BY DAN GARCIA
Talib Kweli continues to be one of the most active voices in hip-hop and black culture since his inception into the genre during the mid-1990s in Brooklyn, New York. If you don’t best know him for his music, including his critically acclaimed albums and singles (such as his hit ‘Get By‘), his work Mos Def (making up half of the legendary rap duo Black Star) or being the artist who first introduced us to Kanye West (inviting the young Chicago producer/rapper to tour with him), you may likely know him for his social activism. Often praised for the messages in his music, rapping about equality, compassion, and issues of great dignity (gravitas if you will), Kweli is not afraid to go to extra lengths to commit himself to the issues he raps about.
Most recently, Kweli traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to protest the social injustice in the police killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. “I felt like it would be easier for me to make the point from there,” says Kweli. In addition to his grassroots participation in Ferguson, Kweli has also rallied for the NYPD to end their stop-and-frisk policies, showed his support during the Occupy Wall Street protests, and joined the Dream Defenders in their protest of Florida’s stand-your-ground law a month after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who gunned down young and unarmed Trayvon Martin. “I work with organizations, and lend my time and voice to organizations, that rally against the prison industrial complex that deal with racism and white supremacy honestly,” speaking about his fights for racial and social equality. “It doesn’t create any form of justice when you don’t deal the problem as it is.”
We met with Kweli in Chicago after his performance at the North Coast Music Festival, to a sold-out crowd of thousands. We spoke about his time in Ferguson, the Chi-raq movement in rap, Kanye West, working on his next album on his independent label Javotti Media, and his first time meeting Dave Chappelle years before The Chappelle Show.
Tell me about your time spent in Ferguson.
Kweli: The idea of what was going on in Ferguson was very abstract for a lot of people. It’s something that people of color, poor, oppressed people have gone through and seen a lot. But I saw something that I felt was dangerous that people would be comfortable with social networking activism and I feel like we get a little too comfortable with that. Twitter, just like anything, like any microphone, is a great tool. Facebook is a great tool, Instragram is a great tool, but without actual bodies on the ground, without people actually being there, there is nothing to tweet about. So that was a point I was trying to make to a bunch of people in my life, but I felt like it would be easier for me to make the point from there. I’m privileged to be my own boss and I can change my schedule up to make that type of trip work, so I wanted to go. And I wasn’t the first to go, Jeezy was there before me, J. Cole was there before me, but it was necessary.
What should be done to help solve the problem?
Kweli: I wrote a blog on Medium.com. I really took the time to outline what I thought is the problem that we are facing, as a country, as a people, and some possible solutions. The problem I identified is white supremacy. White supremacy and racism was created to justify the greed of the slave trade. They (slave owners) needed to find a reason that people shouldn’t care about black life. So they came up with this thing where white people are superior to black people, this is what this country is built on, that is the root to all of our institutions. Because of that, we created systems in politics, education, economics, health, everything. We created systems to whereas the descendants of the slave owners don’t start at zero, they start at 100, everyone else starts at -50.
The craziest manifestation I have seen is the prison industrial complex. The for profit prisons that prey on communities of color and poor people and it justifies the idea of criminalizing black youth, brown youth, poor people. So we have to fill our jails and it becomes a vicious cycle. So I work with organizations, and lend my time and voice to organizations, that rally against the prison industrial complex that deal with racism and white supremacy honestly, instead of saying we live in a post-racial world, that is just dishonest, it doesn’t serve anybody, it doesn’t create any form of justice when you don’t deal the problem as it is.
On your most recent album Gravitas you have a song called ‘New Leaders’, who are the new leaders in hip-hop in your opinion?
Kweli: The hip-hop generation, there’s Dream Defenders, Organization for Black Struggle, there’s youth led movements, Malcolm-X Grassroots Movement is (a group) I have always been a part of. But as far as new leaders of hip-hop, the mainstream hip-hop artists that are popular, that are honest in their craft and real dope, have the potential to be greater leaders to the community than they are, certainly, but they will grow into that. Kanye West has stepped up in many occasions. Jay-Z has stepped up in lyrics and certain things he has said and done. I think people do what they know how to do. Recently again, J.Cole has been excellent, Killer Mike has been excellent. You will have people out there who will always talk the talk and walk the walk, like Dead Prez and Rebel Diaz. Tef Poe, an artist in Ferguson, is doing his thing. There’s a lot more artists doing it, than there are not doing it. People tend to focus on what people are not doing, because they are not doing things, so they focus on that instead of focusing on what people are doing.
In ‘New Leaders’, your say “you told me what you Don’t Like, you made that clear, now what do you love?” and “these New Slaves ain’t ready for my masterpiece.” With references to two very different Chicago rappers, how do you feel about the Chi-raq movement, with artists like Chief Keef, and how it may compete in messages to more conscious rap such as with your’s or Kanye’s?
Kweli: The fact is that, what comes first? The hood or the rapper? The hood comes first. The rapper is influenced from where he grows up at. If you want to change violence, misogyny, negativity and gangsterism in music, we have to change it in our neighborhoods first. We can’t blame Chief Keef for the conditions going on in the hood he grew up in and for him being a docutarian of these conditions. These guys are young dudes, when we see them doing something as positive as music, we have to encourage it. There is this pseudo-intellectual, sort of fake bourgeois, idea that we are supposed to be dismissive of anybody who doesn’t rap in a way that you relate to. So if someone is rapping like a Chief Keef, for example, you’re automatically dismissive of it. So even if they do something positive, you’re like ‘I don’t fuck with him’, you’re just dissing everything, that’s not unity. That’s not unity, that’s not struggle, that’s not progress, that’s wack. If we claim to love people, we have to love them regardless of what they are into. That’s why I talk about compassion a lot in my music because people forget what we are trying to do is unify people and not try to create more enemies.
There is a lot of music out there in hip-hop, a lot of it, that I do not relate to, I understand why people like it, it’s not for me, that’s okay. Who the fuck am I to be so arrogant that every song has to appeal to me? It’s okay that there are some songs that don’t appeal to how I was brought up, in Brooklyn born in 1975. Chief Keef wasn’t born in Brooklyn 1975, he was born in Chicago, Illinois, wherever he was born.
When talking about Kanye, you often speak about how he has this amazing insight in making these bold predictions for his future that later come true. What is one of the more recent things he has accomplished that you knew he would, either through conversations you have had with him or any other reason?
Kweli: He’s always been so focused on family. I was listening to the song ‘I Wonder’ and he is sort of wondering out loud, talking to a girl. He has talked about this idea of having this baby and this family life, he has said it in many different lyrics. ‘My man shows me pictures of his kids, and I can just show him pictures of my crib’, he has been talking about it for a minute, so to watch him manifest that, watch him zero in on one particular woman that he zeroed in on years before he even stepped to her on that level and be like ‘this is my plan’, that’s pretty impressive. I think that’s why he bugs out when people don’t understand how he feels about Kim. When he does interviews he is like ‘this is the most beautiful woman in the planet’, and he has been on that for a minute and he really went out of his way to make that happen. And not to just do it on some trophy wife shit, he did it on like ‘I’m trying to have this family’. He has really been about family and people and I think people miss that aspect of him. When people are caught up on willing to make fun of what they (Kanye and Kim) are wearing, whatever it is people are talking about, they miss the fact that they are putting family at the forefront of pop culture.
Recently Dave Chappelle, someone you have had a long friendship with, had you open for one of his performances at Radio City Music Hall. How did that relationship begin, where did you first meet Dave?
Kweli: At a De La Soul show in Ohio near where Dave grew up at. We met earlier, years before then, at some chick’s house that we both used to hang out with. That’s when I was like ‘Hey, I met you at such and such’s house’, and then we started kicking it. Then a couple years after that, I happened to be in the studio recording the Reflection Eternal album and Dave was walking down the street on 8th Street Village (New York) and I saw him and I stopped him. He said ‘What are you doing?” and I said “I’m recording an album right there, we are working on an album.” (Dave) said “I’ve never seen an album recorded,” so he came and he just came every day. He was there every day for the Train (of Thought) album.
How has the transition been from working with major labels to starting your own independent label? Have you found many red-tape problems, such as trouble getting features or samples cleared?
Kweli: It has definitely been easier. The more I have tightened my circle, the easier things have been. But now I just know it better. I am working on a new album, and the decisions I’m making, I learned so much with Prisoner of Consciousness and so much with Gravitas, that now even as I purchase beats, I’m automatically getting the samples replayed immediately and getting the quotes for how much it will cost. The business and that part of it, I’m doing as I’m creating, as opposed to what I used to do in my career that is create and then depend on managers, label people, to handle all that business. When you do that, you record it and your album sits there for a year when you’re trying to figure out how to clear the samples. Now I’m doing that along the way so I’m getting it more streamlined.
Thanks to Talib Kweli for taking the time to sit down with us for our first featured interview. Also look out for our interview with K’Valentine and young up-and-coming rapper out of Chicago that Talib got us in contact with.