Killer Mike and Stephen Colbert Have a Real Conversation About Race in America

Killer Mike
Killer Mike appearing on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on January 5. YouTube

"My next guest is one of the biggest names in hip-hop, a civic leader and an activist."

It's an introduction that could belong to no one other than Killer Mike, Stephen Colbert's Late Show guest on Tuesday night. Though the Atlanta native rose to prominence as a rapper and is currently one-half of the mega-popular duo Run the Jewels, it's his social contributions that have raised his profile, especially as the 2016 election cycle has intensified. In November, he sat down for lunch with Bernie Sanders in Atlanta and later spoke at a rally for the Democratic hopeful.

What makes Killer Mike an effective rapper and social activist alike is his passion, which was on full display Tuesday night. His tone took on a remarkable urgency when his conversation with Colbert turned from sweatsuit fashion and the origin of his name to race and oppression. Not only does Killer Mike care; he makes the audience in front of him care too.

"If white people are just now discovering that it's bad for black and working-class people in America, they're a lot more blind than I thought and they're choosing to be ignorant a lot more than I thought," he told Colbert. "The same problems we're discussing today we discussed in 1990, 1980, 1970 and 1960."

When Colbert asked him if there is a systemic attempt by the government to segregate minorities so they can be controlled, Killer Mike almost cut him off to say that no, it's not an attempt, it's successful. He noted how former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley built the highways in his city specifically for that purpose.

Colbert also asked Killer Mike about his support for Sanders.

"Bernie Sanders is the only politician who, consistently for 50 years, has taken that social justice platform into politics," Killer Mike said. "Right now we have an opportunity to elect someone who is directly out of the philosophy of [Martin Luther] King-ian nonviolence. We can directly elect someone who cares about poor people; cares about women, gays, blacks, whites; cares about lives that don't look like his. This opportunity in history is not going to come in another 20 years. If we don't take this opportunity right now, we're going to be sitting around the campfire mad because they've nuked the world to hell."

It should come as no surprise, then, that just as much as Killer Mike loves Sanders, he hates Ronald Reagan, a president who, to some, epitomized the idea of segregating minorities as a means of oppression. Here's a gorgeously animated video for the rapper's 2012 song "Reagan."

There's value in awareness, but ultimately it is worthless if it doesn't lead to action. When Colbert asked Killer Mike what white people can do to "bridge the gap," the rapper told him what he says he tells kids when he does speaking engagements at white colleges:

"Get outside the college environment, find a child who is marginal or who is doing exceptional in school, who is a minority and doesn't look like you—not of the same religion, not of the same background—and help that child matriculate into college. Help them by being a big brother or big sister. Help them by mentoring him. Don't give them gifts. Don't make yourself feel good by giving them a new pair of sneakers. Teach them the path you were taught to help them become a successful human being."

And what about Colbert's tongue-in-cheek suggestion that more while people should get their hair cut at black barbershops (of which Killer Mike owns a few)?

"White people pay $50 for haircuts, so absolutely."