Journey, Not Destination: An Interview with Talib Kweli

We spoke with the hip-hop legend about activism, elections, artistry, and honesty.

by Kwele Serrell
31 October 2016, 9:24am

Talib Kweli is a household name for anyone who respects, loves and listens to hip-hop music. "You mean Talib's lyrics stick to yo rib?" Yes. That's who I'm talking about. The Brooklyn born and bred rapper has released seven solo albums along with numerous joint projects with other artists and with each release he continues to further solidify his place within hip-hop history. In his 20 years in the industry, he's collaborated with hip-hop legends from from Just Blaze, Common, and Kanye West to J-Dilla, Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams. On top of those collaborations, Kweli also makes up half of the historic duo, Black Star, alongside Mos Def. He's responsible for hit tracks like "Never Been in Love," "Definition" and his eternal anthem, "Get By" which was produced by Kanye West. Speaking of Mr. West, it would be a dishonour not to mention the track "Get Em High," one of my favorite songs of all time and arguably one of the best songs off of College Dropout which features a fire ass collab from Kweli and Common. Aside from all of his accomplishments as an artist, Kweli has dedicated his life to being an active member within his community and retains a respected voice that frequently challenges and attacks social and political issues that often can be heard within his lyricism.

Kweli's background makes perfect sense when you look at the person he's been throughout the decades. Originally from New York, he was birthed from a family of educators, his mother an English professor at City University of New York and his father an administrator at Adelphi University (his younger brother is now a professor at Columbia Law School). So it's pretty easy to figure out how he became one of the most respected socially and politically conscious lyricists in hip-hop. His involvements with community activism, though, stretch far back into the mid and late 90's. From the Malcolm X grassroots movement to running Nkiru with Mos Def—a bookstore in Brooklyn that housed only black authors—and regularly participating in protests, Kweli continues to commit himself to supporting social change within his own and other oppressed communities.

With the election coming up and the current political and social climate being what it is, it only made sense to ask Kweli about some of the issues boiling up within our country. We talked about the voting system, police violence, social myths and what a world with either candidate looks like for him. We also got a chance to discuss hip-hop, his upcoming projects, and, of course I had to ask about his involvement in Dave Chappelle's Block Party, one of the greatest documentaries ever. If you haven't watched that you should go do that now. But I wanted to begin the conversation getting to know a little bit about Talib Kweli before he became the global rap-star he is today.

Noisey: Talk to me about what it was like growing up with your parents? I know you come from a household of educators. How did that influence your political outlook growing up?
Talib Kweli: My parents always taught me to peel back the layers and look beyond the surface. To never accept things how they are rather question how they came to be. My parents were academics in the heart of Brooklyn, I was getting this academic empowerment at home and in school but it was still in the heart of something very real.

Ok, I guess let's jump right into it. I'm a twenty-year old who is a little freaked out and confused about the current social and political climate of the country. So I want to pick your brain a bit about what's been going on. It seems as if there's a new case highlighting police violence across the country almost everyday.
However, police violence is an issue that is deeply rooted within our country. People want more education like cultural competency for police officers and more funding for training but is it possible to achieve a common ground when conducting police training? How is it possible to scan for racism when going through training?
I would push back against the idea that it is impossible to scan for racism. If you look at the history of the police department the police started as a slave patrol in order to keep slaves in check. The prison industry is designed to house people of colour, that's why people of colour have been over criminalised. That's why if you're a prisoner you're a slave essentially you don't have rights. Cops protect the status quo, they protect corporate interest that's just one element of their job, one tool of systemic racism. There are plenty of cops who join the police force because at the heart they are good people, they have great intentions in protecting their community but it's a tough job to do that in a system that's designed to not do that. So it would be against their interest to scan for racism but they could do it if they wanted to.

Is it important and becoming increasingly more necessary to caution and instruct young men of colour how to handle themselves when in the presence of law enforcement today?
Absolutely, I have a son and daughter they've had many conversations with me and have been to events. My son has dealt with police harassment so these conversations don't change, the political climate changes, the buzz words change but the conversations about what people go through on the ground level, working class people, people in the community doesn't change. A black kid is going to go through the same thing in Brooklyn this year that another went through in 1990, in 1970, in 1950 and as far back as to how systemic oppression is going to affect his life.

What does the world look like for you if Trump wins versus Hillary? What are your thoughts on Trump's rhetoric and has it contributed to the current racial climate?
It's funny because people like to say ever since Obama became President all of a sudden there's a racial divide, which is ironic. I can say that he (Trump) hasn't made the divide worse yet he has exposed the same thing Obama has exposed. When Obama became President the race rhetoric increased and people bought a lot of guns, gun sales went up by a crazy percentage. What you now have are people who are closeted white supremacists, they'll get on TV and say it. For instance they'll say, "Trump says the things that I've wanted to say but didn't think were socially acceptable to say" — though he's saying completely nonsensical, racist things and they're like "yes! I've been thinking that the whole time" (laughs). So I don't think he's created more of a division but I do think he's emboldened people, they're starting to feel a lot more comfortable.

How significant is the black vote within our two-party system? Does the vote matter in a way that allows for real change to occur?
Voting is not a revolutionary action. Pulling that lever is not an act of revolution but voting can and should be used as a tool for progressive movement and change. I don't think people should be pressured into voting, I don't think voting is required to make a difference. It can be argued that your vote within the two party system does not count the way you think that it does however I do believe the flawed voting system that we do have can be used to our advantage. I'll never tell someone to just go vote because if you don't know the issues you could be fucking up. A lot of people voted for Obama and he received push back from the left and black people because they thought racism would end and he was going to be some mystical, magical negro. Like, "damn, my bills didn't go down, my life is still fucked up, I voted for Obama and he disappointed me." President Obama is a politician he only promised what he could promise. But as far as politicians go a black man named Barack Obama who people said is a Muslim won the election, he's a pretty damn good politician, he had a lot of odds against him. But you have to see him for who he is, he's a centrist democrat, Christian, he's someone who works within the system to create change and to that effect he's been exactly that person and good at being that person.

Do you feel as if each of us has a social responsibility?
It depends on your experience, level of education, investment and engagement in certain communities. I don't expect someone who doesn't know the issues to have an informed opinion or to do something about it if they don't really know. But once you do know or the information is presented and you then don't do anything that's where I have a problem.

What about entertainers, artists and public figures? Do they have a responsibility to respond to these types of issues?
I think human beings have a responsibility to each other, that responsibility is completely dependent on your knowledge, understanding and access to information. Not just the internet because if you don't know what you're looking for Google can be the enemy. If you don't know what to Google you'll Google something with an agenda and not even know. You'll start reading websites and things people post as fact when in actuality it's a lie that you found on the internet and are now presenting as facts. So I think people are only responsible for what they know, if they have knowledge, they have the responsibility to spread it. Most celebrities become celebrities when they are young people, if somebody is conscious and aware great we should applaud that. If an artist starts off not quite aware but grows, like an artist like Beyoncé, the more power she establishes as a pop-star the more chances she takes with her own voice and we're seeing it in real time it's exciting. But I don't think that's a requirement of being an artist or a celebrity, I don't think you're required to do that. The only thing you're required to be is honest as an artist.

There are tons of touted social and political myths specifically used to divide people based on race and economic class in America. I wanted to get your opinion on the way these have been successful in doing so and why?
That's the way white supremacy works. Class is at the root of a lot of these issues the elites use power to divide poor white and black people. Class is set up as justification for racial oppression the elite only maintains power because poor blacks, Latino, Asian, and white people can enable white supremacy. It's all in the interest of the elite, they don't give a fuck about what colour the impoverished are. However, 96 percent of the one percent are white, that's not a coincidence, it's not because black people were late to the meeting it's systemically done like that on purpose. The elite are using race to separate people but they're using it to keep white men in particular in charge, that's the end game. So when you ignore that as a white person you're only doing that because it makes you feel uncomfortable or guilty. The way to combat that is not by pretending it doesn't exist the way you combat it is by calling it out every time you see it and standing in solidarity with people who don't have the privilege to be associated with those who are on top. That's the only way to separate yourself from that.

What about the black on black violence? It seems like people are extremely concerned with black on black violence in the U.S. and the issue is frequently used as a combative tool when discussing racism and violence against people of colour today.
It's the same thing that's going on with Muslims today. It's this idea that white, western culture is superior, is better, is civilised. Whereas these people of colour are savages and there are these "white knights" that are going to save these people of colour from themselves. It's the complete removal of context that somehow black people are just prone to violence, somehow black people are savages that can't control themselves, and that's a problem so let's explore that. Let's go with the thesis that you're an American and say you're a patriot. Look at the Tamir Rice story, a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun, which is legal in an open carry state. The cop essentially does a drive by which are what gangs do. There was no police work or investigation, just a drive by on a twelve-year-old. Like how can you condone that? So when the response to this is, "Hey, black people kill black people anyway." Even if black people were killing other black people three times an hour that still doesn't justify the police action. So you're outing yourself as a fascist, someone who thinks the state is always right. But those same people if the state were to come and take their guns, then all of a sudden the state would be wrong. These people have all types of shit to say about the police state when it's affecting what they perceive to be their rights but let the police state kill a black man then they're all fucking gung-ho.

What role should people within these communities take to create change? Is there an education barrier that makes it more challenging to do so?
I think we should focus on how we can combat issues of poverty that make education so bad. Education isn't bad because it's a community of black people or other people of colour. Education is bad because it's a community of poor people. It just that it's people of colour in these poorer communities because that's how oppression works. The issue is systemic oppression of education, healthcare, housing, the unemployment rate but these are all issues of poverty. If you're a person that focuses on fighting poverty then you are a person that focuses on fighting for people as colour as well.

Ok this is a bit of a jump but I have to ask a couple of things about music. I have to bring it up since we're talking. Do you have an album that you remember being the most challenging to create?
The Train of Thought album. When you have visionaries that have a strong vision and you put them in the room sometimes they knock heads. Hi-tek and I come from different environments our connection was music we like the same type of hip-hop music we just had very different ways of how to achieve it. I had a lot to learn from Hi-tech and he had a lot to learn from me, we were teaching each other but it wasn't always pretty, there was conflict. I really love that album but the process was difficult, it was a two-year process of both of us going hard to create the best album we could make.

The Hip Hop For Respect CD with Mos Def was a legendary project. Whenever you two collaborate it's almost as if it's effortless magic. Is there potential for a part two?
Thank you. Yeah, I try to do uplifting music and those things have to be organic. My next single that you'll hear will be addressing some of these issues. It's a song with Jay Electronica, we recorded it during the Ferguson events but I think I'm going to release it soon.

"The job of activism is not to be polite or to be liked" you said this in a tweet when someone critiqued your approach of fighting social and systemic issues. Expand on that especially in the face of rhetoric where oppressed people are expected to be civilized when fighting for equality?
The concept of civilisation itself is problematic. The language of civilisation assumes that everyone else is a savage so we have to be careful with words because that can enable white supremacy just within our language. But beyond that it comes down to respectability. The evidence of this is this guy Kaepernick, what could be more peaceful than sitting down? How could his protest be any more peaceful? He sat down for the anthem as a protest, you don't have to agree what he's protesting about but as an American you must defend his right to do it. If you claim that people should protest peacefully I honestly can't think of a better example. This exposes their hypocrisy, they aren't interested in our struggle or pain, they want us to think that it's an illusion. The people that criticize black lives matter and the people that are upset at Kaepernick they are not black people, they do not have black family members, they'll tell you they have black friends but they don't. Even if they know a black person at work or they invited a black person to an event once, these people don't invest any money, time or any mental concern into the black community except for telling black people who do invest into the community what they're doing is wrong. That's their only investment into our community and then I'm supposed to respect your opinion on my community? No, I have no respect for you at all and it's amazing how they come to the conversation so entitled as if they deserve respect when they've invested nothing into what they're talking about.

Is there an end goal when it comes to equality? How do we continue to stay engaged? How far have we come in regards to racism and issues of inequality or have we all just evolved with the current times?
I think it's a journey not the destination. I don't see in my lifetime racism or systemic oppression ending but it's about how you constantly combat it whether it exists or not. For instance who do you associate yourself with? Do you stand up for what you believe in? Can you honestly go to sleep at night knowing you did everything you could? That's really all you can do, I don't think any one of us are going to end racism, that's not a realistic goal but just because you're not going to end racism is not at all a reason not to fight it. It's mandatory that we combat it at all times. The world isn't designed to be a perfect utopia but we can damn sure make it better.

If you weren't doing music do you think you'd still be creating artwork through different outlets?
Yeah I love music. I love art, I would somehow be involved in writing books, films and music even if I wasn't as successful of an artist I'd still be doing it. I'd probably have to get a day job but my focus would still be in the arts.

​All photos by Dorothy Hong, c/o press.

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Talib Kweli
Black Star