The Sound of a Movement: How Killer Mike Voiced America's Pain

By McBain, Sophie | New Statesman (1996), June 5, 2020 | Go to article overview

The Sound of a Movement: How Killer Mike Voiced America's Pain


McBain, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)


On 30 May, the rapper and activist Killer Mike stepped behind the podium at a mayoral press conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The heavyset, bearded black man wore a T-shirt with the slogan "kill your masters" and a gold replica of a Cellini sculpture on a chain around his neck. When he spoke, his voice cracked with emotion. "I didn't want to come," he began, looking down at his hands, "and I don't want to be here."

Five days earlier, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, a father, a restaurant bouncer, a rapper and a former high school football champion, was killed when a white policeman knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd gasped "I can't breathe" and lost consciousness. His death sparked protests that spread from Floyd's adopted hometown of Minneapolis across the US, and which were met with appalling force by the police. On the evening of Killer Mike's speech, protesters in Atlanta set cars on fire, defaced the CNN headquarters and vandalised shops.

Introducing himself as the son of an Atlanta policeman, the rapper, known offstage as Michael Render, called for calm. "It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with the enemy. It is your duty to fortify your house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategist, organise and mobilise," he said. The speech, which went viral, was electrifying. "I'm mad as hell," Render said, his voice almost a growl, his cheeks glistening with tears, "I woke up wanting to see the world burnt down because I am tired of seeing black men die." But he argued that lasting change happens through political engagement and action.

Two days after Floyd's death, Render had posted on Instagram a clip from his upcoming album, his fourth as half of the political hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. The lyrics were eerily fitting; Floyd's killing was both shocking and grimly familiar. "And every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free/And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, T can't breathe.'"

Render has long been involved in community activism and politics in Atlanta. The 45-year-old was raised by his grandparents in Adamsville, a poor, mostly black neighbourhood of the city, and now lives in Atlanta with his wife and four children. He owns two barbershops there.

Render got his break collaborating with the rap group OutKast, winning a Grammy for his appearance on the 2001 hit "The Whole World", before releasing Monster, the first of five solo albums, in 2003. …

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