Kweli, Hip-Hop Icon, Discusses Activism in Music

Daniella Brito

There weren’t any “murals of Biggie,” but Brooklyn beats reverberated off the walls of Hales Gymnasium this past Friday night as an energetic audience cheered ’90s New York hip-hop icon Talib Kweli onto the stage. Mixing lyrically powerful old-school block party hits over more recent beats, DJ Spinna Black set the tone for Talib’s set: a return to powerful, socially conscious verse in hip-hop.

This form of lyricism is what distinguished Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Brooklyn-based duo, Black Star, in the late 1990s. Rising in the wake of the murders of legendary rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, Black Star countered the violence in mainstream hip-hop. They did so alongside the established hip-hop collective Native Tongues, whose principle members included various timeless hip-hop groups such as Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Utilizing their influence as artists, these underground hip-hop groups wrote lyrics marked by Afrocentrism and other forms of political and social awareness.

In Black Star’s 1998 critically acclaimed album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the group’s awareness for the issues faced by the Black community is palpable. In the song “Brown Skin Lady,” the duo articulates their views on the media’s exclusionary European beauty standards and the lack of representation of Black women: “Whatcha need to paint the next face for / We’re not dealin’ with the European standard of beauty tonight / Turn off the TV and put the magazine away.”

Stressing the need for today’s youth to fight for the structural change in the U.S. that his generation has not yet fully fulfilled, Talib commemorated his message of hip-hop as a form of social resistance Friday night. He spoke passionately about a meeting he attended at the White House where other socially aware, Black hip-hop artists congregated to discuss issues pertaining to criminal justice reform and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Segueing into a discussion of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Talib expressed his contempt with the lack of progress made over the course of his two-decade career, stating that Black lives have always mattered and that policy changes for the U.S.’s treatment of Black lives have always been necessary. Proudly displaying the Black power fist throughout his set, Talib reminded the audience of hip-hop’s Black roots. He cited reggae music as critical to his development as an artist and central to the production of hip-hop.

Talib’s latest album, Indie 500, addresses the pressing issues of police brutality and mass incarceration. His performance of the song “Which Side Are You On” was particularly passionate. Critical of incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown, Talib raps: “How a kid without a gun become a threat to cops / When they let off shots, hoping that his head will pop and that his breath will stop? / Gotta be satisfied with waiting until we get the verdict / It’s just perverted, no justice for the family of the kid they murdered.” Talib’s work can be described as “conscious rap” — a term used to classify hip-hop that is politically and socially charged.

The powerful influence of conscious rap was a topic discussed by acclaimed scholar Tricia Rose during her lecture on hip-hop as a poetic force for social movements at Dye Lecture Hall in February. Hip-Hop, according to Dr. Rose, is structurally powerful and capable of producing social movements because it is both flexible and mobile. Hip-hop produces a self-containing identity, but we must question the sort of community it reproduces when paired with the capitalist music industry. Akin to the branch of hip-hop that Black Star countered in the ’90s, today we still see violence and gang activity as one of the most profitable narratives in hip-hop. However, the reproduction of this violence can be structurally oppressive; it becomes an ideology that is glorified rather than criticized.

While “gangsta rap,” as Rose calls it, is seen as dangerous to the production of social movements through hip-hop, we must be wary of supporting a “good hip-hop” versus “bad hip-hop” dichotomy. There is merit in the work of hip-hop artists like Chief Keef and Young Thug, whose lyrics tell the narratives of individuals actually living within communities where violence might be the only option, where institutions like public schools that systematically criminalize the actions of Black students fail to produce a means of upward social mobility. Chief Keef ’s words could as be labeled as “conscious.” They tell of the daily, lived experiences of those existing within the systems that Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar and numerous other rappers deemed “conscious” actively criticize.

The dismantling of racist systems of oppression — emphasized in Talib’s deeply resonant words Friday night — comes in different forms. It can be vocalized through presenting the raw, violent, daily lived experiences of impoverished Black communities, and it can be addressed through criticizing the structures that contribute to the conditions which create said experiences. Both are significant — both are strong foundations for social resistance.