Bernie Sanders is unlikely to carry Atlanta, much less Georgia, in next year’s Democratic presidential primary.
The Vermont senator’s supporters – mostly young and mostly white – packed the Fox Theatre on Monday, but so far as our eyes could make out, not a single Democratic elected official walked through the gilded entryway. Georgia’s Democratic elite and their networks are in Hillary Clinton’s camp, and pledged to stay there.
Nonetheless, the 5,000 or so insurgents who showed up to feel the Bern may have witnessed a little history – the debut of a future political presence in Atlanta. Hip-hop artist Killer Mike, a.k.a. Michael Render, served as front man for Sanders, delivering a torrential introduction. Words poured out of the rapper like water from a hydrant.
“I have no time in my short 40 years on this Earth to relive the Reagan years,” Killer Mike said. “I have no desire to see us elect our own Margaret Thatcher.”
The Internet, which I will trust this one time, says Killer Mike is a member of the two-man group known as Run the Jewels. I do not know rap. I haven’t had a firm relationship with the music industry since Simon split with Garfunkel.
But it isn’t necessary to know music to know Killer Mike, the hefty son of an Atlanta cop. Since the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last year, the rap artist and sometimes actor has emerged as a passionate, often eloquent street voice on the matter of police violence and racial justice – topics that often drive his work. CNN goes to him. He’s been interviewed by the Harvard Political Review.
Arianna Huffington invited Killer Mike to this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he sweated in a rented tux and Tweeted about the riot that had erupted that evening in nearby Baltimore. Over the death of another black man at the hands of police.
This summer, Killer Mike announced his write-in candidacy to fill the vacated state House seat of Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta. But he hadn’t filed notice of his impromptu candidacy with the secretary of state’s office as required. And his residency in Sandy Springs might have proved a problem.
But it was a definite sign of ambition, one that he confirmed backstage at the Fox, a few minutes before he introduced Bernie Sanders.
“I am going to run when I retire from rapping,” said Killer Mike – who is an old man in hip-hop years.
There is a hurdle here, and it’s not his nickname, which is apparently derived from his ability to slay those rap rhymes. And he is unlikely to be mistaken for Jerry Lee Lewis, the early rocker who was also known as “Killer” – though for nearly strangling his seventh-grade homeroom teacher with the instructor’s own necktie.
No, the problem is that Killer Mike’s artistry is highly dependent on – nay, thoroughly soaked in — f-bombs and other linguistic non-niceties. You wouldn’t dare play his raps in front of Aunt Mildred. He’s given the matter some thought.
“Even though your aunts and my aunts won’t listen to my raps, they’ll certainly agree with much of the message. I am very loud, very passionate, and I have a flair for using curse words,” Killer Mike said.
And certainly, Donald Trump and others in the 2016 presidential campaign have taught us that vulnerabilities, if owned and embraced tightly enough, can even be transformed into advantages.
But let Killer Mike continue: “Before I’m ever a rapper, I’m a son of this city. I’m a father of kids who go to public school here. I’m a business owner [of a barber shop] in this community. You cut me, I bleed Atlanta,” he said.
That, friends, is a campaign speech. For what office, only time will tell.
Killer Mike was near the end of his tether as we spoke. He had spent the day with Bernie Sanders, showing him around his city. The big man and the tiny man lunched at the Busy Bee, and over fried chicken, yams and rice talked about “wives and grandchildren, and the [expletive deleted] media.” Also about the latter-day Martin Luther King Jr. and linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky.
“It was just a conversation between two angry radical guys. One 74 and white, and one 40 and black, and finding common ground,” Killer Mike said.
As I said, I do not know rap – except that it is a format ruled by words and rhythm. Master that discipline in one field, and it can be exported to many others. Preaching and politics among them. You can hear it in Killer Mike’s defense of the white-haired Bernie Sanders.
“He’s a human being who has seen this country at a time when greed and arrogance did not permeate our televisions,” the hip-hopper said. “He’s a person that has seen the social programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually pull us out of poverty and out of apathy.”
And when I noted that most African-Americans of any prominence in Atlanta are backing Hillary Clinton:
“It’s always been like that. We have a Democrat. This Democrat has a lot of money. We know that we can do some negotiations to get a smidgen of what we want. That’s the Democrat we support. What I’m saying is, that’s not enough,” Killer Mike said. “We have something far better for our community than what the Clintons are offering.
“If your change doesn’t feel revolutionary, then you’re not following Jesus. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate where, if you line up his political campaign next to the words of Jesus H. Christ – it lines up. It lines up,” he said.
There is another reason to think that Killer Mike might survive a dip into politics. Despite his passion, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
This is a rapper who, after releasing his last album — a successful one, quickly issued a parody of it, built on cat meows. Yes, really. You have to like that.
During our backstage scrum, another reporter asked him about Bernie Sanders’ sole foray into the music business.
“Bernie Sanders has a folk record? No, I have not heard it. Is it good enough to sample? Or is it really, really bad?” Killer Mike asked.
The answer, truthfully, is that it’s very, very bad. But would the two of them sing together sometime?
“I would definitely sing with him if it’s not on camera and not publicized,” the rapper said. “I can’t sing worth squat. I’m only good at rhyming words.”
That kind of honesty isn’t always helpful in politics. But with time, you and I can help him beat that nasty habit.