“My name is Mike, and I rap.”
In his address at the Jacobs Center Wednesday night, Killer Mike showed that his work speaks far beyond his day job as a rapper. The longtime activist took his message of inclusive social justice to what he called Northwestern’s “white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant contemporaries,” expressing a desire to show how people are separated by the “master class” and made to ignore each other’s shared struggles.
“Black Lives Matter and Occupy [Wall Street] are fighting against the same system, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in the same place at the same time,” he said. “Business people and politicians ally all the time, against your better interest, and we have to stop letting evil people win.”
In a personal, wide-ranging conversation, organized by the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, pushed the audience to see the possibilities of understanding each other’s commonalities. He argued that corporations and politicians “hold a piece of bait above us that we fight over,” making meaningful change for all people impossible. He told the audience that he was “tired of waging my suffering against yours,” and called on students to step outside of their social networks and understand how they can make each other stronger to fight all forms of oppression.
Render has grown to national prominence in the past several years through his work with Run the Jewels, a partnership with producer and rapper El-P. Since starting his music career in the 1990s, his music has always had strong political messages. In November 2014, the same night a Grand Jury acquitted Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Run the Jewels performed in St. Louis. In an emotional address before launching into their first song, Render told the crowd, “Tonight, I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor," alluding to his concern about his two sons.
To make this world better, Render told the audience, “You have to do more than be outraged, more than be sad or pick the right candidate.” Instead, he asked the audience to have a sustained conversation with themselves after the event, and consider how each individual can improve the world. In particular, he repeatedly asked all in attendance to mentor a teenager from a different background into adulthood, telling the crowd that “we’ve all been alone and scared in a room” at a some point.
He often invoked the work of Alice Mary Johnson, an activist who trained Render in social justice as a teenager. He praised her for challenging his sexism as a young man, showing him that “even the oppressed can be oppressors.” He said she succeeded as an organizer because she was “die hard on the side of the people on the bottom,” organizing amongst, not for, those most marginalized by society. That kind of work requires each other’s support, he said, and he asked the audience to keep fighting once his speech was done.
“No war is won without allies,” he said, “and I fight a really tricky war.”
Throughout his address, he constantly asked people to understand why other people see the world differently from them, and why people might have bigoted views. He was asked about why he was a member of the NRA, telling the audience that his voice wouldn’t matter to them if he didn’t join the organization. This message of inclusive understanding was especially important as he discussed allyship amongst the activist community, showing that all people’s struggles are closer to each other than they realize.
“We are better as a species when we work together, and when we don’t allow our differences in color, class, and -isms to separate us,” he said.
The talk wasn’t all serious, though. Even when he called for all in the room to struggle to make the world better, Render was clear that change might not be possible, and crazy outcomes might be the only way to see the world actually change.
“I pray for whoever is out there, send a ship filled with predators and aliens to start burning politicians first, businesspeople second,” he said. “Sometimes I think that’s the only way people are going to get it.”