Killer Mike, half of Run the Jewels, and an imposing figure in hip-hop since the year 2000 (at least), doesn’t do a lot of opening sets these days. But a notable exception came last month when he introduced presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders at a rally in Atlanta. Killer Mike’s endorsement of Sanders came shortly after Sanders vowed to restore the Voting Rights Act during his term, if elected. Before the Atlanta rally, the two men spent a long time chewing over current issues at Busy Bee, and Sanders also stopped by Killer Mike’s Atlanta barber shop, The Swag Shop.
Killer Mike pays more attention to politics than most people, let alone most rappers. If you don’t believe it, listen to his rhymes. From “Reagan” to “Early” and “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” he delivers his views unabashedly, and without filters. He gave a heartfelt speech from the stage in St. Louis, Missouri, the night a grand jury there handed down their decision not to indict Darren Wilson on a murder charge. His speech introducing Bernie Sanders in Atlanta was no less heartfelt, and no less moving, and we decided to reach out and ask Killer Mike to weigh in on the election, police brutality, the conflict in Syria, and more.
Can you talk about why you’re endorsing Bernie Sanders?
This is not a criticism as much as just a subtle critique, but I don’t think the President said anything when the Supreme Court ripped apart the Voting Rights Act. Right after that thing was gutted, you saw voter ID laws popping up back in the south, it became more restrictive to vote, essentially setting us back on a course for a manufactured Jim Crowe. And the fact that [Bernie] was the only person saying it, I just connected with that. Because to say that resonates with me. It’s social justice.
He’s a politician. I’m sure he’s done and supports shit that I don’t agree with. We’re vastly different on our assault weapons views. I don’t even call rifles assault weapons, I don’t agree with that. We have things we disagree on. But his policies represent the lineage of social justice that I was taught by people who were with Dr. King in particular. And the more I researched Senator Sanders, the more I saw that this has pretty much been his career as a politician. And social justice has been his thing, way before he was in office. And I believe this country needs that right now. I honestly do. I believe that something can be said for a president who’s not styled, or stylish, who’s not well-learned in the nuances of pop culture, but is vehement in favor of every American having the right to education. Or having the right to health care. Or having the right to be a part of the political process. It’s just a new and different thing for me. I didn’t plan on voting nationally after we got Obama in the second time. I planned on still voting locally. His stance and his social justice perspective really spooled me in so I’m here for one more ride. We’ll see what happens.
It’s interesting you mention being disinterested in national politics, especially after all the stagnation and gridlock we saw during Obama’s terms. How do you see the role of the president? Do you feel that Bernie Sanders can make significant changes?
Well first of all I’d like to acknowledge that’s not all President Obama’s fault. He’s had a hard fight to fight at times. He isn’t the off-the-chain liberal that many expected him to be, but had he been received better by The Senate and The House we would have seen him talking about federal prisons two years before now. So I know he’s had an uphill battle to fight and I applaud him for it for doing it in a very tactful and classy way.
With Sanders, when I talked to him, I just said: “How are you going to make this happen?” And then he said, “I’m not. We are.” He recognizes that politics is not just ‘I’ve picked this side. And we’re going to win with this ideology.’ He understands that everyone has a part to play. There’s a parable in African folklore that says many hands make for light work. He sees it as an opportunity for Americans to get behind a set of ideals much like FDR asked America to do. And to push forward in the name of everyone.
I know a lot of people look at like ‘this fucking rapper, what’s he saying?’ But you know before I was a rapper I was a kid that gave a shit about world history and in particular American history. I went to college at Moorehouse College, the finest university for black men in the world. So I am versed in the subtle nuances of this shit. I just haven’t seen a better candidate for my community and for what America needs.
Right now, you live in a system where six banks control the bulk of the money, that means you don’t have a local bank. That means your local credit union is in danger of being sucked up. I’m a rapper. I’ve got six other rapper friends. We can all decide tomorrow that we want to talk about champagne and clubbing, and that’s what you’re going to be doing a year from now. Because that’s all we’ve given you to some degree. You don’t believe me? Look at rap. So for me, if banks take $30 billion in overdraft fees last year, why am I even paying overdraft fees? Why don’t banks relieve my overdrafts? They can. The bank I bank with does. Because they want to keep my account. Because I am doing economically better than people who really need their overdraft fees waived. You get what I’m saying? So as a person who profits from the system as it is now, if I’m willing to concede that I could do a little more to help a lot more, I’m willing to do that as an American, because I wish to see this country remain a great country of opportunity.
You’ve spoken a great deal about police brutality in your music, and obviously we saw a lot of well-documented cases of brutality just in the last year, even in the last couple of months, really. How are you feeling about the issue of police brutality a year after Ferguson?
How I feel about those issues now is like going back in time to 1990 and asking 15-year-old Michael how he feels about those issues then. I’m disgusted by them. I’m afraid, as a black man. I’m afraid as a black father now that I have sons. That fear drives me to be more engaged in local and state and federal politics. That fear is part of what leads me into voting for a Sanders.
We need someone who is older than the other people on the ticket. We need someone who has seen this country at its very worst in terms of racism and polarization, and has seen the potential that can be created. We need a 74-year-old Civil Rights activist. We need someone who understands that black and white people are not different. They’re a part of the same species and only a different color because of climate and the amount of light that can get through their skin. I don’t need a slick politician right now. I don’t need a world negotiator or a war financier. That’s not what this country needs. It’s just not.
As a black man that lives in perpetual fear that authority can shut me down at any given time, I would definitely be voting for the person that’s acknowledging my humanity. And when Sanders talks, he acknowledges that humanity, and the inhumanity of our prison system. And how restorative justice is better than locking people away. He understands that the drug war has overwhelmingly targeted blacks and other minorities. That speaks to me as a human, having my humanity acknowledged. That is a person that earns my vote. That is the ideology, even more than the person.
The last year has seen a lot of protests and coverage of those protests in the media, plus just in the last year the music that you and some of your contemporaries like Kendrick Lamar have made has had kind of a protest message. Do you feel like this is sort of a new protest era?
I think it’s in the air. I think it’s always in the air. To act like it’s something new would be to ignore Brother Ali’s work, would be to ignore Immortal Technique’s work, would be to ignore Public Enemy’s continued work. That work always has representation in rap music. But what you’re seeing is that people who don’t look alike are converging to talk against state-sponsored violence. To say fair is fair. People are getting outside of their individual special interests. They’re cross-collaborating with one another, they’re meeting individual people that break stereotypes. Change is occurring. However slow the progress is, progress is happening. So I think you’re going to see more of it in music because I think you’re going to see more of it in real life. Hence it becomes a part of popular culture. And that’s when musicians or artists influence the energy that’s out there.
On your song “Reagan” you mention that Obama and Reagan both went after Qaddafi, and the tendency of American leaders to invade places with oil. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing now in terms of America’s foreign policy, especially in regards to ISIS and the Syrian Civil War?
I’m not going to pretend to be as versed in international policies as politicians. I’m just gonna say if something stinks, there’s shit in the room. If something stinks, someone shit their pants. And I would rather answer that question by saying: What coincidence is it that we control Afghanistan, we control the poppy fields of Afghanistan, and heroin is 90-95 percent pure on the east coast? What coincidence is that? What coincidence is it that all our military strategic posts, whether it be East Africa or the Middle East, somehow line themselves up with stopping oil going to countries that we may be in opposition to.
So I can’t say ‘it’s bad policy, I don’t agree with it.’ I can’t say any of that. What I can say is: Something in the room stinks. Because we have been at perpetual war my entire life. I think something stinks. I think something is not right. I think that the only thing that is gonna stop this is if soldiers put their guns down on the battlefield and say, “No. Kill each other yourselves.” Because there is profit in war. There is money in war. And our politicians keep getting their pictures taken next to the people who build the weapons. So, something stinks, that’s my answer. Something stinks.