As we continue the nationwide debate over whether marble and stone statues of Confederate fighters should fall under the protections of the First Amendment, hip-hop mogul Killer Mike is creating an opportunity for people to express their anti-racist beliefs on their bodies via his new clothing line, released in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
A longtime advocate of social equality who routinely speaks and writes on systemic racism, the Atlanta-based activist and Grammy-winning rapper regularly uses his music, both as a solo artist and a member of Run the Jewels, to negotiate his political views. Now, he’s employing the bodies of his fans.
The visual centerpiece of his new line, Winners and Losers, is a graphic of a basketball scoreboard that depicts side-by-side Confederate and American flags with a score of zero-one. The line is a pragmatic, idealistic and unemotional critique of just how subtly racism continues to unapologetically thread itself through American culture. In releasing his t-shirt and tanks, which may be viewed as controversial by some and celebratory by others, Killer Mike is hammering his message that Americans have the right to celebrate their views—as long as they do it peacefully. Playboy talked with Killer Mike to discuss his latest break into fashion, the president and the state of racism in America.
Was the concept for your new line brewing before Charlottesville?
Yeah. I’m a Southerner. The people on both sides are my neighbors. I’ve grown up with Confederate memorabilia and flags and swag my entire life. There’s a picture of me as a 10-year-old child wearing a Dukes of Hazzard cowboy hat with the Confederate flag, cowboy boots and overalls. As a Southerner, you’re accustomed to seeing the flag.
My source of contention has always gone back to when I took Georgia state history from Mr. Flowers in the eighth grade. Mr. Flowers was a white Alabama football coach and a wonderful history teacher; he just retired this year. He helped us understand that the South seceding put it at rivals with the United States of America, and it lost. In losing that war, it also lost its right to hang its memorabilia. For most of my life, I understood it as less about ‘Hey, it’s a hateful game or reinforcing slavery,’ and more about, 'Hey, you defied a republic and you lost, so you don’t get to hang in the winner’s circle with the crew.’
That view gets lost in the debate sometimes. If my neighbor threw up a Confederate flag and invited me to a barbeque, I’d gladly go to his barbeque. He can fly his flag and cook me barbeque. But the minute he tries to put that flag over the tax office where I go to buy my license plate, then, no, you can’t do that because you guys tried to defeat your country and you fucking lost.
Should you have Confederate memorials? Absolutely. They should be on private land.
Should you have Confederate memorials? Absolutely. They should be on private land.
Is it a symbol that upholds slavery? Yes, because the institution of slavery is what funded the South. It’s what made the planter class rich. So, when they say states’ rights, what they mean is the rights of states to keep slavery. The bigger issue has always been that you’re essentially asking me, with my tax dollars, to honor people who attempted to break the union. That’s dishonorable. Should you have Confederate memorials? Absolutely. They should be on private land or in cemeteries or museums.
With that said, do I want to blow off the face Stone Mountain tomorrow? No, other stuff is higher on my priority list. But I want people to understand in raw terms why I feel that people who follow the Confederate heritage narrative don’t get to have their flags and monuments in front of government buildings. And there’s no better way to explain stuff to an American than a sports analogy.
Most of your pieces depict a single image or declarative phrase. How do you think the message will translate across demographics?
[Winners and Losers] is a clever shirt. I think that smart people will get it and wear it. The kids who are rocking it, get it. Between it and my shirts that reads “kill your masters”, they’ve been two of my most popular. Someone asked about the Kill Your Masters shirt, saying, “Well, what does that mean?” I said, “Well, what other advice would you give someone who was enslaved?” [laughs] I just try to put what people try to present as complex, but to me they are very simple issues.
Why do you say that sports analogies are effective ways of presenting messages about politics?
The Lie Cheat Steal Kill Win shirt is a play on the old Nike shirts from the 1990s that read “Just do it” and “Winners.” But all of the athletes we fucking loved, from Mark McGwire to Lance Armstrong, were doing steroids to win. To me, the truest sports are allowed to be the same as politics. You lie, cheat, steal, kill and win. You do whatever it takes to be in the winners circle. So, the shirts are satirical.
Has this president actively increased the number of racist people in America or instead given existing racists a platform?
I’ve experienced an environment like the one now all my life. I grew up with black students in a city that was run by the Democratic Party in a state that was Republican and run by whites. So, I’ve felt this hostility my entire life. If you live in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Florida, either of the Carolinas and even Virginia, you’re accustomed to this. Black people certainly know it’s here.
If nothing else, Trump’s presidency has shown the rest of the country that we still have a long way to go. I don’t know why black boys dying at the hands of the police for the last five years doesn’t show you that. I don’t know why a vigilante killing a black boy on the border doesn’t let you know that. For whatever reason, when that young man drove that car through that crowd and killed that young lady, it put the world on notice that this country has a long way to go in maturing our race relations. We need to get out of these primary, child-like narratives in which we’re being picked on and we feel bad because we don’t get what we think other people are getting by way of special collective services. We have acknowledged that we have a system in the South and nationwide that’s unfair to groups of people. If we don’t try to fix it, we keep our country in this weird stagnant place of these never-talked-about racial tensions, until an explosion like Charlottesville happens.
What are the best ways to effect change on what you’re talking about? You put out your line of shirts and make music—what about the rest of us?
Act locally. If you’re a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in this country, you already know the rules are skewed in your favor. If you are going to be an ally, be an ally. Stand with them when they’re not around. Challenge people who look like you on their bullshit. When you hear subversively racial shit in the classroom or on the job, confront it. If it comes from your family, confront them.
One thing that black people could do is to better practice group organizing and economics. The stronger your communities are by supporting black stores, restaurants and things of that nature, the stronger your community is in terms of self-sufficiency.
Our white allies, our white brothers and sisters, we need you to challenge shit. One of the most beautiful things I saw [last] week were white football players kneeling or putting their hands on the shoulders of black football players who support Colin Kaepernick. It shows that we have allies across the board, and that’s what we need from our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant allies.
The problem isn’t in the president. The problem is in the proletariat.
Whether you’re liberal or conservative, there’s this collective sense that something positive may come out of the volatility. Agree?
The atmosphere in this country racially speaking is similar as it was under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, under Barack Obama and now under Trump. At a certain point, the problem isn’t in the president. The problem is in the proletariat. Because we’ve decided to be comfortable in our anger and guilt, we’ve gotten a president who, in his audaciousness, reminds us of ourselves. So, the silver lining to me is that Trump shows us undeniably that we have a long way to go.
We need a wake-up call once every two to five years in this country. People in the black community have been waiting for [some] organizations to be called terrorist organizations for more than 100 years. [After] the death of a young white woman who was an ally to my community, finally the news had to call it terrorism.
It wasn’t terrorism when Sandra Bland was murdered. It wasn’t terrorism when Dylann Roof walked into a church and killed people. So even in the way we report, we have to understand our internal biases and we need to start the change there. I’m not a fan of trying to shut them up. I believe in the First Amendment. They have every right to march. What they don’t have the right to do is mow down people or walk into churches and murder people.
What do you have planned next—politically, musically, sartorially?
I’m supporting [Georgia state Senator] Vincent Fort for mayor [of Atlanta]. He stepped away from the Democratic Party to support Bernie Sanders. He was very brave to do that. I’m working hard locally to get him elected.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Better days are right around the corner, if we decide to do the work. If we don’t, then we’ll spend another 53 years in this perpetual systemic racism hating one another. I’m ready to move past that point.
Killer Mike’s new line, Winners and Losers, is available at daylightcurfew.com.