“I’m inspired by the counterculture artists from the 1960s who were doing music that was very timely but timeless at the same time,” says Kweli. Months on from the release of ‘Radio Silence’, how has he found the response?
“It’s a little different in the digital era. People’s attention spans are way shorter. The afterglow of putting out an album doesn’t last as long as it used to. You put out an album and the next day people on Twitter are like, ‘Where’s your next album?’. With that being said, I’m thoroughly enjoying the response to ‘Radio Silence’. I toured it. I just released a new single with Jay Electronica with a video, so people are still discovering it.”
Kweli is 42 years old now. He has accepted that he’s a veteran and with this acceptance comes a freedom. Kweli feels no need to keep on top of popular sounds, these days he sleeps above all trends. I throw out the name Migos as a group with a hot sound. Might Kweli once have tried to keep up with the ATL group’s rapid-fire couplets and dab-inspiring anthems?
“For so long I’ve seen myself as a person who is on a Trojan horse, trying to sneak messages into the mainstream,” he says thoughtfully.
“But the mainstream is 15 to 35. I haven’t been in that demographic for a long time. I’m more of a legacy artist now, I’ve had to accept that. It’s a good feeling once you accept that because people have to come to you rather than you going out and chasing the fans.
“I love Migos and I love artists like that who introduce new sounds and new styles. It challenges me to become a better artist. But yeah, back in the day, if Migos had dropped 10 years ago, I might have wanted to make a record that fits in with what Migos are doing. I no longer have that desire.”
If you’ve never heard Talib Kweli’s flow, there’s still a chance that a thought released through his hyper- active Twitter feed has spilled onto your timeline. I smirk when I notice that during the two minutes Kweli’s made to wait on the phone for our interview to start, he’s replying to tweets. As soon as we hang up, he’s back on it again. He believes in the power of social media, likening it to the power television had during the civil rights movement.
“The social media tool of the day when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were running around was television. Television was the new thing – it was Twitter, it was Facebook, it was Instagram. The reason we talk about people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is because they mastered the social media of their day.
They mastered the television soundbite. You would see Malcolm X or King on every program, every talk show, talking to people who didn’t like them but they would be on every talk show with an agenda with a plan to push the message forward. In that way, when you have people fighting for social justice using these tools to connect like-minded people, it’s a great thing.”
That stands in contrast to the general sentiment around social media right now. That is, its ability to corrupt elec- tions and subvert democracy, and the loss of privacy in an increasingly digital universe. Plus, the internet’s role in the rise of extremist groups and the spread of hate speech. You’ll catch Kweli eviscerating famous serpents like Piers Morgan on issues, but he’s actually a rarity among celebrity Twitter users – he’ll regularly engage with anonymous accounts too. Kweli sees the reality behind false names and avatars.
“People now, because they’re anonymous, can say whatever. They can tell lies, they can be racist, they can be hateful. The rise of Neo Nazis and fascism across the globe has to do with how fascists can recruit online anonymously. Before they had to march in the streets and we were able to show up and shout them down. Now, they can do it in the most insidious way. You see the rise in GamerGame, which was a lot of anonymous hateful games, all the way to Trump – it’s a pattern of people using the anonymous internet.”
He continues, “There are decent people who tell us to ignore this because they think that online interactions are somehow not real. They’ll [say], ‘Well, it’s just thoughts!’ and, ‘It’s not real’ and, ‘If the person doesn’t have an actual picture, who are you arguing with?’. That’s true but those ideas are real and the reactions and responses are real. Donald Trump is a success and the alt-right and right-wing parties across the globe are successful because unlike a lot of well-meaning liberal and left-wing progressive people, they understand that the truth doesn’t matter. They understand that winning matters. The idea of, ‘It doesn’t matter if I’m for justice. It doesn’t matter whether or not I’m telling the truth. It doesn’t matter if there’s any accountability or credibility to what I’m saying, as long as I win. As long as I have this idea or illusion I won’. That’s good enough for them and it carried over into Trump actually winning.”
Those forces will be served by voices like Kweli. He calls out all those demanding their rhetoric be heard under the false veneer of ‘free speech’.
“They’re not asking for free speech, they’re not demanding free speech. What they’re demanding is something different. They’re demanding freedom to speak without consequence.”
That’s been the way of his music since year dot. On ‘The Magic Hour’, from ‘Radio Silence’, Kweli raps, ‘Hip hop will flourish with nourishment and proper care’. But what does nourishment and proper care of the culture look like to him?
“It looks like ‘Radio Silence’ to me. I try to make the type of music where I say I want to hear. I don’t complain about what other artists do. I try to put that on my back to do myself.”
Talib Kweli plays The Academy, Dublin on November 5.