“I leave you with four words: I'm glad Reagan dead,” Mike “Killer Mike” Render rapped in his song “Reagan” off the 2012 album R.A.P. Music. His harsh, inflammatory statements drew attention from the press at the time that only increased when the video’s similarly hyperbolic imagery (one example shown above) drew fire from conservatives. In the January/February 2014 issue of Art Papers, Dr. Joycelyn A. Wilson interviews Render and gets at the heart not only of “Reagan,” but also at the rap world’s general distaste for the 40th President of the United States, a man basically sainted by the right. Reagan’s presidency ended in 1989 and his life ended in 2004 after a long illness that kept him from the public eye, yet he remains a powerfully negative symbol for some decades later. Why do rap artists still hate Ronald Reagan?
Wilson, an educational anthropologist, digs into how the visuals of the music video for “Reagan” complement and emphasize the lyrics of the song. “Lyrically rebellious, visually radical, and sonically resonant, R.A.P. Music is indigenous to the blurred lines between hip-hop culture and visual art,” Wilson writes, pointing out that the full, un-acronymed title is actually Rebellious African People Music. Wilson asks listeners/viewers to “frame R.A.P. Music, the album, and rap music proper as both performative pathways for accessing what I refer to in my research as the hip-hop imagination… [which] is a lens; a set of ‘hip-hop glasses’ made from a range of hip-hop–based aesthetics… Situated in the Black experience, these glasses provide intersecting perspectives about culture, politics, lifestyle, and art.” “When worn properly,” Wilson concludes, these hip hop glasses “help make better sense of our communities, institutions, and environments.” Even if rap doesn’t suit your musical tastes, you can’t dismiss the fact that the music and the visuals that accompany it represent the reality of the African-American experience today. To refuse to wear hip hop glasses is to deliberately accept your own cultural myopia.
Wilson begins the interview with the obvious question, “Why is hip-hop still referencing Reagan?” “Because there is an active marketing campaign to lionize Ronald Reagan and I'm here to say that it is a lie,” Render replies. “That's all.” Thus, the rap response to fervent Reagan idolizing becomes equally fervent Reagan iconoclasm. To those who credit Reagan with winning the Cold War, Render counters, “Yeah, but the cold war didn't end against poor people. The cold war didn't end for policemen being able to brutalize children. I was beaten during the ‘war on drugs.’ And my dad was a cop.” The video visually and verbally references the theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the crack epidemic to plague minorities. “Thank God for the books that were written that connected the CIA and Oliver North with basically a triangle trade of death where arms had to get to the Middle East, drugs had to come out of Central America and up into California to be disseminated throughout the nation,” Render explains. “It destroyed my community.” It’s no accident that Render repurposes the “triangle trade” term from the days of slavery for the modern “slavery” of drugs and drug enforcement in America. As the interview and the song make clear, Render’s a thoughtful young man with a powerful sense of history. Whether you agree with his conclusions depends on how far you agree with his interpretations of that history.
Render uses audio from Reagan’s speech in which he denied any knowledge of or even the existence of the Iran Contra Affair as his “hook” showing how governments then and now lie to their people. (Later, Render also uses Reagan’s sheepish speech acknowledging the existence of the conspiracy.) In the video, illustrated by Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman, Reagan appears in a star-spangled suit against the backdrop of a malevolent-looking black and white American flag featuring the same “eye of providence” found on everything from the American one dollar bill to the seal of the DARPA Information Awareness Office, some of the nice people Edward Snowden told us all about. Garish red and blue elements flood the landscape of the video along with references to “666”(the “Number of the Beast”) connected to Ronald Wilson Reagan and the six letters in each of his names. (A horned, red-eyed Reagan head devilishly soars into the sky near the end of the video.) Coincidence? Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but Wilson and Render would argue such usage is necessary to get the message across against the grain of the mainstream media. In fairness, Render may single Reagan out for special treatment, but he points fingers at all the presidents since, both Republican and Democratic, both white and black. “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor/ Just an employee of the country's real masters/ Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama/ Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters,” Render raps as presidents 41 through 44 appear as finger puppets manipulated by more powerful hands. If Render’s a Reagan hater, he’s also an equal opportunity hater.
Perhaps most fascinating is Render’s indictment of elements of rap culture itself. “We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting/ Hand the children death and pretend that it's exciting/ We are advertisements for agony and pain/ We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang,” Render raps to visuals of black entertainers glamorizing “thug life” at the expense of African-American community life. Again, Render’s a hater—of Reagan, of government, of anything he sees as destructive of his community. Wilson’s revisiting of Render’s 2012 album and video in anticipation of the upcoming release of the sequel, R.A.P. Music II, which Render promises will be “motivation music,” should motivate us all to don our hip hop glasses or any other lens that will help us see beyond our own circumstances, to see how one person’s hero can be another person’s demon.