To say that Run The Jewels rapper Michael Render, AKA Killer Mike, has recently emerged as a social activist who gives voice to righteous rage isn’t quite accurate. Render has been at it for a while.
Known for his long history of activism and political outspokenness, he’s recently made the headlines in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests for his heartfelt and movingly eloquent address to the citizens of his hometown of Atlanta. At the press conference alongside Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, he tearfully stated that while he didn’t have “any good advice”, he advised protesters that “if you sit in your homes tonight instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize in an effective way”. We went on to urge anyone listening that the “ballot box is the most easily accessible way – on a local level especially – to start to change the fabric of this country”. The stirring eight-minute speech went viral and, in that instant, Render became a celebrity spokesperson for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The following days saw him make the rounds on various shows, from Bill Maher to Stephen Colbert, in which he assigned “homework” for white viewers, citing Jane Elliott as a go-to YouTube source for education. These late show appearances proved once again that he was truly the activist for social justice the US needs right now and one of the moment’s most inspirational spokespeople – to the extent his articulate rhetoric feels more honest and vital than most of the career politicians’ output, including that of the horrific sentient flan currently slumped behind the Oval Office’s Resolute desk.
Concurrently, Run The Jewels – composed of Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P – dropped their fourth album, RTJ4, for free. They even released it ahead of schedule, announcing on Twitter: “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there…” The rap duo’s state of the union address is powerful protest music, a fearless rallying cry that holds the powerful accountable, and a damn fine album. Tracks like “Walking in the Snow” might as well have been written during the protests, with lyrics that couldn’t be timely for the times we’re living in: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’.” raps Killer Mike. Depressingly timely but unsurprising, as they too remind us that we’ve been here before and we seem doomed to repeat the tragedies of the past.
But this isn’t about simply celebrating one of the US’ most urgent voices during these times of crisis, and anyone who has followed Killer Mike’s career probably sees this as inspiring par for the course. This is about urging you to discover his Netflix show, Trigger Warning With Killer Mike.
The show has been added to Netflix’s newly-created Black Lives Matter category, a classification which includes films and series created by black storytellers we recently flagged up as essential watches, like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Netflix issued a statement saying that “We have a platform and we have a duty to our black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”
Watching The Help to educate yourself about endemic racism in the US is like watching Finding Nemo to better clue yourself up on the intricacies of marine biology.
It’s a step in the right direction, as streaming platforms should be highlighting and promoting narratives about the black experience and racial injustice. Curation is also of paramount importance, especially since the last few days have seen Tate Taylor’s 2011 film The Help stream-trend. The film’s popularity has surged and let’s face facts, there’s something utterly depressing about viewers turning to “White People Fix Racism – The Movie” in these times. Like The Blind Side before it and Green Book after, The Help is a schmaltzy and mind-numbingly simplistic white saviour movie that isn’t in any way insightful to our time. Watching it to educate yourself about endemic racism in the US is like watching Finding Nemo to better clue yourself up on the intricacies of marine biology.
Trigger Warning, on the other hand, is one of the titles that seems far more appropriate. This six-episode documentary web series was released over a year ago and sees the rapper / activist explore important social issues in America that affect the black community and Americans in general. Each episode starts with a quote from an important historical figure – including Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington or James Baldwin – and lasts about 25 minutes. Killer Mike tackles various issues through social experiments: he discovers, educates and, crucially, presents creative optional solutions to America’s problems without resulting to hectoring or outright preachiness. His options are by turn original, controversial and (knowingly) impractical, as Killer Mike confronts systemic racism with both wit and a solid dose of satire, using humour to shed light on engrained perceptions and issues gone unaddressed.
The first episode, “Living Black”, finds Killer Mike amazed that money doesn’t stay long within the black financial ecosystem – only six hours, compared to 28 days for the Asian community, 23 for the white community and 21 within Jewish communities. He decides that he’ll “truly live in the black economy” by keeping his money in the black community for three days before a Run The Jewels concert. That means only using products from black-owned businesses, and this turns out to be more difficult than it initially sounds, as the economic consequences of desegregation on black-owned companies are explored. It’s an eye-opening exposé on how economic structures make it extremely hard to keep money within communities, which leads to many fascinating and humorous interactions; for instance, Mike tells his white compadre El-P “You guys gentrified marijuana”, only to have El-P retort “Yeah, we’re an unstoppable force.” The “lesson” at the end of episode is that one person (or a group of people) can effect change, and that awareness is key. He also concludes at the RTJ gig that people need to “communicate with people who don’t look like you, grow new friendships and we end we end that racist bullshit the slow and loving way.”
Mike never fools himself (or the viewer) into thinking he’s presenting bulletproof solutions. He’s giving options, and isn’t above pushing a few buttons or watching his answers crash and burn.
The second episode, “Fuck School”, is arguably the most-talked about instalment of the series, as Mike sets himself the goal to rethink public schools’ approach to education. It’s a lofty ambition, and he knows it, and this epitomizes the series’ MO: no matter how lofty, there are concrete ways to work towards goals, and Mike never fools himself (or the viewer) into thinking he’s presenting bulletproof solutions. He’s giving options, and isn’t above pushing a few buttons or watching his answers crash and burn. In “Fuck School”, he interrogates the best way of getting more people to learn vocational skills and a trade. His solution? Combining instructional videos with the one thing that hooks viewers to their screens and has more US visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined: pornography. It’s openly addressed that teaching through porn is funny, twisted and somewhat cynical, but the intent to motivate people is always there, no matter how questionable the tactics. Again, there are options.
Segments in this episode can be controversial, as Mike says to a school teacher that he doesn’t think that schools teach us to think – “I think schools teach us to obey” – and at one point openly crushes the dreams of school kids by telling them that the odds are they won’t become presidents or scientists, and they should instead shift their attention to learning a vocation. Harsh, maybe, but there’s heart here.
Further social experiments in the series see him organising a branding campaign to give black gangs the same PR boost white gangs like Hell’s Angels have gotten over the years, addressing how Christianity’s “white Jesus” has had an adverse effect on black people, and witnessing a nation so divided that he decides to make his own country. The beauty of the thoughtful yet purposefully facetious tone of show is that even the weaker or more ridiculous-seeming episodes contain enough food for thought to keep you hooked. The constant throughout is Killer Mike’s inquisitive and charismatic presence: he discusses serious societal ills with wit and humanity, shaking shit up without losing sight of his compassion.
At the end of the day, Trigger Warning With Killer Mike is an original, socially conscious series that doesn’t get bogged down with the trappings of similar shows. It does this by embracing its unconventional and provocative ideas, and by always challenging the viewer to reassess their opinions, no matter how entrenched. It’s undeniable that the bite-sized episodes cram a lot in and can often seem like they’re skimming the surface of some dense issues. Still, the emphasis on empathy and allyship makes this confrontation of stereotypes and polarised culture in all its forms a worthy watch. Don’t overlook it in Netflix’s new Black Lives Matter section – you may frown, you may laugh, but you’ll definitely learn something.
Keep on educating yourselves, donate if you can, buy (or download for free) a copy of RTJ4, check out our article on films by black filmmakers that address and confront endemic racism in the US… and get triggered.