My Relationship with Talib Kweli (Talib Kweli Greene)
By Will Tischler
I want to preface this story by saying I have no personal relationship with Talib Kweli. Earlier this year I drove with my girlfriend for 8 hours to watch him perform with Niko IS, Immortal Technique, and other Rebel Armz artists at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, and that’s probably the closest I’ll ever stand to him. This story is meant as a reflection on the power of art and its ability to reach far outside of the communities that influenced it to give power to the people.
I came up in Victoria Park Community Housing. As a Canadian man with white privilege, I have faced little adversity in my life. Some adversity, yes, but it has been minimal. I have been lucky enough to look back on my days in community housing and know that it was merely a checkpoint on my life’s road. However, I have lived among society’s marginalized, and that is a blessing from God. I have seen a family celebrate one son’s ability to follow the game of football all the way to the CFL, while I watched that same family mourn the tragic death of another son who fell victim to negative influences (Rest In Power). Naturally, hip hop spoke to me from a young age. At first, it was because hip hop was cool. All of a sudden I could speak a different language and relate (somewhat) to all the kids in my neighbourhood. The first album I bought was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. But once the album’s commercial appeal began to fizzle out in lieu of the next hot album, I continued to cling to this project. Although I could not put it into words at that young age, I understood there was far more behind 50's artistic effort than just commercial appeal. I will not draw out this introduction any further other than to say that hip hop had become the vehicle with which I would gain a perspective far different from my own.
It’s ironic that I had no knowledge of the existence of Talib Kweli until I listened to Kanye West’s College Dropout album. I’m sure that anyone who has followed Kanye’s career from the beginning will understand the irony there. However it’s a testament to the power of hip hop if you allow yourself to venture outside of the mainstream. It’s interesting to me that out of all the threads I could have followed from College Dropout, I chose to, first and foremost, get acquainted with Kweli. Thank God for that. Talib Kweli has shaped my perspective in ways not yet completely quantified, and his music has been only one piece of the puzzle.
I will keep my feelings toward his music brief, for his music speaks for itself. I will say that if there are people reading this that fancy themselves fans of hip hop and have not given this man your ears, please do. I would be surprised to hear any regrets. Long before the Prisoner of Conscious album, it was clear to me that I was listening to a man of conviction. Depending on the song you listen to, you will hear Kweli align himself with feminism, socialism, the struggling, the hustlers, you name it. I don’t think there’s a table in the world that he couldn’t sit at and bring fresh perspective. That being said, there are many tables where his perspective would be less than appreciated. And that is what I admire the most about his music, for he is never afraid to push the envelope. He can put any hat on and rap with the best of them. Lyrically, his diversity with subject matter and who he collaborates with can appeal to anyone within the wide spectrum of the hip hop fan base.
I’ve been sitting with these thoughts for a long time. I’m a thinking man at my core. Often times I like to reflect on the people who have influenced- and more importantly CHALLENGED- my perspectives. Some people have helped me directly, and some indirectly, Kweli obviously being the latter. I make an effort- though I’m not always successful- to show my appreciation to those who have affected me directly. However, no one has mentored me from a far as fundamentally as Talib Kweli, and I had to put these feelings out to the world. I chose Medium specifically because it was on Medium that I read Kweli’s beautiful entries. “The Point That Went Missing”, “In Defense of Ms. Hill”, “Nigga? Please”, and “Why I Left the Major Label System” were not only educational, but formative. One of the reasons I have gravitated to Kweli is because he veraciously speaks truth and substance through many different platforms. Music is an enormous contributor to culture, but to find someone who can do it through music, and other avenues of writing is a gift that I personally refuse to squander. It was through these other avenues of writing and activism that I gained far more respect for him than his music had ever inspired in me because I could see that there was no lack of authenticity in this man’s paint brush. This is not to say that Kweli is the only artist out there with these attributes, indeed there are many. Immortal Technique, Killer Mike, Brother Ali, Lupe Fiasco, Yasiin Bey, just to name a very small sample size of the population. And to be fair, there are many more that I can not name because I work a 9–5 and only have so much time to explore this beautiful art form. But I look forward to a day when I can uncover more. To me, Kweli- along with all of these other men- handle a mic with maximum proficiency, and quite literally dismantle damaging cultural narratives on a daily basis. I will stop myself here before I run this story off the rails of my intended message.
What really solidified my admiration of Kweli- not only as an artist, but as a human being- was his humility. In an industry that is so unbelievably competitive and saturated with immense talent, you’d be hard pressed to find an artist at Kweli’s level that carries such humility. There is an asterisk here, and that asterisk is that there are probably many artists with this attitude. However, I haven’t followed any of them as closely as Kweli, so I’m not qualified to speak on that. I can almost hear his voice in my head challenging me on this and speaking up for his peers that I have left out here. And that is the beauty of humility. I apologize Talib, maybe one day we can dialogue for a minute and I can build on that aspect of my perspective. One glaring example of this humility came to me when I read an article where he opened up on his feelings toward Niko IS and the Colors of the Culture collective. http://uproxx.com/smokingsection/2015/10/talib-kweli-colours-of-the-culture-new-project/. I have rapidly become a supporter of the Colors of the Culture movement, and it was beautiful to see what Kweli had to say about them. Not only has this seasoned veteran of the rap game supported Colors, but he goes so far as to say THEY have changed HIS life. To me, that’s beautiful, and it can teach us a very important life lesson. We are never finished learning and growing. Another great example came in an interview Kweli did with RT America and Abby Martin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpzdY5CXwLs. In this interview Abby asked Kweli about some lyrics he wrote in 2007 saying “real hip hop is what’s missing from the shelves”. Talib’s response was to say that he stood by his lyrics, but that he would not make the same statement today. In the true artistic and human spirit, he spits his words with conviction, and welcomes new information and perspectives. It’s honesty and transparency all the way down the line with Talib Kweli and the artists that he associates with. It gives the art a very fluid, yet honest stance within the culture. Lastly, the question is how has this humility of Talib’s challenged me to grow in my own perspectives? Well, often in life we find ourselves gravitating to one end of a spectrum, while completely rejecting the opposite end without giving it a fair shake. As an example, I’ve always supported Kweli and Yasiin Bey while demonizing Drake and Rick Ross. Kweli’s perspective on this has helped me grow. He points out that while we in the hip hop fan base are polarized by artists we view as “different” from each other, Kweli is a fan of Drake, and vice versa. They are peers making equal contributions to this very diverse culture. So, while I haven’t listened to What a Time to Be Alive yet, I will at some point. And Kweli’s perspective has helped me dismantle some of my previously held ideologies for the sake of progression and deepening my understanding of this beautiful culture. GROWTH.
Last, but certainly not least, is what I consider the most polarizing yet significant contribution Kweli brings to the world… his twitter account. (Yes, TWITTER.) On a daily basis, Kweli- along with Immortal Technique, Brother Ali, and others- take to twitter to confront people on their most deep seated beliefs. As a die hard Kweli supporter, I consider this platform to be where the rubber meets the road. Initially, I was taken aback by how many “fans” take offence to Talib’s words. I never understood how someone supposedly relating to Talib’s records could be so offended by his twitter interactions. Again I say, the man is TRANSPARENT. These sentiments have been in his music from the start. Have you heard The Proud? To this day, it’s my favourite Kweli record, and that’s saying something. Google it, please! But again, via twitter, yet another tool in his toolbox, Kweli has educated me and many others. White Supremacy is real, and it has been for some time now. I’ve read some history, and intend to read plenty more. Don’t be afraid to crack a book! I have learned that white supremacy has been propped up by whites and non-whites alike. This is not to say that Talib Kweli is the only person to teach me this, but he has helped point me in the direction of the authors and historians who have taught me, and will continue to teach me. In the words of Kweli and RA the Rugged Man, LEARN TRUTH! By aligning himself with true grassroots activism such as #BlackLivesMatter, Talib Kweli has shown his true fans the perspective that drives his incredible career as a recording artist. If you’re reading this sir, thank you. I follow your twitter dialogue daily and it has not deterred me, indeed it has strengthened my belief in you, and my desire to contribute to social justice.
In summary, I believe that Kweli is not only an incredible craftsman, not only profound with words, but he takes a position. Not an AGENDA, as some would say, but a position. He carries himself with the heart of a true emcee- not MC (word to KRS-ONE)- and the spirit of a panther. Being a true fan of Kweli has helped me learn and grow as an individual and that is why I will never stop showing my support to him. I will use my dollars and my words to support him. Thank you for the book club, the music, the twitter interactions, and the interviews. For anyone interested in listening to this man, go to kweliclub.com. Use your dollars to vote for honest art and knowledge. One Love!
One Last Post-Script: This story- to some who may read it- may seem like the words of a groupie or someone trying to get put on. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that it is useful and productive to put your convictions out to the world. It’s also important to let the people- near and far from you- who have made a positive impact on your life know what they’ve done for you and show them you are appreciative. No one achieves anything worthwhile on their own. Thank you!