Killer Mike on whether America can be saved: "We've failed, but we can change it"

Rapper and entrepreneur talks Netflix "Trigger Warning," guns, education, Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders 2020

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 19, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

Killer Mike (Dan Medhurst)
Killer Mike (Dan Medhurst)

Schools still suck, churches act funny with their money, and the government is shut down for the second time under Trump's watch. I'm not surprised. Are you?

After years and years of politicians, activists and thought leaders recycling and recreating the same movements that don’t work, Grammy Award winner Killer Mike pulled up to Salon Talks to chat with me about his solutions for solving some of America's biggest issues around race, education, religion and politics.

Killer Mike tests out these ideas for real in a new six-part Netflix series, "Trigger Warning With Killer Mike," a cutting-edge comedy meets social experiment that gives America the wake-up call it desperately needs.

Mike, mainly known for creating music for his duo Run the Jewels and repping Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in 2016,  is the host of each episode, where he floats around Atlanta, challenging societal norms. It goes as follows:

Episode 1: Living Black

The problem: It's nearly impossible to buy goods and services from exclusively black-owned businesses.

Killer Mike's solution: While it was really hard and he had to sleep on a park bench for a night, Mike was able to survive for three days solely on black-owned businesses.  He proves that supporting black entrepreneurs is not just a black thing, it's an American thing, and we should all make an effort to do so, especially if we want to experience universal equality.

Episode 2: F**k School

The problem: Public schools in America suck and have sucked for the past 100 years.

Killer Mike's solution: Redefine what getting an American education looks like by offering culturally relevant material to all students, exposing them to new career paths and teaching them trades they can use to instantly make money.

Episode 3: White Gang Privilege

The problem: White gangsters and gangs like the Mafia, NYPD and Hell’s Angels have the luxury of being celebrated in American culture and profit off their branded merchandise.

Killer Mike's solution: Create that same infrastructure for black gangs like the Bloods and the Crips so that they can make legal money and transition from street life into corporate America.

Episode 4: New Jesus

The problem: Megachurches and megachurch culture has become toxic and problematic, especially when it comes to exploiting people living in poverty.

Killer Mike's solution: Create a church that exploits nobody and engages with and gives love to all.

Episode 5: Outside the Box

The problem: Too often, people from different communities, social classes and ethnic backgrounds never get to talk to each other, which perpetuates stereotyping.

Killer Mike's solution: Create an artistic experience that will force these different groups to commingle in a positive way, with the purpose of enhancing social relations.

Episode 6: Kill Your Master

The problem: America is so fractured politically right now that it feels like we're living in two Americas, neither of which welcomes independent thinkers

Killer Mike's solution: A group of subjects, many of which appeared on the previous episodes, started their own nation and the results were amazing.

Some of Mike’s philosophies are rooted in comedy, after all, its entertainment, but all of his ideas originate from something so rare in today’s society — common sense. Acknowledging the lack of common sense is the only way I can justify this government shutdown, our president's entire political existence, and the failed American systems we continue to let run our lives. 

I'm not asking everyone to agree with Killer Mike’s ideas, but at the very least, recognize that it is radical to have an entertainer with a huge platform offering strong suggestions on how to fix our societal weaknesses. Mike identifies a problem and actually explores a better solution.

Electing Donald Trump was the right’s shot at being radical, while progressives sat on the sidelines, thinking they had the 2016 election in the bag. We can’t afford to do that again. Being radical should be motivational. The idea of the Revolutionary War and gaining independence was radical. Remember the 13th, 14th  and 15th Amendments that freed slaves and granted them citizenship and suffrage? Those came as a result of radical change. Women winning the right to vote in 1920 was also the result of radical, persistent leadership.

A mix of bravery and radical leadership is how we found ourselves in our current movements of change, including #MeToo, #TimesUp and #BlackLivesMatter. And, we need to do more. What we all can learn from "Trigger Warning" is that we need to look for better solutions (and actually try them), no matter how big America's problems are.

Read the Q&A of my "Salon Talks" episode with Killer Mike below, or watch it here.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

I love this show. I'm not even saying this just because we're sitting here on camera, but your show is one of the most inspiring things I've seen in the last 10 years.

Thank you so much.

How'd you come up with the concept?

We’ve been trying to do it for 10 years. Me and Daniel Weidenfeld have been throwing this around for 10 years. I have friends that don't look like me. Daniel is one of those friends. He's a little short Jewish guy from D.C. I'm from a big black guy from the south, but we had all these commonalities and our friendship kind of transcended stereotypes. You know, we had these lively discussions and what ifs, and if this were possible, and we wanted to bring some of my thoughts and ideas and some of the discussions we've had to television. We tried it once. FX gave us an opportunity to do Trigger Warning, and we didn't like it. We over produced it. It was a little too TV, and that was not what we were trying to do.

You felt like Netflix gave you that freedom to just be yourself?

Yeah, and a much smaller budget, so you had to do this way. (laughs)

But you're tackling some big topics, so let's go over some of the basic things without giving away too much education.

The reason the black dollar is important is because other communities keep the dollar in their community longer. The dollar then, it forms an infrastructure in that community and builds that community up, and that community contributes in a greater way to the larger community. In the black community, a dollar only stays in our community six hours, The Spanish community, about 11 days, Jewish and white communities, 22 and 23 days, Asian community 28 days. So, you can judge the success of a people individually, and a community's success by their ability to keep a dollar in the community.

I have arguments with people, really rough conversations with people, who think more traditional and not outside of the box. They don't have big ideas like you have, and the conversations are based around the Civil Rights Movement. Would you call the Civil Rights Movement a failure from an economic standpoint?

 Let’s look at how Dr. King would look at it. If you look at his last two, three years of life, civil rights, in terms of civil equality for black people, was something he had accomplished. That was his only mission, and his mission was accomplished, but it wasn't. The eradication of war, the eradication of poverty, and the allocation of funds back to who had worked here for free was a big part of his agenda. He was killed for opposition of war. He was reviled for trying to unite workers, black and white, and he was further reviled by the black elite, in terms of black middle class at that time, because he started talking about money. He started talking about money in the way of, at one point, the United States was giving land lotteries to people who would be willing to immigrate here, and do things of that nature, and that's not an opportunity we've ever been afforded. Because of that opportunity never being afforded, we have been left in the wrong end of a huge wealth gap, and we've not been allowed to build wealth, and in that way, become the strong community that we did end up becoming, after slavery and the reconstruction period, after America has had to start their own banks, like the Freeman's banks, African Americans had to start their own businesses and deal with one another. So economically, our communities were stronger. Black Wall Street in Tulsa, was not a phenomenon that happened and they burned it down, it was just that, there was Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, right? There was Inglewood in California. There was Harlem in New York, so you had all of these social economic centers all across the United States wherever we were. When we lost that with integration, and I didn't say, "we lost it," like it was taken from us, we started taking our dollar out of our communities. My grandfather always told me that this was one of the greatest losses we took. Integration not only allowed us into the greater community, it took our dollar out, and we lost a lot.


We lost black bus companies. We lost black restaurants. We lost black hotels. People are going [to movie theaters] to see the “Green Book” film now. Green Books were actually a thing, where if you were black, you would travel up and down the East Coast and all throughout the United States of America, there were a book that you could get that would allow you to see where were the black gas stations, and black gas, black gas stations, hotels, restaurants you could go to, so you'd be safe, so you didn't have a choice, right? And you had to go there. If we would've kept the mentality that we still had to support our own, then, you might not have Major League Baseball, Negro League baseball may be the premier baseball, you know, in the United States.

Right, but that's the whole mentality of the white man has colder ice.

Yeah. It's not your fault, I'm not pointing black people out like, "Awe, you're wrong, look at you, you're fools." I mean, when you've been given a white Messiah, hell yeah, you're going to think white ice is colder, you have never been allowed to see divinity in yourself, so how can you have the confidence to think that, "My ice is colder," when in fact, it could be?

Your big idea to fix this was Black Friday.

Yes, Black Friday is not a tremendously big idea. My big idea is a very small, localized thing you can do. I don't want you to think, "I have to take my entire life's saving, and I have to take it to this black bank," because when I'm saying, "black bank," what I'm really saying is, "small, local, or regional." Right? So, if you are a member of Mechanics, or Farmers, or Carver bank, or Citizens Trust Bank, then I'd know, locally or regionally, this is where my banking centers are, right? The same way, if you're with Signature bank, or if you're with Regions bank, right? Those are smaller banks. I'm saying, alternatives to larger banks that don't care as much about small business loans, or your potential mortgage loans, are these banks. So, when I'm saying, "black banks," I'm saying, "local." When you pivot to those banks, and you allow yourself an opportunity to support that, you're supporting yourself, and you support the bigger economy, because those banks are giving loans out to businesses, mortgages, thing like of that.

We're just not seeing it. We need to figure out a way to get on top of that.

What Black Fridays allows you to do in a very small version, is find a black business and support it. So, if you're in Atlanta, it can be Sublime Doughnuts instead of Krispy Kreme, you know. If you're in Baltimore, it could be whoever is the old lady that makes crab cakes at her own little spot for 50 years. You have to start making these decisions because that keeps the dollar in your community longer than six hours. T.I. and I right now, we both give away bikes, we both giveaway turkeys, and clothes and stuff throughout the year, and that feels philanthropic. It's a very nice feeling, but that's not going to have the same effect of when we open a restaurant. There was a 50-year-old restaurant called Bankhead Seafood. I wanted to buy a Dodge Demon, you know, who knows? Tip might want to buy another Rolls Royce truck, but we didn't do that. We bought this restaurant together. This restaurant is going to potentially give 20 people jobs, and it's going to have that old lady's legacy go another 50 years, and if we become a regional chain, it will 100, 200 jobs. That's really changing the environment, to change the economy. First, it's giving people what we call philanthropy and charity.

Education. That's another topic, that you touched upon in “Trigger Warning.” We see in a lot of schools that they do the same failing things over, and over, and over again. If I'm in east Baltimore in the middle of all of this wildness, and craziness, and brilliance, and magic, why are you giving me books like, “Huckleberry Finn”? Why aren't you, you know, trying to touch on some contemporary things that could speak to me?

Yeah, “Huckleberry Finn” is important, but it is not more important than the “Iceberg Slim” collection. Huckleberry Finn is important, and also “Pimp” by Iceberg Slim is important.

“Pimp” is going to get me to read.


“Huckleberry Finn” is not going get me to read, so if you give me “Pimp” first, and then recommend “Huckleberry Finn: secondly, then maybe I'll say, "Well, okay. This guy Tom Sawyer, what's he talking about?"

Therein lies the key. Approach me, or connect with me at my level of interest, and once you connect with me at my level of interest, you make it easier to introduce new things.

But schools are saying, "Well, we don't want to, you know, we're not going to play this rapper, or this song, but we're going to give you Shakespeare and we're going to triple down on it." And then kids are gravitating toward Shakespeare, which is brilliant, but again, it has to be put in context, and it has to be introduced in the right way.

Shout out to Miss Potts. Miss Potts and Miss Coulsen were two of my greatest English teachers I ever had. Rap will forever be around for the same reason Shakespeare will be around, because it deals basically with the same primal human emotions; love, envy, jealousy, revenge, hate, love, and you deal with all those things in blues music, rock music, rap music that you love them for the same reason. I read “Iceberg Slim,” and I read Shakespeare. I saw the similarities. Iceberg Slim, Robert Beck as a writer, is one of the most theatrically descriptive writers. He doesn't say, "a prostitute walks in the room." He describes her gingering casino, lets you know what outfit she had on, what she smelled, you become a part of that. Shakespeare wrote in the very same way. He wrote in a way that pulled you into Hamlet, and pulled you into Macbeth. So, once you get that, I became the kid that got to translate that to the class, so they encouraged me by engaging me where I was.

It goes back to what you say. It has to be put in a proper context.

Absolutely. But school is not for that. We have to remember, school is for training us to be institutionalized. Schools and jails are basically the same color on the inside, you have to file against the walls the same way you do. They're in there to make you obey and in there to make everyone agree on a commonality of a perception of Western dominance. That's what our schools do. They train you to be good Americans. That's why you're supposed to be stand up for the pledge, that's why. They don't liberate your mind. If schools were really about liberating your mind, then we do something similar to what they do in Japan. Kindergartners would have to clean up the areas they mess up. We would have, like in the Paideia school in Atlanta, you would have class outside. You would learn to do things like they're doing at the YMCA that Andrea Young and Walter Young YMCA in Atlanta, where kids are growing their own food. They’re growing their own fish, like tilapia and shrimp to sell to restaurants. I remember I was tying a tie for seventh grade prom, and my grandfather he said, "Boy, what are they teaching you in school that you don't know how to tie a tie?" I didn't understand that the school of his day taught the whole human being because their parents were sharecroppers. Their parents were right out of slavery. Their parents had never worn ties in some cases, so school had to teach you everything. School had to teach you how to balance a checkbook, had to teach you how to cook and things of that nature, so I think that there's a practicality that we're missing. When I was in high school, you could take wood shop, you take auto mechanics, you could take aviation mechanics, you could take art, you could take a plethora of other things that were not academically based, that you weren't going to go to college and get a Bachelor's for, but that are going to be practical and applicable in the real world. If we do not return to that as a nation, not just black people, if we do not return to that as a nation, we are doomed. For the next 20 years in the part of the nation that I live in, which is the southeast, right, I live in Georgia. We’re building a nine billion dollar port, I think, in Savannah. We're also going to be dealing business in Charleston and Miami. The nature jobs that are going to be coming, there are 70,000 truck driving jobs coming that are worth 90,000 dollars or more. There are carpenter and labor jobs, concrete layer jobs. So, when my son, who's 16 said, "You know, I really don't want to go to college yet. I think I would like to do what you and my mom do. I'd like to get into buying and developing real estate." It doesn't make sense for him to go to college. It makes more sense for him to go learn to be a tradesman.

Exactly. So I’m a product of an extremely failed school system, a tradition of failed schools, like my older brother, my dad, I don't know who my dad's dad was, but I'm pretty sure he didn't go to a good school, because my father didn't.

Got you.

We can honestly sit here and say that it's a failed system and we know what it's for. Can we change it?

Yeah, absolutely we can. You look at a city like Atlanta. I went to Frederick Douglas High School, which is named for one of the most famous emancipators and educators ever, right? Our rival school was Benjamin E. Mays, so my school is named for the Barack Obama of the 19th century and our rival is a school that is one of the greatest educators of the 20th century, and also was president of Morehouse. That's a hell of a rivalry because it's pride either way. Either way, there's a fence of pride and fairness. We have failed in the last 25 years. We've made them worse. We know that we need trades in schools, so people between 35 and 55 should advocating for the people who are between 12 and 20 years old so that they get better schools and because we're not, school boards are failing, our politicians are failing our kids, and the kids that we're saying are failing, no, truly, we've failed, but we can change it. I'm not against charter schools. A lot of people say they are. If there's a good charter school that's giving good education, I say, how do we create more of those?


I don't say, "How do we do less?" If public schools are somehow not doing well, how do we go in and restructure those schools to do better, because if we don't, it's going to hurt not only our community, but the greater community.

I felt like from watching the show, and hearing you speak now, you have a talent for taking complex issues and making them very simple.

Yeah, that's just old people rambling.

What do you think we should be doing right now to end this shutdown? What should the government be doing?

First, I want to give shouts out to the government workers that are enduring the shutdown. Friends of mine have been federal employees, friends of mine who are veterans, or have federal jobs, are waiting now on their veteran's benefits because their job has them on pause. TSA, even though you touched my balls every time I walk through there, I care and I want you guys to have your jobs, right? Thank you guys for letting me keep my weed a couple times, but as a people, we need to watch France and what they do when they have a disagreement with government. They take to the streets and they shut it all down. My suggestion is this, if the government is not re-open by March 15, everyone in America should not pay taxes on April 15, and watch how quickly the government opens back up.

They'll figure it out.

God damn right, they will. I'm serious now. Think about what I just said. That includes the police that supposed to come get you to lock you up too. Everyone should not pay on April 15, if the governments not back up.

Is there anyone you're looking forward to running in 2020? Anybody?

You know, I like the OG. You know what I mean? I like Bernie Sanders. I think the only way to beat the Joker is with Batman. I think you need the antithesis of what we have in there now if you want to see that. If you just want to see, you know, a neo-liberal, then there are tons of Democrats that you could like, or are popular, but I don't think anyone but Sanders beats them.

Bernie as independent, or Bernie as a Democrat?

I don't care. Doesn't matter. By any means necessary, means by any means necessary. Blacks were not Democrats 70 years ago. Whatever it takes.

Roosevelt changed it. He sent Eleanor out there and it was coming off the flood, all of the displacement, black people are missing, people were tied up.

Really what it was about was promises were made that if you help us by coming into this party, this is what we can do for your community. I grew up in a community, the Adamsville-Collier Heights Community in Atlanta. I grew up in gentrified community. Now, when I say that, you think white people, and puppies, and bikes, and lattes coming to push you out of your community.

Don't forget free wifi and a juice bar.

Exactly. So, that's not what happened. My area was bought by working class, and middle class, and upper-class black people and poor whites were pushed further west out into Mableton and Cobb County, so my area I grew up in, was gentrified by black people and poor whites were pushed out. That happened as a part of that deal.

What would it take for Bernie to beat Trump?

For us to get off our ass and really do it.

Would Bernie have to put you on the ticket?

Killer Mike:    No, I hope not.

You're a natural.

But my thing is, in talking to the OG, he tells me how much of campaigning, or how much being a politician now, seems to be money based. And that's not what he does and that's not what I would want to do.

By any means necessary, though.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but my thing is though, let me have enough money when I finally run for office, I'm unbribable. I'm the first in my family to be independently wealthy, and I'm from a decent family. We're working class folk, middle class black people. They made it. They farmed, they toiled, they saved their money. I might be the first in my family who actually can leave something for my grandchildren's children. That's my first duty, to ensure that, but with that said, I do plan on holding some type of local office. I'd love to see Senator Sanders, or a real progressive. If he don't, or won't, I hope to one day in my life time see some like Nina Turner win a national office, like president or vice president. She's, to me, progressive. She's radical, she's an amazingly impressive politician, and I don't understand why she isn't talked about like our Shirley Chisholm. My thing is, you give me Bernie, or you give me a Nina, or you give me a Senator Fort who was down in Georgia, you give me someone truly progressive, and I'm fine.

It takes a lot of heart to go against some of these systems that are seen as oppressive, and you do that a lot. You are very vocal. Tell us about what happened with the NRATV interview and the backlash. Did you find yourself having to explain something in a way that enlightened people, or?

I don't mind explaining something that enlightens people, my thing is, like I showed you on my show, you have to be willing to listen to different perspectives, and by any means necessary, and you've got to tell the whole truth, not a half truth.

It's not easy to always hear the other side.

Not easy. And I got treated the way Malcolm was treated in the ‘60s. The romanticized version of Malcolm, that we all love, that we wear on T-shirts and stuff, is easy to like, but in the ‘60s, people didn't like Malcolm. I got put into the same position Dr. King was put in the last three years of his life. Everyone love the “I Have a Dream” Dr. King. No one loves the Dr. King that rallies against the U.S. government for war, and in fact, they turned their backs on him. So, for me, everyone that came out against me, because they didn't agree with me on that one, thank you for showing your hand. That's fine. Now that I know you're not one of the people who are willing to protect our community by any means necessary, I'll engage you in that way, so if it's time to talk about black stuff, and sip lattes, and act like we care, I'll do that with you, but when it's time to hunt, fish, kill, and take care of our family by growing food potentially having to shut yourself off, then you're not going to get invited to that party. Hope it works well for you where you are. I'm from a part of the country where self-reliance means self-reliance. I'm not going to depend on others to feed me, I'm not going to depend on others to protect me, I'm not going to depend on other people to protect my wife. You cannot tell me that the person who leads this country is akin to Hitler, and all of sudden ask me to turn my guns into the government.

Doesn't make any sense.

If you don't like the platform in which I engaged with another black man to talk about guns, then that's fine. Fuck the NRA, I don't care about the NRA. I belong to NAAGA, the National African American Gun Association. So if you don't care about them, fine, but find an organized way to shoot and train on a weekly basis so that you're not just a victim, or a subject of an oligarchy.

This is why things don't change. They come up a set of rules that you have to follow. Well, not that you have to follow, but they become publicly popular and people fall right in line.

Noam Chomsky says that you're given two sides of an argument, but it's regulated, and you can have this wild arguments in between them, but you're never allowed to step outside and say, "Well, there's this other thought." Because when you talk about the NRA, people naturally think Wayne LaPierre. They actually think racism, and the absence of their present when black men are shot, which is absolutely true. But in 1956, they granted a charter to Robert Williams to start a chapter so that they could own guns in North Carolina to prevent the Klan from killing people and preventing them from voting. The Democratic party, which has been, we've been their side chick for the last 55 years for about 100 years before that we were the most oppressive regime, and actually spawned members of the Klan. So, I'm not saying love or hate anything. I'm saying, just know the full story going in. These things are tools for you to use. Any organization is a tool for you to use or not use, but it's just a tool. I'm not going to get mad enough at another black person to not engage you, for freedom’s sake, because I don't like the tool you're using. There are many paths to freedom even though I might not be walking on the same path as you, I look forward to seeing you when we get there.

Tell everyone about your show and why they should watch it.

“Trigger Warning,” you should watch it because it's going to trigger you. It's going to challenge you to challenge your own perception. It's going to get you out to see people who are individuals who are not like you, and I think it's going to create this type of around-the-table discussion, living room discussion that progresses us all as a whole.

It's addictive. You'll love it. Thank you for coming on.

Thank you. And look forward to season two. We got to get a season two.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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