Are These Ideas Useful to Fight Oppression? A Review of Killer Mike’s Trigger Warning


Hip-Hop artist, Killer Mike, has always been an interesting figure in the Hip-Hop scene. From creating the hit group Run the Jewels to producing tracks such as “Reagan” on his album “R.A.P. Music” in which he railed against imperialist foreign policies committed by Reagan, Bush, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Killer Mike has never been afraid to be political and has always been a proponent for the black working-class people. It’s no wonder that he stood side-by-side with Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic Party primaries in which Sanders pulled the ideas of democratic socialism back into the spotlight.

Now he is set to become a lighting rod again by producing and starring in “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike” on Netflix.

Killer Mike’s Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning, is a mini-documentary series that styles itself as exploring issues in the black community. The trailer promised to show Killer Mike “Tearing the system down.” Touching on hot button issues from education to racism. It’s being released right into the intense polarization going on inside the United States.

The show, and Killer Mike’s politics, are heavily shaped by the politics dominant in the Black Lives Matter movement. “Trigger Warning,” a term used quite often in the movement and among young people on social media, is used to express that the following material may be distressing. He dives into discussions of privilege and identity, with his own twist leaning toward a black nationalism. Killer Mike takes a confrontational approach to the people he interviews, determined not only to bring entertainment to the viewer but to find the answers that can help black people immediately.

As a prominent Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016 and now for Bernie’s 2020 campaign, it’s clear that Killer Mike has an amazing ability to connect and talk with various groups of people: from Crip gang members to elderly white folks. However, what is seen in this show is not an extension of the politics of Bernie Sanders, but a shift away from those exact politics.

Killer Mike’s framing of his support for Bernie’s 2020 campaign on the “The Real,” a TV talk show, makes this crystal clear. Killer Mike credits Nina Turner, former state senator from Ohio, current head of Bernie’s Our Revolution organization, and co-chair of the Sanders 2020 campaign, for reaching out and convincing him to support Bernie. There is a contradictory process at play, Killer Mike’s interview on the “The Real” highlights his enthusiastic support for Bernie’s program and calling Bernie a modern day Dr. King, but on Trigger Warning the politics of Bernie Sanders or collective struggle is totally absent. Instead of following Bernie Sanders’ calls for a “political revolution” and a building the groundwork for a mass movement of the working class, he is choosing to adopt some of the non-productive political ideas that are surrounding identity politics and black nationalism.

“Identity politics” often takes the form of creating a hierarchy of oppressions rather than seeing how race and gender interact in the overall class struggle. This mode of politic doesn’t come out of thin-air, but from the face-to-face encounters with the vitriol racist, sexist, and transphobic realities of capitalist society. It’s a real response from some people who deal with oppression and marginalization on a daily basis. However, without a clear understanding of the ties between these oppressions within the overarching economic order of the day, capitalism, then one is at a lost at how to combat those same oppressions. What is worse is that identity politics can be used to reinforce the capitalist system that lives on that same oppression and exploitation. One can look at the ideas of self-sufficiency and black capitalism which explicitly calls for the black working class to adapt to capitalism rather than work to dismantle it, replicating the system of capital rather than fight against it. These ideas fundamentally point away from the working class as the most powerful force that can change the world.

Trigger Warning is absolutely worth watching both as a comedy and to see what the issues concerning the black working class are. Still, It’s important to raise and critique the politics of the show, since Killer Mike, at the same time trying to be comedic, is genuinely trying to start a conversation about strategy and political ideas. There is an increasing understanding of the fact that capitalism – the economic system in the world today – is the cause of massive poverty, war, racism, and economic crises which repeatedly plague the working class while the super rich profit. While he routinely describes the real problems facing the black working class, and oftentimes still brings up the reality of working class people struggling in poverty, he comes to the wrong conclusion that calls for black people to adapt to the racist system of capitalism instead of organizing to dismantle it.

Killer Mike’s ideas are the result of the intense political situation in the U.S. at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, being thrown back into a space of confusion in comparison to his politics as a Bernie Sanders surrogate. The Trump administration’s attacks on the working class, the failures of the Democratic party to mount a consistent fightback, and the rise of socialist ideas has created an explosive period. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has suffered a series of setbacks in the most recent period. BLM, alongside all kinds of social movements, are now looking for new roads of struggle, including the ineffective roads of identity politics and black capitalism. Killer Mike attempts to follow them along in this journey and is searching for the road out of this crisis of capitalism.

New Times, Old Ideas

The Black business person is the linchpin of underdevelopment and capital accumulation within the Black community. The goal of the Black entrepreneur is to make profits, period.” – Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America.

“Living Black” is the first episode of the series and it starts off with Killer Mike attempting for three whole days to only buy and use products from black companies and producers. He soon found out that would mean being forced give up his phone, car, food, and even his marijuana. While poignantly pointing out the fact that capitalism is inherently racist by demonstrating that ruling class of the United States is mostly made up of white capitalists, he falls into the trap of believing capitalism would be better if lead by black entrepreneurs. Later on during the episode he advocates the idea of “black people shopping black” as a way to keep “the dollar staying in the community” and at the end of the episode gives a plethora free advertisements to “black owned” businesses.

Black workers have routinely been denied access to capital or lack generational wealth that is required to open up businesses. The consequence of this is that the majority of “black buying power” going to companies that are predominately white-owned. The supposed solution is to develop more black companies in order for black consumers to buy products from companies owned by black capitalists. However, the idea of the “black dollar staying in the community” or “black buying power” is massively flawed. Implicit in the idea is that there is a capitalist solution to a generational crisis that the black working class and poor have faced under institutional racism and capitalism. For example, there are approximately 35,000 black millionaires in the United States. However, that hasn’t changed median incomes/net worth of the majority of black working families.

Another massive flaw in this grand scheme of black capitalism is the shoddy concept of “black buying power” in the first place. It’s estimated that $1 trillion is spent by black households yearly as consumers, also known as the “buying power” of black households. However, this “buying power” only means Black households paying for certain products and consumer goods, ignoring the epidemic of debt that black families have in order to pay for the basic necessities for life. It means little to nothing in terms of income or generational wealth. As Morgan State Professor Jared Ball correctly states,

“The greatest misconception is that ‘buying power’ means black people collectively actually have this kind of wealth or economic strength when, in fact, black people are economically no better off in relationship to the broader economy than was the case shortly after enslavement proper was ended in 1865.

“The phrase ‘buying power’ is itself a marketing phrase developed to helped advertisers target their marketing. ‘Buying power’ is the ‘power’ to spend money that is specifically allotted for certain purchases but is not – as even the purveyors of the phrase admit – an indicator of income or wealth.”

The myth attacks the black poor for being poor: if only they had financial literacy and made intelligent purchasing choices they could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The myth doesn’t tackle the true character and lived reality of black workers, the poor, and youth under capitalism – like endemic poverty, joblessness, and the gut-wrenching despair of being black and poor in capitalist America.

Even in a world where black capitalist enterprises join the ranks of those such as AT&T, Verizon, and Amazon, the fact still remains that just because a CEO of the same skin color has the dollar doesn’t mean he is a part of the working-class community or will use his wealth to confront the issues that plague black workers and youth. The small black millionaire and billionaire class aim to expand their wealth across the nation and internationally – this is the logic of capitalism. The black elite class that is integrated into the system will defend and uphold the agenda of corporate America.   

A prime example is Don Thompson, a black man who was the CEO of McDonald’s from 2012-2015 who forced his workers, many poor black working people, to subsist on poverty wages and deplorable working conditions. For the black or white capitalist it is about maximizing profits at all cost, expanding their power and prestige in society.

Black Nationalism, Black Capitalism

Black Capitalism is not a new idea and has always been around in the black community, as shown in the interview with the Nation of Islam (NOI). This interview takes place inside of a NOI supermarket where an older member of the NOI advocates the concept. The idea proposes that since there is no alternative to capitalism, then the solution is for black people to “get a slice of the pie” by becoming capitalists themselves. A plethora of black thinkers have expounded on this idea. There is Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute who, after the Civil War, advocated for the newly freed slaves to not directly challenge white supremacy and learn trade skills to one day (with the permission of the white capitalist class) obtain capital to create black owned enterprises. Marcus Garvey made Booker T. Washington ideas come to life with the largest black mass movement in the early half of the 20th century through the organization called the Universal Negro Improvement League (UNIA). Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam (NOI), combined the ideas of Garvey and black American Islam that created a variety of businesses such as diners and grocery stores.

All three of these figures and their organizations spoke to the idea that it was time for black people to get a “slice of the pie,” and racial separation particularly advanced by Garvey and NOI. They also provided for black workers and youth a sense of black self-determination, racial pride, and black-owned businesses during the height of the racial segregation in the south and endemic racism throughout the country.

Proponents of black capitalism have always ignored the big hole in their plan – that racism is inherent in capitalism and not just in a particular city or area. There needs to be a working class in order for capitalism to exist and the need to use tools such as racism to divide the working class, making sure that the ruling class is not severely threatened. It’s indeed true that the white working class is disproportionately wealthier compared to the black working class, but it’s only crumbs in comparison to what capitalists like Jeff Bezos make in a single day. It makes no difference if a crumb is coming from a black capitalist to a black worker in the guise of racial solidarity – It’s still a crumb.

The Language of Identity Politics

Unsurprisingly, “Trigger Warning” is full of identity politics. Killer Mike shows how identity politics can be a positive thing, through his inclusiveness in the show. Trans people are featured and it shows queer sexuality, rarely shown in mainstream media, during the second episode “F**k School.” Killer Mike is able to communicate the need to search for ways to fight for change with ordinary working class people who deal with the exploitation of the capitalism repeatedly throughout their lives. In the episode, “White Gang Privilege,” he tries to start up a soda company with Crip gang members as he highlights how white gangs such as the Italian Mafia and Hells Angels are able to create business ventures from their criminal activities. Killer Mike is able to convince those Crip members of his plan through dialogue that doesn’t come off as paternalistic nor condescending. All of these positives aspects of the show, however, are somewhat dampened as Killer Mike is always pushing in the direction of black capitalism.

Killer Mike also used regular language linked with identity politics. From instances of using the term “ally” when referring to his close friend and musical collaborator El-P to telling a white child that he is guilty of white privilege. While it’s meant to be entertaining and things are exaggerated for comedic effect, Killer Mike never gives an indication that he is not being serious. The viewer is always wondering, “Is he joking right now or not?” For example, in the second episode he tells children to give up their dreams and to just become carpenters and enroll in trade school. It’s obviously Killer Mike is being comedic with him telling a kid to “grow up” at the ripe old age of six. But there is never a explicit rejection of those politics, suggesting while he is being ridiculous to be funny, he actually doesn’t completely disagree.

The series is constantly in a state of confusion, going down different political rabbit holes that doesn’t actually show a way forward. Seeking to show that all people can just get along, the sixth episode of the series, “Outside of a Box,” sets out to create a musical group comprised of people who hold various different political outlooks, to record a song despite their extreme differences. The band later has people from a black nationalist and a “post-racial” liberal to a literal white supremacist who later goes on to say the N-word during the recording of the song. The episode misses the point that the system pits us against each other on a daily basis – teaching competition as a way of life.

This confusing mesh of ideas culminates with the final episode, where Killer Mike creates a new country called “New Africa” in the middle of the U.S. South inspired by legendary Nigerian Afrobeat musician and political activist Fela Kuti’s independent commune, Kalakuta Republic. “New Africa” becomes home to all sorts of people, including different cultural groups, like Juggalos. The episode is Killer Mike’s answer to the problems of working people – carve out a small space in the world of capitalism and become “self sufficient.” It’s points to a politic that says that it’s impossible to overthrow capitalism, so instead people must hide from it. However, it is not possible to retreat from capitalism as it affects everything and everyone, no matter where you are. That the only way to stop capitalism from attacking the working class is to struggle against it and the millionaires and billionaires who defend it.

There is An Alternative

This show represents the intense polarization that the world is in right now. The Trump administration is running wild and recently declared a state of emergency in order to fund  his infamous border wall. It’s during these times that without an anti-capitalist critique, people can go in all sorts of confusing directions with their politics. People begin to lower their hopes and expectations, and even are willing to support reactionary figures, like Trump, since they see no other alternative for change. It’s not hard to imagine that some activists and organizers in the Black Lives Matter, having suffered various defeats and a racially divided society, can begin to agree with Killer Mike’s calls for black capitalism as the only way forward after the U.S. government declared through its actions that black lives don’t matter. A space is made for ideas, people turning away from the system in disgust look to hold on to what they can control, thus causing small black capitalism and identity politics to take hold. It starts from an honest place but it’s trapped by the view that there is no alternative to the capitalist system.

However, there is an way out of this crisis. Socialists point to the working class as the force that can change society for the better. For the past few years the U.S. has seen the mass mobilizations of the teachers in West Virginia, Los Angeles, and Oakland resulting in real gains to classroom sizes, educational funding, as well as wages and benefits. Airport workers ended the longest government shutdown in U.S. history by just hinting at the chance of a strike! Socialist ideas are now gaining popularity in the black working class as numerous polls have shown. It’s through these socialist ideas and the unification of the working class to struggle against capitalism that the black working class can win real improvements for itself along with the rest of the working class. This doesn’t mean that the anti-racist struggle that concerns the Black working class should be placed on the back burner. On the contrary, a mass working-class movement that unifies all races of workers necessitates taking up the anti-racist struggle with the goal of the erasure of racism from the world. The failure to do so would only mean the catastrophic failure of that working-class movement which cannot be an option. Ordinary people are beginning to remember how to struggle against the millionaires and billionaires. What is required now is for the organizations of the working class to dream big, to no longer be trapped by the view of capitalism being permanent and to look to the horizon of a brighter, better society that is free from exploitation and oppression.

Killer Mike is an amazing artist and he clearly cares about working people. “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike” can make the viewer cry of laughter to pausing the show to recover from the awkwardness of an intentionally embarrassing scene. In spite of its ideas, the personality of Killer Mike and the various people who are interviewed carries the show and makes it enjoyable. He talks in the language of ordinary people, especially young black people in the barren wasteland of U.S. mass media that doesn’t seriously speak to them as human beings who lives matter. However, it missed an opportunity to put forward a call for the black working class to mobilize into the streets against the billionaires. Instead, it represents some of the confusion that people have in these times. However, that confusion will clear up once the working class realizes it has two choices – either face endless austerity and oppression from capitalism or a mobilization into the streets to fight for an alternative – a socialist society.

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