Killer Mike’s ‘Trigger Warning’ Offers A Constructive Approach to Social Justice
Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike and one half of the American hip hop duo Run the Jewels, has a show in Athens, Georgia in three days.
In the meantime, he’s committed himself to an experiment as he does in each episode of his new Netflix series ‘Trigger Warning’, which tackles a range of matters pertinent to African-Americans. His mission in the series premiere is to buy only from black-owned businesses meant to raise awareness around how commerce flowing within the black community is significantly lower than that of other racial groups. Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather who lived through the segregation era that all but enforced the existence of a prosperous black economy, he manages to get connected to a smartphone made by a black-owned company and finds a black-owned barbershop fairly easily. But he struggles to find even a few black-owned restaurants, black-owned farms and is particularly crestfallen over the unavailability of black-grown weed. Ultimately, Render endures the harrowing 60 hours, makes it to his show in Athens, relays his experience to a packed house, and challenges them to live beyond woke slogans by patronizing local black businesses and to seek out relationships with “people who don’t look like you.” Though the series applies a rather uninventive reality show template that will be very familiar to viewers, it’s nevertheless part a provocative, radically inclusive, and absurdly hilarious series that is more constructive than any conversation happening about race within the digital-infotainment culture, including much of the political commentariat.
Recently, Render has become a lightning rod among orthodox progressives for not towing the ideological line, specifically on firearms and free expression. In a much-publicized interview with Colion Noir of the National Rifle Association last year, Render says that he gets flak from primarily two groups: his liberal white coastal friends or his “very woke black friends.” He faces dissent from the former because of his staunch pro-gun stance he justifies as a counter to the tyranny of a militarized police and historically oppressive government. He faces pushback from the latter over his apathy over interfering with the First Amendment rights of white racists. Render’s heterodoxy, is part of what makes Render, who endorsed and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, interesting.
In the series, Render has no problem calling out what he sees as white privilege or striking a separatist tone and citing the darker chapters of American history for perspective. Render already sets himself apart as among the music industry’s most politically active figures, but further distinguishes himself as a gifted communicator who broadly earns credibility by understanding that enhancing race relations requires collaboration not retribution, genuine not performative empathy, and the relegation of politics to the other things that make life fulfilling: community, faith, and business.
The overarching theme of Trigger Warning is a skepticism of authority which is what in essence delegates social integration, advocacy of black businesses, and the self-sufficiency of black Americans to the community on a more intimate and local level.
This is evident in the episode “White Gang Privilege”. Render posits that Americans have an affinity for outlaws whether it be Scarface, The Sons of Anarchy, or The Hells Angels, the notorious white American motorcycle gang. He notices the bikers, by incorporating themselves, legitimize their brand to the point that the gang is known for suing companies who use their insignia without permission. Render sees a double standard and asks why the Crips, one of America’s largest black gangs, can’t similarly rebrand themselves as an enterprise and enjoy a similarly higher status. With Render’s guidance, four Crips wind up concocting their own soda, Crip-a-Cola, disrupting the prejudices that imply that black youth lack initiative. The Crips even collaborate with their bitter rivals, the Bloods (who develop their Blood Pop soda) in selling their respective colas at a farmers market to demonstrate in front of an initially reluctant public that perceptions are merely perceptions and that coexistence doesn’t have to result in murder.
In another episode, Render asks how music can help bridge political, cultural and generational divides. In the first part of the episode, Render seeks common ground at a predominantly white retirement community where he performs atop the harmony of a barbershop quartet in front of a surprisingly receptive room. Later, he recruits a black feminist, Albino Black Lives Matter activist, a white nationalist, a Jewish Renaissance enthusiast, and a Jugalo among others to form a musical supergroup who will each perform a personalized, self-written verse live.
“I would like you to be who you are at your core,” Render tells them. “I want you to be brave in expressing your own voice. Balls to the wall, put your nuts on the table.”
What transpires is the amusing and awkward drama one might expect from a clashing of rich character. The episode ends with the group’s live debut when the white nationalist, whose verse in the song comes last and concludes by referring to himself as a “white n — — r” draws a deafening silence from the crowd. That a show predominantly involving black Americans nakedly including someone who says “the right side lost the Civil War” without disparaging him read as a resignation of sorts to the life fact that such people are real but whose existence pales in comparison to the issues the show seeks to tackle.
The skepticism of authority weaves through the rest of the series including in an episode where Render, who refuses to worship a prophet who does not look like him, rejects white Jesus and establishes the Church of Sleep, grounded in the idea that people are more spiritually connected and empathetic when they are well-rested. Render establishes the Church out of a local black strip club with his friend, Sleepy, chosen to be the holy savior. In another episode, Render challenges a public school to adopt a vocational curriculum. When the school declines, he takes the idea to adults off the street who suggest he incorporate entertainment into the video lesson. Naturally, he produces an instructional porno with six racially and sexually diverse adult actors who demonstrate a variety of in-home repairs while engaged in multiple acts.
What hinders the reality series, if anything, is the contrived feel of some scenes and dialogue, one example being when Render gets into a spat with a focus group member over the racial prejudice behind the reluctance to buy Crip-a-Cola. Staging interactions in a reality show about race versus, say, a home renovation plausibly runs the risk of reinforcing its own set of stereotypes. Then again, all reality television requires a dash of fiction to move the plot forward and, in the case of Crip-a-Cola, demonstrate how those prejudices dehumanize others. In another sense, even if the entire series were entirely fabricated, it sets a vastly better example than the national news media as both an accurate depiction of real life interactions and how we can perceive and treat our equals.
Trigger Warning all but raises the bar for dialogue by excavating it from the ground where the national news media keep reburying it. Specifically, Render is a realist, not a utopian. He shows that diversity is highly desirable, but it isn’t a gleaming rainbow. Diversity is messy, contentious and frustrating. It requires a disciplined amount of cross-tribal, in-person empathy, cooperation, and trust. The series victimizes nobody and does more to constructively pursue social egalitarianism than the young, white and self-described “radically empathetic”.
After dropping a few verses from Run the Jewels’ “Lie, Cheat, Steal” in front of a group of elders noticing that all of them can’t quite follow the message, Render breaks it down. “Often times, even though we tell our children to be moral, and to be good, and to not cheat and things like that, the people we support are liars, cheaters, and villains and killers. And I think we as a constituency can do a better job of questioning authority.”
Today, there is no shortage of influential figures in elite spaces waving blueprints for a moral society while doing little to build it. Social and news media, driven by the vice of virtue-signaling, reward vile behavior so long as it is directed at a particular tribe. For anyone thinking about race or politics, Render provides an escape from the alien digital environment and a respite in reality. Trigger Warning is a trite but no less valuable reminder that, upon interaction, people often have more in common than what our information gatekeepers would have the public believe.