‘I definitely lead a non-politician life; I smoke weed and I go to strip clubs with my wife,” the rapper Killer Mike says with a laugh. “But I care about people and I have a duty to my community. I am not an angry old man – I am a participator.” As if to demonstrate at least some of that, he lights a blunt.
As a musician and an activist, Killer Mike has long balanced pleasure and responsibility. Now 47, he first came to the world’s attention in the early 2000s, when he featured on several tracks with the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast before launching a solo career.
Since 2013, he has been half of Run the Jewels alongside the New York rapper El-P. Their music meanders between hedonism and social exposition, while their live shows are as notorious for their ecstatic mosh pits as they are for their lyrical reflections on police brutality, racism and social injustice.
Michael Render, as he is legally known, is now releasing his first solo material in a decade, with the track Run testing the waters for a possible larger solo project. Over a fanfare of horns and a clattering mid-tempo beat, he entreats his Black listeners to persist amid the chaos. “All I know is keep going / you gotta run,” he raps, playing with the meanings of running from danger, running for office or simply moving forwards.
“I say that ‘the race for freedom ain’t won / you gotta run’,” he tells me, “because as Black people in America we have to be resilient. We have overcome and we shall continue to do so.”
On 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 to the leftwing senator Bernie Sanders ever since they shared a meal at the Atlanta soul food restaurant Busy Bee Cafe in 2015, and he backed Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Their unlikely friendship has spawned hundreds of memes, with Sanders, for example, shaping his hands into the Run the Jewels symbol of a gun pointed at a closed fist, or asking Render if he should call him “Mike or Killer Mike?”. “It was just a conversation between two angry radical guys, one 74 and white, one 40 and Black, finding common ground,” Render has said of that first encounter.
His emotive speeches at Sanders rallies are almost as famous as his music. Addressing the roaring crowd in North Carolina in 2019, he said: “When you go to that [voting] booth next year, I need you to carry the memory of this room. Black, white, straight, gay, male, female, we are together. We are united. We will not wait four more years.”
His impassioned words in the wake of police killings in the US have also gone viral. In 2015, during a show in Ferguson, Missouri, a fan-filmed video showed Render raging at the grand jury who had acquitted the officer who had killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, then pleading for the safety of his four children, who range in age from 15 to 27. In the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020, he told the public to fortify their homes and to “plot, plan, strategise, mobilise and organise” to dismantle the systemic structures of racism. “It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth,” he said. “It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, and chiefs and deputy chiefs.”
It must be exhausting having to publicly advocate for basic rights year after year, I tell him. “It’s a continuation of the work,” he says calmly. “My grandmother did the work of taking care of our neighbours without publicity, and my grandfather did, too – he would go fishing and always give half of his catch to other people, for instance. I don’t see it as making me better. I don’t see it as being driven by celebrity guilt either. I was told by my elders to make sure that the people who are suffering in my community are relieved by me. These are the principles that I operate with.”
He believes that Sanders shares his desire for social justice. “I will always speak to him because I believe he gives a fuck beyond his own personal chequebook. I honestly believe he is a continuation of great thinkers like [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, everyday American.
“Part of my responsibility is to make sure that people who are doing the work on a weekly and daily basis have a platform to push an agenda that’s helpful. No matter if you’re a Black person working a blue-collar job, or if you’re one of the educated elite bourgeoisie, you have a responsibility to push the line.”
Sometimes, however, he pushes the line in a direction that many will find objectionable. In 2018, during nationwide protests after 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 leftwingers in favour of gun control, “because you’ve never disagreed with the people who tell you what to do.” He later apologised for the interview’s timing, but his stance on gun ownership remains unchanged. “I will never be against the second amendment,” he says. “There’s no way that someone who represents a community that are only 60-odd years out of an apartheid should be willing to give a weapon back to the government, as the police choke you to death in the street and people just watch and film.”
The son of a policeman and a florist, Render is not without sympathy for the police. He has said his father told him and his five sisters not to follow in his footsteps because the job was “too dangerous”. Still, Render believes police reform is necessary and possible. “I have not seen a will to get rid of police as much as I’ve seen a want for police to be from the communities they’re policing and to be fair, rather than abusers of power,” he says. “We should be supporting the Police Athletic Leagues that deal with our young boys in particular before any trouble happens, more than we should be giving the police more rifles and bulletproof vests. The connection with the community is key.”
These leagues are local organisations founded by precincts to mentor young people and hopefully keep them off the streets. Render wasn’t a member as he grew up in the majority-Black Adamsville neighbourhood of Atlanta, but he managed to find his own community connections. “All my heroes and villains were based on character, not colour, as everyone looked like me in my home town,” he says. “I grew up with a real sense of confidence that I could do well, that even if there’s a few more speed bumps for me, I cannot and will not be denied what’s due to me.”
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Render studied at the prestigious, historically Black Morehouse college before he was spotted rapping by the Outkast member Big Boi. He offered Render a collaboration on their 2000 track Snappin’ & Trappin’, launching his career and leading him to drop out of college after just one year. “Even though I won a Grammy, my grandma still complained that I didn’t bring her a degree,” Render says. “Dropping out is one of my biggest regrets, but I’ve been given everything I’ve ever wanted in terms of being able to have a rap career, so I need to make it better for the people around me and the people that come after me.”
“Making things better” includes fighting 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 gang affiliations. Alongside Jay-Z and Kelly Rowland, Render recently supported the New York Senate rap music on trial bill, which aims to ban the practice.
Having written an op-ed for the Vox website in 2015 about the police’s “well-documented history of antagonism towards rappers”, Render is now watching one of the artists featured on Run, Young Thug, fight racketeering charges alongside 27 others. Prosecutors claim that Young Thug’s rap collective, YSL, is a criminal gang with ties to the national Bloods organisation, and are attempting to use Thug’s lyrics and social media posts against him. “I can’t comment on the charges,” Render says, “but Thug is a victim of a policy being used in a racist way and all of our first amendment rights could be endangered if they attempt to use his words against him. Let Black art live, otherwise we’re going to see a proliferation of rappers no matter what sex, age or ethnicity dragged into the court.”
As well as Young Thug, the extended version of Run contains an opening monologue from the comic Dave Chappelle. In his introduction, he compares the Black experience to the Normandy landings. “Ain’t no rhyme or reason why it’s not you on the ground, but as long as it’s not, you have to keep moving,” Chappelle says. “You’re just as heroic as those people who stormed the beach.”
“Chaos abounds around you; the people that you know and love are often taken from you or left forever scarred,” Render agrees. “It creates bonds and camaraderie that last your entire life.” He seems untroubled by the furore over Chappelle’s jokes about transgender people, which led to Netflix employees walking out in protest at the company hosting his standup specials. For Render, freedom of expression trumps everything. “If comedians are not allowed to talk shit about everybody, freedom of speech is in trouble,” he says. “When they cannot express themselves, there’s going to be a real problem with everyone else being able to do so as well.”
The last time Render spoke to the Guardian, just after the killing of George Floyd, he declared that Black people might feel that “nobody gives a shit” about them. Two years on, after the global protests for Black Lives Matter, does he feel more optimistic? “Not much has changed for Black people since 1619,” he says – the year that the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America. What progress there is has come “only because we push to get the rights and freedoms we deserve, or that have already been promised to us in the Bill of Rights or the United States constitution. If I work hard in making sure fairness and equity are given to my community and the communities that are like mine, only then can things get better. But the work doesn’t stop.”
Might he one day go into politics full-time, instead of just supporting others? He briefly ran as an independent candidate in the 2015 elections for Georgia’s 55th district and says Chappelle recently tried to convince him to run for state governor.
“I politely declined,” he adds. Later, maybe? “I will run for office the day that I’m unbribable. When I get rich for real, when no amount of money can corrupt me, maybe.”
Killer Mike’s new solo single and video, Run, is out on 4 July