November 5, 2018Feature

For District Issue 004, Dean Van Nguyen had an extended conversation with one of hip hop's most revered voices; Talib Kweli.

“I’ve been around Kanye’s inner circle. It’s safe to say that there are people in his inner circle that I feel are problematic. There are also people in his inner circle that completely have his back and are completely honest in their critique of him.”


Try to picture being a conscious rapper in 2018 America, a condemned nation that is constantly finding new ways to mangle the spirit of its most oppressed and tyrannised souls. Picture being Talib Kweli, who for two decades has relentlessly fought injustice through his music, attacking the societal fabric with a pen that cuts like a blade. The Brooklynite has worn the tag ‘conscious rapper’ with honour, putting his righteous message ahead of fame, riches and all the other benefits of rap stardom. And now Kweli’s country crumbles. It’s a hell of a thing.

“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."

When Donald Trump found himself passing the finish line of 270 electoral votes back in November 2016, there was instantly an expectation that a tidal wave of scintillating protest music would follow. For American artists, their doomed nation would, it was assumed, offer creative fuel as potent as metallic hydrogen. Many have answered the call, attacking the Trump machine with an arsenal of lyrics, hooks and chord progressions. Their work is valid and virtuous. Yet the question must be addressed: does music still have the power to change the world?

“I do believe in that, but that belief has its limitations,” Kweli tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “At some point there’s a certain amount of artistic privilege that I’ve earned from doing art for a living that disconnects me from the average working class person. So even though my music is known to be representative of poor people, oppressed people, working class people, I’m not in those circles as much as those people are.”

Kweli cites the echo chamber he operates within as the reason he failed to gauge the societal factors that facilitated the rise of Trump. As a star rapper, he was in a bubble that obscured his view of the trends that allowed the USA’s current Commander in Chief to gain access to the nuclear codes.

“I was actively resisting against Trump but I was actively resisting in a way where I thought that he had no shot,” admits Kweli. “I probably would have resisted differently or even more had I known he not only had a shot, but was going to win.”

Move the clock back to a decade ago, when Kweli was one of a galaxy of rap artists to throw their support behind Barack Obama’s election campaign. A sense of hope pulsed through the hip hop nation, yet Kweli remained cautious about a single politician’s ability to heal the world.

“I still feel the same as I do about the political system and one man can’t change it,” he wrote in a 2008 open letter. “But this man deserves our support nonetheless.”

Kweli proved to be one of Obama’s most trenchant critics within rap. Today, he draws no correlation between the type of men Obama and Trump are, seeing them as diametrically opposite human beings. He remains, though, assertive on one key point, “The system doesn’t change because there’s a black president”.

“When Obama was elected a lot of weak journalists would ask myself and other conscience artists, ‘What are you going to talk about now?’, as if racism was over or our entire output was based on this victim narrative. It was telling to me that that’s how people see conscious music: that somehow it’s about some victim narrative or somehow we’ve a black president so everything is solved.”

He continues, “I liked Obama as a person but I didn’t agree with a lot of his policies. I’m not a Democrat, I was very critical of him. He invited me to the White House and I accepted his invitation because I like him as a man. I like him as a man way better than I like Trump as a man. But I was still very critical of him, even to his face. Who I am as an artist doesn’t change because whoever is popular gets elected as president.”

In my mind, that’s a fair opinion to hold of Obama at a time when his legacy is being fought over within hip hop. At this point of the interview, I just have to ask Kweli about one of the artists he’s most closely aligned with, Kanye West. Nobody will have missed Ye’s return to public appearances and social media over the last year, where he’s criticised Obama, voiced support for wicked forces and offered an offensive re-contextualisation of history by referring to slavery as a “choice”.

The struggle for West’s soul has been played out online. Screenshots of text messages to Kanye from those inside his universe, including Kweli, document the battle.

“I think Kanye is isolated in a lot of ways,” says Kweli. “Celebrities of his calibre are. Kanye has achieved a level of celebrity that I can’t speak on. He’s in a stratosphere, he’s in an atmosphere, that I’ve never been in. So I can’t speak eloquently on his condition. But I can say that I think that he’s isolated even from himself. I think he’s making several mistakes. He’s listening to the wrong people. I think he’s pushing for artistic freedom, he’s pushing for personal freedom, but everyone’s freedom comes at the expense of someone else’s. I don’t think that Kanye understands that his push for personal freedom is hurting the very people that he claims to love. And I wish and hope and I’m working towards helping him get to the point where he can understand that better going forward.

“I’ve been around Kanye’s inner circle. It’s safe to say that there are people in his inner circle that I feel are problematic. There are also people in his inner circle that completely have his back and are completely honest in their critique of him.”

Kweli, of course, featured on ‘Get Em High’, from West’s ‘The College Dropout’ – an era of Ye’s career that many disillusioned fans find themselves crying out for. If Kanye is interested in recording with him again, Kweli insists he’ll accept the call. He’s currently in the process of promoting ‘Radio Silence’, his eighth solo album which was released last November.

Surprisingly, the record doesn’t overtly cover hot-button issues that the emcee has frequently addressed in interviews and through social media over the last couple of years: Trump, Black Lives Matter, etc. Instead, he probes less stress-tested themes. Take ‘Knockturnal’, which drills into masculinity and the corrosive effects of negative male role models or ‘She’s My Hero’, a song by Bresha Meadows, who as a 14-year-old in 2016 shot and killed her allegedly abusive father as he slept.

“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 Nova Batida in Lisbon from September 13-15. Click here for tickets.

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