Why did Talib Kweli never come up with a stage name?
“I’m just different than everybody,” said the Brooklyn-bred MC, calling from Utah, en route to his Monday night show at Agave. “I just couldn’t think of anything better. My name is dope.”
That it is. For an artist who has always sought higher truths through his music, there isn’t a more fitting moniker than Talib Kweli. Talib translates as “student” or “seeker” in Arabic, while Kweli is Swahili for “truth.”
And Kweli has been dope ever since he showed up in your headphones, which, for most hip-hop fans, was 1998 when he and Mos Def formed “the best alliance in hip-hop” on the classic “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star” album.
More than 20 years later, with 10 solo albums to his name, two more partnering with producer Hi-Tek for Reflection Eternal, as well as countless mix-tape appearances and collaborations, Kweli remains revered among lyricists for his craftsmanship and his social and political messaging. He’s worked with A-list producers such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, J Dilla and Madlib, and he’s become the head of his own media imprint, Javotti Media, a “platform for independent thinkers and doers” that releases music, films and books. He’s also performed in nearly every corner of the globe, rocking festival stages and solo club shows, spreading his message of equality. He’s been there and done that, sharing bills with the likes of hip-hop icons such as A Tribe Called Quest to the Wu-Tang Clan.
“Wu is just, iconic, they’re our Beatles,” Kweli said. “Always an honor and a pleasure to work with them, chill with them, record with them. I just shot an episode of ‘The Last O.G.’ with Tracy Morgan and Method Man is a character on the show and I got to chop it up with him. I’m as much of a fan of Wu as everybody else.”
And you can always find Kweli on Twitter, where he engages in daily verbal warfare with bigots, fake tough guys and any other sucker who dares to test his intellectual resolve.
Made in Brooklyn
Kweli said he got his activist spirit from his mother, an English professor, and his father, a university administrator, while growing up among the brownstones in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“My parents, while they weren’t hardcore, they were always active in protest movements, voter registration drives, active in the anti-apartheid movement. That was my lens,” Kweli said. “My mother would take us to museums and shows, we had anti-apartheid posters in the house when I was little. My parents raised me to understand that I’m part of a community. To always give back.”
Which Kweli has. He’s invested in the causes he raps about, showing up at rallies and in classrooms, and meeting with officials of all stripes to speak out against racism, police brutality, economic inequality and the prison-industrial complex.
He traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to join the protests following the shooting of Michael Brown, then organized two benefit concerts on the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death.
‘Nobody can tell me how to fight’
There are also the near-constant scraps on Twitter. When asked if he ever gets exhausted doing battle with trolls, Kweli said it’s quite the opposite.
“It invigorates me, it empowers me,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s startling to me that people are living their lives on the internet, living on social media, taking cars on Uber, shopping on Amazon, but when it comes to politics, it’s ignore racists on the internet. People are spending the majority of their lives on the internet, so why would it make sense to ignore bigotry and hate? That only benefits one person. Because these angry voices, that people say to ignore, they feel empowered when they’re ignored, or when they mob up.”
To make his point, Kweli said that Donald Trump retweeted neo-Nazis more than 70 times on the campaign trail, which he said “should have been a huge story but was mostly ignored because people were in the he-could-never-win phase.”
A year later, the Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, proved just how emboldened those angry voices on Twitter had become — and why ignoring them was wrong.
“A year later they’re out there lighting tiki torches, literally murdering people in the streets,” Kweli said. “Murdering people in synagogues.”
He makes a point, however, that he’s equipped to handle and compartmentalize the daily invective, unlike most.
“If you don’t have it in you, if it triggers you, the names they call you, that’s another story,” he said. “But nobody can tell me how to fight.”
It goes without saying that Kweli has a firm opinion on the recent Super Bowl halftime show controversy in which a number of high-profile artists of color, most notably Jay-Z and Rihanna, have turned down the NFL in support of Colin Kaepernick.
Kweli clarifies that answering a hypothetical about whether or not he’d perform at the Super Bowl is awkward.
“I’m not on that level of fame,” he said. “I wouldn’t be asked to do the Super Bowl, and it’s pretentious to weigh in on that level.”
He also doesn’t fault rappers Big Boi and Travis Scott for signing on after others turned it down.
“I would never tell anyone how to protest and I would never tell anyone how to make money,” he said.
Still, Kweli said he’s proud of the artists who took a stand.
“I think they’re setting a great precedent by declining,” he said. “They’re standing on the shoulders of their ancestors. They’re proving that the NFL needs Kap way more than Kap needs the NFL.”
He reiterates that the issue has always been about police brutality, which Kaepernick brought attention to with his silent protest, and that the message has been twisted.
“It’s not only about Kap, it’s about police brutality, and that part gets lost in the conversation,” Kweli said. “Kap’s jersey has done very well. The Nike commercial was super dope. But I have to be critical of Nike, though, because the guy who runs Nike contributes money to the Trump campaign. There are so many layers to it. The goal is not to see how many ways we can be different, but similar. There’s a lot of common ground.”