Southern Reconstruction: On Killer Mike’s ‘Reagan’

Curator's Note

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.


It was very interesting to see Killer Mike featured (though briefly) last night in the timely VH-1 doc chronicling Atlanta's rise in hip hop. The documentary raised many of the issues that we are trying to address this week, issues which Charles 'Chip' has framed powerfully here. Mike, like David Banner from Mississippi, gives voice to a powerful populist hip hop lyrical style, one that is interested in the lives and conditions of 'everyday people' (via Sly and Speech), has a command of cultural vernacular, and a grasp of the larger apparatuses--cultural, social, political, and economic that grip both the South and the nation. These Southern artists also infuse their lyrics with distinctive discursive critiques of black communities as socio-political entities and of the histories of Southern racial and social relations. Mike, David, and 'Speech' of Arrested Development "reconstruct" a black populist narrative, one that challenges their contemporaries (in the South and in the North) to acknowledge the full range and of experiences of black people and of people interpolated by their call. Their discourses are local, but simultaneously drive listeners away from hip hop's impulse to maintain a kind of regional provincialism. Instead, they are pushing it and us towards a more malleable art form, one that can speak with truth and resonance in both an intimate and a global context.

David Banner is an interesting one because he's political but at multiple times (in the past) has tried to distance himself claiming he's only an entertainer. His game has stepped up significantly in the last few years. I've never heard or seen Killer Mike grapple with that line. P.S. Found ATL:Rise to be an amazing doc but really wanted to see some more women folk. And Baby-D. LOL

Killer Mike is so slept on. . .and that is what makes him a problem. Like Michele said, his presence on the ATL: Rise documentary on VH1 was brief but powerful. He did an interview with Joycelyn Wilson on the Hip Hop Imagination and his rendition of Reagan is particularly poignant in redistributing ideas of politics and agency in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. I think the use of animation here is also a great tool of blurred lines of reality and the imaginary, especially surrounding Reagan. I think it doubly serves as a signifier on the inability to pinpoint the South as a concrete space and its existence on multiple levels of existence.

Exactly. The "reconstruction" is, of course, an ongoing project, but I think that hip hop is uniquely qualified to engage such a project, especially with its populist tendencies overall. This is not to say that other musical genres cannot do this, but, I think hop hop's simultaneously local and global reach is special. Certainly, hip-hop does not have to be political, and the entertainment value is quite important, yet when the two aspects are combined, something magical can happen. This is where hip-hop has the power to be, as Chuck D famously said, the "CNN of the streets." (Disclaimer: CNN was much more relevant when he said that, although Killer Mike has been blowing them up lately. I think I hyperlinked one of Mike's recent CNN appearances in my post.)

This video has a feel of a hip hop Persepolis. Not simply because of the use of animation but parallels with coming of age during a revolution. In this instance the post-industrial reality of Reganomics. I remember Mike from his open mic days and his reputation of lyrically 'Killin' other emcees. It is not just his lyrical depth but the weight of his critique and passion that makes him, to quote Regina, 'a problem'. Richard Wright could have easily been talking about Killer Mike, the self described 'Pan Africanist gangsta rapper' when he says our history is far stranger than you suspect and we are not what we seem. Chip there is an interesting piece on urban daily about Killer Mike and his op-ed in Billboard regarding Ferguson.

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