Oftentimes, the most obvious question is the best one to ask. That’s the approach rapper and activist Michael “Killer Mike” Render takes in his new Netflix docuseries, “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.”
As one half of the popular rap duo Run the Jewels, Render has leveraged his celebrity to raise awareness about issues important to him. He campaigned for Bernie Sanders, advocated for criminal justice reform, has been outspoken about police brutality and over-militarization, and even ran for the Georgia house of representatives in 2015.
In “Trigger Warning,” Render tackles a variety of weighty social issues affecting the African-American community — including economics, education, drugs, poverty and religion — first by asking why things are the way they are, then offering a potential solution. Those solutions are often presented as stunts that point to the absurdity and injustice inherent in each issue.
In the debut episode, titled “Living Black,” Mike attempts to live exclusively within the black economy by spending his money at black-owned businesses and using products produced by black-owned companies. That includes swapping his car for a bicycle and trading in his iPhone for a smartphone produced by a black company and operating on a black-owned cellular carrier.
Mike’s experience living black gets more complicated when he travels from his hometown of Atlanta to the decidedly less black city of Athens, Georgia, for a show. Unable to find a black-owned hotel, he spends the night on a park bench. The following day, his relief at finally locating a black-owned restaurant is cut short when he learns the owner doesn’t buy his products from black purveyors.
The experiment lays bare the ways in which capitalism has left black people behind. It’s an extreme example that, nonetheless, compels you to ponder the economic conditions that have led to such a dearth in black entrepreneurship.
The third episode and standout of the series so far, “White Gang Privilege,” looks at the cultural double standard of glorifying white gangs, while black ones are vilified. After Render discovers the Hell’s Angels created a corporation to license apparel, which is for sale on Amazon, he teams up with Atlanta-area Crips and Bloods to launch their own lines of products.
The result is a pair of soft drinks called Crip-a-Cola and Blood Pop. Yet, despite creating a professional brand and quality product, businesses refuse to sell the products when they learn they’re affiliated with the gangs.
Similarly, a focus group for the sodas quickly goes off the rails when participants discover they’re made by gang members. Render intervenes, first to chide the group for their implicit — and in one case explicit — biases, before bringing in several crips who attempt to explain people’s misconceptions about them.
It’s moments like this where Render demonstrates his skill at bringing people of differing worldviews together to find common ground. Despite his strong opinions, he’s a generous listener who wants to hear and understand the perspectives of others. All that he asks in return is that others give him the same courtesy.
While some white viewers may, indeed, be triggered by Render’s strident and, at times, radical ideas, they should resist the urge to back away. He is a deep thinker who doesn’t mince words. Such frank honesty is in short supply these days.
Yes, some of his solutions are wild, bordering on shocking. For example, his idea to teach trades like plumbing and locksmithing to unemployed adults via instructional pornographic videos might be offensive to some. So, too, might his plan to start a new religion to replace Christianity, which he views as a tool of white oppression. However, in both cases he arrives at these absurd conclusions after revealing some very real flaws in status-quo thinking.
Render isn’t looking for band-aid solutions, but he’s also not deluded enough to think he’s going to save the world with a 30-minute TV show. Rather, he’s interested in asking difficult questions, engaging in honest discourse, and working with others to do the hard work required to make incremental yet meaningful change. Along the way, he has created an entertaining and enlightening piece of television that attempts to start that conversation.