Mike Muse has launched the “Reverse the Mic” initiative to give artists and entertainers the chance to dial in on single-issue voting and ask important questions about how they can vote to end police brutality in their cities.
Muse, co-founder of Muse Recordings, political commentator and host of SiriusXM’s The Mike Muse Show and co-host of the satellite network’s Sway in the Morning, has long kept his focus on the intersection of hip-hop and politics. Now, with his #VoteQuadrant initiative, he’s opening up even more avenues for rappers to see something, say something and get involved at the local level to produce lasting change.
“I started Vote Quadrant in response to us learning about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery because I was frustrated like all Americans, but especially Black Americans, so I began to write a piece and in doing that I wanted to not just write to write, but to find a solution because I couldn’t handle just another hashtag that lasts a couple of days and then we move on,” Muse tells Billboard about how the February 23 killing of Arbery — who was fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, by two men who were not charged for more than two months — flipped a switch for him.
Frustrated as well by the string of police officers who have killed Black men and women while evading charges or jail time, Muse says the only answer he could come up with to create accountability was to effect change in the criminal justice system by drilling down to the most basic level and encouraging strategic voting for four municipal offices: mayor, district attorney, police chief and judges.
“Those are the offices we need to focus on, because for too long we’ve been telling people to vote, but we’re not capturing the energy out there in the streets if we tell people to vote for their Senator to end police brutality, because your Senator can’t convene a grand jury, your governor can’t oversee a trial,” he says.
Equally frustrated at seeing political discourse too often led by high-priced attorneys and political professionals, Muse decided to lean into the world he knows best and launch a series of frank conversations with people whose voices are not often heard in conversations about pushing for systemic change.
“This is why we got into the position we have, we’ve left the voices out of the room who felt like they couldn’t speak on politics, whose voices haven’t been allowed to be heard, so I thought it was important to reverse the mic, and metaphorically turn it over and have them ask me questions,” he says of his series of recent and upcoming Instagram chats with underground and rising rappers including Guapdad 4000, 600Breezy, GrayRizzy, Mulatto and Yella Beezy.
“The ‘Reverse the Mic’ interview style is something new for me and really challenges the traditional interviewee to be truthful and forthcoming about all ignorances and curiosities,” Guap says about his experience chatting with Muse about how the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by police influenced him to use his platform to amplify Black Lives Matter and speak out against police brutality.
“I’ve always felt real minuscule in terms of my vote, my presence in politics my ability to make change, back then I was feeling real lesser,” he told Muse in their conversation, describing how the protests over the killing of Grant, 22, by a BART Police officer in Oakland and the subsequent manslaughter conviction against the cop made the “First Things First” MC realize that speaking out can make a difference.
Muse says he’s specifically focused on speaking to artists who don’t typically perform at major corporate events or on behalf of well-known candidates for office because they tend to have their ear to the ground in their neighborhoods and cities and big followings among people who feel marginalized and left out of the conversation.
“There was this incredible moment with 600Breezy, who has a complicated history with the criminal justice system — he’s had two prison terms — and he wanted to focus on that second term where he went in for a parole violation,” says Muse of the Chicago rapper, who was released in 2018 from Iowa Dept. of Corrections custody feeling confused about why he’d ended up there. “He felt like the DA didn’t have to try him the way she did, with the full strength of sentencing and I asked him how he felt about that and he said he was frustrated and railroaded, but he also didn’t realize that a DA was elected.”
Once Muse explained that you vote for the District Attorney, he says Breezy “lit up” and went off, vowing to do everything he could to make sure officials like that would be voted out of office in the future. “He hasn’t been able to vote because he’s been a convicted felon, but he never thought about it,” Muse says. “What it showed him was the power of the Four Quadrants… that made it all worth it for me, to make him realize the power of a vote to change things, then my job here is done.”
To be clear, Muse says he’s not throwing shade at A-list hip-hop artists who advocate for changes to the system of policing in the U.S. and whose followers may already be on board with the message of ending police brutality. Rather, he says he’s trying to reach an “untapped market” of people who need to be informed by suggesting that artists think about a key series of questions, including: Why is it important that officers patrolling a certain neighborhood be of that neighborhood? How can we assess if our Mayor values Black bodies and will appoint a police chief who does the same? What kind of power does a DA hold in terms of negotiating plea agreements? How much power does a judge hold in comparison to a jury?
As an example, he noted the case of Meek Mill, who spent 12 years in the judicial maw over an arrest on gun and drug charges when he was 19. Much of that time was spent battling with Philadelphia trial judge Genece Brinkley, who sentenced the rapper to an onerous 2-4 years in state prison over probation violations in 2017 that led to a national debate about criminal justice reform. “If a judge has it out for me for that long, I’m guilty of not doing a better job of learning about judges,” Muse says, admitting that he’s going into the voting booth in the past and looked at judges as an “afterthought” as he focused on Mayor, House of Representatives and Governor races, not giving much thought to the power magistrates.
“That was an awakening for me and it was time I stopped doing that because that judge has so much power and when you look at someone like Meek Mill or 600 Breezy you need someone who will ask what the situations are in their life that got them there in the first place,” he says. “How do they take that lived experience into how they think about sentencing? Those are the types of judges we need on the bench. We need to stop electing judges who don’t understand all the things that have happened in the hip-hop community and why they rap about what they rap about and who understand that it’s not just for commercial use,” he says. “Who don’t realize that these are people’s lived experiences that they’re communicating from their neighborhoods.”
Similarly, he says Guap wasn’t aware of how much local elections could change things, taking a particular interest in how much power mayors have. “He didn’t realize he could use the power and privilege he has in terms of brand awareness and fan base to do things like create a public-private partnership with the Mayor’s office to create after school programs to keep kids out of trouble and give them positive experiences,” he says.
“He realized that a judge could sentence a kid to an after school program that Guap created [instead of jail] and he didn’t realize the power of his voice and that his vote on Mayor or other elected officials who work on our behalf… that’s the tragedy of this for the hip-hop community because we see all that as ‘for them,’ the others, not us and we only feel the negative impact of it.”
But, by focusing on the Four Quadrants, Muse is telling his guests that they can make the system work for them. “We haven’t held mayors accountable on the selection of the police chief and we are no longer going to let it slide by because you work for us, the hip-hop community,” he says, adding a musical warning flare. “And if you don’t, we will vote you out next time and write songs about you.” Recalling how influential N.W.A.’s iconic 1988 anthem about police brutality, “F–k Tha Police,” was to him as a teen, Muse says he’ll know Four Quadrants has done its job if we don’t hear songs like that anymore.
Check out some of the Reverse the Mic convos below.