Even if Bernie Sanders somehow managed to beat Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire—a fate that is still not outside the realm of possibility heading into December—he will have a brick wall waiting for him in South Carolina.
According to an average of recent polling from that state, Clinton leads Sanders by nearly 50 points. And a large part of that lead is due to the Vermont senator’s lack of both familiarity and favorability with African-American voters. After #BlackLivesMatters protesters interrupted his stump speech over the summer, Sanders felt the unforgiving wrath of Black Twitter, which pressed him to start taking them more seriously.
But three months later, in a CNN/ORC poll, still Sanders trailed Clinton by a whopping 55 points among black voters, while at the same time leading her by 13 points among white voters (with the inclusion of Vice President Joe Biden).
All of this explains why Sanders is so thrilled about one of his latest outspoken supporters: Atlanta rapper Killer Mike.
Killer Mike first endorsed Sanders back in June, but on Monday, he made it official by introducing the candidate at a rally at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Leading up to the event, he urged his followers on Twitter to give the candidate a shot, saying things like, “It will be a disappointment if I'm the only Rapper at #BernieSanders Rally In ATL tomorrow” and “He is addressing Unions, Ending the drug war, prison Reform all things that our communities need addressed.”
Anyone who questioned his conviction was left with no doubts after the rapper delivered his powerful speech introducing Sanders, even comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at one point.
But after referencing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Killer Mike clarified, “I’m not here to talk about the dream that you think is unattainable so you settle for less. I’m not here to talk about utopian society where everyone is forgiven and no one has to pay for past debts.”
“What I am talking about today is Martin King post the Washington march,” he continued. “Martin King on the war on poverty. Martin King against the war machine that uses your sons and your nephews to go to other lands and murder.”
With these words, he was casting Sanders as more than an idealistic dreamer. In Killer Mike’s view, it is the candidate’s unyielding conviction that is needed to make real change happen.
“I have to tell you that in my heart of hearts, in my heart of hearts, I fully believe that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country,” Killer Mike declared to cheers from the crowd. “I believe it because he, unlike any other candidate, said, ‘I would like to restore the Voting Rights Act.’ He, unlike any other candidate, said, ‘I wish to end this illegal war on drugs.’ Unlike any other candidate in my life, he said that education should be free.”
“Stay encouraged. Stay invigorated. Stay bold. Stay confronting bullshit at every turn!” the fired-up rapper added, before quoting lyrics from his own “Untitled” track.
“I don’t trust the church or the government. A Democrat or a Republican. A Pope or a bishop or them other men,” he rhymed. “But after spending five hours tonight with someone who has spent the last 50 years radically fighting for your rights and mine, I can tell you that I am very proud tonight to announce the next president of the United States: Sen. Bernie Sanders.”
In his quest to court black voters, Sanders has appeared in Ebony magazine, had a televised “Soul Food Sit-Down” with Larry Wilmore and uttered the words “black lives matter” during a Democratic presidential primary debate.
But if Sanders’s fate with black voters is going to change, it could be Killer Mike’s endorsement that sets things in motion.
Born Michael Render, Killer Mike has made a powerful impact on both hip-hop and politics dating back to his work in the early 2000s with OutKast, through his more recent collaboration with El-P as Run the Jewels. During the aftermath of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, he was a regular presence on cable news and late night, speaking out against police brutality.
On the night that a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for killing Brown, Run the Jewels just happened to be performing in St. Louis. “Tonight I got kicked on my ass, when I listened to that prosecutor. You motherfuckers got me today,” an emotional Killer Mike said at the top of the show. “I have a 20-year-old son. I have a 12-year-old son. And I’m so afraid for them.”
Killer Mike was also a prominent voice following the racist church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, when he used his Twitter account to rage against the shooter and argue that the parishioners “should have been armed.” To one critic of that stance, he shot back, “I will NEVER be pro gun control. [As long] as blacks can be killed by the state and terrorist.”
While these comments could put him in line with Sanders when it comes to the gun issue, they could serve to further alienate the candidate from progressives who feel the Vermont senator has not been aggressive enough in opposition to the NRA.
But for now, Sanders is taking all the love he can get from Killer Mike, who joined the candidate for a fried chicken lunch at the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta before Monday’s rally. They may look like an odd couple, but the rapper could be just what Sanders needs to get over one of the many hurdles between him and the presidency.