Rippin’ On Reagan

The rapper Killer Mike recently released an album, R.A.P. Music, containing a song entitled “Reagan,” that attacks the former president (as well as his successors).  For an extended discussion of Reagan’s political and economic impacts, Paul Krugman is probably a good place to start, but Paul has not yet recorded any songs to compare to Killer Mike’s (here’s hoping).  Until he does, Gil Scott-Heron’s 1981 release “B-Movie,” a 12 minute attack on Reagan, his cronies, their policies, and the attitudes of the American people, remains the quintessential musical hit on Reagan.

“B- Movie” can be divided into two parts, the first of which is spoken by Gil over a simple bass vamp.  Gil comes out fighting with the words “Mandate, my ass.”  In short order, he goes after Reagan’s voting numbers and acting career, the nation’s dependence on Wall St. — “As Wall St. goes, so goes the nation” — and Republican economic policies, which he refers to as “Voodoo economics,” which isn’t so far from Krugman’s “confidence fairy.”  But the core of his argument focuses on the desires of Americans.  Gil says:

“This country wants nostalgia.  They [voters] want to go back as far as they can. . .

the day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse. . .

someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in B movies.

And when American found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne.

But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan.”


Gil’s commentary often attempts to point out people’s complicity in their own problems, cutting off the frequent temptation to throw up your hands and say there’s nothing you can do about a large, macro-level issue.  And as is often the case with Gil’s theories and warnings, they remain poignant today, as Obama and his opponents both attempt to portray themselves as a worthy successor of the man Gil half-jokingly saw as a poor man’s John Wayne.


In the 2nd part of “B-Movie,” Gil kicks up the funk a notch, incorporating horns that climb up and skip down.  He begins to sing, repeating the same lines over and over for about three minutes:  “This ain’t really your life life/ ain’t really your life/ ain’t really nothing but a movie.”  The groove is catchy and dangerously hypnotic, making it easy to start believing the words it supports.  Gil provides an escapist fantasy just like the one he criticized earlier in the spoken word portion.  In a country with horrifically low voter turnout and stark inequality in income and access to political power, Gil shows how easy it is to become complacent, to run on an easy groove indefinitely even if it has no relation to reality – or perhaps for that very reason.


Like Gil, Killer Mike comes out with guns blazing, but he keeps his song to four minutes of potent invective. He also attacks Reagan for his economics, his war on drugs, and his institutionalism of other racist policies, but he doesn’t stop his critique with Reagan, going on to invoke others: “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor/ Just an employee of the country’s real masters/ Just like the Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas.”


“Reagan” begins with dark piano chords and picks up speed and power as it goes; unlike Gil’s instrumentation, which is mellow, the beat behind Killer Mike mirrors his frustration and urgency.  Following in Gil’s footsteps, Killer Mike also goes after his – and rap music’s – complicity in the current situation:

            “So it seems our people starve from a 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 the bullshit we inciting

Hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting”


But at the end of “Reagan,” Killer Mike cops out.  He finishes with four words, “I’m glad Reagan dead,” words which miss the very point that he rammed home earlier in the song.  Reagan’s death is immaterial; Killer Mike said so himself when he noted that the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama are also exacerbating, or at the very least failing to address, many of the same problems that Reagan embedded in America’s political system. Reagan’s ideas and his message live on, part of the political consciousness of all Americans.  Until those ideas are somehow rooted out, it is unlikely that much in the country will change.

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