How Killer Mike reinvented Thomas More for the 21st century | Cities

The word “utopia” was coined in the early 16th century by Thomas More, writer, philosopher and counsellor to King Henry VIII. His book of the same name fantasised about an island nation home to a society free from Europe’s rule, where wealth was to be redundant and the fruits of the land shared equally by all.

Many have tried to create their own real-world utopias since, from Minnesota Experimental City to Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen. Now comes the latest addition to their ranks: a small city-state called New Africa in the deep south of the US, founded, if that’s the right word, by the activist and rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render and documented in the final episode of his Netflix series Trigger Warning With Killer Mike.

Plan of Thomas More’s Utopia, 1518.

Plan of Thomas More’s Utopia, 1518. Photograph: The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo

After trying to fix America with a series of hypotheses – “Can I spend money solely in the black economy?”, “The Hell’s Angels can sell T-shirts, so why can’t black gangs sell a cola?” – Render concludes the only way he can live in America is by leaving it. He gathers a group of disaffected outcasts from all walks of life – black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Juggalo – and leads his people to farmland on a former plantation on the outskirts of Atlanta.

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Nick Van Mead

There he drafts a declaration of independence, and a constitution built on a guiding principle: “The citizens are [to be] valued more for their individuality than their blind allegiance to some bullshit political ideology.” He even maps out the city’s streets, with space for the town square, the courthouse and the open-air weed farm.

New Africa makes for clever TV, but what is particularly striking about Render’s attempt to secede is how closely the foundations of his utopia mirror More’s. And how quickly – like all utopias – it becomes corrupted. Here’s the utopia playbook in four simple steps:

One: Embrace equality

The society More imagined 500 years ago was communal, with no money or private property. All Utopians would take turns to work the land, with everyone’s needs met by the group’s combined productivity. A Utopian walking its streets would know her worth was exactly equal to everyone else’s.

Render, a Bernie Sanders supporter, likes money and calls himself a compassionate capitalist. Still, at the ground level, the idea of New Africa echoes More’s proto-communist model. The New Africans are self-sufficient, with everyone planting crops and tending livestock for the good of the community. The city-state offers a free, progressive education and no religious strictures. At night people sleep in identical tents provided to them by the city.

Killer Mike with Bernie Sanders and another politician.

Killer Mike with Bernie Sanders and another politician. Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

“Everyone was in New Africa,” says Render over the phone from the Atlanta studio where he’s recording a new album with his group Run the Jewels. “Gay people, straight people, black people, white people. For the days that they were there, they actually cooperated. They argued, they had to solve problems, but bigger than anything – religion, school, ideology – everyone cooperated.”

You can see why Render’s acolytes might want to start anew: 21st-century Atlanta is far from utopian. The city known as the “black mecca” still struggles to shake a Confederate hangover and is still politically divided by race. Recently, some of Atlanta’s utopian thinkers have dreamed of new communities that are segregated by more than just geography: the Cityhood Movement – in which neighbourhoods (usually rich, usually white) have seceded from the Atlanta metro area to create their own tax pool – has been shown to exacerbate racial inequality. One person’s vision of of freedom puts another in a cage.

“You often get this dreaming of a new society in places where racism and white supremacy have created unprecedented levels of segregation,” says Alex Zamalin, professor at the University of Detroit Mercy and the author of Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism.

Seventh Avenue in Harlem, New York City, 1932, just after the Harlem Renaissance.

Seventh Avenue in Harlem, New York City, 1932, just after the Harlem Renaissance. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Zamalin compares Atlanta today to New York in the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance saw radical black creativity sparked partly because of segregation. Render doesn’t describe New Africa as a black utopia – “All life comes from Africa. Because it started there, everyone was welcome,” he says – but he’s following in the tradition of black utopians who saw removing themselves as the only route to improvement.

Two: … but then worship the king

The only named Utopian character in More’s book was King Utopus. Utopus, according to More, conquered the land that would bear his name and brought its “rude, uncouth inhabitants to such a high level of culture and humanity that they now excel in that regard almost every other people”. Utopus even domineered land and sea, instructing his people to cut across the peninsula connecting Utopia to its nearest neighbour, thereby isolating his nation forever. He then dropped – quietly, gracefully, unrealistically – out of the picture.

Render’s separation of New Africa from America is less dramatic, but he holds a powerful sway over his subjects and becomes similarly removed. This is where things start to fall apart. Render is the nation’s head, heart and soul. But New Africa’s success is bound up in his status as a celebrity. His face is on the flag; his subjects make art in his honour. On their nation’s first evening, the citizens gather to tell each other The Story of New Africa, a puppet show starring a sport sock version of Render, and unveil the first item in their nation’s art collection: a giant portrait of the rapper, crowned with a halo of cannabis leaves. Gradually Render becomes something we all recognise: a celebrity leader, venerated for his perceived wealth and power.

You can guess where this is heading. Just as the power of Render’s personality built New Africa, the same thing threatens to tear it apart. From early on in the experiment, Render is frequently absent. After addressing his subjects from the balcony of the plantation house (how’s that for bad optics?), he disappears, leaving the citizens to dig and sweat without him.

Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1970s.

Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1970s. Photograph: Ritzau Scanpix Denmark/Reuters

Instead, he turns to issues that have sunk many a utopia before: security, the economy, and law and order – issues that More, by abolishing money and gifting Utopia a mercenary army, removed. Render, repeating what he knows, builds barbed-wire borders, sells advertising space on New Africa’s flag, and hands responsibility for policing the state to a Black Lives Matter activist who, charged with this sudden jolt of power, takes to bullying his fellow citizens into toeing the line.

“Every single thing that you can point to and say, ‘This is an oppressive institution that coalesces with racism: capitalism, national security, law and order,’ he basically mirrors in this utopia,” says Zamalin. He argues that Render should have known better.

“The western utopians – like Thomas More – were so blinded by the possibility of a new beginning. What’s striking about the black utopian tradition in America is that they were incredibly mindful of those kind of contradictions in a way that the western utopians weren’t, precisely because they’d experienced racial inequality.

“Mike, as a black American, and as someone who is drawing on black American traditions when he’s creating this flag and talking about it being a New Africa, doesn’t fully appreciate the heritage of critical thinking on utopia that comes from black Americans.”

Render’s utopia, says Zamalin, is half-baked. “I wondered what the bold vision would be,” he says. “The bold vision was escape, but everything else remained the same.”

House and garden in Freetown Christiania.

House and garden in Freetown Christiania. Photograph: Bjanka Kadic/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

It is partly a question of a leader holding their nerve, says Rachel Cooper, chair in design at Lancaster University and a contributor to Liveable Cities, a UK engineering project designed to aid research and development of low carbon, resource-efficient communities.

“You have to have a vision and take people along with you,” she says. “Leadership, vision and communication. And some bravery as well.”

She says Render fundamentally lacked the ability to properly connect with his subjects: “Leadership is about being empathetic to the breadth of the community you’re engaging with, having a vision and having them go forward with you. He wasn’t very convincing in that.”

Render agrees. “Building a utopia is difficult,” he says. “It made me a lot more respectful of the processes that hold this thing we call society together.”

Three: Watch as all individuality is crushed

New Africa’s nadir comes at the end of its inaugural dinner, some 18 hours into its time as an independent state. Mario, a back-talking firebrand Render clashes with earlier in the series, composes New Africa’s national anthem and sings it to the nation. The song is a droning repetition of their new homeland’s name. Render, sat on the biggest, comfiest chair at the head of the table, yells at Mario: “I didn’t think someone could make me hate the word ‘Africa’!”

The group take their cue from their leader. They turn on the insurgent, then on each other. Mario’s individuality, the thing that New Africa was supposed to prize, becomes the thing that fractures their community. The state falls into the disrepair its citizens were trying to leave behind.

Render attempts to fix New Africa by calling for a democratic election, which he wins then desecrates by swapping out the votes so the victory goes to a New African with better leadership skills. He is a tyrant to the end.

People protest against the Minnesota Experimental City project, an attempt to create a full-size city from scratch in the isolated woods of northern Minnesota in the 1960s.

People protest against the Minnesota Experimental City project, an attempt to create a full-size city from scratch in the isolated woods of northern Minnesota in the 1960s. Photograph: Unicorn Stencil Doc Films

“Even when we try to do better, we end up repeating the same cycle,” says Render. “You become out of necessity what you think you despise. Did I become a totalitarian leader? Of course I did, but it’s by proxy of, ‘If I’m using my money, then this is going to go my way.’”

(As for Mario, Render now calls him “a hero of the republic, because he asserted his individualism”.)

It takes guts to go it alone, even in a society designed to celebrate your individuality. More, for his part, left little room for free-thinkers in Utopia. He described a process by which those who didn’t agree with the structure of Utopian society were treated to the missionary zeal of those who did. Continued refusal to sign up to the system led to banishment or even slavery. Yes, More’s Utopia, the society that gave its name to our dreams of ideal statehood, was big on slavery.

Four: Claim it was satire all along

There’s a final similarity between More and Render. Historians still debate whether More – a devout Catholic, who refused to refute his faith – wrote his book as a moon-eyed treatise or a satire of 16th-century European excess. Ultimately, his anti-establishment stance saw him arrested, tried for treason and beheaded during the Reformation.

No one’s going to cut Killer Mike’s head off any time soon, but New Africa – like all of Trigger Warning – is also part satire and part idealism.

Unlike More, Render had to at least try to make his ideal society work, if only for long enough to make a Netflix show. His experiment may have been more satire than genuine attempt as a result, but it was born of a genuine impulse: to build a place where today’s polarising political discourse couldn’t suffocate cooperation.

“I’d like to see us go out and help each other,” says Render. “I’d like to see us work together to look after our elderly, our sick and our poor. And I know that can be done, because I grew up in a neighbourhood where people cooperated.

“If we do that as individual households and neighbourhoods and communities, then that, like any gossip, will spread and spread positive intentions. Society turns a corner that way.”

As he ends the show: “As long as everyone had a voice, this country would remain united, which is more than I can say for those partisan fuckboys in the USA.”

Trigger Warning With Killer Mike is on Netflix

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