Through tears rooted in both hope and frustration, the rapper opens up.
Photo credit: Gino DePinto, AOL
Last night, as the world had its eyes on Ferguson, the grand jury announced that they would not indict officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed teenager named Mike Brown. Afterwards, as President Obama addressed the country, riots in Ferguson ensued—cars were lit on fire, bulidings burned, windows were broken. In cities across the country, people took up in protest, walking through the streets of New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and more, chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot!" to pay tribute to the late 18-year-old Mike Brown.
Killer Mike, who happened to be in St. Louis on a tour stop for Run the Jewels with El-P, was backstage watching the news. When he heard the verdict, he immediately fell into his wife's arms and began to cry. El came backstage and gave him a hug. He didn't know what to do. Typically, the duo comes out to Queen's "We Are the Champions," but yesterday (which was also his wedding anniversary), Mike says, "I didn't feel like a champion." Both his wife and El encouraged him to go out and say a few words. He didn't know what he would say. But he did anyway. "I just got on stage and I told the truth."
By morning, that speech had gone viral. "When he was onstage, his voice was cracked from being on tour and just the raw emotion of what happened," says Julian Keaton, who helped promote the show and runs the hip-hop blog Stereo Assault. "His voice was already cracked before he even started talking. But he talked as strong and as deep as he could with passion."
Because Mike is a well-known activist who's spoken about the situation in Ferguson previously, I called him this afternoon to get his thoughts on how we can move forward as a culture and society. Through tears, he spoke poignantly. This is what he had to say.
Noisey: How are you holding up?
Killer Mike: I’m OK. I’m getting there, but I’m OK. Having to explain to a 17-year-old that the policeman isn’t going to be brought to accountability for it. I’m having to explain to a seven-year-old girl what this is about. Then I still have a 20-year-old and a 12-year-old son. I’m supposed to teach them to interact with the police and make it through those encounters alive. My child should be worrying about her dance class and her sister’s dance recital. I shouldn’t have to be preparing my children that the world is going to be unfair to them for the rest of their lives.
I was watching last night and before the announcement I felt like what happened was inevitable.
I knew this was going to happen when Eric Holder announced he was resigning. There’s no attorney in the world that holds a more prestigious position than the United States Attorney—and for him to announce he was resigning towards the tail end of an investigation shows me something disgusting was going to happen. That said, when it was read and announced, I still cried like a baby in my wife’s arms. Nothing I could do to control the hopelessness that I felt, and that seeps in.
At that moment, where was your head at? You came out and delivered a speech before the show, and it was quite moving.
The most honest thing I can tell you is that I was crushed. It was my wedding anniversary. I’m on a tour bus—which is already not ideal but my wife is there thankfully and we’re just kicking it and trying to have the best time we can. And then the news comes and it’s like, shit. You just don’t know man. [tearing up.] Your grandparents tell you about Emmett Till. As a kid you see Rodney King. And now, as a father, you see this kid. A fucking 12-year-old kid is dead. A guy is shot in New York walking up a flight of stairs and the first thing the newscaster says is that he’d been arrested 24 times. Man, what does that matter? Dude wasn’t in the commission of the crime there. It just, man. It hurts, man. The shit just hurts. My wife. [choking up] I’m a husband. I’m a man’s man. I’m an alpha male. There’s nothing about my wife and children that should say “I’m afraid” because my father and my husband is there to protect me. But when your wife looks at you and just says, “Man, you gotta wonder if God even loves you.” No man should have that.
I don’t know man. I’m just—I was just crying. El came into the back and gave me a hug. My wife tried to console me. We usually come out to “We Are the Champions” by Queen but we knew, yesterday, I didn’t feel like a champion. They both suggested I say a few words before the show starts. I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t think I’d be able to say anything. And I just got on stage and I told the truth.
My mentor who taught me how to organize—man, I don’t just rap about this shit. I’m an organizer. My mentor, she died of cancer a few weeks ago. Thank god she didn’t have to see this. I was just with her sister in Chicago; her name is Alice Johnson. I remember asking her one time, “Why do you even do this fucking work? Why do you do this? You are not appreciated by the people who hired who and you’re not appreciated by the people you’re trying to help.” And she just told me, “This is what you’re supposed to do.” And I’m doing what I’m supposed to do but, man, this shit is just so fucking crazy. The people who I write these raps for are the people that are dying and look like Mike Brown. And they’re paying attention to a whole ‘nother set of idiots than the people who can make the most change. But they have their own agendas and they don’t even care to listen. And I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do and it’s just so fucking hard. Because in the middle of this, a black man had children being murdered by police and is looking for the court system to save you—but at the same time, Eric, we just did a story on prosecutors using frivolous rap lyrics to prosecute black men. So it’s like, man, who the fuck do we turn to for justice, man? You know? If the cops, and the judges, and the prosecutors. What else can we do?
It seems like the system is failing us.
What’s crazy is that, if you’re a black man this confirms everything you’re told it was. That’s the thing. I maintain hope that this country can be what it’s supposed to be. I maintain hope that it can live up to all its promises to all its citizens, man. But this shit just makes it harder and harder everyday. [choking up] I just want to be the fuck out of this place. Why even stay here? If we’re this feared? Why even stay here? Why the fuck didn’t you just let [Marcus] Garvey take us? Why didn’t you let Malcolm take us? Why wouldn’t you let us leave, you know? I’m not saying that’s the solution, but no one knows what it feels like to live in a country and be hated. Nobody understands that shit. Black people in this country. Nobody. I just don’t get it. I can’t wrap my head around this shit.
Did you watch Obama’s speech afterward?
Man, I already heard him say all the stuff that any other lawyer would say. And he’s the President of the United States. That’s what he is. And I respect my country, I respect the President. You could have put any of the other guys before him and said the same thing. I don’t know. I don’t have any criticism or critiques. He did what a President does. I don’t expect much more than that. I’ve always said that my true—I don’t know if I voted for the right person, but I’ll know on his last day of presidency, when I see who he pardons, if I voted for the right person.
On your last day of presidency, you can give a get out of jail free card to whoever you want to. I’d like to see Assata Shakur moved out of the FBI’s Most Wanted. Because if you look at her actions all those years ago, and the tragic death of that state patrolman, what she did was in defense not only of black people but in defense of the rights of all Americans. And it was a time of war. And I think just like his mentors that were white that were formerly against the government, that made bombs, did all types of crazy things, that are now college professors, she should be free too. She should be free to tell her story and restore some hope amongst her people. There are many. I’ll know if I voted for the right person on the last day of this presidency. Until then, he’s the same President as the eight Presidents before him.
Trying to zoom out a little bit, I feel like a lot of people who are in your position, as a musician with a platform, aren’t necessarily willing to stand up and say something and try to push for a change in society or the way we think. You are one of them. How do you think we can get more people to start saying things and maybe move the needle in some way?
I mean people are afraid every day. CNN spent enough time to talk about what will happen, they talked about what happened, they showed the verdict, the grand jury’s decision. They showed the President speaking, and then for the next eight hours they ran violent stories. So if you ask why people are in fear, they get fed violence and fear every day. Whether they’re watching Law and Order or they’re watching the news, they get fed fear and violence every day. There’s a statistic that said that people felt like the court systems were unfair. But when they found out it was basically just unfair to black people it didn’t matter anymore because it wasn’t affecting them. And that’s the thing. Like, a tornado hits—“thank god it didn’t hit my house”—there’s no longer an empathy thing of ‘this happened to our community, we have to go rebuild these houses.’ We’ve become such a weird, fearful, narcissistic, individualized culture that we don’t even understand that we’re interconnected and intertwined. Because they killed a kid for shoplifting. Essentially that’s what the prosecutor said to us: That this kid was killed because he stole something. And he talked shit back to the police. I have personally shoplifted as a kid, stolen from the candy lady, snatched and grabbed.
We’ve all done stupid stuff. My son’s a skateboarder. My son’s a black skateboarder, though. So my fear is he can be killed by a cop. You don’t understand what it means for a 70-year-old black man to be driving and for his heart to race at a cop getting behind him. My white friend who brought me to St. Louis drove us yesterday. They drove us to the airport, my wife and I, thankfully, just to get away from the bus. They sped the whole way. The entire way. They did U-turns, they drove the wrong way down one-ways. They didn’t have one single worry about a cop. My wife and I worry about the cops when we drive by them going the speed limit. You get what I’m saying?
If you don’t harbor that, I can’t expect you to understand, but I expect you to empathize. If you were horrified by the way that people were handled in South Africa during apartheid, or you were horrified by Nazi stop and frisks that your grandparents told you about during the Holocaust, then you need to accept that these tactics are still being used for poor and especially black people right now. And if you aren’t advocating to end that and you aren’t working to push forward the plight to make all people of all kinds—all their human rights honored, then you’re doing a disservice. If you’re not fighting the machine on the behalf of everyone, then you’re allowing it. If you’re only protecting your own personal interest, you are feeding the hate machine. You’re feeding a war machine. If you hear the statistics that nonviolent drug offenses are getting people tremendously absurd amounts of time—but because they target minorities and don’t target you—if you don’t fight against that, you’re just as guilty as the courts that enforce these unfair laws. When you ask me about a musician saying something, what can a musician say when society won’t? Bob Marley was able to say what he said because culturally the rastas and the people who were sympathetic to the plight of the poor and the homeless and the shut-out, they bonded with him. Spiritually, there were people that had it. They didn’t all look like him. There’s a very weird feeling when I’m looking in the audience of a majority of white kids who get it. And I can’t even say that the music is directly respecting of them but they get it. They empathize and they get it. And that’s a lot of times what gives me hope.
But how do you tell musicians who escaped the grips of poverty that they should rap about social issues when they’re trying to buy their mother a house? They’re trying to get the hell out of the ghetto themselves. The people that they’re rapping to and rapping for, they experience five, six, seven days of hate, of pain, of psychological torture. They experience that. They don’t even wanna hear about it anymore sometimes. They just want to escape. They escape through the fantasy of “I drive a big car. I have a big house. I’m a boss. Nobody can tell me what to do.” That music can be as therapeutic as recognizing there’s a big problem and speaking about it. How many years have we talked about the problem and nothing's been able to be done about it? Marvin Gaye said, “What’s going on?” Fast forward to my time, Ice Cube, Scarface, Chuck D, it’s all happened time and time again. But until citizens—until society—says, “This is what we want and what we’re ready for,” how do you expect the artists to? I do this not because I’m an artist but because I’m an advocate. I’m an organizer, through and through. It’s who I am. I can no more escape this than the color of my skin. But I can tell you 99 rappers that are not. They’re simply trying to make it out of their own personal hell. But with that said, I expect more, even out of them. And shit’s gotta change.
It’s on us, really. I don’t know.
That’s a great place to start, Eric—we don’t know. What I do know is I wanna fight like fuck against this bullshit of using rap lyrics versus amateur rap lyrics in court. I wanna fight that with all I got. I know I’m gonna fight to continue to beat prohibition and the decriminalization of marijuana because that bullshit-ass drunk law has been used to lock up more bright, brilliant business minds in our community than anything else. And I know I’m just gonna not stop speaking the truth, man. I wanna speak the truth ’til my heart stops ticking, ’til a bullet’s in my brain. I’m not gonna stop speaking the truth. And that’s all we gotta do. People who are willing to stand only need to know that there are people willing to stand with them. They’ll stand up.
Right now in St. Louis, Footklan is a core of rappers led by Tef Poe and a guy named Rocky Knuckles. Those guys are on the front lines of this fight. For the last hundred days, Tef Poe has been on the ground. He’s been doing better reporting than any reporter because he’s been brave enough to be behind the lines. He should be exhausted. He put a career on hold—a very promising career. This could’ve been his breakthrough year and he chose to dedicate his time. He’s the guy that I’m looking at. He’s the guy that I’m congratulating and standing for because I can’t let him stand alone. I refuse to.
Every day we have opportunities to educate the people around us. Every day we have the opportunity to break the stereotypical cycle that keeps us separated by class, race, religion. Every day we have the opportunities and we have to take better care of one another. We have to take better advantage of the opportunities we have.
Definitely. Anything else you want to address?
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. But the one thing the dirty-ass prosecutor—God bless his evil lawyer soul—said was that the conversation must continue and I will just say this: Get together, converse in your church groups, in your living rooms, in your dens. It doesn’t have to be in a town hall, arguing. Get together with your friends that look different or are different. Talk to them, learn what to do to be advocates and then after the conversation, decide to do something and do it. Simple things you can do to fight. You can fight the Florida law that says you can’t give food to homeless people. You can fight that. You can fight the law that says you can’t feed the helpless and hungry. You can fight that. You can fight these bullshit drug laws. You can fight the targeting of stop and frisk of black males. There’s a lot of things you can do. You can fight. So have something to fight about. Find others who don’t look like you or are not necessarily for your cause and help them fight for their cause. Be a cross-line coalition. And push, push, push, push, push. That’s it, man.
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.