Throughout history, art and music have been used as a medium to convey powerful messages. Rap is no exception. Hip-Hop culture which originates from a condition of marginality and persecution has, over many decades, produced artists who through their art express an objection to their circumstances. “Rap music is, in many ways, a hidden transcript. Among other things, it uses cloaked speech and disguised cultural codes to comment on and challenge aspects of current power inequalities”1, says Tricia Rose. Michael Render or Killer Mike is one such artist who has used his art and influence to speak out about social and political issues. “I feel as an African-American man in this country, I have a responsibility to be on the side of the people who are on the bottom and always speak truth to power,”2 he said during an interview. Killer Mike’s track, “Reagan”, is one example in which the artist uses Hip-Hop and a rather base-heavy beat as a medium to explicitly expresses his disdain for the sociopolitical situation. Specifically, the song expresses a general distrust of the presidency, alluding the possibility of an anonymous subgroup of the US government who use the president as a puppet to further a capitalistic agenda. The artist uses historical references to highlight how this same government often ostracizes and even destroys black communities.
Born to teenage parents, Michael Render was raised, in part, by his grandparents in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. Mike was introduced to politics early in his life, because of his grandmother. Not too long after that, Mike was influenced by rappers Schoolly D, Public Enemy, and N.W.A to begin performing in rap battles. “I rapped against a kid, and I rapped against him really well… and a guy stood on a desk and said, ‘That kid’s a killer,’” 3 Mike said as he explained how he got his name to the Late Show host Stephen Colbert. In 1994, he met Big Boi, a member of the popular rap duo OutKast while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta. The group later introduced Killer Mike to the world on “Snappin’ & Trappin” a song from their breakthrough album Stankonia. It wasn’t long before Mike was ready to take on the Rap world on his own.
By 2012, Killer Mike had built his brand and with the release of his fifth album R.A.P Music, he began to make pivotal moves in his career. His track “Reagan” was one of the highlights in that album where we see Mike’s social activism manifest itself as art. At the outset of the track, we are struck by almost violent piano chord layered with inorganic and spooky synths. A sample of Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation in which he denies he traded arms for hostages are the first words we hear in the track. After the sample, the beat immediately shifts; we’re introduced to percussion elements and the first verse opens with, “The ballot or the bullet, some freedom or bullshit.” In this first line, Mike references a well-known speech by Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, in which the human rights activist advocates for the use of defensive violence as a necessary strategy to overcome the mistreatment of the African-American community. This reference fits well with Mike’s aggressive tone of voice, and the reoccurring violent piano chord mentioned early. Killer Mike takes no break from spitting explicit messages which express his frustration with the African-American condition. He touches on the large disparity seen between black and white-owned enterprises when he says “We brag on having bread when none of us are bakers.” Power in our largely capitalistic economy lies with those who own means to production, rather than manual labor, and Killer Mike would like to see the gap between black-owned businesses and white-owned business converge. He also speaks to the stigma that black people are only good for basketball and entertainment when in reality their communities are simply stripped of the opportunities which would allow them to succeed other sectors of life. One interesting topic, that Mike mentions in this first verse is his belief that many “[rappers] exploit the youth” by portraying the gangster life. He feels like some part of the Hip-Hop community encourages “them to join a gang”, and “introduce[s] them to the game.” Here he sheds light on a large dichotomy within the rap genre that Tricia Rose explores in her book The Hip-Hop Wars. Tricia Rose explains, “Although it’s well known that mainstream commercial hip hop’s obsession with black gangstas and ghetto street culture is a product line, the illusion that it is unadulterated remains.” 4 Rappers find themselves at this crossroads. They can conform to what Rose describes as “white desire to consume black violence” 4 and produce tracks that glorify drug dealing and illegal activity. Or, they could rap about other things but risk sacrificing a huge commercial profit. It seems like Mike, in this song, encourages the latter as it avoids having a negative influence on the millions of kids who listening to the music.
After the end of the first verse we are again met with Ronald Reagan’s voice, only this time he’s explains to the American people that the evidence and facts indeed show that a trading of arms for hostages did occur. In another work, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose states: “In fact, prior to rap, the most desirable use of a sample was to mask the sample and its origin; to bury its identity. Rap producers have inverted this logic, using samples as a point of reference, as a means by which the process of repetition and recontextualization can be highlighted and privileged.” 1 Killer Mike gives us an example of this by using the set of Ronald Reagan samples to reinforce his belief that the presidential seat is “bullshit”. The second verse of the song begins and is supported by a more complex and possibly even more violent beat in the background. Killer Mike was careful, however, to not overdo it with the rhythmic complexity, so as to keep the focus of the listener on his statements throughout the song. Much like the first verse, Killer Mike packs a plethora of imagery and historical references which comment sociopolitical issues into the second verse. One important issue he demonstrates concern for is the fact that political movements such as the war on drugs influenced a systemic racism and abuse of minority communities. He specifically calls out the corrupt police who on multiple occasions have been caught abusing African-American people. The fast tempo of the percussion elements and the velocity with which the piano chords are hit, serve to create a feeling turbulence, which parallels the chaos imposed on the black community. One of the most powerful claims, that Mike makes in this track is that “free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” To further drive this point Mike references a loophole in the 13th Amendment which Dennis R. Childs, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and author of Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration From the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary, calls a “convenient sleight of hand.” 5 The clause in question was, in essence, a legal cover for slavery, as it encouraged a disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans which were then subject to involuntary servitude.
In the second half of the verse, Mike begins to directly attack Ronald Reagan and the presidential seat in general. The energy of the track intensifies as we hear all the elements of the track layered together. “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor…Just like the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama,” he exclaims. He presents the idea, that all presidents are simply “talking heads” under the control of some shady politicians who are calling the shots behind closed doors. An animation of Ronald Reagan as a puppet along with a recurring Illuminati symbol during the music video to this track functions to drive this idea home. We see an interesting parallel between what Killer Mike sheds light on here and current events. In recent years, we’ve seen countless articles referring to President Donald Trump as Putin’s puppet, which makes clear that Killer Mike and the African-American community is not alone in their distrust for the presidential seat. Unfortunately, it seems it’s the minority communities who suffer the most and their frustration is felt heavily throughout the track. Killer Mike’s support of socialist Bernie Sanders, during the 2016 election, also serves as evidence of his disapproval of the capitalistic tendencies in the U.S.
Near the finish of the track, Killer Mike expresses, “If I say any more they might be at my door,” referring to the government. He points out that his public and explicit defamation of the U.S. government and its institutions could result in an investigation by a group like the FBI. With this in mind, Killer Mike boldly proceeds to end the last verse with “I’m glad Reagan dead.” Killer Mike’s track conveys a harsh but necessary critique of the government. Backed with historical facts and references, the artist powerfully protests against the longstanding racial discrimination. His use of samples, heavy base and violent chords help demonstrate the frustration he and the African-American community feel, while still providing the audience with the knowledge and motivation to fight for equality.