“I they definitely lead a non-political life; I smoke weed and go to strip clubs with my wife,” says rapper Killer Mike with a laugh. “But I care about people and I have a duty to my community. I’m not an angry old man – I’m a participant.” As if to demonstrate at least some of this, he lights a blunt.
As a musician and activist, Killer Mike has long balanced pleasure with responsibility. Now 47, he first came to the world’s attention in the early 2000s when he featured on several songs with Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast before embarking on a solo career.
Since 2013, he has been one half of Run the Jewels along with New York rapper El-P. Their music meanders between hedonism and social exposure, while their live shows are as famous for their ecstatic mosh pits as they are for their lyrical reflections on police brutality, racism and social injustice.
Michael Render, as he’s legally known, is now releasing his first solo material in a decade, with the song Run testing the waters for a possible larger solo project. Over a fanfare of horns and a clattering mid-tempo beat, he implores his black listeners to persevere amid the chaos. “All I know is keep going / gotta run,” he raps, playing with the meanings of running from danger, running for office, or just moving forward.
“I say ‘the race to freedom is not won/you have to run,'” he tells me, “because as black people in America we have to be resilient. We have overcome and will continue to do so.”
During a video call from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, Render is by turns eloquent and mischievous as he talks about his history of political activism. He has been close with left-leaning Sen. Bernie Sanders since they shared dinner at Atlanta soul food restaurant Busy Bee Cafe in 2015, and he supported Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Their unlikely friendship has spawned hundreds of memes, with Sanders, for example , shapes his hands into the Run the Jewels symbol of a gun pointed at a clenched fist, or asks Render whether to call him “Mike or Mike the Killer?”. “It was just a conversation between two angry radical guys, one 74 and white, one 40 and black, who found common ground,” Render said of that first meeting.
His emotional speeches at Sanders rallies are almost as famous as his music. Addressing a roaring crowd in North Carolina in 2019, he said: “When you go to this [voting] stand next year, I need you to carry the memory of this room. Black, white, straight, gay, male, female, we’re in this together. We are united. We’re not going to wait another four years.”
His fiery words in the wake of police killings in the US also went viral. In 2015, during a show in Ferguson, Missouri, fan-filmed video showed Render raging at the grand jury that had acquitted the police officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, then pleading for the safety of his four children. who aged 15 to 27 years. In the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020, he told the public to fortify their homes and “map, plan, strategize, mobilize and organize” to dismantle the systemic structures of racism. “It’s time to put the prosecutors you don’t like in the voting booth,” he said. “It is time to demand responsibility from the town halls, from the chiefs and deputies.
It must be exhausting to publicly advocate for fundamental rights year after year, I tell him. “It’s a continuation of the work,” he says calmly. “My grandmother did the job of taking care of our neighbors without advertising, and so did my grandfather – he went fishing and always gave half of his catch to other people, for example. I don’t see that making me any better. I don’t see it as being provoked by celebrity guilt either. My elders told me to make sure that the people who are suffering in my community will be relieved by me. These are the principles I work with.”
He believes Sanders shares his desire for social justice. “I will always talk to him because I believe he cares more than his personal checkbook. I sincerely believe that he is a continuation of great thinkers such as [former slave and abolitionist] Frederick Douglass and [trade unionist] Eugene V Debs – a continuation of people who fought their ass off for the betterment of the salt of the earth, an ordinary American.
“Part of my responsibility is to make sure that the people who do the work on a weekly and daily basis have a platform to push an agenda that is useful. Whether you’re a black blue-collar worker or part of the educated elite bourgeoisie, it’s your responsibility to push the line.”
However, sometimes he pushes the line in a direction that many will find undesirable. In 2018, amid national protests following the deadliest high school shooting in US history, he gave an interview to the National Rifle Association supporting the Second Amendment right to bear arms. “You’re a lackey of the progressive movement,” he told the gun-control left, “because you’ve never stood up to people telling you what to do.” He later apologized for the timing of the interview, but the position his policy on gun ownership remains unchanged. “I will never be against the Second Amendment,” he says. “There’s no way that someone representing a community that’s only 60 years out of apartheid is going to be willing to hand guns back to the government because the police are choking you to death in the street and people are just watching and taking pictures.” “
The son of a policeman and a florist, Render is not without sympathy for the police. He said his father told him and his five sisters not to follow in his footsteps because the work was “too dangerous”. Still, Render believes that police reform is necessary and possible. “I haven’t seen a desire to get rid of the police as much as I’ve seen a desire for the police to be from the communities they police and be fair and not abuse power,” he says. “We need to support police athletic leagues that deal with our young guys before trouble happens, more than giving the police more rifles and bulletproof vests.” Community engagement is key.”
These leagues are grassroots organizations started by districts to mentor young people and hopefully keep them off the streets. Render was not a member as he grew up in majority black Adamsville in Atlanta, but managed to find his own connections in the community. “All my heroes and villains were based on character, not color, as they all looked like me in my hometown,” he says. “I grew up with a real sense of confidence that I could do well, that even if there were a few more speed bumps, I couldn’t and wouldn’t be denied what was due to me.”
REnder attended the prestigious, historic Black Morehouse College before being spotted rapping by Outkast member Big Boi. He offered Render a collaboration on their 2000 song Snappin’ & Trappin’, which launched his career and caused him to drop out of college after just one year. “Even though I won a Grammy, my grandmother still complained that I didn’t bring her a diploma,” Render says. “Getting out is one of my biggest regrets, but I got everything I ever wanted in terms of being able to have a rap career, so I’ve got to make it better for the people around me and the people who come after me.”
“Let’s Make It Better” includes a fight against the use of rap in criminal trials, as US prosecutors have used lyrics by artists such as 6ix9ine, Drakeo the Ruler and Tay-K to try to show that defendants had violent interests or relationships with gangs. Along with Jay-Z and Kelly Rowland, Render recently co-sponsored a rap music bill in the New York Senate that aims to ban the practice.
After writing a commentary for the Vox website in 2015 about “the well-documented history of police antagonism toward rappers,” Render is now watching one of the artists featured in Run, Young Thug, fight racketeering charges along with 27 others . Prosecutors say Young Thug’s rap collective, YSL, is a criminal gang with ties to the national Bloods organization and are trying to use Thug’s lyrics and social media posts against him. “I can’t comment on the allegations,” says Render, “but Thug is a victim of politics being used in a racist way, and all of our First Amendment rights could be at risk if they try to use his words against him. Long live black magic or we will see an increase in the number of rappers regardless of gender, age or ethnicity being taken to court.”
In addition to Young Thug, the extended version of Run features an opening monologue from comic Dave Chappelle. In his introduction, he compared Black’s experience to the Normandy landings. “There’s no rhyme or reason to why you’re not on the ground, but until you are, you’ve got to keep moving,” Chappell says. “You’re just as heroic as those people who stormed the beach.”
“Chaos abounds around you; the people you know and love are often taken away from you or left forever scarred,” agrees Render. “It creates bonds and friendships that last a lifetime.” He doesn’t seem fazed by the furore over Chappelle’s jokes about transgender people, which prompted Netflix employees to walk out in protest against the company hosting his specials. For Render, freedom of expression trumps everything. “If comedians aren’t allowed to talk crap about everybody, free speech is in trouble,” he says. “When they can’t express themselves, there’s going to be a real problem with everyone else being able to do it too.”
The last time Render spoke to the Guardian, just after the killing of George Floyd, he said that black people might feel like “no one cares” about them. Two years later, after the global Black Lives Matter protests, does it feel more optimistic? “Not much has changed for black people since 1619,” he says, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America. Progress exists “only because we strive to obtain the rights and freedoms that we deserve or that are already promised to us in the Bill of Rights or the United States Constitution. If I work hard to make sure that my community and communities like mine are afforded justice and equality, only then can things get better. But the work does not stop.”
Could he one day be involved in politics full-time instead of just supporting others? He briefly ran as an independent candidate in the 2015 election for Georgia’s 55th district and says Chappell recently tried to convince him to run for governor.
“I politely declined,” he adds. Later maybe? “I will run for office the day I become incorruptible. When I get really rich, when no amount of money can corrupt me, maybe.”
Killer Mike’s new solo single and video, Run, is out on the 4th of July