There are two Killer Mikes: One, a rapper, and member of Run The Jewels, an acclaimed group with intense music; the other, the host of a PBS talk show, “Love and Respect,” in which he turns down the volume, and tries to build conversational bridges.
The program is a throwback, no frills, as he sits down with those who are left, center and right. Despite his name, his show is civil and candid, despite tough questions. “You don’t agree with everyone; you and everyone are not always in sync,” he said. “But what you can do is have a loving and respectful conversation and exchange.”
Born Michael Render, he forged his love of words growing up in historically Black Collier Heights, which is near where the 47-year-old lives today, in Atlanta. Visiting his childhood home, he told correspondent Robert Costa, “This is where I grew up. This is the porch I grew up on. And this is where my grandparents would sit and talk. It’s a neighborhood of all Black people that chose to live amongst Black people… this world where everybody looks like me.”
Growing up, public TV was always on. Its characters, his friends: “Fred Rogers, Bob Ross, the cast of ‘The Electric Company’ and ‘Sesame Street.’ PBS was a diplomat of sorts, introducing me to a world outside of me.”
But years before he appeared on PBS, a DJ, wowed by Render’s rap skills, crowned him with his stage name, saying, “‘This kid’s a killer.’ And people started callin’ me Killer, or Killer Mike.”
Success, and a Grammy, came fast. He later formed Run The Jewels with rapper and producer El-P. Their shows, sold out. Their message, razor sharp.
These days, Render’s life is a busy balancing act: music, TV, and politics. “I’m a freedom fighter on record, so I’m a Superman-like figure,” he said. “But yesterday at a city council meeting in Atlanta, I was just a small business owner out of the entertainment community very much Clark Kentin’ it, just making sure that I raged on the behalf of the people.”
“So, you’re on tour right now, and you’re flying home to go to a city meeting?” asked Costa.
“Yeah!” he laughed.
That activism has come with a cost: critics. Some say Killer Mike is too “right,” due to his support of gun rights and his sit-downs with Trump allies. Others say he’s too “left,” since he supports Senator Bernie Sanders.
Render shrugs them (and party labels) off. “You’re just choosing a team, just like the Cowboys, or the Vikings, or the Falcons, or Green Bay,” he said. “And I’m not saying that team doesn’t have some thoughts and ideals that you agree with. But anything that becomes mob mentality is not an individual thought and mentality.
“When you start to hear the same words come outta 20 people’s mouths within two or three weeks, then you know they’ve been programmed,” he said.
Render’s rise, fueled by anti-establishment lyrics, has caught the establishment’s attention. Two summers ago, when Atlanta erupted after the murder of George Floyd, the mayor called on him to speak. “I didn’t want to come, and I don’t want to be here,” Killer Mike said in May 2020. “I’m duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy.”
Costa asked, “Why were you reluctant?”
“Because people had a right to be mad,” he replied. “People had a right to be angry as s***, and you get tired of it.”
“Don’t burn it down, you said?”
“Don’t burn it down. Because if you burn it down, what do we have left to pivot to? Where’s the economic strength gonna come from? Where’s the political will and know-how gonna come from?”
Render is a big believer in Black-owned businesses, and owns his own chain of barber shops, called Swag Shops. “You come here to get shaved, washed, and groomed, you walk out that door and you’re exercising your swagger!”
That Atlanta news conference was a crossroads, pushing him toward more, beyond music, and he’s still grappling with violence and race in America
He said, “You don’t have a choice to say, ‘The system has let me down again. I can’t.’ You have to do it. You have to. You have children depending on you, those that are yours and not. I have to. Because even if you hate me, even if berate me, your child is still Black. There is no excuse for expecting the same things out of this republic that everyone else deserves and has. You deserve the same. So, you get up and you look in that mirror every morning, and sometimes, boy, you just wanna shed tears. As a man – I’m sorry, I get emotional about it, ’cause I have thought about a lotta these things. No one’s coming to save us, Black people.”
Costa asked, “So, what needs to be done?”
“First and foremost, we have to value ourselves and the ability to learn that we can be confident and competent to do for ourselves.”
As for Killer Mike, he wants to keep the conversation going, for as long as he can.
“My goal is to be like the Rolling Stones and AC/DC – give me my Depends and my jeans and let me get up here and kill it!” he said. “With that said, I’d also like to be able to sit down and still converse with people I may or may not agree with. So, I believe in being able to do it all. So, I’m gonna keep trying.”
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Mike Levine.