Up until a few days ago, former South African President and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela never* occupied a sentence with white Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly. And then the upcoming biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom got a new trailer.
The minute-long teaser uses the 23-year-old rapper's song "Runnin'," to accompany Idris Elba as Mandela explaining his shift in doctrines on the road to ending Apartheid. And yes, the trailer only deploys the instrumental of "Runnin'." But of all the rappers in the world? Kind of amazing that a white guy's music was picked to soundtrack a trailer for a movie about the man who ended systematic discrimination by whites against black men, women, and children in South Africa.
But maybe MGK, as he's known to fans, has some kind of connection to the story of Nelson Mandela that none of us know about. We figured: Why not ask him?
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Did you know the song was going to be used?
Not at all. It came out and I was shocked and extremely happy. It was the perfect time.
What do you think makes the song right for the trailer?
The song came off Lace Up, which was the start of something beautiful and revolutionary in its own right. As in, here’s this kid trying to make a positive influence on kids in this negative setting, and so that connects to someone who had such a revolutionary impact on the world.
You feel like the lyrics reflect what’s going on in Mandela?
I think that everyone can relate to the chorus. Obviously the verses are personal. But the chorus is universal. I think it’s a perfect match. When the strings come in, and you hear Mandela’s voice behind it. It sounds like a movie, which it obviously is.
I feel like discrimination comes now in how you look, and what your status is—if you’re not in a certain echelon then you’re looked at as inferior. I don’t think race is too big of a thing anymore.
What do you think of Idris Elba playing Nelson Mandela?
It’s genius. And then hearing what he had to do? Wake up at 4 a.m. every day and sit in makeup for five hours just so they could mold his face to have the same structure as Mandela’s. That’s awesome. I can’t wait to go see the movie.
What does Nelson Mandela mean to you personally?
His life story is so inspiring. Doing 27 years in prison, then coming out of that to become the president of South Africa—I don’t know how that could not be inspiring to someone like me, who’s faced obstacles. And at the same time it puts it all in perspective. Here’s me, thinking that I had these obstacles and had to fight through everything, and then there’s someone who really had to fight through everything. It was Mandela against the world. With me, it’s more like me against my mind. There really are a lot of stereotypes I fight. There’s blackballing involved with Machine Gun Kelly, a lot of confusion about who I am as an artist. But that’s so small in the wake of someone like Nelson Mandela.
Have you felt discriminated against in the industry?
I don’t even need to talk about that. I’m grateful for where I’m at. I’m cool.
Are there any moments from Mandela’s life you’re looking forward to seeing in the movie?
In the trailer it seems like he was willing to take the life sentence on the chin, he wasn’t going to compromise. And so I’m curious to see what that moment was really like, if he was really like, “Bring it on, I’m gonna stand for what I believe in. And if it takes me getting a life sentence, then I’m gonna stick with that.”
What’s the significance of talking about Apartheid in 2013?
I think that race is kind of beyond us. I also feel like music genres don’t even really exist anymore. It’s not like you just have white people listening to metal and black people listening to hip hop. It’s very mixed now. I don’t think color plays too much of a part of things. I feel like now discrimination comes from fashion and things like that, like if you don’t look cool then you aren’t cool. That’s where you see me get pushed to the background. I choose to keep my image very average, and relatable to those people that don’t have the money to afford the things that these rappers talk about. A lot of bloggers are scared to co-sign because I’m not what the description of cool is said to be. I feel like discrimination comes now in how you look, and what your status is—if you’re not in a certain echelon then you’re looked at as inferior. I don’t think race is too big of a thing anymore. But there’s a huge amount of judgment being passed from person to person on social media, because it gives these individuals the power to say what’s cool and what’s not cool, social media gave everyone the power to have an opinion, and so people wake up feeling like shit sometimes because anyone from wherever can make fun of them for being themselves.
And you feel like there are parallels between the hatred expressed on social media and what the Mandela story talks about?
I can’t compare them. It’s one level of shit compared to another. These are people who were being beaten physically, so it can’t compare. But they’re things that we should be aware of.
So you think that race is less of an issue in America in 2013?
I think it is.
And yet events like Miley Cyrus' VMAs performance—that started a conversation centered around race.
I think that was less about race and more about trying. Someone trying to be something they don’t have to try so hard to be. I don’t want my daughter to grow up and feel like she has to try that hard to get people to accept her. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t really care anymore what people think about me. I’m just gonna be me. You know, I don’t know anyone personally who’s that turnt up all the time.
In the way that Miley Cyrus appears to be turnt up?
In the way that a lot of people nowadays are trying to be. Entertainment is back to being entertainment again. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, entertainment was real. A lot of things were real life that just happened to be filmed. They were genuine. I feel like nowadays, it’s become more theatrical, about who can outshock who. But less is more in my opinion.
And so that’s your approach?
That’s how I’m trying to be. I can’t really speak, since I’m the person who is in the media for supposedly trashing a Microsoft store and kicking computers off desks, all this shit like that. So I can’t really speak too harshly. However, I know I am trying to mature and be taken seriously as an artist. I’m trying to save kids with the three-minute escape of a song. I don’t need to get on stage and pierce my nipple at a fucking awards show to make people think I’m cool. I want to improve this generation’s, I don’t know, thought range? Have you ever seen that movie that takes place in the future and everyone is dumb as shit?
I feel like we’re heading to that sometimes. Genuinely. There’s no conversations going on at dinners anymore. Kids, all they do is make fun of each other. People are scared to show compassion. All these things are being taken away from my generation. I fear that, because I was able to experience all these cool moments in my life. Like genuine musicians. I was able to see Blink-182, who have one guitar, one bass, and drums just stand there and make good music. I was able to watch Adele perform at the VMAs with nothing but a microphone and her voice. I don’t want people to lose focus on the music. The music has to forever be in the foreground. We can’t let a gimmick overshadow the content of the music. Why should one video with a shocking climax overshadow a video with great music? That doesn’t make any fucking sense.