Killer Mike has been an outspoken activist since his debut on OutKast’s song “Snappin’ & Trappin” back in 2000. However, his mobilizing skills and incredible intellect hadn’t been recognized outside of the hip-hop community until recently, mostly due to the success of Run the Jewels coupled with the tragic events of the last year. Since Run the Jewels 2 dropped in late October, Killer Mike has penned op-eds concerning the unjust usage of lyrics to prosecute rappers and the dangers of police abusing power. He’s also appeared on CNN to discuss his relationship with the police (his father was a cop) and the events in Ferguson. On Friday, I went to see Killer Mike speak to a select group of MIT students and press, as part of their “Hip-Hop Speaker Series,” in a talk called “Race Relations in the U.S.”
When talking about race in 2015, and really any year for that matter, it’s impossible not to discuss police. If you watch the news, or even just check your Twitter timeline, there’s a horrifying trend: Unarmed black people are dying at the hands of white cops. In the case of Ferguson, Killer Mike said that while the death of Michael Brown was clearly racially charged, that wasn’t the main reason he was outraged. “My whole support of the Brown family wasn’t based on the fact that, ‘Oh, you’re killing black men, you’re shooting us down in the street,’ and I believe that is happening. But for me, my argument was this is an American citizen who was stopped illegally by an American police officer,” Killer Mike said. “I’m as furious about that when the person laying dead is a black boy in the middle of the street, or it’s a white man laying in the middle of the street. At the end of the day, the Constitution was written for all citizens.”
Although Killer Mike harps on the Constitution when talking about Michael Brown, he’s keenly aware of the relationship between black people and police. To be a black person in America and unaware of that relationship is to be in jeopardy. What makes Killer Mike so special, though, is his ability to illustrate this relationship with intense clarity and beauty.
Maybe the best depiction of this is Run the Jewels’ video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” featuring Zack De La Rocha. In the video, a white cop and a young black man are in a futile, exhausting physical fight. Killer Mike explained to the MIT audience that he, El-P, and director AG Rojas didn’t just want to glamorize fantasies of rebellion, like the lyrics would suggest; they wanted to properly illustrate the black experience. “At the very end of the video, the young man closes his eyes, puts his head down,” Killer Mike said. “He gets a brief moment of just relaxation, where he’s walking through an open field with his arms open, and then you see it cuts right back to him and the cop on the bed. And the next day it’s happening. That’s what it feels like to be a black man.”
Rather than hearing a lecture from some washed professor, we witnessed something thoughtful, and funny enough to be a stand-up comedy routine. “I looked at a video on WorldStar before I came here. Four Swedish cops subdued two black guys—nobody died. Get the fuck outta here,” he said derisively. “The guy said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ the cop said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he got up off his back. I was like, ‘Well god damn, ain’t this genius.’” The whole lecture room laughed like we were watching a Chappelle skit.
What I appreciated about Killer Mike most, though, was his transparency. He spoke about the black experience and what it’s like to be oppressed, but he also said that as a man he came to find out that he could be the oppressor, too. A lot of times when we’re discussing police brutality or violence against black people in general, we use the phrase “black men” when we really need to use “black people.” It’s not like white people are separating their racism because of our sexual organs, and, if anything, the black woman is receiving most of the oppression. Killer Mike said that he does things as mundane as making his family breakfast so his daughter knows cooking isn’t just a job relegated to women.
Last night, Killer Mike attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner on behalf of the Huffington Post. When you look at his recent track record—lectures at NYU and MIT, an appearance on CNN, and now the White House Correspondents' Dinner—it’s easy to think, “Wow, Killer Mike and hip-hop have come so far.” That’s not really the case, though. Killer Mike and hip-hop have always belonged in the classroom and in the White House. It’s not that Killer Mike or hip-hop has made some drastic change over the last 40 years—white institutions just finally got their shit together.
Brian Padilla is a writer living in New York. Follow him @NYCbros.