Run the Jewels rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render had a lot to say this week about free speech, and he did it in a keynote address during a gala in New York.
“I need us here to know tonight that there is no grand final winning of freedom of speech. There’s no end of the race where we all hold up trophies. It is a constant and protracted struggle to make sure the rights to become a more perfect union are always striven for,” he said.
The social-justice advocate, who is the founder of Grind Time Official Records, encouraged the attendees of Tuesday’s 2023 Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) Gala to “vehemently advocate” for those they don’t agree with, quoting the likes of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, linguist Noam Chomsky and his own mother, grandfather and ninth-grade civics teacher throughout the impassioned address. He told the audience not to think about free speech from a selfish perspective, but from one that would allow for listening to an opposing point of view.
“If we allow ourselves to express to one another our deepest and sometimes our darkest thinkings, we will eventually hear one another,” the 48-year-old said. “Burn off the fat of prejudice, of racial injustice, of misogyny, of phobias, and we will get to a place where we make a better, a more perfect union.
“But that never happens if we’re not allowed to speak, because if not allowed to speak we will not be allowed to hear one another.”
Killer Mike said he was giving the keynote address for FIRE — an organization that defends fundamental rights on college campuses and has recently broadened its mission to off-campus free-speech advocacy and legal defense — because he believes in America. But he had plenty of notes for the nation too, highlighting that it is a republic founded by people who no longer wanted to live under a monarchy and whose first priority in the Bill of Rights was to ensure freedom of speech. Today, he observed, that’s not always the case.
“Right now, in this country, your freedom of speech is at risk,” he said, repeating the refrain, “the government has no right to limit your freedom of speech, your freedom of religion, your freedom to assemble.”
The Bernie Sanders supporter and MIT race lecturer delivered his speech as the nation remains starkly divided about the meaning and limits of freedom of speech. Killer Mike, who wrote the foreword to “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” argued that when laws are enacted to use government as a political force to quell dissent, “the first and worst cases are Black people.”
He called for the release of Atlanta rapper Young Thug and others whose music and lyrics have been used against them in court, notably describing how he saw a young lawyer “clumsily recite” Thug’s lyrics in court and then attempt to argue that lyrics the rapper “made up while stoned and high” should get him imprisoned for up to 40 years.
Repeatedly getting personal throughout the speech, Killer Mike called back to his own childhood and said his illiterate grandfather still understood that the U.S. Constitution afforded him inalienable rights. And his grandfather explained that people whose speech was free to the point of overt racism let a person know “who your enemies are when you walk into a room.”
“That helped put me on a pathway to understanding why simply because I didn’t like [what someone said] was not not enough to shut people up. Simply because it made me uncomfortable was not enough to shut people up. And it was always wrong to use government [to shut people up],” he said.
His ninth-grade civics teacher, Mrs. Ellison, who had flunked his mom and ran her class like a totalitarian despot, also taught him the value of freedom of speech, he said. She might have been “a dictator,” but he knew that anybody who completed her class had such an appreciation for the Bill of Rights that they would never be quiet while the rights of others were taken.
“Her firm hand made me understand that even in the bowels of slavery, Dred Scott understood that freedom of speech was a necessity,” he said. Scott and other abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Douglass, he argued, knew that free speech “was a right that we were not given by a government.”
“We were given [it] by the Creator that put us here as human beings,” Mike said, “and the government simply recognized what God had already done.”
He also warned about “the good guys “ — allies and activists — getting too comfortable and empowered by government, media or propaganda.
“A lot of people support free speech until it becomes offensive,” the rapper said, explaining that as a 12-year-old he believed in free speech until he heard someone use the N-word. Then his grandfather helped him understand that free speech goes across the board. “It doesn’t end because your feelings are hurt.”
Killer Mike tasked those in attendance to find a local case to advocate for, even involving organizations they typically might not support.
“It’s up to us as individuals to do our little bit so that no one person has to do a lot and get shot,” he said. “It is up to us to do a little bit to make sure that even those we disagree with have the opportunity to express freely, that we may engage in dialogue that will push this country into a truly more perfect union.
“That means we ain’t perfect yet.”
Killer Mike’s full speech, which contains offensive language and profanity, can be seen below.