In his two-page tour de force “Salvation,” renowned poet and novelist Langston Hughes recounts the time he pretended to be saved by Jesus Christ. Near the end of a weeks-long revival, a 13-year-old Hughes was made to participate in a special children’s call-to-the-altar, where each youngling was expected to openly receive the Holy Ghost and accept a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Messiah as their lord and savior.
In the end, Hughes is left alone waiting on his absolution (from what exactly, again?), feeling cheated out of what many of his elders described as “seeing the light.” He left church that evening riddled with guilt he told a lie in order to finally go home.
For rapper-activist Michael “Killer Mike” Render (and one-half of hip-hop duo Run the Jewels), the story of Christianity, whose nucleus perpetuates today’s white savior complex, is tethered to the undoing of Black people. For anyone raised like Hughes or Killer Mike, if left to the rigors of religion, you’re to spend a lifetime of goodwill for the promise of being “saved,” and by the representative of the very people who colonized, enslaved and bestowed the atrocity of genocide no less.
Of all the episodes on Trigger Warning With Killer Mike, a newly-launched Netflix series that explores cultural taboos across African-American communities, “Church of Sleep” stands as the most socially unacceptable as it challenges the school of thought that says Black people should look outside of themselves for true redemption and divinity, leaving our economic, social and cultural progression contingent on a god that “never checked for me in the first place.”
Using “Church of Sleep,” a recent Q&A with the Atlanta MC further examines white Jesus, the African Diaspora, ancestral devotion, economic self-sufficiency, the current state of affairs for Black people, and more:
BET: What did you want to accomplish with your religion episode?
Killer Mike: I wanted to free Black people of the image of white Jesus and the bondage of Christianity. What I ended up discovering is that not only is that image oppressive because it denies the identity of myself—all of it hurts the followers.
BET: How so?
Killer Mike: Personally, white Jesus is not good for me. And for my community, it's not good for them. So I went in with the [intention] of destroying this image, a very patriarchal and racist image. And what I ended up seeing is that all people, regardless of race and gender, none of the religions are currently leading [its members] toward inward divinity.
BET: So you create your own congregation.
Killer Mike: We created our own church, the Church of Sleep, one based on morality and rest, on taking care of thyself and one another. You know, the appreciation of God’s worship, which I made into a church, strip club and marijuana spot.
BET: Do you practice that?
Killer Mike: I go to the strip club with my wife as often as possible [Laughs]. I wake up and do my positive affirmations, and thank the Gods within me, and the Gods I see existing outside of me everyday.
BET: How do you pray?
Killer Mike: By talking to myself mostly. How I do an official prayer is I pray at an altar within my home; give gratitude to my ancestors, they're the ones that got me here. Then I do official things within that prayer.
BET: Is that what you teach your children?
Killer Mike: Yes and no. I don’t make my children do the rigors of anything. I encourage my children to worship God within them and we take time specifically to do that.
BET: Do you speak about your ancestors with your children?
Killer Mike: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a shrine dedicated to my grandmother and mother in my house. There’s a whole prayer room in my house. It’s filled with all women figures of divinity.
BET: Do your loved ones align themselves with your personal beliefs?
Killer Mike: My children’s mothers are Christian.
BET: How do you approach that? Are there conflicts?
Killer Mike: No real conflicts. If it’s some of that church bullsh*t, I say it: “You don’t have to do that sh*t to find God. God finds you.” People find community and stability in religious practices and churches, so I get it. Like, I still go to church. I will go to church with my children and their mothers. ‘Cause the sense of community and fellowship—I get that. I ain’t giving no money at the end. I don’t buy or need to buy loyalty to talk to God.
BET: When exactly did you begin to challenge status quo as it pertains to religion?
Killer Mike: I’ve been like this since I was 15-years old. I’ve been questioning the image that was put before me since I was five. I’ve been actively studying religious philosophy since I was 15. I studied religion and philosophy at Morehouse. I studied how religions became.
BET: What role has the African Diaspora played in the history of worship?
Killer Mike: Without the African diaspora, particularly the East and Horn and formerly South Sudan—without South Sudan, you wouldn’t have religion. You wouldn’t have Abrahamic religions. All of those religions borrow from folklore, from mythology. You wouldn’t have—without the Orishas of Africa, you wouldn’t have Greek gods. So without a basis of calling out the attributes of gods of different names and having different powers, the Greeks would never set up what became figures like Zeus and Hercules, so I’m cool with everything that came before those.
BET: Any concerns of how the Black community is going to receive your messages?
Killer Mike: No. Either they’re going to like it or they’re not. Either they were going to be like, “Yo, I agree” or “I hate that fat bastard.” And that’s fine [Laughs]. I’m not trying to make you see things my way. I’m just trying to free you of seeing things the way they were given to you and has you thinking that’s the original thought that started it all.
BET: When does indoctrination begin?
Killer Mike: You’re most free until you’re about four-years-old and then you get structured. You’re put in a school or nursery or something, and you’re not free anymore because you have to agree to the structure of that reality. But before that, your imagination is alive. You’re already in tune with God. You’re already talking to the air. No one knows who you are talking to. You’re walking out into the grass, so that’s appreciating God to me. So to me after that, you kind of agree to the system and you spend the rest of your life trying to un-agree and sometimes you don’t.
BET: What’s your advice to someone on the path to personal enlightenment?
Killer Mike: Start inside. What is that voice telling you? I was raised in a very, strict Christian household. So if you was raised like me, you were pretty much raised at the standard of a Black person from the South. For me, I just never bought it. Langston Hughes has a short story about how he was sitting in church and his aunt and cousin were there with him. They were like he couldn’t leave there without [receiving] the Holy Ghost. And he was just sitting there, waiting, until he finally faked it. I remember being in church with the same thought like, “Goddamn, if I get up and dance they’ll let us go. We been here for four hours already.” What I would say is just listen to the voice inside. That good and moral voice. You know what it is when you hear it. When you feel it. Instinctually, you should follow that and see that it leads you.
BET: On the subject of leading, what’s the state of the Black community in 2019?
Killer Mike: The state of this country for Black people is what it’s always been.
BET: How should we be responding?
Killer Mike: You need to enclose your community, segregate your dollar longer than six hours, take care of yourself, first and foremost, that’s in terms of economic independence. You need to get your sh*t together. Your bills, your credit, your debt ratio. Get all of that fixed and then do that with other people. Invest in your own community. If you living in the hood, buy some estate in the hood. Buy a block, improve that block. Start to collaborate with one another. If you do or don’t like school, start your own Montessori’s charter schools or support the public schools around you. Enclose.
Elijah Muhammad said, “Don’t hate on other cultures, study them and be fully successful in their endeavors.” So I would look at small communities who managed to thrive in the American system. I look at it and see the Jews. I look at the Mormons. I look at the Amish. I look at every other group that was smaller in nature than the greater group and had to enclose and insulate themselves.
BET: Economic autonomy is the answer?
Killer Mike: Our biggest thing, in the African-American community, we only – with our dollar – stay in our community for six hours. You’re not going to survive as a community that way. You’re not going to enrich yourself personally, you’re not going to be able to enrich your community. Now, I don’t mean become millionaires and billionaires. I mean the basic standard of living for working in the middle class. Get your money sh*t together.
BET: But we also saw the real-life hurdles of “going Black” on your Netflix series.
Killer Mike: It’s going to get easier. I don’t care if it’s just me starting an Instagram saying if you got Black business and putting it up or someone comes along with an app and I support it. It’s gonna become easier. It always becomes easier. It’s been on TV now. So now every business I show has had an upswing in sales. And now, when we get another season, I’ll find a way to holler at them again.
Once you know, you can’t un-know. Know on every Friday, “I need to support a black business.” And you’re either going to buy into it and do it and mean what you say, or you’re not.
BET: Are you hoping for a follow-up season?
Killer Mike: I’m not hoping. I’m saying there is one.
BET: Will viewers get to see the progression of the previous businesses you helped?
Killer Mike: I don’t know what the second season is going to be, but usually I try to find a way to stay involved in the things that I think are worth being involved in.
BET: Given the recent State of the Union address, how do you feel about Trump?
Killer Mike: It don’t matter how I feel about Trump. Local politics are what matter, more than national politics. I don’t expect a great president. With that said, I think we need to focus on what’s going on locally. Most people who can tell you about Trump can’t tell you about their city council person. Start at home.
(Photo: Zach Wolfe)