Killer Mike is world-class songwriter, rapper and political activist from Atlanta, Georgia. He makes up one half of the hip-hop supergroup Run the Jewels, along with producer and rapper El-P. This track comes from his fifth studio album R.A.P Music released in 2012.
I fucking love this track. The dramatic buildup to the first sample of Reagan works so much better musically ham-fisting political quotes into every other track (looking at you, Leftöver Crack).
Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands. That no-concessions policy remains in force, in spite of the wildly speculative and false stories about arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not, trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.Ronald Reagan, 1986
The Iran-Contra affair
In the mid-1980’s, President Reagan was having a bad time. Despite campaign promises to support anti-communist insurgency around the globe, the Democrats blocked his efforts to support the Contras in their conflict against the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. By refusing to join the capitalist hegemony, this tiny country on his doorstep was a big problem for him.
The Contras generated funding through cocaine trafficking into the US, at a point when the crack epidemic was destroying the lives of millions of impoverished citizens, mainly black and latinx people. This was a direct consequence of the Reagan government stepping up the war on drugs, by enforcing the notorious 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Under the 13th amendment to the US constitution, the only acceptable form of modern slave labour comes from the prison population. With the expansion of heavy sentencing for drug crimes and for-profit prisons, the prison-industrial complex grew huge and powerful.
At the same time, in the Middle East, the regional powers of Iran and Iraq were at war. In an echo of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, Iran-backed insurgents in Lebanon had this time taken hostage seven Americans. With the hostages as leverage, Iran hoped to push the US into selling them missiles and other weapons.
Iran had recently undergone a revolution, deposing the pro-western Shah and becoming an Islamic republic with conservative values and anti-western sentiment. On the campaign trail, Reagan also promised never to negotiate with terrorists, making it impossible for him to publicly engage with Iran for the release of the hostages.
Reagan, being a smart guy, decided to kill two birds with one stone. Selling weapons secretly to Iran would generate funds ,which could then be used to support the Contras in their anti-communist insurrection. This became public in 1986 during Reagan’s second term, by which point 1500 missiles had been sold for $30 million, of which $18 million were diverted to the Contras by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, and used to acquire weapons.
Economic repression of black people
There is so much to unpack from Killer Mike’s lyrics. From the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” in reparations, made after the civil war but repealed by President Andrew Johnson, to the call for black self-defense from Black Nationalist Malcom X, to the complicity of the US government in the crack epidemic, the historic and contemporary injustice done to the black community in the name of profit is as extensive as it is horrific.
Killer Mike has a thorough analysis of the structural issues facing black people in the US, as explored in documentary series Trigger Warning available on Netflix. By examining issues such as the length of time a dollar stays within the black economy, he makes it clear that black people face serious economic disadvantage from the legacy of racism.
These structural issues shed light on origins of the issues faced within the black community today.
So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding
Cause all we seem to give them is some ballin’ and some dancin’
And some talkin’ about our car and imaginary mansions
We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting
Here, Killer Mike alludes to the lack of opportunities afforded to People of Colour in the US. Given the deeply individualistic nature of american capitalism, people of all backgrounds are expected to succeed at creating wealth for themselves and their families regardless of how difficult this is.
Handin’ children death and pretendin’ it’s excitin’
We are advertisements for agony and pain
We exploit the youth; we tell them to join a gang
We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game
Gang culture and drug dealing within the US is a self-perpetuating cycle of misery and poverty, and adults within this culture like Killer Mike play a role in indoctrinating young people. While accepting of his role within this system, it is clear that the root causes of black poverty do not lie within the community itself.
For over a century, beginning with the Harrison Act of 1914, US policy has systemically criminalised users and suppliers of drugs, creating the most lucrative black market in history. Propaganda around this prohibition has focused on the moral failings of addicts, despite the fact that 90% of drug users are not addicts, and stoked racial fear of drug use among ethnic minorities leading to violence against and miscegenation with the white majority.
People of Colour within the US are especially persecuted by the war on drugs because of existing economic disadvantage:
- Childhood trauma and poverty predispose individuals to addiction, with a risk factor of the same magnitude as the link between obesity and heart disease.
- Within the ghettos created by racist housing policy, People of Colour have limited economic opportunities and are pushed into the narcotic trade as a means of survival.
[Source: Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015]
White supremacy and economic exploitation
After another sample from Reagan, this time forced to admit involvment in the Iran-Contra affair one week after his initial denial, Killer Mike launches into a damning tirade against the US political establishment and injustice in the name of capitalism.
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and moneys, as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policin’ for some profits
But thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits
‘Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of US economics
‘Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshittin’, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they givin’ drug offenders time in double digits
White supremacy is intrinsically linked with the development of modern capitalism in the US and the post-imperial states of Europe.
From the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the modern criminalisation of undocumented migrants and drug users/suppliers, politicians have always used dehumanising rhetoric towards ethnic minorities to push policies which create cheap, disenfranchised labour. As an institution, the police have always played a key role within this system.
The origin of modern policing lies in the the early 1800s, when Robert Peel served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, which was then a British colony. Repressive tactics used to against those who resisted the regime were incorporated into the Metropolitan police in London and used against groups struggling to improve the awful conditions of the working class during the industrial revolution.
This model of policing was exported to the northern US in the mid-1800s. Widespread corruption enabled capitalists to employ the police directly as strike-breakers, and surveillance of political groups was widely practiced against communists and other anti-capitalist movements. In the southern states, the modern police forces are direct descendants of the slave-catching patrols employed by plantation owners. This system of racist violence for economic gain was exported globally during the cold war along with the imposition of capitalist and then neo-liberal economic policy.
[Source: The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale, 2017]
Whew, that was some deep shit
Killer Mike’s unique artistic talent lies in being able to explore such complex issues within the framework of a hip-hop track. Despite the heavy subject matter, the delivery in his smooth Atlanta accent over dark and sinister beats makes this track extremely listenable. A comparison which comes to my mind is this classic from KRS-ONE, mixing cutting lyrical insight with beats and rhymes so funky you almost miss the politics.
Killer Mike is not afraid to reflect on hip-hop itself, and how it forms a part of the larger culture. As he explores in both Reagan and Trigger Warning, black people are forced to embrace capitalist ideology and conspicuous consumption to survive under an exploitative system. The alternatives he espouses, socialism and black nationalism, are among the most viable strategies for creating a more equal society.