Creativity Soundtrack Party: Talib Kweli Edition

In Part I of an occasional series, we listen to “Get By”

One of the most common questions I get as a writer and comedian is this: “How do you stay focused?” Another one is: “How do you get motivated when you just don’t feel like doing the work that day?” This is Part I of an occasional series about art to view or listen to when you need motivation, especially with writing.

Sometimes in interviews, stuff gets cut for time. I was recently honored to be interviewed by the handsome and debonair Hassan S. Ali, creative marketing director at scrappy Midwestern World Wide Web start-up The Onion, which is run out of a dorm room (and where I was an intern in 2007). He’s also the editor of Slackjaw here on Medium. Here’s our interview. Thought I’d share something he had to cut for space.

HA: We all feel down sometimes. What do YOU do to perk up?

SB: I drink a cup of iced coffee. Or I take a nap. I cry a bunch to let it out. I talk to my closest friends. I get my motherfucking nails did. Gels are the only thing standing between me and biting the fuck out of my nails when I’m stressed.

I have specific music that helps. There are too many artists to point out but I’m going to single out Talib Kweli here. As far as his songs I go to, “Get By” is older but still number one for me. I don’t know when he wrote the song but I think it was recorded in 2002 and released in 2003. Great songwriting and a beautiful video.

I believe this is a perfect music video because we see the artist in his context speaking his language in his way. The director shot it with him standing against a backdrop of a Manhattan skyline that, at that moment in time is still newly and significantly missing two dominant structures — and he’s framed against a background higher uptown than Lower Manhattan but it still feels meaningful.

You’re also looking at a video that specifically spotlights people of color in a city coming out of an unprecedented period of whitewashing and gentrification. We’re in the early Bloomberg years but we’re immediately post-Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani was getting his balls cupped and his asshole fingered by folks in the media worshiping him as the people’s mayor, the magical hero of 9/11. It was everybody, but FOX News was and is the worst Giuliani fellator. This is the man who instituted policies and practices that destroyed so many lives (and, yes, enriched others — not the least of which was his own). He’s a racist piece of shit.

I think my feeling of connectivity to “Get By” is a testament to a great piece of art. Do I look like the people in the video? Have I had the experiences Kweli discusses? No. The universality is on display in part because of the specifics.

Not only do you have a lack of white faces, you’ve also got deliberate and conscious artistic choices as to how people of color are framed, lit, and celebrated. You’ve got observant Muslim women who are covered. If you look at how people are positioned, it’s with them in a position of dominance or at least power. There is a confidence to the way folks look directly back at the camera and thus by extension at the viewer.

Celebrity bonus points belatedly for shots of producer Kanye West two years before “College Dropout,” which I believe he was working on at that time and had been working on for years. Also, because it samples her version of “Sinner Man” from the ’60s, Nina Simone has a composer credit on it along with Kanye and Kweli, which trips me out every time I see it. Like I love to think about Nina Simone just releasing bangers in 2003.

Great art makes me feel better.

Xanax helps too. And therapy.

Check out Talib Kweli on tour and in your head and all that jazz. And if you want to open your mind up and also buy something for everybody you know, check out #KweliClub.