In Killer Mike’s “Reagan” (video d. Garcia and Teitelman, 2012) we encounter a range of political commentary uncommon in Southern hip-hop. Mike, a major figure in the Atlanta scene, creates music that envisions the South as a site of renewed critique and politics. The song “Reagan,” produced with Mike’s current musical partner, El-P, is founded on the call-and-response structure (or antiphony) common to so many musics of Africa and the African diaspora. Here, antiphony occurs between Mike and Ronald Reagan—or, rather, between opposing, but imbricated, ideologies.
At first, the focus on Ronald Reagan seems anachronistic, yet Mike posits the former president as an ideology instead of a scrutable human being. We learn that this ideology may also properly be called Bush, Clinton, or Obama—the latter ultimately confounding facile understandings of race as unifying political ground. The video carries such apostatic thinking even further by intermittently depicting Reagan with black chromaticism and a “puppet” Obama as white. In keeping with this refusal of dogmas, the song goes on to challenge hip-hop materialism—lamenting the lack of control of means of production in black communities—while also lambasting black popular culture’s emphases on gangs, drugs, and consumption (“advertisements for agony and pain”). Killer Mike thus appraises black agency (including his own) in the plight of black communities, but similarly targets larger issues like structural anti-black racism. For example, the graphic disparity between the crimes of the military-industrial complex and those of small-time drug dealers is laid bare; white wealth and power serve as inoculations against justice, whereas blackness virtually guarantees brutality at the hands of the power structure. As the song reveals Reagan’s duplicity through his own words, it rages against contemporary slavery in the form of the prison-industrial complex. Reagan-as-ideology is of a piece with Ferguson.
“Reagan” is both a radical refusal and an alternative historical discursus in the form of a hip-hop song. As the video ends with a hyperviolent cyborg Reagan rampaging through America, Mike spits his last line: “I’m glad Reagan dead.” But, while Reagan the man is dead, his ideological legacy is very much alive.