It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
It's been a year since the death of George Floyd, and the rhetoric of revolution, once relegated to the fringes of political discourse, floods our airways. In the mainstream media, it's easy to find talking heads everywhere from corporate boardrooms to late-night television sounding off on last year's uprisings. But in the hip-hop industry, things have looked a bit more complicated.
While some artists like Chicago rapper/book club organizer Noname have made crucial efforts to support abolitionist agendas, others have remained rather quiet—or even voiced support for police. In Atlanta, however, one artist's voice has been elevated above the pack, to the near-unanimous applause of moderates and liberals alike: Rapper Killer Mike.
Last June, a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd and violent police aggression against unarmed demonstrators, Run the Jewels, the rap duo featuring Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P, released their new album RTJ4. Critical response was rapturous. In a few hundred words, Rolling Stone's Jon Dolan managed to compare RTJ4 to a "war-dance attack" and a "swinging weapon of liberation." The LA Times' August Brown called the album "a flash-bang grenade thrown back at the systemic failures that got us here." Pitchfork's Sheldon Pearce assured his readers that "RTJ are still taking it to the streets to fight a tyrannical ruling class and racist policing."
All this praise for the album's anti-establishment messaging came despite the fact that just a few weeks earlier, Killer Mike had publicly spoken out against further agitation from protesters.
At a now-infamous live press conference in Atlanta in May, Mike condemned the growing Atlanta riots, denouncing the looting of union-busting department stores, and urging protesters to focus their attention on upcoming elections, rather than demonstrations—all while sporting a T-shirt advertising Run the Jewels' signature catchphrase: "Kill Your Masters."
The speech garnered universal praise from center-left media. For them it was a sign that the protests had gone too far—even for their favorite radical. CNN (whose headquarters was defaced earlier that day), called Mike's words "an emotional plea for calm." The Los Angeles Times declared it "a defining moment in the protests."
Just as journalists hailed Mike for his "message of peace," music critics around the nation were likening RTJ4 to a war cry. Despite his initial hesitancy to speak at the May press conference, progressive media has positioned Killer Mike as a spokesperson for a radical movement that he may not fully espouse politically.
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The rapper indeed has something to benefit from playing to both audiences.
"Killer Mike makes a habit of selling his influence with the Black community to the highest bidder," says Atlanta organizer and Southerners on New Ground's Regional Campaign lead Jill Cartwright. " Whether it be Bernie Sanders, Mayor Bottoms or Governor Kemp, Mike has no problem turning real community suffering and trauma into a photo op for personal status."
Run the Jewels built their appeal by walking a tightrope—the same tightrope that ultimately underscores all reformist policies. Their music is designed to sound like uprising, but it mostly simulates the flashy special effects of a plotless superhero movie—emphasizing spectacle while lacking meaningful specificity.
Take for instance, RTJ4's lead single "Yankee and the Brave." In the song's first minute, both frontmen threaten their political enemies, but it's never clear exactly who they're confronting. In one bar, El-P growls at a generalized group of foes, rapping: "Pardon them as they work until every pocket's been picked and soul been harvested / I'm ready to mob on these fuckin' charlatans."
He paints a broad picture of corporate villainy. The song's animated music video then captures the group fighting a Nazi robot police force, an image that feels indebted to the oversimplifications of action cinema. The video reduces the vast web of actors involved in the police state (wide enough to include card-carrying fascists and our top-cop VP Kamala Harris), to a barefaced racist-corporatist villain. Yes, police departments are indeed havens for Nazis, but they're also full of less theatrical villainy from police chiefs like Erika Shields, who publicly join protests and privately obstruct material reforms.
At their best, Run the Jewels could be seen as an on-ramp into more genuinely subversive hip-hop, introducing listeners to liberationist material new and old from the likes of Arrested Development and Goodie Mob, to Moor Mother and JPEGMAFIA. An issue arises, however, when the press treats an album like it's the work of a radical militia.
In my opinion, Pink Siifu is an artist to watch. The Birmingham-born, LA-based artist's last solo release "NEGRO" antagonizes police over a frenzy of volatile instrumentals. On highlight "DEADMEAT," Siifu channels his rage over an abrasive mix of sirens and distorted drums. Siifu made the song shortly after a police officer, in a casual abuse of power, detained and harassed him for skipping subway fare. In a maxed-out scream, Siifu recites the cop's words ("They say I'm deadmeat / Say he do anything") and responds with his own visceral indignation: "We feel like killing pigs / My little n-a eating ribs / feel like I'm King Chris." The song is one of many that bravely names cop killer Chris Dorner. Throughout "NEGRO," the ex-LAPD vigilante figures as an inspiration and a martyr, referenced alongside Black nationalist icons Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka.
Like a great share of genuinely radical music, "NEGRO" exists on the margins—of politically acceptable speech, melilfuous sound, and popular attention. Its unflinching, combative spirit assures that it won't be universally hailed as 'the soundtrack to a revolution.' Songs like "DEADMEAT" do not aim to entertain a mass audience, or inspire unity across intersections. They instead look to agitate their listeners, to foment feelings of revolt.
To his credit, Killer Mike does have a political agenda separate from the messages espoused in his music—just not the same one the media has attributed to him. The rapper has worked to mainstream conversations about the necessity of Black economics and Black gun ownership, issues routinely ignored by the center-left. But his support of Black gun ownership deserves particular acknowledgment for troubling gun safety platforms that fail to address a key force of gun violence: the police.
But when Mike thanked Mayor Bottoms in 2020 for establishing a curfew, knowing that would lead to an uptick in arrests, and told protesters "it is not time to burn down your own home," he placed himself firmly on the side of the Atlanta establishment.
In Vicky Osterweil's landmark essay "In Defense of Looting," a quotation of an anonymous Ferguson protester offers the best rejoinder to Killer Mike's admonition: "People wanna say we destroying our own neighborhoods. We don't own nothing out here!"
At the height of the protests, the Black unemployment rate was astronomical, reaching over 16 percent, and a recent report from the Atlanta Regional Commission suggests that Atlanta's high-paying business sectors "are all dominated by non-Hispanic white workers." Why then, would any Black protestors consider CNN or Target a part of their "home?"
Cartwright, like many organizers, is skeptical of Killer Mike and of the politicians that spent more time defending a Wendy's than the Rayshard Brooks Bill, which would have reallocated $73 million in police funding to community investment and healing initiatives.
"Killer Mike rattled off a series of movement wins in his speech—including SONG and Southern Center for Human Rights' successful campaign for Cash Bail Reform in the city—and criminalized the tactics and people who won those reforms in the same breath," said Cartwright.
None of the folks being criticized were there to avenge Rayshard Brooks, she pointed out. They were too busy telling us to fill out the census.
A year out from a Black man's death and the corporate scrambling to appear in step with changing public sentiment is clear, but the commitments to overturning systematic oppression and violence remains nebulous. National institutions are desperate to curb radical thought, and far too many celebrities—be they rappers, directors or "activists"—are all too willing to aid them in their search for speaking careers or Netflix deals. Although it was far from the first time Black organizers had raised concerns over Killer Mike's actions, Run the Jewels' line-toeing might finally break, thanks to Naima Cochrane's recent tweet concerning his silence over Georgia's new voter suppression bill after cozying up to repressive governors.
The fight against the commodification of Black radicalism is just beginning. The media landscape of the Biden era promises only more of these efforts—a recent, risible example came in the form of a Beats advertisement featuring rapper Flo Milli dancing in front of a confederate statue. But not at all bad-faith, counterinsurgent efforts are so easy to spy. Amid the political turmoil of the 1950s, the CIA funded modern art exhibitions and leftist literary journals to regulate anti-American thought.
History teaches us that, for every tone-deaf company that co-opts resistance, there's a thought-leader with the right credentials and vocabulary playing both sides, too. That goes for the rap industry as well.