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Killer Mike Wins at the Grammys: A Social Commentary on the Legitimacy of the World Order

by S. Davenport | Photo by By Jason Armond

Back in February, Hip Hop artist Micheal Render, known as Killer Mike, a 48-year-old Atlanta rapper — shocked the music world by taking home 3 Grammy Awards. In what he loudly proclaimed was a ‘clean sweep’ by the city of Atlanta, he won the awards for Best Rap performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Album of the year—a coveted and hard to come by trifecta. The album entitled Michael, explores the ethical minefields of growing up as a Black male in Atlanta Georgia while simultaneously inviting listeners into the inner sanctum of what it means to survive as a Black man in America. It is a homiletical discourse and social commentary in an uncertain time where people are trying to make sense of what appears to be an unraveling social order.

One of the signature songs on the album is entitled ‘Scientists and Engineers’ and employs the assistance of sometimes eclectic and esoteric artist Andre 3000 of Outkast and force of nature and new age hip hop artist Future. Anyone that knows anything about Outkast and the Dungeon Family, you will know that the constant motif of outer space and aliens is deployed and the so called ATLiens fully embraced this theme in ‘Scientists and Engineers.’ From the robotic, futuristic and cosmic sounds that are infused into the intro or the autotune effect deployed in Future’s voice, the listener is elevated into a cosmic reality. 

As the listener is driven into space, we are challenged with constant polarities of what is ethical and unethical behavior throughout. There exists this tension in the song where observations are being made that inevitably inform future action. Specifically, in Killer Mike’s verse, there is a stanza where he states, “You can lie, cheat, and steal in America, and still be celebrated like Capitan America.” I was arrested when I heard this line because the social commentary here is that there is no moral high ground—no reward for compliance with a system that is illegitimate. It is to say that there is no consequence for corrupt character, and that in America, corrupt character is something that can, in fact, propel you to the echelons of society.

This article is not about Hip Hop music or the Grammy Awards, but what it is about is an undercurrent conversation that is happening. I believe that this conversation is happening both domestically and abroad where we are collectively wrestling with the question of whether or not America is, in fact, a nation of laws. 

Last April, I was invited to a lecture at the University of Virginia Law School from Georgetown professor Kristin Henning. Henning’s talk was based on her book entitled The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. In the book, Kristin challenges America’s often ‘irrational’ concerns about young people based on her experience representing youth in the juvenile court system in Washington, D.C. During her talk, she mentioned the concept of the illegitimacy of the world order. Conceptually what this means is that our institutions that are charged with administering justice and being the arbiters of what is fair are in such disrepair that these institutions may have permanently lost the public trust—especially amongst Black people and those further marginalized by those systems and institutions. 

There are those who are making the observation as Killer Mike did that, “You can lie, cheat, and steal in America, and still be celebrated like Capitan America.” And the consequence of internalizing this draws the conclusion that the rule of law is a farce. Money, power, and prestige have their proverbial thumbs on the scales of justice. The consequence of this calculation is a belief amongst many, especially those without money, power, and/or prestige that the order is illegitimate and there is no true ethical framework to adhere to—and there is no benefit to doing what is considered lawful or right. 

To further prove that this conversation is happening, while I attended the Collaborative Journalism Summit last summer at George Washington University,  Kevin Hall, editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said this, “People think it is crazy when I say it, that corruption is legal in the United States… And I don’t mean this in some sort of radical way. It’s just a matter of fact, a lot of things that would be treated as subversive or non-transparent in the rest of the world is legal here in the United States.” The deeper implication that Hall is saying here is that for some, the rules simply just do not apply. 

The long-term implications of this is that if the rules only apply to some of us, then inevitably, they will apply to none of us. 

This idea that the world order is illegitimate must have a counter balance and can only be of course corrected by those who operate from a higher ordered ethical framework. The beauty in all that could be terrible of America is its ability to reinterpret itself and course correct. We saw those types of course corrections led philosophically by the likes of Fannie Lou Hammer and others who pushed America to reinterpret itself and restructure the execution of its idealism to make it more and more legitimate. What makes America truly powerful is this constant course correction and pursuit of the ideal that it is self-evident that all men [people] are created equal and that we more fully embrace this self-evident truth in each iteration.

Both home and abroad, there are consequences for not ethically course correcting. We see our global ideological and economic competitors offering the world what is being sold as a more legitimate order. If we are not actively in pursuit of a more perfect approach, then there are those who are positioning themselves as alternative partners, especially abroad.  Their premise is that America does not have a framework for peace, stability, and development but only for chaos, instability and destruction. Killer Mike’s social commentary supports this idea when he states in the next stanza, “F— it, I’m wit it. Let’s get it,” meaning that if there is no desire by the order to course correct and have a more ethical framework, then it is logical to pursue chaos, instability, and destruction as a means to power, money, and prestige as if—it is the American way.

Sometimes I wonder if we are too far gone and that some form of dystopian reality is inevitable. I am also of the belief that if we continuously project dystopia, then that is what we will inevitably have. However, in my more optimistic moments, I believe that it is important that we ideate on a more optimal and legitimate reality—a framework for humanity that is a more flexible container that can hold us all in spite of our differences. This will require us to activate a higher order of being that brings forth light to counterbalance the orchestrators and forces of darkness. Ironically, Killer Mike’s album cover depicts a younger ‘Michael’, as the album is titled, crowned with both an angel’s halo and and also the devil’s horns, so as to imply what Martin Luther King once said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” It is to say that it is possible for us to descend into the darkest of our capabilities as humans, but it is also possible for us to rise out of that darkness and restore balance and legitimacy, collectively building a vessel that can hold us all. 


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