“Hip-hop is beautiful because it shows us the complete truth,” said Talib Kweli, known for socially conscious lyrics and activism.
This Brooklyn based and raised raptavist has a loyal global following, and they come from his eight solo albums, his sold-out local and international shows, his interviews in The New York Times and on CNN (where he famously argued with Don Lemon about the media coverage of Ferguson protests) and from any number of social and traditional people-inspired/run/targeted mediums. Kweli has been able to mold and develop social justice issues that have moved conversations from basic to policy-driven activism.
His love and use off “cultural currency” is instilled in him, he told the Amsterdam News.
“I come from a Black, nationalist cultural background,” he said. “We always celebrated Kwanzaa, there were books on African history, African art. We were made aware of Black heroes and people of color—Black and Latino and other races who have contributed to history—that led me to be a fan of artists who see the connection between community and art, like Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott Heron, and this is the tradition that I try and follow.”
On a national tour now and just days after another Brooklyn show in the wake of magnificent block party at Restoration Rocks with Les Nubians Kweli, who once hesitated to call himself an activist, told the Amsterdam News that his music is the vehicle with which he drives his social, civic, political and cultural philosophy home.
Whether it is flying down to Ferguson to join the raging protestors who rallied for justice in the police-shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, going to Washington D.C. as Trump formed an unpopular government or demanding justice for political prisoners, Kweli is one of those activists who takes an honest position, whether it is popular or not.
He said, “I have now, at 42 years old, embraced the idea of me being an activist, most of my career I did not, I thought I was an entertainer leading the life of incredible privilege. I was raising money for the real activists. I said let me show you who the real activists are … but then I started getting involved, raising money, showing up at things, especially when I got involved in Prisoner of Conscious.”
Touring, speaking, protesting and performing melds into Kweli having his very own Javotti Media record label. His roster includes artists such as Jessica Care Moore, Outernational and K’Valentine.
Career collaborations include with Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, as Black Star; with Hi Tek, Rick Ross, Melanie Fiona, Anderson Paak and RZA; and on albums such as “Reflection Eternal,” “Prisoner of Conscious,” and “Radio Silence.”
“A Man of the People, musician, activist and wordsmith, Talib Kweli, Man of the Year, has embodied the spirit of his calling and name: student and seeker of truth and knowledge,” said Dr. Brenda Green, who is not just a fan, but chair of the English Department and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College—and the very proud mother of Talib Kweli.
She continued, “He realized the importance of self-determination early in his life, when he stated that he wanted to chart his own course and did not want to work for anyone. He has reminded me and all of us of the importance of self-determination and the responsibility that he accepts of using his platform to make a difference. He deeply respects the wisdom of his elders and the importance of intergenerational platforms and dialogues for transformation. I applaud his commitment, courage and passion. God reminds us that many are called but few are chosen. Talib has accepted the responsibility of being chosen.”
As an artist with 20 years in the game he is a veteran, and it might be said years from now that he participated in laying down a soundtrack for the movement, but he does not harshly critique other type of rap artists. He said, “It is natural to me because of the household I come from, but it if you come from the trap where the community is really poor and destitute and there is no outlet for activism, if you come from broken homes and you don’t have good role models, it’s going to be harder for you to make music that is going to be uplifting. We have to be careful how judge artists. Young Black artists in particular who are coming from these destitute situations, and they are trying their best to express themselves through art.”
Kweli noted, “The reality is that talking about negativity is sexy. The reality though is that Kendrick Lamar, Rhapsody and Chance the Rapper are artists that people are excited about, who are nominated for Grammys. The people who are rapping about the people are more successful than your average gangster rapper or trap rapper … I don’t have a problem with those records. I listen to them and when I DJ, I play some of them. There’s not a more popular record than a Kendrick Lamar.”
As for music that is negative and can almost be deemed “anti-community,” Kweli said that speaks to symptoms of a bigger issue.
He said, “We cannot make a false equivalency to systematic racism and systematic oppression. These young Black rappers are products of society. They’re symptoms, victims of it. Hip-hop is beautiful because it shows us the complete truth- the positive and the negative.”
He suggested that a solution to curb some of the negativity is “to uplift the rappers who are talking positivity, the Kendricks, Chance and Rhapsody.”
“But when we are talking about society,” he said. “We have to use our voices actively to fight racism.”
He cited what he calls real leaders, such as Harry Belafonte, and groups such as Campaign Zero, the Malcolm X Movement and Black Lives Matter.
“The solution is actively fighting against white supremacy,” he said. “With hip-hop you can vote with your dollars. You make a choice to buy a song or turn the radio off. You can’t turn white supremacy off if you live in America. You’re paying taxes, you’re buying groceries, you’re taking public transportation—anything you do, you are contributing to white supremacy.”
Making his point further Kweli said, “When we went to Ferguson and we raised money to bail the protestors out, that bail money is going into the system and being used by the police department to oppress us. White supremacists are investing in crytpo coin and organizing online trolling to get the people they want elected to organize Nazi marches where people are dying.”
Kweli said of himself and others, “There’s levels to it. Follow the lead of actual activists who are doing the work 24/7—whether Black children are dying in the street or not, whether we elected Trump or not there are people who are doing the work—not as reactionaries but as activists.”
“Since Talib debuted as a recording artist his talent was undeniable,” said Amsterdam News columnist and urban music historian David Goodson. “His content and lyrical acumen have emerged to the point that his art is used to monitor and access the pulse of a people that he upholds and serves with pride.”
Kweli concluded, “When you represent the people, the people hold you down. I haven’t had a hit record in years by the metric of the industry … but I still have big releases and go on “The Daily Show,” and “Conan O’Brien” and The Tonight Show. It’s not because I have hit records; it’s because I represent the people.”