It’s been a killer year for Killer Mike, the 45-year-old, Grammy Award–winning rapper, born Michael Santiago Render.
He’s been heralded for his music as part of the duo Run the Jewels. (On Wednesday night, in Hollywood, he received the inaugural Billboard Change Maker award at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, given to the artist or group that “speaks truth to power through their music and celebrity.”) He’s been lauded for his activism in the social justice and civil rights movements. (In May, four days after the killing of George Floyd, he spoke out eloquently that protesters in Atlanta, his hometown and where he owns three barbershops, should not destroy businesses; he was featured in Vanity Fair’s September issue. “This moment is a continuation of my activism since I was 15 years old,” he said.) And he’s been celebrated in the mainstream media for his overall majesty. (Kara Swisher interviewed him last week on Sway, her New York Times Opinion podcast about power and influence; Killer Mike has both.)
Now, along with Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and ambassador to the United Nations, Killer Mike is lending his name and star power to Greenwood, a new digital bank, headquartered in Atlanta but soon to be available to everyone online. Greenwood is the brainchild of Ryan Glover, the entrepreneurial founder of Noontime Records and Bounce TV (sold to Scripps in a $302 million deal in 2017), and Young’s son, Andrew “Bo” Young III. Its mission is to serve the large underbanked population in the Black and Latinx communities across the country. It is named after Greenwood, the famed Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood once known as the Black Wall Street—and the site of one of the nation’s worst episodes of racial violence.
Glover describes Greenwood as a “modern-day version of Wakanda, a safe place for people of color and allies to bank with dignity.” With $3.4 million in seed capital from a variety of investors—the majority of whom are Black, Glover says—Glover and his operating partners, including Reese Giddins, a recruit from Bank of America, launched Greenwood’s website on October 8 as a way to register the interest of potential customers. Around 100,000 people have signed up so far, according to a Greenwood spokesman, who adds that Billboard and NBC agreed to deposit $1 million into Greenwood. There will be savings and checking accounts. There will be personal and business loans. There will be an ATM. The bank itself opens for business in January. “In my professional career, businesses have done well serving targeted underserved audiences in the African American community,” Glover explains. He mentions Noontime and Bounce TV, which he adds is now in around 125 million households. “Greenwood is my third iteration professionally to serve our community in an authentic, in a robust and consistent manner,” he continues.
Ambassador Young recounts for me how he and others in the Black community of Atlanta were able to build the Atlanta airport. He says he couldn’t get any money for the airport from the federal government, so he turned to Wall Street. “There was one little Black Wall Street firm that didn’t have a lot of money,” Young says, “but when they realized that we needed $400 million to start our airport, and we were looking for tax-exempt municipal bond sales, everybody jumped at it.” He says that over the years, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, has raised some $30 billion from tax-exempt municipal bonds. “We’ve been operating at the top of the pyramid,” Young says of building Hartsfield. Greenwood is targeting something different. “This is an attempt to bring some of that same influence and energy to the bottom of the pyramid, where the overwhelming majority of the people are,” he says.
Among Greenwood’s missions is Bank Black—the idea that Black communities would thrive as Greenwood in Tulsa once did if the money earned in Black communities stayed in Black communities. Where once the money earned in Greenwood would circulate 36 times in a month, according to Killer Mike, in unbanked minority communities the money sticks around for six hours before moving into the dominant banks. “Let me start by saying America is better when the Black economy is better,” Killer Mike tells me. “When the Black community is stable, it’s better.” He points to Greenwood, the place, and the good that can come from a stable Black community. “They had to rely on themselves and their own economic ecosystem. They had schools, had businesses, had an infrastructure that allowed that community to thrive,” he continues. “Because it was destroyed, I would argue that a greater economy was destroyed, and Tulsa probably is not as affluent or does not have the growth that it could have potentially had.”
There’s no better time to start a digital bank geared to the Black and underserved communities, Killer Mike says. “African Americans and, in particular, African American young people use their cell phone more than laptops,” he continues. “So your bank in your hand, on your bus, or in your car is a much more effective means of banking than even brick and mortar. That doesn’t mean I want to see the end of brick-and-mortar banking, but it means my 13-year-old daughter banks radically differently than her 45-year-old dad. We’re 20 years ahead of the curve and we can be leading the curve, in the same way that Black banks from Carver to Industrial to Citizens Trust have done for the last hundred years. We have an opportunity not only to help save the lives and count the lives of the Black community through things like car and home loans, small business and medium business loans, but also the Latinx community. It’s not just a Black bank. It’s a Black bank that services the diversity of the people.”
Killer Mike says Greenwood is differentiated from the big banks—what he calls “the Big Four,” JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—because focusing on the underserved population is not just a fad, or a mandate, or something to be done in a politically correct moment. It’s the bank’s sole purpose. “What we are is an aggressive bank held right in your hand,” he continues. “It’s not only to make deposits in savings, but also is evolving to be a lender to small and medium business to grow the economy, because we know in capitalism, when you have more competition, usually it’s better for the customer. We wish to jump in the pool, be one of the competitors, and to help bring banking back to our community, help bring capital back to our community, to build businesses that will be better for the greater good.”
He says for his three Atlanta barbershops, which he runs with his wife, he banks with two of the Big Four as well as some smaller, local Black banks. He employs 30 people. “As we’ve needed to renovate and make adjustments, we found that it was easier to even be considered for a loan at the smaller Black banks, because they understand things like Black guys get their hair cut every week,” Killer Mike explains. “This is not just a barbershop. This shop does thousands of dollars in retail a month, so we should treat them like a retail store. They have stability that other shops don’t have. They were willing to hear us out when the Big Four were not. What you have [with Greenwood] is the ability to not only get your stuff straight in time with a financial sort that allows you to actually be [judged] by your credit, [but] you now have the ability to pivot in and say, ‘I need capital. I’m a Black restaurant in Atlanta and I need capital.’”
We also discuss what one of the CEOs of the Big Four—Charlie Scharf at Wells Fargo—said in a recent memo about his desire to have more Black employees at Wells Fargo but finding that the talent pool from which to recruit wasn’t large enough. (After news of the memo leaked publicly, Scharf apologized). “What I would like to do is challenge him,” Killer Mike says of Scharf. “There are going to be a group of kindergarteners entering kindergarten next year. Ambassador Young told me when I was about 16 years old, ‘Michael, there is no thing that comes up in politics that can’t be predicted 10 or 20 years ahead of time.’ The decisions that I’m making now are going to affect Atlanta 10 to 20 years from now.”
He says that Ambassador Young’s investment in him when he was a teenager has paid off in him as an adult. “I’d like to challenge that CEO to take two classes of kindergarteners, not one, two,” he continues. “Take two classes of kindergarteners and foster their education for the next 13 years. That’s 12 years of regular school plus one. I want to see him grow the financial people, the financial leaders that he wants to see. I’m challenging him because I know he has the means and resources to do so. I’m challenging him because I hope that he challenges his inner circle to do the same. And I’m challenging him because I believe public schools can be a fertile ground for growing our next wave of CEOs. I don’t want him to do it in a charter school. I don’t want him to go start a private school. I want to challenge him to do Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta. I challenge him to do John Lewis Elementary School in Atlanta. And I challenge him to do one of the middle schools in Atlanta and pick another city. Grow your next wave and I can accept that critique. Without that critique, you’re better left just saying, ‘Hush.’ You’re better left saying nothing, because it makes you appear racist and bigoted when I know that’s not your intentions.”
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