Michael Render (AKA Killer Mike) is an old and dedicated hand in the rap music business who earned his stage name early on because of how he killed it on the mic. In recent years Killer Mike hit it big by first pairing up with producer/rapper El-P to create Run The Jewels and then inviting Bernie Sanders into a barbershop he owns and runs for a long and in-depth political discussion. Killer Mike had never balked at getting political in his music and getting involved in political activism in his personal life but the discussion with Bernie Sanders was instantly an achievement all on its own level. At the height of the battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, right as Killer Mike’s own career as a rapper approached a zenith, Killer Mike held an interview with the underdog of the hour right in the dazzling red seats of his Atlanta barbershop called The Shave, Wash, and Groom (SWAG) Shop.
It was an incredible success. Killer Mike went in-depth with Bernie Sanders in a way TV interviews had failed to and created an environment that felt natural and smooth. By the end of the interview Killer Mike had septuagenarian Bernie Sanders bumping fists like it was part of his generation. At the same time Killer Mike got to highlight his barber shop as both a business and a tool with serious social leverage. Looking out on the street, clean but with a bit of racket, the barber shop setting showed genuine and deep life that was more interesting than the sanitized appearance of an interview or news media set. Killer Mike had subtly showcased the charm of wealth – business and property ownership – over the charm of income.
For most people the word wealth means how much a person makes, but it is closer to meaning how much a person owns. Income is what a person makes – things like salary for a worker, rent for a landlord, or a pension for the retired – where wealth means assets – things like the value of a house or car or business someone owns – minus any debt. In economic terms wealth is incredibly important but for most Americans wealth never escapes the shadow of income. Killer Mike works to pull wealth inequality out of the shadow using the unlikely avenue of a barbershop franchise.
In terms of American politics this focus on wealth is incredibly rare because we can intuit income inequality (the difference between a 25,000 and 50,000 dollar salary) but not so much wealth inequality (the difference between a house worth 50,000 compared to one worth 100,000). Even if it goes unnoticed the wealth of a family can mean plenty. Consider a family where the breadwinner loses their job and does not have much saved in the bank. With moderate wealth the family has a nice car they can trade it in for a clunker to pay bills but stay mobile; if things get dire they have a decent house they could sell it to drop the mortgage, get quick cash and breathing room; there may be some investments and retirement funds to pull from too. With little wealth the family may have a house and car but neither will sell quickly or for very much so if the breadwinner loses a job the family can’t last long selling things off, will not stay as mobile, and may still have to pay a mortgage. A family with no wealth does not own a house or a car so when income gets slashed they are on their feet and on the street outright. Then there are loans to consider. The moderate household might get a nice low-interest loan in a time of need, but the light and no wealth families will have less luck with banks (multiple studies corroborate this) and may have to pull from high-interest quick cash and credit services. If the family doesn’t pay on time their credit rating tanks and it becomes even harder to buy a home or car if their income recovers. Wealth can make an incredible bulwark against an empty wallet because it gives much more to fall back on.
What is even more crucial – especially for Killer Mike who focuses on big issues facing African Americans – is that the wealth gap between Black and White Americans is miles wider than the income gap. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average Black man working a full-time job makes 78.5 percent of what the average white man working a full-time job makes. According to the Pew Research Center the average White person has nearly 13 times the wealth of the average Black person. The wealth gap is not just a bigger chasm but a chasm that is not closing. Black and White incomes have begun to converge but Black and White wealth has begun to drift even further apart. The reasons for the huge wealth gap and its widening are myriad and complex, but Killer Mike highlights the lack of loans going out into African American businesses. As a Black business owner he saw firsthand how difficult it was to get a loan from a major bank and encouraged people to protest the policy by moving deposits from big banks into smaller, minority owned ones who tend to lend where big banks won’t. The campaign he led moved near one million dollars.
By talking barbershops and banks Killer mike has tapped into big economic issues that often go unnoticed. Income inequality has its champions but wealth inequality – especially along racial lines – does not. Killer Mike and his SWAG Shop business might be that champion because he shows and tells what wealth can do. He shows it by hosting interviews with political figures like Bernie Sanders and panels for CNN; he tells it by explaining the social impact of the barbershop and how it can be a place for Black youth to find mentors and how his opening it meant pushing away drug dealers and hustlers. Through his barbershops Killer Mike makes it clear wealth can shore up families but it can also reshape communities and make even a musician’s voice that much louder.