to be my friend to be my ally, but if you’re gonna pretend my friend, then you gotta vote with me. That’s my white Democrats or Progressives. But if we not going to be pretend friends, we just gonna be allies, let’s make sure that a million Black men join the NRA.

Let’s show up on the floor of the NRA like [inaudible] does. Let’s show up like the NRA spokesman, my man, Colion Noir, who says that, “Michael, part of the problem is every time guns are described in reference to Black people, they talk about gangs and drugs” and that’s unfair and that’s wrong.

Most gun owners that I know, whether it’s 10 people to my left or right, are responsible, home-owning Black men with families who own rifles and handguns. They own rifles because they hunt for sport. They own handguns to protect themselves. They have a shotgun in the house to protect their wife and children. That’s most of the guys I know.

We need to normalize that. People need to see Tavis at a shooting range. People need to see Dr. Cornel West trying to get off an Uzi at the range. You know what I mean? But what we cannot have anymore is to when guns are talked about, we go silent and shrug in a corner.

We allow somehow our moms and aunties and sisters to only talk about guns. I’m encouraging more women to shoot too. Like I think there are Pink Panthers or the Pandas, a group of Black women that are shooting. We need these service people that are coming home to form shooting clubs. This ain’t, “Hey, they’re coming to kill us.”

This is because guns get accidentally picked up by children. Your children should know how to, first of all, walk away from a gun if they see one. But by the time your boy’s 12, 13, 14 years old, he should have been to the range and should know how to load and unload a pistol. We need to be cognizant that these rights are not everywhere.

I was in London three years ago and I got one question from all the Black kids. “Do you know Gucci man?” and Part B to that question, “Can you own a gun for real?” So if the brothers and sisters in the South Sudan want AK47s to protect their rights and freedoms, I think we’d be remiss not to enjoy those rights and freedoms in this country.

Tavis: Killer Mike has spoken [laugh] and we’re gonna leave it right there, although I could talk to this brother two, three, four nights in a row because the wisdom is just flowing. Killer Mike, good to see you, man.

Mike: Always, thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Glad to have you on this program. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: June 9, 2017 at 1:22 pm