Since being launched into the hip-hop stratosphere by Outkast on their 2001 single “The Whole World,” Killer Mike has been a fixture on the Southern hip-hop landscape. However, during the presidential election, he became a national political presence after backing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.
Mike’s fervent support of the white Jewish grandpa from Vermont sparked enough curiosity to land him on CNN, MSNBC, ABC’s The View and more. But Killer Mike is the first to let it be known that his political advocacy on behalf of the black community didn’t start with—and will not end with—Sanders.
Born Mike Render to teenage parents, the political rapper was largely raised by his grandparents in Collier Heights, a historic Atlanta neighborhood once teeming with black political currency. Personally familiar with pioneering black Atlanta mayors—Maynard Jackson, his city’s first, and Andrew Young, who followed Jackson—Mike was raised in the shadow of the civil rights social revolution spearheaded by Atlanta’s most famous native, Martin Luther King Jr. Mike’s grandparents were very politically aware and passed that on to him.
“I’ve been involved with political activity since I was probably 7 or 8 years old. My grandmother had me out helping to campaign for local politicians,” says Mike while traveling between Midwest tour dates in support of his latest album Run the Jewels 3, named for the duo he formed with white rapper El-P of Company Flow around 2013.
Mike says he became more deeply entrenched in politics under the tutelage of former King aide the Rev. James Orange. “Politically, I was seasoned very early,” he reiterates. “By the time I was 15 years old, I was organizing.”
Back then, hip-hop complemented his political activism. “I was born in 1975,” he explains. Growing up, he says, “The only people that seemed to be telling truth about what was going on at that time, in my mind, was rappers. Schoolly D [with] ‘P.S.K.,’ BDP, later on N.W.A, Geto Boys, you know, Public Enemy. They were the only ones telling factual truth about what was happening.”
What was happening at that time was crack cocaine, murder, poverty and mass incarceration, among other ills. Mike took note and, despite his name, which actually originated from him “killing” other emcees on the mic, began using the knowledge in his rhymes. In 2012 he received critical acclaim for his fifth studio album, R.A.P. Music (R.A.P. stood for Rebellious African People), particularly his single “Reagan,” a scorching critique of the GOP’s patron saint president that sampled Reagan’s voice. Mike even had his own political radio show on Atlanta’s black talk-radio station WAOK back in 2013.
So when Sanders emerged as a rival to Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Mike, to his own surprise, found a lot of common ground with the senator from Vermont.
“When the [Voting] Rights Act got gutted, we immediately saw the redrawing of district lines,” Mike says. “We saw black politicians who were almost legacy politicians in areas being voted out because your protection essentially got thrown in the trash. Well, when this white politician, who I didn’t know at the time, said one of his first acts as president would be to restore that, and then, second, [he] talked about the decriminalization of marijuana, [he got my attention].”
Sanders’ perspective on marijuana struck a very emotional chord with Mike because he’s long realized how the criminalization of cannabis is used against young black men in urban communities. “Marijuana became the gateway arrest drug for black boys. What they were essentially doing was taking petty marijuana charges, putting them on black boys and giving them a criminal record as early as they could. To see a politician talk about that, I was like, I have to listen to this guy,” he recalls.
Supporting Sanders left him with an even more bitter taste for the Democratic Party, which black people have overwhelmingly followed for decades now. “What has happened in the last 50 to 60 years of being Democrats,” he says, “is we’ve become almost like a neglected wife. We’re faithful. We vote over 80 to 90 percent Democratic, and the larger party seems to care nothing about us.
“Everyone brags that unemployment is down to 5 percent, but that’s not true among African-American men,” he continues. “It’s not true among African-American youth, but we aren’t holding the feet to the fire of the people that we’re voting for.”
Needless to say, the Democratic National Committee and the national party favoring Clinton over Sanders did very little to improve his perceptions. “I think it was an insult and a disgrace that they were allowed to cheat a better opponent,” he says, referring to the leaked emails documenting the DNC’s preference for Clinton even as it publicly vowed to remain neutral.
It also destroyed his faith in some Democrats he once admired. “I also felt shame about [debate] questions being passed early to Hillary Clinton from some of the black Democrats that we have trusted, [like] Donna Brazile. That was heartbreaking.”
Today he’s even more cynical about black folks’ blind Democratic loyalty. “If we are going to remain Democrats, what are we going to demand?” he asks.
Coincidentally, a Donald Trump presidency has only made him cling more tightly to the proven forms of action that have historically helped bring the black community to the dance. “In the age of Trump, what we need to do is what we didn’t do in the last eight years. That’s to be a force on a local level in places like Ferguson, places like St. Louis, places like Atlanta, places like Watts, Inglewood and places like Harlem where we still have some sort of stronghold,” he says.
But politics is not his only concern. Economics rank very high as well, and that change, says Mike, who also owns a barbershop, begins with us.
“Black people, if you don’t have the economic power that you want, desire or deserve yet, if you don’t have the political power by proxy because you’ve just been a slave to one political party, I think it’s time that you start to use your vote as currency, that you start to demand more,” he says.
“And it’s time that you self-segregate your dollar, close off your virginity in terms of letting the dollar go out. We need to start taking the example of other successful communities and emulate it,” he preaches. “If we were as faithful to other black businesses as we are to black barbershops and black beauty shops, we’d be unstoppable.”