In 2012 I had the pleasure of being on stage filming Jay Z opening for President Obama in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. The rally packed one of the city’s biggest venues just a few days before the public was to go to the polls and choose whether to re-elect America’s first Black president.
There’s no doubt Jay was/is an Obama supporter. He’s been a musical companion of his numerous times and he and Beyoncé have been guests at the White House. He’s also openly endorsed the president time after time and famously claims he receives texts from Barack Obama every so often. While all of these make the hip hop world smile, they’re limited in access and representation, and that’s no fault of HOV either.
After meeting with him Monday at Atlanta’s Busy Bee Cafe in a conversation that reportedly lasted five hours, Killer Mike became the first in hip hop to throw his full-throttled support behind Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s run for president.
He took to the stage in Atlanta yesterday, but this time it wasn’t with El-P and he wasn’t performing the songs we’ve come to love from Run the Jewels over the past few years. Instead, Mike — an Atlanta native — was there opening for the Senator and Democratic candidate as a speaker.
Killler Mike is known for his oratory, both in his music and on the front lines in Ferguson, among other communities stymied by racial injustice. Him being there and his endorsement only made sense for the type of agenda Sanders has pushed over the last 40 years as a mayor, U.S. Senator and now presidential candidate. But unlike other rappers who’ve been called upon by higher politics to musically entertain those at a major rally, Mike was there to moralize everything he’s been fighting for all these years.
Sure, a lot of it was him singing Bernie’s praises and the cynical pollster in me believes it was partially a move to increase Black support in the South — something Sanders is severely lacking in comparison to Hillary Clinton. But it was an important moment in hip hop’s long struggle for broad acceptance. The teachings of Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc came to life on stage. The filters were off. He was entertaining but it wasn’t entertainment. Killer Mike was grandstanding his own politics for a politician with the balls to let him speak his mind. And that’s bigger than you think it is in a world still deciding hip hop’s role in social change beyond music.
"I have said in many a rap, I don't trust the church or the government, a Democrat, Republican, a pope, a bishop or those other men," he said during his speech. "In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country."
Hip hop culture was born among the betrayal of the Black community. Its roots are embedded in speaking out against inequality, which is perhaps a parallel to Sanders’s most famous talking point. When Biggie famously proclaimed he didn’t think “hip hop would take it this far,” understandably he was rapping about the successes and riches he and his circle were able to experience. But currently in hip hop, we’re seeing a new pinnacle of both musical representation of social issues and now, thanks in part to Killer Mike, a political apex of it.
During his powerful speech, Killer Mike told his own story and discerned himself of not being simply a rapper. Hip hop was a way to have his voice heard and through the culture he loves he’s able to use his platform to spread awareness faster than he could without it. It’s hip hop that had him standing in-front of tens of thousands of people expressing his beliefs in a way few Black men have had the opportunity to do. And it’s his desire for direct change that had him speaking out prior to rap.
“Before I ever wrote one rhyming word on paper, before that, I was a Black man in America,” he said to wild applause. “Before I ever learned how to dance a jig, I gave a damn about American politics, I gave a damn about the people in America and I took to the streets and I advocated.”
Killer Mike isn’t the first emcee to stand at a podium and give his thoughts about the world. He’s among many in hip hop now doing their part to advance equality among all people. Kanye West says he’s running for president in 2020 and best of luck to him, the more choices the better. It’s the spirit though, first conceived in a young Michael Render, that is now influencing presidential politics. And that’s important.
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(Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman)