This land is his land?
A Profile of Talib Kweli
October 2005 Issue
TALIB KWELI HATES BEING CALLED A “CONSCIOUS” RAPPER. But anthems like “Black Girl Pain” and “Get By” have established him as one of the most uplifting voices of the hip-hop generation.
He refuses to vote and calls politics “an illusion.” But he is a fervent advocate on behalf of political prisoners and a proud supporter of community organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
He insists he isn’t a role model. But he spends much of his time speaking to inner-city high schoolers and college students.
In a musical genre usually delivered in the first person, the most common word in his music may well be “we.”
If the hip-hop generation is a hothouse of contradictions, Kweli is one of its most intriguing blossoms.
His story is typical of many in the hip-hop generation. Born Talib Greene to two professors, he was raised in a Brooklyn household deeply attuned to the civil rights and Black Power movements. But rather than following his parents into political activism, he followed his peers into cultural production.
A gifted writer and rhymer, Kweli joined forces with high school friend Dante “Mos Def” Smith to form the crew Black Star. Released just as commercial rap was consolidating around bling-and-party themes, their acclaimed 1998 album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are … Black Star, heralded a return to the liberation-minded ideals of rap. Two years later, he followed with his first solo album with Hi-Tek, Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought.
His second album, 2002’s Quality, offered his biggest hit and most succinct manifesto to date, “Get By.” Over a Nina Simone sample hooked up by producer Kanye West, the song starts as a story of a man trying to get his life right and becomes a metaphor for a generation struggling to center itself amidst forces of oppression. The revolution, Kweli was saying, began with one’s self.
Kweli rejects labels like “conscious” or “political rap” as insidious forms of corporate branding. “Party” or “gangsta rap” is marketed to mass audiences—crucially through black and brown urban audiences first—a process he captures in a single line from “Get By”: “We’re survivalists turned to consumers.” But “conscious rap” is seen as a rap sub-market and is often pushed first to educated, middle-class, multicultural—often white—audiences. Some black audiences then tend to reject such music as “white music.” Kweli says, “Once you put a prefix on an MC’s name, someone will shut down. As an artist, that’s a death trap.
“That goes for ‘gangsta rap’ too,” he adds. “If an artist is labeled ‘gangsta rap,’ all the so-called conscious rap fans won’t check for them. But they would find gems and jewels if they heard it. I’ll play Jay-Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’ for someone and they’ll be surprised. I’ll say, ‘Well, you assumed Jay-Z is a gangsta rapper.’ ”
Rappers themselves refuse to recognize such distinctions. On his last record, commercial titan Jay-Z admitted, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.” For his part, Kweli tried to attack industry conventions, cutting a remix of “Get By” with Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and Jay-Z that only deepened its themes. Then, in a cover story for hip-hop magazine XXL, Kweli held a much-discussed interview with 50 Cent, which found the multi-platinum rapper confessing he wished he could rap “conscious” like Kweli.
Yet there is some distance between the kind of rap that 50 Cent makes and Kweli’s. His third album, last year’s The Beautiful Struggle, critiqued misogyny, dissected the culture’s fixation with death, and drew historical links between Africa and the state of Africans in America. “I wanted to make an album that really talked about black life, specifically from my perspective, from Brooklyn, and what people are going through and what people are dealing with,” he says.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Kweli, a father of two, turns thirty this year. Along with Kanye West’s 2004 Grammy-winning The College Dropout, Common’s Be, and Blackalicious’s The Craft, grown-up rap—hip-hop that embraces its thirties with compassion and wisdom coloring the defiant b-boy attitude—is a burgeoning genre. Perhaps some of these records may become as revered as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life—all albums recorded by older, wiser artists. But is music enough? Or is it simply a distraction?
That question hovered over a disastrous talk that Kweli and Mos Def gave at Chicago’s Field Museum in late 2003 at a conference on hip-hop and social change. Before a large crowd of fans, hip-hop activists, and street organizers, the two argued that rap artists need to be relieved of the responsibility for racial uplift in order to be able to accurately represent the community in their art.
But that statement was poorly received by a vocal contingent. During an audience Q & A, Aaron Patterson, a recently pardoned death-row inmate, told the rappers they had a global platform and didn’t have the luxury of abdicating their responsibility. For the next hour or so, the Field Museum auditorium exploded, with fans, activists, and the celebrities yelling at each other. Chicago organizer Fred Hampton Jr. stepped onstage to try to mediate. Finally, the organizers decided to end the talk. There would be no resolution.
There is a historical context to this blowup. After Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential campaign ended in a Democratic Party snub and racial tensions tore apart David Dinkins’s New York and Tom Bradley’s Los Angeles, much attention—and money—shifted from political representation to cultural representation. With no compelling young political leaders in sight, the media began to make icons of people like Spike Lee and Chuck D, whose celebrity seemed in part to be activated by the very weakness of black political leadership.
Entertainment—movies, music, pop culture—took on social weight. Cultural producers were, often very reluctantly, being crowned and critiqued as community leaders. No one had ever asked Nina Simone to lead, only to sing, but now Chuck D was claiming his music was intended to create 5,000 new black leaders. Over the last two decades, the need for new progressive leadership and new images of racial uplift has only intensified. The evening at the Field Museum seemed to encapsulate the contradictions of these twin desires.
Kweli and Mos Def met the next day with Hampton, Patterson, and other Chicago activists. They all now work together to publicize the issue of racism and political prisoners. The event also helped Kweli clarify his own understanding of his role in relation to his generation’s and his parents’ generation’s struggle. “Back then, you saw images on TV of people getting bit by dogs, people getting hosed down. It was like, someone needs to stand up and do something. Turn on the TV now, you see dudes driving around in Bentleys. It’s like, ‘We good.’ There’s no context,” he says.
His own resolution to the evening came when he wrote the song “I Try,” which features a smoldering performance by Mary J. Blige and concludes with a snippet of Hampton’s onstage efforts to mediate the conflicting claims. “The first line I wrote on ‘I Try’ was, ‘I’m trying to write some shit that bang in the club through the night while people suffer tonight.’ I heard that beat and was like, what do I want to do? I want to try to write a song that people can dance to. But how can I focus on that when there’s so much other suffering and shit to write about?”
But for all his efforts to address this suffering, he takes pains not to exaggerate his own role. “My most diehard fan will say maybe I’m putting my life on the line by speaking about certain things on record,” he says. “But there’s nothing that, besides everyday dangers and being a black man in America, is really threatening my life. I’m not on the front lines of the struggle. I’m sort of in a tower with a megaphone. I have to be real with myself about what I’m actually doing: I’m in the business of entertaining people. If I can do more than that, I will. And I think through my career, I’ve proven that I can and will. But I don’t get it twisted, like I’m some big activist. That would take props away from the people who are really doing it.”
Jeff Chang is the author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” which recently received a 2005 American Book Award. He was a co-founder of the influential hip-hop indie label, SoleSides, now Quannum Projects, and a founding editor of ColorLines magazine.