My fascination with this unlikely pairing came when YouTube served up a video it thought I might be interested in: Bernie Sanders introducing Run the Jewels at Coachella 2016 . True to the wisdom of our new robot overlords – I was very interested.
The thing I found so odd about it was the Bernie expressed a genuine friendship towards Killer Mike. The video had the rehearsed air of a public appearance but the sentiment was heartfelt and more than the usual tired ‘appeal to the youth vote’ rhetoric you see from politicians.
So where on earth did they meet?! It wasn’t the race or age difference that has me curious, Bernie Sanders has spent his lifetime fighting for marginalised communities so I’m sure his social circle is far more diverse than mine – it was the music. As open-minded as Bernie is I just can’t picture him relaxing in the evenings to a rap that opens with the line “I’m a bag of dicks, put me to your lips…”. Perhaps that’s a lack of imagination on my part, but it did made me curious as to when their paths first crossed.
Killer Mike started life as Michael Santiago Render in the Atlanta, Georgia of 1975. The history of Atlanta is complex story on its own but the cliff notes are full of segregation, racism and the KKK. Added to the overall bleak history, while Mike was a child a prolific serial killer murdered 30 people – including 24 children. It must have been a complex place to grow up.
The son of a police officer and a florist who were both teenagers when he was born, Mike was raised by his grandparents. The stories he tells of his upbringing give insight into the complex man he grew into. His grandfather showed endless love to Mike and instilled strong values of cultural pride and equality, but he was also a man who at 14 years old shot a man for kicking over his bicycle. I wish I could find the quote (it’s buried somewhere in a 3 hour podcast), where he explains that his grandfather was able to be such a good role model for him, not despite his history but because of it. The mistakes and experiences his grandfather had in his youth shaped him into the principled figure he was as an adult.
Mike initially began rapping under his childhood nickname ‘Skunk’; but his proficiency in defeating rappers in underground rap battles led to one of the organisers, DJ DD, bestowing him with the pseudonym ‘Killer’ Mike. The 90’s rap scene he describes from his teenage years seems a vicious and dangerous pre-cursor to the more sanitised rap battles held today. The goal of these battles was to walk the fine line between backing down from your opponent and an all-out fist-fight (it seems the latter is how the evenings frequently ended). Mike showed an incredible self discipline to control his emotion in the face of intense provocation and instead channel his feelings into persuasive and creative rap lyrics.
It’s that talent that changes the trajectory of his life from stolen cars and low-level drug dealing to the Grammy Award winning business owner he is today. Although the shape of his life has changed, it fills me with joy that he speaks with the same enthusiasm for pot and porn as he does for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (where Mike currently is a board member). I think this is why I enjoy him as an influential figure – he’s unapologetically three dimensional – unlike so many people in the public eye.
So we come to the intersection of Killer Mike and Bernie Sanders after a tweet in June 2015 where Bernie made a statement about reintroducing the Voting Rights Act to reduce gerrymandering in Arizona. This must have struck a chord with Mike because he then publicly put forward his support for Bernie Sanders in a reply tweet. And this is the moment the bromance begins.
By the end of that year Mike had invited Bernie to come to the barbershop in Atlanta Mike owns with his wife for a one-off interview series called Taking Shop w/Bernie Sanders. The content has clearly been discussed and vetted at length as it goes step by step through Bernie’s campaign policy, but it’s the moments between the set questions where you can see the friendship bloom. There are side jokes and free laughter interspersed throughout the interview and I love that Bernie actually says very little through all six videos. Bernie is as much there to hear Killer Mike’s perspective and opinion as he is to discuss his platform and policy.
My favourite part is halfway through the sixth video where the discussion turns to guns. It becomes a lesson in how to have an adversarial conversation and remain friends. They clearly disagree from the outset – Mike even prefaces his question by qualifying that they will disagree – so Bernie breaks it down and finds some common ground where they can concur. There’s no argument although there is a bit of tension and by the end of the segment they have a few areas of common ground and a mutual respect for the areas where they don’t.
This attitude mirrors my philosophy in general about popular figures in political realms. Just because someone is exceptionally talented in specific ways, it does not make them an all-knowing savant. I could at this point go on a rant about how the same is true for politicians and how the best leaders should be a puppet of the people skilled at getting experts to collaborate rather than the cheap-suited media cock-jockeys currently pushing noise into the universe – but I’ll save that for another day.
I makes sense for Bernie (a politician) to make time for Mike, not just because it’s a great PR opportunity, but specifically because Mike has risen to fame by articulating the feelings and struggles of his community. He’s just a dude and he’ll get things wrong but if you consider capitalism a version of democracy, he’s been elected through money and media to be a kind of spokesman.
Where this idea tends to go wrong is when you look to popular figures for direct leadership. I noticed Killer Mike stirred mixed reactions last month when he was invited to speak at a press conference led by the Atlanta city mayor in an attempt to stop the damage and looting occurring alongside Black Lives Matters protests. I found it telling that not only was a rapper put forward as a voice of leadership in a moment of crisis, but that his perspective was so loud against a vacuum of diverse voices in positions of power. Personally I though it was a great speech – although a little contradictory to wear a shirt that proclaims ‘kill your masters’ while asking people not to break windows.
The relationship between Bernie and Mike has clearly persisted and they have continued to appear together right through to Bernie Sander’s 2019 Presidential bid. It’s an unlikely pairing, but considering the current state of America, maybe its a style of friendship we need to see more of now more than ever.
- Killer Mike’s Emotional Speech at Atlanta Mayor’s Press Conference (May 29, 2020)
- Bernie Sanders Introduces Run The Jewels At Coachella 2016
- Joe Rogan Experience #1230 – Killer Mike
- Talking Shop w/ Bernie Sanders 6/6: Democrats Win When People Vote | Killer Mike
- Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike | Behind the Scenes
- Featured image by Dan Medhurst.