Living in an age with more upheaval than we thought would be possible, we need more pop-culture heroes who are so ready to proclaim “no teacher can teach my arrogant ass” (‘Oh My Darling Don’t Cry’) as Killer Mike, or Michael Render to his parents. The Atlanta native, rapper and activist has been active since his guest spot on Outkast’s ‘Stankonia’ in 2000, quickly progressing to a guest spot on Jay Z’s ‘The Blueprint 2.

Arguably better known as one half of Run the Jewels (the hip-hop group he formed with producer El-P), Killer Mike’s career started over a decade earlier and his own debut full-length, 2003’s ‘Monster’, secured features from big names – Outkast to name one, with a certain medical professional named Dre on production duties – reaching 10 on the US Billboard 200.

By 2006 and the release of Mike’s second studio album, ‘I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind’, the political sensibilities that have come to characterise his specific flows were starting to rise to the surface. ‘That’s Life’ features a righteously vitriolic rant against the endemic dumbing down of Western culture.

“The comment Kanye made was damn near right // But Bush hate poor people // Be ’em black or white // That’s life” – ‘That’s Life’ (‘I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind’, 2006)

It was becoming more obvious that Killer Mike was flourishing in a culture that nurtured a sorely missed incarnation of Kanye amongst many others, where high-profile critique was starting to push its way into the mainstream – ironically, just prior to the 2007/8 recession. This would prove to affect the poorest communities hardest – communities often disproportionately made up by African-Americans, who would suffer the worst of the economic downturn.

With the release of 2008’s ‘I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II’, Mike’s music made a further turn towards social critique as his became a more prominent voice on the scene. As an articulator of discontent, Mike used media opportunities such as awards shows to spread the message of disenchantment and to question dominant political structures.

“We as Americans are losing rights by the day. There’s things that we need to do and before we do those things, we gotta get angry. Angry enough to ask questions of the politicians…angry enough not to accept not only police harassment, but police brutality.” – Killer Mike, 2008

Fast forward to 2012, Killer Mike’s critically acclaimed and most recent solo album, ‘R.A.P Music’, had mired itself deeply in cultural and political critique. ‘Reagan’ opened with a sample of Ronald Reagan’s denial of involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, the lyrics burning a hole in the conscience of every President since. Unusually for someone involved in the US rap scene in the glory days of Obama’s first term as President, Mike’s refusal to let Obama’s misdeeds slide cemented him as a musical revolutionary.

“If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic // Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi // We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil // Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby.” – ‘Reagan’ (‘R.A.P Music, 2012)

You can make a case for icons such as Killer Mike being a precursor to the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he was certainly able to see idiosyncrasies in the US political system years before they became apparent to a number of different protest groups, such as admonishing Wall Street practices years before Occupy came into existence. His ability to do this whilst maintaining legitimate credibility in the hip-hop scene, which was indelibly linked to the ‘change is coming’ mantra of the Obama administration, is a mark of his extensive talents.

The joint tour that led to Killer Mike and El-P joining forces to become Run the Jewels took place just one year later, with two albums, ‘Run the Jewels’ and ‘Run the Jewels 2’, released within the space of a little more than a year. The first album, said Mike at the time, was like they were “superheroes”; the second like “superheroes that bleed”.

I am probably as biased as somebody writing a living obituary is able to be. ‘Run the Jewels 2’ in particular is an album that has helped, and does help, me in times when when I’ve struggled, and I believe that it’s the duo’s ability – particularly Mike’s – to spit in the face of injustice that has made it possible to do that. A personal favourite is ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)’, which skips from harsh, metallic civil rights-invoking lyrics like “we killin’ them for freedom ‘cause they tortured us for boredom”, to the sleazy and humorous “I’m trained in vagina whisperin’, glistenin’, waitin’ for the christenin’” within two verses. It’s the essentially-human element of this dichotomy that holds much of Killer Mike’s appeal.

“I’m a black man who grew up in America…I’m a father of four children. They don’t all have the same mother. I own a business. I see the societal ills and woes on the news everyday just like you. And rap has given me voice to talk about all these things in a very honest, simplistically complex way.” – Killer Mike, 2014

Killer Mike’s social activism reaches into his business ventures as well as his music. His SWAG barbershop venture with his wife, Shana, sees a plan to open barbershops across the US. He hopes to employ unemployed African-American men who from the local community, giving them skills to build a sustainable career, with the first few open in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, he has been quoted as acknowledging the roles of barbershops in the working class black community as a source of empowerment;

“Atlanta is a Black city. I’ve never known a white mayor or a white police chief. It’s all Black men.” – Killer Mike, 2012

Killer Mike’s readiness to become a figurehead at the forefront of social activism in the US has led to him giving lectures on the subject of race relations – at universities as prestigious as New York University and MIT – in addition to his decision to run as an independent candidate in Georgia in 2015. Whilst he did not register as an official candidate, the stunt served its purpose; to raise awareness of the fact that independent challengers to the political establishment should be welcomed.

This, in practice, manifested itself as public support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Presidential election. Killer Mike even released a six-part video series of himself interviewing Sanders in his Atlanta barbershop, with issues as diverse as marijuana use to the core tenets of social democracy being covered – all whilst wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the trademark RTJ hands, of course.

Whilst the self-proclaimed social democrat’s campaign to be Democratic candidate was quashed by the Clinton boot stamping on a metaphorical human face (forever), Killer Mike and El-P put out ‘Run the Jewels 3’ on Christmas Eve 2016. As with their other albums and in line with all of their best principles, it was available first as a free download on their website. Not as violent as its predecessor but with a deeper sense of malignant, restless power, ‘Run the Jewels 3’ is an exercise in constructive yet urgent dialogue. ‘A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’, its closing track, would be a borderline defeatist ode to falling off the cliff in front of us if it were not for the whisperin’, glistenin’ thread of resistance running through it.

Killer Mike’s position as an alternative hip-hop icon will endure, even if he does quit the game to follow local politics or continue expanding his chain of barbershops. His insistence on engaging with injustice, even when it makes things uncomfortable, even when there’s not many people listening, even when he could arguably reach a bigger audience if he didn’t, is an inspiration for us all. The focus of his issues lay deeply rooted in the heart of the black community in the US, but all activists and community leaders could learn a lot from his approach.

For me personally, the spirit of resistance and self-assurance that has leaked out of his music and into my headphones has engaged me with my own fights more than any pep talk ever could. The legacy of music alone that Killer Mike has made in his fifteen-and-counting years of activity on the scene cements his status as much as anyone could wish for, but the legacy of his unforgiving, relentless personhood will go so much further.

“Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win // It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again // But we know we all afraid, so we just simply cry // and march again.” – ‘A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’ (‘Run the Jewels 3’, 2016)

About The Author

Charlotte Watson

I should have been a member of the Smiths but I wasn’t – damn you time travel – so I write about bands like them instead. In the mean time, I like Los Campesinos, Foals and Regina Spektor. Oh, and tea. And gladioli.