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Why rapper Killer Mike's next big project is starting a bank

The rapper and activist is taking aim at revolutionizing the banking industry with the Greenwood Bank Initiative: “Social justice is making sure that economic justice happens.”

In the wake of the death of George Floyd — as the Black community in Atlanta reacted to another senseless killing at the hands of the police — Killer Mike, the rapper and activist, asked his neighbors to resist rioting and take a different kind of action. “If you sit in your homes tonight, instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan, strategize and organize and mobilize in an effective way,” he said. For months he's been encouraging others to take their anger and turn it into productive action.

Now he is channeling his own advice and teaming up with former Atlanta mayor and civil rights icon, Andrew Young, to start a digital bank to serve Black and Latino communities who are underserved by the financial services industry.

When we say underserved, here’s what that looks like: About 17 percent of Black households don’t have bank accounts compared to just 3 percent of white households. And Black-owned small businesses are about half as likely to obtain bank loans as white-owned businesses.

Young and Killer Mike’s new plan, the Greenwood Bank Initiative, is hoping to change exactly that. Killer Mike joined me on MSNBC — and later on a panel at Operation HOPE’s annual meeting — to discuss how he plans to revolutionize banking in Black and Latino communities.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

STEPHANIE RUHLE: Mike, when you told people to get active and be productive, I think most of us thought you were talking about social justice. Why start a bank?

KILLER MIKE: Well, they go hand in hand. You can't have social justice without social equality. And in a capitalistic society, if those who capitalism was built on bear the sins of people who have been enslaved here and the people who are being used as cheap labor now, if those people don't get an active role in capitalism or the opportunity to participate, then what are we left with but a permanent underclass?

I believe that part of social justice is making sure that economic justice happens.

RUHLE: I want to go with a false narrative. People who might say, well, these Black households maybe just don't have the money for a bank account. That is not true. They are not underbanked because they don't have enough money for a bank account. In the United States, we don't offer financial literacy as part of our education system. And there's not equal access.

KILLER MIKE: Absolutely.

RUHLE: Is that why you're doing this?

KILLER MIKE: Absolutely. I was fortunate to be raised by people that were born in 1922 and 1932. My grandparents raised me. My grandmother's family had been a sharecropping family that earned enough money to buy their own farm, buy their own land.

She came from a more financially secure background than my grandfather, whose dad left when he was in third grade and he was left there to essentially leave school and take care of his sisters.

I learned that financial literacy was important. We were marched into a bank as early as five, six and eight years old. Me and my sister started our first bank account. We were taught by my grandmother to balance our checkbooks. I was the worst at it. My sister, who was the best at it, is an accountant at a corporation now. I have to hire her and people like her.

But I learned very early to take care of your coin and your coin will take care of you. I was fortunate to be in a household where that happens — but that can be taught to kindergartners, third graders, sixth-seventh graders and all through high school.

And I think that that should be a part of not just home economics once you get to high school, it should be a part of our fundamental education from the time we're in kindergarten forward.

RUHLE: Me, too. I was rolling pennies on rainy days with my grandmother.

The Greenwood Initiative: Talk us through what happened in Greenwood because it is a tragic stain on American history that not enough people understand.

KILLER MIKE: There have been many tragic stains on American history in relation to the group of people called Blacks in America and this is one of them that I think is curable and fixable.

About 100 years ago, there was a community called Greenwood in Tulsa, and due to racism, bigotry, hatred and violence, it was destroyed. It was celebrated as a Black Wall Street because Blacks that had newly been freed were helping the country expand West.

They created this system in which they had their own schools, their own churches, their own doctors and dentists. They had everything any other community has to be successful. They turned a dollar 36 times in that community before that dollar left. So that dollar landed in my business to help enrich me and help me to employ people to enrich them.

There have been many tragic stains on American history in relation to the group of people called Blacks in America and this is one of them that I think is curable and fixable.

Killer Mike

They then went to other businesses and did the same thing … Now, on average, the Black dollar only stays in our community six hours. And we don't have many of the fundamental businesses that we had during Jim Crow and segregation and things of that nature.

We don't have the ability as a community to gather capital to support one another in the same way. And the way that we can make up for this blight right now is individually getting financially responsible — financially literate — and as a community organizing our dollars to be the tip of the spear so that we may now have a banking institution that allows for things like car loans, home loans and will graduate to things like small and medium business loans to incentivize, to give capital to businesses that are showing promise and that can grow.

And I give Atlanta as an example. If we don't have a mayor like Kasim Reed, our last mayor before Keisha Bottoms, we never get to do a land deal that allows Tyler Perry to have one of the biggest studios in the world. It’s not only kept Black people working, it's kept all Georgians working as the movie industry seems to be moving to Georgia and Atlanta.

If we don't have Mayor Jackson 40 years ago, who said Blacks have to be 29 and 30 percent of business contracts of the city, we never get a Herman Russell company. We never get The Columbia Group, which is headed by Noel Khalil who ended up partnering with T.I. to keep a 50-year-old restaurant like Bankhead Seafood open and which employs people and will be employing more.

These things are one hand washes the other and I think they're necessary. And I think Greenwood is providing a pathway to that.

RUHLE: All of this is productive change that makes us stronger, smarter and better.

KILLER MIKE: Absolutely.