Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
– 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865)
In 2016 the American documentary “13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay, was released on Netflix. This is the first documentary ever to have opened the New York Film Festival, and it was produced and filmed in secrecy. It represents a heavy condemnation of the continued enforcement of slavery in the United States, focusing on the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration. The documentary takes its title from the 13th amendment to the US constitution, when “slavery was abolished for everyone, except for criminals”, as Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, and author of the book The New Jim Crow, says.
The film was acclaimed by the critics and by the general public for the legitimate protest that it contains, made even more current by the events that in the last years have been shaking the public opinion regarding the unfair treatment of black American citizens by the police.
The beginning of the documentary underlines one big truth: 1 out of 4 human beings in the world are locked up in the so-called land of the free, the United States. The impact of this film was impressive and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Oscars.
But “13th” had also a huge impact in terms of its soundtrack, one of the songs featured in the film is “Reagan” by American rapper Killer Mike. The song was first released as part of the 2012 album “R.A.P. Music”, where the acronym of the word R.A.P. stands for Rebellious African People, which already sets the tone of Killer Mike’s work and advocacy.
Michael Santiago Render, stage name Killer Mike, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1975, and has been an activist since his teenage years. Following the steps of his father and grandfather, respectively a union steward and a union member, and his grandmother, who marched with Martin Luther King in the name of civil rights, he fights for the rights of marginalized groups “as a world citizen, as an American citizen and definitely as a black man.”
The song begins with the registration of 40th US president Ronald Reagan, that during the second half of the 1980s was involved in the so-called Irangate, the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration sold arms to Iran, who was fighting against Iraq, in exchange for its influence in releasing American hostages held in Lebanon, and the profits of the trade financed the militant group Contras in Nicaragua.
Killer Mike uses the character, Reagan, to shout out against both the government and the rap industry corruption, “Ronald Reagan was an actor. He was a pitchman at first, and so people naturally trust him. He understood how to weave magic when he was speaking, and that’s what we as entertainers do. So when Jay-Z tells you to buy some Reeboks, it means more. Ronald Reagan at one point was the biggest pitchman in the world. I think that Reagan was used by a political party, by people who had vested means, to push their own agendas. He had his own agendas, and I think that no rapper had ever said, ‘I’ve been guilty of this. I have hurt my community as a rapper.'” He uses the personality as a way to open people’s eyes in front of a reality that is not always easy to accept, as it’s underlined in the lyrics of the song “Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters”.
One of the issues contained in the song concerns the war on drugs in the US that has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups (“They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror/But it really did was let the police terrorize whoever”), targeting African Americans and Latinos, because of their association with urban and lower-income communities, and therefore most likely to become drug addicts. Killer Mike complains about the abuse of the criminal justice system towards marginalised communities on the basis of racial discrimination (“But mostly black boys, but they would call us “niggers”/And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers”).
Overall “Reagan” depicts a cruel but sadly honest picture of the reality of today, and the author’s intent is to point out a social issue rather than a political one, as he pointed out in an interview to National Public Radio (NPR).
Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands. That no-concessions policy remains in force, despite the wildly speculative and false stories about arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we
The ballot or the bullet, some freedom or some bullshit
Will we ever do it big, or keep just settling for little shit
We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers
We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres
If none of us on acres, and none of us grow wheat
Then who will feed our people when our people need to eat
So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding
Cause all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing
And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions
We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting
Hella children deaf and pretending it’s exciting
We are advertisements for agony and pain
We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang
We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game
Just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine
In the 80s when the bricks came on military planes
A few months ago I told the american people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not
The end of the Reagan Era, I’m like number twelver
Old enough to understand the shit’ll change forever
They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror
But it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly black boys, but they would call us “niggers”
And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and money, as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policing for some profit
But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they giving drug offenders time in double digits
Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor
Just an employee of the country’s real masters
Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama
Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters
If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic
Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi
We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil
Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby
Same as in Iraq, and Afghanistan
And Ahmadinejad say they coming for Iran
They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor
If I say any more they might be at my door
Who the fuck is that staring in my window
Doing that surveillance on Mister Michael Render
I’m dropping off the grid before they pump the lead
I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead