Talib Kweli

Truth to power

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Expressing an opinion can be tricky for anyone, but for those who live in the public eye, the backlash can be brutal. Those of us in the general public seem to vacillate between wanting celebrities or people we admire to shut their mouths and stay in their lanes, and wanting them to use their voices for the greater good of society.

But more and more often, we expect those with a platform to use it. And in a world where rapper Killer Mike is interviewing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Patricia Arquette is calling for wage economy during her Oscar acceptance speech, and Emma Watson is speaking before the United Nations, it seems celebrities are stepping up and speaking out.

Of course, all of this is old hat to hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, who has not only been making his opinions known on a variety of social and political issues for more than two decades, but he’s also made a career out of speaking truth to power.

Most recently, Kweli made news for scrapping on Twitter with pop star Iggy Azalea over, of all things, a new Macklemore song called “White Privilege II.” (I don’t make these things up. This is the world we live in, folks.)

Whatever your personal feelings might be about Macklemore and his feelings about white privilege, one thing is abundantly clear: Azalea, who was called out in the song for her perceived cultural appropriation, most certainly was not feeling it. The accusation is not a new one for the Australian rapper, who is white, and she tweeted her displeasure at being personally singled out.

Kweli wasn’t having it.

“The fact iggyazalea thinks Macklemore song was a diss to her, instead of actually listening, is proof of her privilege,” he tweeted in response.

Azalea was not content to leave that be, and after some back and forth between the two rappers, Kweli ended his part of their interaction with “if you value black lives, shit I can’t tell. I can tell you love black culture tho. I think u confuse the first w the latter.”

But Kweli isn’t sniping at Azalea simply because he’s got a smart phone and too much time on his hands; instead he’s trying to urge her to see beyond herself, at one point literally exhorting her to “do better.” This sentiment is at the heart of the way in which Kweli has chosen to use his voice not just to highlight existing issues, but to urge us all to step out from behind our screens, see the world for what it truly is, and then act to change it for the better.

And it’s an attitude he’s embodied in his own life, putting his direct action where his mouth is. He’s been vocal in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. He went to Ferguson to take part in what he’d hoped would be a peaceful protest there. He went to Florida to work with a group dedicated to repealing the “Stand Your Ground” laws that allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to go free.

Even so, Kweli has said he doesn’t consider himself to be a true activist. He has made the distinction, forcefully and often, that what passes as activism these days—which is mostly made up of retweets, status updates and the sharing of social media memes—is anything but, and is actually mostly empty, self-congratulatory gestures. He is firm in his belief that true activism requires “boots on the ground” and “bodies in the streets.”

Kweli comes by his beliefs honestly. His parents are both college educators who fell for each other while protesting the Vietnam War. His brother went to Columbia and Yale before clerking for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. He himself attended New York University, honing his skill as a rapper and distilling his beliefs about social issues while studying experimental theater.

But a man with a message—no matter how important or urgent—does not a successful musician make. First and foremost, Kweli is an innately skilled rapper, spitting lines with precision and style. With his expansive vocabulary and ability to turn a phrase, he is reknowned for his lyricism. And while he may indeed rap about gentrification and spirituality and revolution, he’s not above penning songs about women and life on the lighter side of hip-hop.

Kweli’s career has also been marked by collaboration, most notably in 1998 with Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) for a critically lauded project called Black Star, but also with the likes of Kanye West, Pharrell Williams,, and more. He’s also known for supporting young hip-hop artists on the rise, and some of those he’s given opportunities to include J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.

In fact, it is his relationship with Lamar that produced one of the rapper’s most memorable songs of the past few years, 2013’s “Push Thru.” In it, the Brooklyn son of academic parents traded verses with the straight-A student from Compton, and it became evident that if Kweli has an heir apparent in the realm of socially conscious rap, it is likely the phenomenally skilled Lamar. The track also proved that with their impressive command of language and similarly distinctive vocal delivery, the duo could make a case for being rap’s foremost nerds—and I mean that as a compliment.

Having seen Kweli play in the past, I can attest that he is an entertaining and compelling performer. And when it comes to having something to say, this is one person in the public eye who is not afraid to speak his mind and own his opinions—and they’re always well worth a listen.

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