Open Mike Eagle Uses His Platform to Address the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in America
Open Mike Eagle is a very busy man. Over the last seven years, the Chicago-bred rapper, born Michael Eagle II, has done a little bit of everything. As an artist, he's released nine albums, with his last three via Mello Music Group—the indie record label that is home to some of today's stellar acts such as Oddisee, Apollo Brown and L'Orange, among others. He also hosts multiple podcast shows, speaking on a wide array of topics such as Cartoon Network's hit animated series Adventure Time (Conversation Parade), Pro-Wrestling (Tights and Fights) and the world of hip-hop that fans don't see (Secret Skin).
Most recently, OME landed The New Negroes, his own show on Comedy Central with comedian Baron Vaughn. The show is based on Mike and Vaughn's current comedy showcase of the same name where they feature stand-up and musical elements while showcasing specific comedians.
While his schedule is jam-packed these days, Open Mike Eagle isn't too busy to pay attention to the current Black experience in America. It's almost hard not to pay attention to the racial turmoil happening across the country during President Trump's tenure. From the White nationalist march in Charlottesville to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to fight for racial equality and protest police brutality, the gutting of Black neighborhoods, standing up for what's right has become strenuous. But not for Open Mike Eagle.
His latest album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, might be the best of his career and is one of best of the year so far. The LP focuses on the Robert Taylor Homes, a project complex in Chicago that was built in the 1960s, where a great amount of Mike's family has lived. The homes were eventually destroyed, displacing thousands of Black families. The Robert Taylor residents were promised accommodations but the majority never received anything after the demolition was completed. With Robert Taylor Homes as the catalyst for the album, Open Mike touches on a number of subjects affecting society like today's economics, the American housing policy and the trauma it causes to Black people when things shift poorly.
While in New York City, Open Mike Eagle sits down with XXL to discuss Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Trump, the trauma of displacement, Black representation in media and why hip-hop is so popular in comic book culture today.
XXL: You're someone who does a lot of things really well. How do you juggle everything that you're doing?
Open Mike Eagle: It all connects I feel like. At some point, everything I do kind of points back to my music career, in some sense or another. Everything I'm doing is something that I'm genuinely interested in, too, so it's something in some aspect of my personality that already exists. And like I said, it all feeds back to music, and it all feels very cherry on top to me. So, I don’t know, I feel fortunate to do everything I'm able to do and that kind of helps me try my best to do it well, too.
Run down everything that you're currently doing.
I do music. I produce. I do a podcast like this. The one I'm doing now is a pro wrestling podcast, but I've done three podcasts. I have my interview show, Secret Skin. I had a podcast that followed Adventure Time the cartoon, it was called Conversation Parade. Now I'm doing Types of Fights and I'm gonna go back into doing mine as soon as I can. Podcasting is a medium that I'm interested in as a consumer and a creator. I just love listening to people having conversations about stuff that I'm interested in. I like to have conversations with other people about stuff that I'm interested in and kind of add on to the podcast universe.
I've been doing some TV writing stuff lately. We had a show picked up by Comedy Central. It's a live comedy show that we do called The New Negroes. Me and Baron Vaughn do that out in L.A. It's been picked up by Comedy Central so we're developing that into a television show right now, but music is a part of that, too. I love comedy anyway. I feel like my brain operates a lot like a comedian's does, in terms of observing things and trying to point out stuff about myself, about society, all of that. I tend to express mine through song. But, because it's coming from the same place, I tend to get along with comedians pretty well too.
But, music is a part of that show too. I perform on that show. In the televised show, it'll have music in it. And there's a few more projects I'm shopping on the TV front, but all of it ultimately just points back to music.
Music is your first love essentially.
And your new album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, did you think of the idea while on a plane?
Kind of. It's ... I've been stressed out, probably, over the last year with the political situation. So just everything I made just kind of had this darkness in it, me trying to process all the feelings I was feeling. This one time, I was on a flight, and I think I was flying to Chicago, and I was thinking about my life and thinking about the project building that was in the Robert Taylor Homes that my aunt lived in and all my first cousins. And how I spent so much time there and just thought about it a lot. I was thinking about it, remembering, and then remembering that it got demolished. I thought to check and see what was there now. Because I never had heard what was there. The buildings got demolished, like, 10 years ago, but I never heard what ended up happening to those lots that those buildings were on.
I was on that flight, and I looked it up, and there was nothing there. And then I was looking up ... Like, they actually have footage of the buildings being torn down, you know? You can just sit and watch it, like, for an hour. Just watch this building kind of get torn down by these big, huge cranes and machines. And then I visited, I think, on that trip. I wanted to see what it looked like there. It was just empty fields.
And, I don't know, it struck some tone with me about the policy behind these buildings being erected in the 1950s, and how they're supposed to be this nice, modern living situation for these people who was in these slums before they were built. These real terrible shantytowns. Everybody was excited to move into these huge, 16-story—for the time—super-modern apartments. But then, the maintenance stopped ... The maintenance basically stopped being funded. People funded the building, but then they stopped funding for them to be maintained properly, and it just kind of all went to shit and became what people remember the projects for, which is kind of like these self-contained danger traps that people have to live in. And thinking about that whole arc and them being knocked down, basically just because the buildings were an eyesore at a time when Chicago was trying to get an Olympic bid.
But I think it's so different when you look at a neighborhood, or something, that's demolished to make way for a highway or demolished to make way for a football stadium, whatever. There's something about putting something else there that, like, in some way helps to deal with the trauma of displacing people by the fact that there's some new structure there. So, at least there's something new to pay attention to.
But in that case, for them to just be empty, it just bothered me so much, you know? And how that tied into the crime in Chicago and how ... I think there's some analogy there to police brutality and the black body and what that means to people or doesn't mean to people. And how there's kind of a lack of empathy there, usually.
All of that, kind of was swirling around in my head, and I started to kind of write songs from that space. And ended up kind of fashioning the album out of that.
You feel so small.
Right. You feel like you're not important, like you're, in that case, where you live, your foundation, but these project buildings. I mean, one of these 16 floors, I forget how many apartments or floors, thousands of people in these buildings, man. And there's culture there. It might have been awful, but there's culture. It's just...
Yeah, you know? And just to erase it, the trauma of that, you know what I mean? It's crazy.
It had to be tough to write for this album, because it'd feel like, as you dive into something like that, you then start to question pretty much everything. Especially with the political climate, you just feel like, how do you not go dark?
Yeah, I mean, look, I'm really tripping off of pop culture right now because I'm looking at the pop stars of our time. Taylor Swift's like making a whole album about her reputation, or some shit. Who gives a shit about your reputation? Who cares? I don't know your reputation. I don't care. You know what I mean? People out here fucking hurt. Like, what are you doing?
I feel like it's the duty of anybody who's actually trying to, like, use arts and culture to co-process things with people. You've got to put it in there because nobody knows what to do right now, everybody's just stressed the fuck out. Nobody knows how we got here. We're all trying to unravel all of this. I don't know if what I'm doing is necessarily directly helpful, but I feel like I have to be true to how I'm feeling, you know what I mean? That's the strength of my heart is to be true to how I'm feeling. So, like you said, it had to be dark in some sense.
Do you feel like that's your responsibility?
Not my responsibility, but that's my choice. And I don't feel it's every artist's responsibility, you know, I feel like some people need to do other things. I mean, we are all humans on the planet, so you figure somebody has the least amount of empathy, they're going to come out of themselves a little bit right now. But, you know, there are a lot of different artists that serve a lot of different functions in society and in the industry, so I don't expect everybody to do the same thing.
What don't you like about pop culture today?
You know, specifically, I think that... For people who have a really high platform and parts are surrounded by really powerful machinery, where...there are people in pop culture right now that their actions, their thoughts, their words, their videos, they create culture, right? When you're creating culture, and you're choosing to create culture that is more celebratory of pop culture than trying to help anything, to me, God, that's just gross to me. That's just nasty.
Because, I mean, where we are now, even if you're just in it for the money, nobody's going to have any soon. It's all going to shit. We're not going to get through this by just, like, jerking each other off, you know what I mean? And it's real now. It's real. People are dying. People are hurting. It is, I feel like, a time to say something, especially if you have a high platform. I feel like you've got to say something. You have to acknowledge it.
And I understand that, in a lot of senses, bigger acts they have to plan things six, eight months, maybe a year in advance, but I don't think this is a time for business as usual. You know, I don't see how that works. I feel like that's tone deaf. I feel like you're going to get to a point where you could die for being tone deaf. I feel like you're going to end up like Marie Antoinette, you know what I mean? I don't know, people are hurt. And it's just hard to not hear it and not respond to it in any way.
What’s the meaning of the title of the album?
The Brick Body Kids, I mean ... have you seen the cover?
So, you know, in that way, it personifies the buildings as kids and as kids that grow up in the buildings, and the heartening that kind of happens from being in dangerous environments. And then, I feel like there's an analogy there to how people outside of that community can kind of build you up and knock you down, you know, with the stroke of a pen, with the vote, with whatever. with their apathy, with their support of the police force. With lots of different means. So to me, that image is kind of the central theme of the album.
One thing you touch on in particular is how this country at this point is in pain. And except for talking about it, it's just lashing out. And we consume it hourly at our fingertips. How do we heal?
I think you just hit it right on the head. We've got to have really tough conversations. And not just like me and you, we probably agree with each other, so it's easy for us to have a conversation. But like, Me and [White nationalist leader] Richard Spencer need to talk, and I need to really not punch him in the face when I see him. But I really want to, real bad. Because the shit he says gets, it just incenses me. Not only is he aware of White privilege, he wants more of it. Like, are you crazy? Like, what are you?
Yeah, but those are the conversations we need to have. A person like him needs to understand that this isn't a joke. The reasons that people take or make efforts to counterbalance in the name of diversity is because you can't... as a Black man, I can't control how people perceive me. I can't change how I look and I shouldn't want to.
And in that sense, the advantage that a White male has in this society is so pronounced. It's so unfair. And it's, like, there's no such thing as fairness, so I get that. And that's why we ended up making these efforts to counterbalance things, but it's important. America's not going to be a White country because y'all decided to bring Black people here. And to not want to deal with that in any way, it's just nuts. And to feel like, "Well, we'll just be post-race," or "We'll be this," or "We'll be that." No, we have to have these really hard talks. We have to feel each other's pain.
And like you said, we all have to heal. And I think that when we…there's pain in rural America, right? But, I think a lot of times, those people get manipulated into thinking that's our fault, and it's not. And they need to understand that. They need to understand who benefits from them thinking that I'm sitting in New York or L.A. causing some problem for you in Wyoming. And I'm not. It's not me, a lot of times, its industrialization. It's a lot of forces that have nothing to do with me. I'm suffering from the same thing. I have a college degree. I'm not using it. You know what I mean?
The job market, the forces, the economy, all of that is really complicated, but a lot of times, we're not the ones that benefit, so why are people telling y'all that we are the ones that benefit? Or that Mexican immigrants are the ones that are benefiting? Like, who's benefiting from telling them that lie? It’s really breaking that down and destroying that machine, because that machine is really toxic.
It's getting to the point where you can trace the lines from the Koch brothers and [hedge-fund tycoon] Robert Mercer's donating billions to getting certain kinds of messaging out so that people vote a certain way. And data mining, and finding out what the right trigger words are to get people emotionally invested in this. And man, it's confusing to people. It's wreaking psychological havoc on people. And everything that we're seeing now, all of this violence, all of this conflict, I think is a direct result of that.
So that's all the kind of things that we have to get to. We have to show people. We have to understand how it is that we got here.
Exactly, because that misinformation is what gets Trump as President.
Right, and it was all very calculated, man. Like, the more I find out about it, it's just amazing because now that the people who do pay attention to data have these tools and they execute it so well. I don't know if what we knew as normal, I don't know if we're ever going to see that again. Unless something happens where that sort of data manipulation gets outlawed somehow, but I don't see that happening. Then, we're going to be in the situation where sensationalism is going to create our presidential candidates. It's like everybody's getting gas lighted, you know what I mean? And that is our political process now.
Do you see the Donald Trump presidency being a positive in a sense that here’s a singular figure of power that allows Black people in particular to finally unify? It’s an extreme idea but one that is being shopped around.
No, because have you seen what the…there's a couple televangelists like Roger Stone saying, "Now what will happen if Donald Trump gets impeached?" Have you seen what they said? They said that if Donald Trump gets impeached, then White Christians are going to start a civil war.
So, like, common sense can't even prevail because they're still pushing that button to blow that dog whistle for people who are invested. Because they're invested in Trump like a demigod, you know? Like, he is a symbol for them. And somehow they've gotten it where psychologically he encapsulates everything they want in one person, who doesn’t even give a shit about them. Doesn't even care. Like, throwing little kids under the bus. He does not care about anybody. But, just the way the machinery has worked, that's the thought process now. And they're already on the button. Like, "If they try to get him out of there, y'all know what to do."
I feel like, as long as the people behind that have that sort of, access to the emotions of the people who are in that voting block, we're going to be in this kind of polarized situation for a long time. I feel like, yeah, there's a great number of people for who common sense is like, "Yo, this president's stressing us all the fuck out. Let's get him out of here." But then, there's that other side of the people who actually do support him. The people who do show up to these rallies, you know what I mean? The people who have taken up the cause of protecting Confederate statues. Like, all this shit 10 years ago, you would've looked crazy doing all that stuff. But now, that's the new normal, you know?
Talk about New Negroes. It seems like a really interesting project.
I mean, it's a live show that takes place in L.A. right now, where we have all sorts of different kinds of comedians that we showcase in Hollywood. And the televised version is going to be very similar to that. We're going to be showing that there's such a wide array of voices in the Black comedy community. That's kind of the whole point of it, right, is to show that Black culture isn't like a monolith. And Black comedy isn't a monolith. And Black entertainment isn't a monolith. Like, there's a range to it. We want to be able to put different kinds of comics that people haven't seen before and give them a spotlight and, kind of, give people access points into the real experience of blackness in America.
It’s reminiscent of Jay-Z's “Moonlight” video, where viewers see all these famous Black celebrities with very different personalities and approaches. Is that what you want to bring a spotlight to?
Yeah, because honestly that's the creative space we're all working in. The thing is, there's different people with different platforms and different heights, different statures within that. But we're all connected. All them people you just mentioned are, like, all people I've met or worked with or been on shows with, you know, in some form or fashion or one degree removed from. And that was a perfect example, because we want to continue the show as a unified front of all these Black creatives in these spaces where we're finally getting a chance to tell our own stories. They're not the same story over and over again. There's a variance to it, you know?
What's up with the Thirsty Fish and Swim Team? Are those collab projects you want to do in the future again?
I mean, I feel like that creative space is kind of over with. And that was very formative in my career was working with the group, Thirsty Fish, and the overall crew with Swim Team and what my values were as an artist at that time was being very, "Who's the tightest? Let's all get together on these tracks and try to outdo each other. Try to be the best rapper." But that was a space we were all meeting in at that time, and I feel like where we're at now, like as individuals, all of us are kind of in different spaces now.
We all still get along and love each other and make songs occasionally, but as you grow and get older, in hip-hop, what's important to you changes. And what's important to me isn't being, like, the best rapper anymore. Because the further you get into it, you realize nobody ever will be. So for me, it's more important to say the things that are most true to me, and if I can say them in a good way, that's great.
But it's not so much competition-oriented for me anymore. It's me competing with myself to do the best that I can do.
You're a comic book fan, correct?
What’s your thoughts on Black Panther? The rollout has been fantastic.
About the movie?
About the movie and how you enjoy the new comic books.
I haven't read much of the new comic. My son's reading it right now, but I haven't read much of the new comic. I haven't read ... I haven't kept up with comics in the modern era like I want to. Like, I'll occasionally dabble in some X-Men. I'll go by the comic book shop and kind of see what's happening, but there are just so many titles right now, and it's hard for me to know which storylines are like the "important ones," you know what I mean?
Because so many of them are just transient. It's like an X-Men No. 1 every other month. I'm like, I don't know. But to me, it's really what resonates with me more than anything are those characters. So, like what Black Panther represents as a character means more to me than whatever storyline is happening at the time.
And I'm excited for the movie, after seeing the trailer of course, just so that a Black superhero with that sort of origin story can be on display in the pantheon of American comic book heroes. In this new space that they're occupying right now, because the movies are so huge.
It’s kind of insane to see this merger of comic book culture and hip-hop coming together as of late, now more now than ever
You know what, it is amazing, especially when you put it that way. And I can't ... I haven't necessarily thought about it like that, but it is. My favorite band is called They Might Be Giants, and they're like alt-rock indie legends that have been doing it for 30 years, or whatever. And I remember reading an interview with them in, like, the 1990s. They had had a couple of their songs get animated and get turned into music videos on the Tiny Toons show, which was a huge Warner Bros. cartoon at the time.
They were asking, "How'd that happen? How did this little weird rock band get this look, where this huge cartoon franchise just incorporated them right alongside everything else that they were doing?" And they were saying they had been doing it for so long at that point kids who were super fans of them were now in places of power. They were executives at Warner Bros Animation, so they could bring in those sorts of projects and say, "OK, let's animate this song," and not get any push back.
I feel like that's kind of what's happening with hip-hop, too, is that a lot of people who hip hop was very important to, are now in positions of power within media in all sorts of different platforms. So now they can legitimize it within the platforms that they’re in and not get that much push back because they're the powerful people behind it.
How do you make time for all the stuff that you're doing?
I don't sleep that much, man. But you know that's me. I never really did. I stay up late and get up early, man. I love everything I'm able to do, and I'm excited to do it all. Except for the dumb ass emails I have to answer. Other than that, all of it is great. So, it's exciting for me to do. I feel fortunate, like, actively…I try to stay aware of that. My career path has been very strange, you know? Like, a lot of the things I do, just on paper, you wouldn't have expected me to be able to do it all, or even get close to doing some of the things I've been able to do. So I try to keep an awareness of that. And I think that in itself just keeps me excited enough to just keep doing it.
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