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Talib Kweli Speaks Through 'Radio Silence'

Nov 19, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 5:56 pm

Talib Kweli has, for more than two decades now, been considered a standard bearer for what's sometimes called "conscious rap." Both as a part of the hip-hop duo Black Star with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and as a solo act, his music provides social and political commentary layered over a bed of eclectic production. Outside the studio, Kweli has been just as outspoken. whether sparring with Don Lemon on CNN or trolls on social media.

Kweli's eighth studio album it's titled Radio Silence. Speaking with NPR's Michel Martin, Kweli discusses speaking out on racism, the changing value of radio play in hip-hop and his album's tribute to Bresha Meadows, who was arrested at 14 for killing her father after years of alleged domestic abuse. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: So you've been in the news lately because Twitter locked you out of your account, following an exchange with a Texas attorney who was writing some pretty threatening things to many people. For those who haven't heard about it, do you mind telling me your take on all this?

Talib Kweli: So this guy, his first tweet to me was something about, he's an attorney and I'm stupid and I'm not as intelligent as mentally challenged people ... and when I looked on his page, he's spending all his time threatening people. He claimed to be a lawyer so I looked up his — there's a website called Find A Lawyer that's run by the Texas State Bar. And on that website is this guy's phone number and his address. On top of his phone number and his address being on the Texas State bar website, he's also posted on his account his phone number and his address and encouraged people to hit him up, if they have any grievances. So what I did was I posted his address and his phone number and I encouraged people to hit him up. That's what Twitter locked my account for.

I felt like it was very hypocritical for them. I feel like they unintentionally protect white supremacy and protect white supremacists when they take actions like that. And I stress "unintentionally" because I don't think Jack [Dorsey] and all the people on Twitter are purposefully trying to enable white supremacy. But when it comes to oppression, intention doesn't matter, results do.

Talk about more broadly what role you think your presence on social media serves, because there are those who would make the argument that you're just feeding the beast.

I think that's a really privileged argument to make. I mean, you gotta be really comfortable and life has got to be really convenient for you to say, "Hey man, just ignore racism." Racism is not something that goes away when you ignore it. As a matter of fact, the opposite occurs: When you ignore it, it gains strength in the dark. Nelson Mandela said, "Fools multiply when wise men remain silent." and I live my life by that.

I'm trained to have this discourse. I studied critical race theory, I've lived my life as a black man and I participated in direct action activism. So I'm informed enough to be able to address and have these conversations with people. A lot of people are not informed. And some people just would rather things be comfortable and convenient than deal with the inconvenient truth of racism. So they tell people like me, "Be quiet."

Or they're not temperamentally suited for it. But let me ask you two questions about this: Do you feel that this is your responsibility as an artist, or do you feel it is your responsibility as a human being? How do you understand your role in the current moment?

It's definitely my responsibility as a human being, but it only becomes my responsibility when I'm aware of it. Like you said, some people don't have the temperament, or some people don't have the information. You can't blame a baby for what they're ignorant about. But once you are aware of things and you don't do nothing about it, that's when you become complicit. So it's my responsibility as a human being. Me being an artist just gives me a wider, bigger platform.

Given all that, where did the title of this album, Radio Silence, come from?

The radio has been such an integral part of hip-hop culture. From LL Cool J's "I Can't Live Without My Radio" to the big commercial hip-hop stations. But the radio is not indicative of what's going on in the culture: If you only listen to the radio, you won't really know what's going on in hip-hop, especially in the digital age.

So now we're at a point where I've established enough cultural currency [where] I don't need the radio to have my career be popping. If the radio go silent tomorrow, my fans will still know where to find me. And I can make music and participate in the culture without even having to go through the shenanigans of dealing with radio play.

Let's talk about one of the cuts from the album where you are talking about something that is based on a real story with real facts that people can verify if they are interested. It's called "She's My Hero." Do you want to briefly tell us about it?

Bresha Meadows, she was 14 years old when she shot her father while he was sleeping. She shot him because she said that he was abusing the entire family. She was arrested ... and she's in a juvenile detention center now for a few months, or I think a rehabilitation center or something like that.

But what inspired you to write this song? What struck you?

The idea that a child of that age has to make such a weighty, heavy decision and it felt like her only option in that situation. Whatever was going on in that house, she felt like her only option was to murder her father. Your father is who you come from, your father and your mother. The idea that you would want to murder them — either they have to be doing something that's so drastic that you feel like you have no other choice, or there has to be some mental illness going on there. And both domestic violence and mental illness are things that are not talked about enough in our communities. She physically reminded me of my own daughter, and the story, I felt like, didn't get enough mainstream radio play. The track, produced by Oh No, inspired me to want to try and tell the story from her perspective.

Do you feel that you're making progress, when you think about where you started out and where you are now? And I don't mean just on a personal level, but in terms of what you hope for, what you wish for society, for the people that you serve through your music. Do you feel that you're making progress?

Certainly — I mean, I'm here on NPR. You gotta understand, I grew up in New York City; I was born in 1975. This program, All Things Considered, was [on] in my house when I was a little kid. So for me to be doing this interview with you on this program, it's like full circle.

When I was younger, I posted pictures of a lot of rappers on my bedroom walls. Most of them are my friends now. So as manifest destiny, I've spoken truth to power. I've created the life that I wanted to create — and because I'm still here and about to put out my umpteenth album, I'm doing that for someone else.

But the politics of the moment are not at all in alignment with yours.

But when have they ever been? I mean, we all like to romanticize Barack Obama, but he was one cog in the system. Like, he's one thing. The system has never been, even with the first black president, aligned with my beliefs.

So what keeps you positive? What gets you up in the morning to keep moving in the direction that you hope for?

When I first started rapping, I didn't have any fans; no one cared what I had to say. So I can't do it just because I have fans or just because people care what I have to say. If I don't have the fire burning on the inside, then it's not for the fans, it's for me. Now, once I put it out and put a bar code on it and ask you to buy it, at that point, I start kowtowing to the fans a little bit — when I get on stage or want to entertain you, of course. But when I'm creating the music, it's for me. And I'm rewarded in a personal way because when I put it out, the people recognize that. They support me, and then I can support my family.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, this has been a moment in which artists from across the spectrum are being asked where they stand on the issues of the day. Well, nobody has to ask Talib Kweli. For more than two decades now, he's been considered a standardbearer for what's sometimes called conscious rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK STAR'S "DEFINITION")

TALIB KWELI: (Rapping) My name is Kweli from the Eternal Reflection. People thinking MC is shorthand for misconception. Let me meditate, set it straight, came to the conclusion that most of these cats is featherweight. Let me demonstrate.

MARTIN: That's the song "Definition," Talib Kweli's first-ever single from the 1998 album "Black Star," where he was half of a hip-hop duo with fellow MC Yasin Bay, formerly known as Mos Def. Since then, he's recorded eight solo albums and numerous collaborations. Talib Kweli's music provides social commentary layered over a bit of electric production values. Outside the studio, Kweli has been just as outspoken, whether it's sparring with Don Lemon on CNN or trolls on social media. So it may come as a surprise that his latest album is titled "Radio Silence."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO SILENCE")

KWELI: (Rapping) Born again like I passed away, castigated for being honest. Caught bail like a castaway because I feel like I'm stranded on an island. When I'm getting introspective - that's radio violence.

MARTIN: But don't be fooled - Talib Kweli still has a lot to say, as we found out earlier this week when he joined us from our New York studios. I started by asking him what's changed for him and his music over the past 20 years.

KWELI: I'm better at it. You know, you do do something for a Gladwellian (ph) amount of time and you're supposed to be a master of that craft. You know, the earlier stuff people romanticize because it's how people were introduced to you. And people associate music with nostalgia and with memories. So if you let the fans tell it, from the Beatles to me, the fans would be like, it's that first album. And that's a blessing. It's not a curse at all. But for my money, I've only grown as an artist.

MARTIN: Do you think that your audience has grown with you or you think you've grown with them? What do you think?

KWELI: I think it's together. It's a mutual thing. The audience has taken this journey with me. My audience when I first started was college-aged kids and kids who were just - who had no money to get in the club and kids who were hopping the turnstiles. Now they have bad knees and need babysitters.

(LAUGHTER)

KWELI: You know, it just happens.

MARTIN: God willing.

KWELI: Not all of them though. I have a lot of new fans and younger fans who don't need babysitters, and their knees are just fine. But as far as those OG fans, yeah, they grew with me.

MARTIN: Well, you know, a number of your fans also know you through social media. And you've been in the news lately because Twitter locked you out of your account following an exchange with a Texas attorney who was writing some things that many people perceived as deeply threatening. For those who hadn't followed this, even for those who have been, would you just give us your take on what this controversy is about and why it matters?

KWELI: Oh, certainly. I've always been an outspoken artist in my music and especially in social media. I take what the content of my lyrics are and put them in social media. People come to my Twitter all the time to spew sort of white supremacist ideals, anti-diversity. They're very scared of white genocide. They hate Black Lives Matter. They hate Hillary Clinton. So this guy, his first tweet to me was something about - he's an attorney, and I'm stupid. And I'm not as intelligent as mentally challenged people he deals with. And when I looked on his page, he's spending all his time threatening people. He's calling people the N-word. He's calling people homophobic slurs like the F-word. He's threatening anti-fascists with guns. He's showing pictures of himself with guns.

And he said he was an attorney. So I looked up his information on - there's a website called Find A Lawyer that's run by the Texas State Bar. And on that website is this guy's phone number and his address. He's also posted on his account his phone number and his address and encouraged people to hit him up if they have any grievances. So what I did was I posted his address and his phone number. And I encouraged people to hit him up. That's what Twitter locked my account for. I feel like it was very hypocritical for them. I feel like they unintentionally protect white supremacy and protect white supremacists when they take actions like that. I stress unintentionally because I don't think people of Twitter are purposefully trying to enable white supremacy. But when it comes to oppression, intention doesn't matter, results do.

MARTIN: Do do you ever worry about the toll it might take on you to constantly be engaged with people like that?

KWELI: I mean, quite the opposite. I'm empowered. It makes me feel good when I get a racist suspended from Twitter. It makes me feel good when people are empowered by what I say. Like, it's not a stressful thing at all. If anything, I'd be stressed out if nobody was doing nothing. No problem in history has ever been solved by people ignoring it. Racism is not something that goes away when you ignore it. Matter of fact, the opposite occurs. When you ignore it, it gains strength in the dark. Nelson Mandela said fools multiply when wise men remain silent, and I live my life by that. Some people would rather things be comfortable and convenient than deal with the inconvenient truth of racism, so they tell people like me, be quiet.

MARTIN: Well, given all that, where did the idea for the title of this album, "Radio Silence," come from? Because you clearly aren't.

KWELI: The radio is not indicative of what's going on in the culture. If you only listen to the radio, you won't really know what's going on in hip-hop, especially in a digital age. So now we're at a point where I've established enough cultural currency where I don't need the radio to have my career be poppin. If the radio goes silent tomorrow, my fans will still know where to find me.

MARTIN: To that end, let's talk about one of the cuts from the album where you're talking about something that is a real story, I mean, with real facts that people can verify if they are interested. Let me just play that. It's called "She's My Hero." I'll play a little bit, and then you can tell me more about it.

KWELI: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S MY HERO")

KWELI: (Rapping) They say karma is a [expletive], and when you take a life, pay the price. But if your way of life ain't never been threatened and you safe at night, how you out here judging, thinking you giving people great advice when those who should protect you disrespect you? You can't take it light. Bresha Meadows, resemble my baby girl, 14 years old taking a place in this crazy world. Her and her brothers lived in fear of her father's rage. He beat her mother so often, she prayed for the day she could be far away.

MARTIN: So I understand that this is based on a true story. Do you want to briefly tell us about it?

KWELI: Bresha Meadows, she was 14 years old when she shot her father while he was sleeping. She shot him because she said that he was abusing the entire family. The idea that a child of that age has to make such a weighty heavy decision and felt like her only option in that situation, whatever situation she was going through because, you know, I wasn't there so it's all alleged, right? Whatever was going on in that house, she felt like her only option was to murder her father. You know, your father's who you come from, your father and your mother.

The idea that you would want to murder them, either they have to be doing something that's so drastic that you feel like you have no other choice, or there has to be some mental illness going on there. And those both domestic violence and mental illness are things that are not talked about enough in our communities. And the story I felt like didn't get enough mainstream radio play, so I just - the track inspired me to want to try to tell the story from her perspective.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you're making progress? I mean, when you think about where you started out and where you are now - and I don't mean just on a personal level, in terms of what you hope for, what you wish for for the society, for the people that you serve through your music. Do you feel that you're making progress?

KWELI: I mean, I feel like every musician, even the ones that are depressed and take pills and say they're pessimists really aren't. If you were that much of a pessimist, you would not make music. You have to be an optimist to make music. And we don't make music. Some people do, but that's not recommended. Some people make music to fit the trends. You have conscious rappers that talk about every subject but they music be wack and corny and nobody want to hear from them. You don't have me on this program because I'm good at talking about politics.

There's a lot of people who are probably better at talking about politics who could be on NPR. You have me on this program because I'm dope as a rapper and because I focus on the craft. That's what it is. It comes from the inside. When I first started rapping, I didn't have any fans. No one cared what I had to say. So I can't do it just because I have fans or just because people care what I have to say. If I don't have that fire burning on the inside, then it's not for the fans, it's for me.

MARTIN: Talib Kweli joined us from our bureau in New York. His latest album, "Radio Silence," is out now. Talib Kweli, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

KWELI: Of course. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADS UP EYES OPEN")

KWELI: (Rapping) A wise man know what he know and what he doesn't. If he's not really sure what he's saying, he don't discuss it. A righteous man walks the earth without judgment and loves his enemies enough to deliver justice. A pious man relies on religion for his direction. At times he's introspective, but his biblehood never questioned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.