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Race, Class, and Compassion: Talib Kweli Straddles the Worlds of Music and Activism 

Wednesday, Mar 18 2015

Talib Kweli is perhaps the most well-known yet unknown artist in hip-hop. Determined to do away with the pompousness that's often associated with his level of celebrity, Kweli nonetheless expresses empathy for some of the more visible and pretentious hip-hop artists in the game. At the same time, his own music stands on a soapbox — one that forces society to look at itself through an unfiltered black-and-white lens — as he raps about social injustices that other musicians shy away from.

Kweli is versatile: He was part of the groundbreaking hip-hop duo Black Star along with Mos Def, and continues to release albums that paint vivid pictures of the black American experience; helped nurture the early careers of Kanye West and J. Cole; marched and protested in Ferguson; and created music for Game of Thrones. In conversation, Kweli uses terms like white supremacy and compassion in the same breath. His activism is in the vein of Angela Davis, his perspective similar to that of literary giant James Baldwin. In short, Kweli is a rare rapper: He stands for service and displays a surprising level of humility.

We caught up with the Brooklyn MC as he embarked on a national tour with political rapper Immortal Technique and the Brazilian-born artist NIKO IS, whose debut, Brutus, was just released by Kweli's Javotti Media. Kweli will speak on race, justice, and hip-hop at the Castro Theatre Friday, March 20. The rappers will perform at the Fillmore on Sunday, March 22.

Tell us about NIKO IS. Why did you choose him for this tour?

In my career, I've been blessed to run into artists who are intellectual, and fantastic, often before they blow up and become big artists. It happened with Kanye, Jay Electronica, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole. They're all artists I made music with before the world embraced them. NIKO, to me, is not different from the people I just named. On top of that, him being from Brazil and being able to speak three different languages, I see him as a visionary and as someone I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to work with. I think a year or two from now, people are going to be talking about NIKO IS in a big way.

You're wearing a number of hats right now: A few weeks back you were concentrating on the work you've done with regard to the uprising in Ferguson. How do you balance your music and activism?

It's been hard to do everything I want to do, but it's been worth it. The activism is a natural progression of my music.

You've blamed overly militarized police forces in Ferguson for "harassing and throwing [people] in jail for exercising their right to peaceful protest." You also created the Action Support Committee, which has raised more than $100,000 to help protesters. How will you disperse those funds?

There are 13 people in the committee that are overseeing the dispersion of the funds that were raised. There are five programs on the ground that we gave a small amount of money to. We chose programs run by young activists who are not tied to a charity system. There is still a lot of money left over. We've committed ourselves to distributing all of it by fall of this year. We want to be strategic, and not just run through it all in three weeks. I also want to be clear that there have been a lot of blogs and stuff written about what we're doing with the Ferguson Defense Fund, but the only thing that is official is what the Action Support Committee actually released; the press release which is on my tumblr page.

There are a number of hip-hop musicians who chose not to speak up about Ferguson. What drove you to support the protesters?

I know the mainstream media is controlled by six corporations and their job is to tell the story of the officials. I realized what the people on the street were saying was different than what I was hearing on the news. That made me want to go. I also understand that people trust me to give an honest perspective on what's going on in situations like this.

What I saw was crazy. I had cops throw me on the ground and put guns in my chest, and that's why I speak so passionately about this. I'm not a violent person. I was walking in the streets with the people and it happened to me too. It had nothing to do with me being a celebrity, but I thought it was important as an artist who has said the things I've said on my records to go to Ferguson and not just be someone who was talking about it online.

Kanye has said that he did not speak out on the turmoil in Ferguson because his father requested that he stay out of it.

Besides the obvious example of Kanye saying "George Bush doesn't like black people," there are other examples of him talking about class and race. He's a friend of mine. I definitely don't agree with everything he says, but I think 95 percent of what he says is incredibly accurate. There are other things he goes through that I can't relate to. I can still ride the train and walk down the street; not everyone recognizes me. I cannot imagine what he goes through and the sacrifices he has to make when it comes to what he chooses to say and what he doesn't.

Lately, there has been a string of shootings at high-profile hip-hop shows — Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, and T.I. shows, just in the past few months. Do you think violence at live hip-hop events is increasing?

In my personal experience, I don't feel like there has been uptick in the amount of shootings at shows where large gatherings of disenfranchised people are at. I mean, in the jazz era, people were getting sliced up at jazz and blues shows and now it's happening in hip-hop. You have artists like Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj who have poor, disenfranchised young people of color coming out to gather in large places. There's a lot of anger and tension at the shows and these things happen. I think these are more social things than the effect of the actual music. The music might be the product of those environments, but not the cause. Due to social media, we have increased coverage of these issues, which makes it look like the shootings are more frequent.

What are you focusing on right now?

Throughout my whole career, my focus has been around the prison industrial complex and it being the most effective tool for white supremacy. I came up in the crack era of the '80s. The crack comes from this whole mandate that was developed since slavery to Jim Crow to when Nixon was in office to what changed the Democrats down South to Republicans. Law and order and the criminalization of young people of color and for-profit prisons all serve the same thing, which is maintaining white supremacy. The phrase "white supremacy" has been largely removed from context largely due to guilt, and I wish there was a more accurate term, but I think anything else at this point in history would be inaccurate. White supremacy is the father of racism and I think it's even the reason why we are having a discussion on class. That's what I find myself mostly pushing back against.

I am a human being first and to me, humanity is about compassion. The thing I see myself being most compassionate about is poor people.


About The Author

Jordannah Elizabeth


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