Interview With Talib Kweli on US Politics, Hip-Hop, Drake, The Five Percent & The Occupy Movement

Talib Kweli – an internationally renowned American rapper and a celebrity within the hip-hop scene – once said: “I don’t fuck with politics.” Yet, when asked about his views on the upcoming US elections he becomes animated: “Politics is as entertaining as a soap opera. [President] Obama plays an ill political game, if there were no term limits, he would be President for a very long time!” he says. He also expresses his views on the Republican candidates. “Some of the political rhetoric coming out of conservative right in Americasounds like the same thing that set the stage for Nazi Germany.”

Kweli, known for his politically conscious music, has just finished touring the UK with British-born rappers Lowkey and Mic Righteous – also known for their “conscious” lyrics. “I’m not actually that familiar with them,” he admits in his softly spoken voice, perhaps the antithesis of the bravado with which many other rappers speak. “But I’m looking forward to getting more familiar with them.” It is not just his meek voice that stands out, his diction does too. Kweli, the eldest of two sons, grew up in a highly educated household: his mother Brenda Greene is an English professor and his father an administrator at Adelphi University. Isn’t strange, then, that he decided to pursue a career in rap? “My parents are writers and the writers of my generation are rappers,” he says.

During secondary school Kweli met Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey, a Grammy award winning emcee and DJ Hi-Tech, an American producer and rapper. These encounters would prove pivotal to Kweli’s career: in 1998, he combined with Mos Def to release the seminal album Black Star and teamed up with Hi-Tech, to release Train of Thought, both considered hip-hop classics. While the albums didn’t sell millions, they received critical acclaim and earned the respect of many fellow rappers. Now, five solo albums later (although not all of his records lived up to their expectation) Kweli, 36, is married to DJ Eque as of 2009 – and has two children from his former partner Darcel Turner.

Kweli, who insists his name be pronounced “Kwali”, rose to prominence amid the renaissance of Afrocentric, politically motivated hip-hop in the 90s but, since then, there has been an increase in music which – he believes – portrays, “sex and drugs…the gangster lifestyle…and just having a good time.”

“When I first came, hip-hop was about opening people’s consciousness but now even the great lyricists – J Cole, Kendrick Lamar – are rapping more about having fun,” he says. “Kwali” has never had an ostentatious demeanour – the big chains, flash cars and extravagant lifestyle associated with most high-profile rappers doesn’t seem to apply to him. Likewise, his physical features don’t particularly make him distinguishable: he stands at a height of around 5’8 inches and his soft features resemble that of any other Afro-American.

What does he make of the rampant materialism endemic in mainstream hip-hop? “I’m able to differentiate between what an artist creates based on how he grew up and what he creates as an individual. Jay Z the rapper, is different to Sean Carter. The same way as Arnold Schwarzenegger is different to The Terminator. It’s entertainment – I’m not here to judge.”

In a recent radio interview DMX, humorously, talked about why he doesn’t like fellow rapper Drake. What does Kweli think of Drake? “He is a shining example for mainstream artists – he is a really good rapper, singer and he can write, he is like a triple threat.” Many people have criticised Drake and Lil Wayne, both signed to Cash Money, for doing music purely for the money. Kweli disagrees and raises his voice: “I think that’s a very, very unfair, ill-informed criticism. They [the critics] are not really in hip-hop if they think like that. They just listen to the radio and end up getting sick of them and their lyrics. They forget they [Drake, Wayne and Kanye West] come from somewhere – how many people listened to Wayne’s first album? But everybody knows Carter IV.”

Many critics of hip-hop have claimed that it isn’t the “same” and isn’t as “good” as it used to be. Kweli again becomes annoyed: “Why should hip hop be the same? When I was first listening to hip hop in ’87, you had older artists saying this music is shit. The Cold Crust Brothers didn’t like LL Cool J, now he is  classic MC. They thought he was a young snotty nose punk. People look at things in their own perspective. If we could all see through the same eyes we would welcome new artists.”

Unlike many of Cash Money’s artists, Kweli’s music has always been synonymous with truthfulness and honesty. His views on the current political climate in America reflect this honesty. “A lot of American’s are greedy and selfish so they only want to listen to these messages [from the Republicans]. He describes these messages as “moronic,” “stupid,” “ignorant”. Kweli then speaks about the problems in American society. “The education system isn’t geared so that we know anything that goes on in the world; it doesn’t set you up to be part of the world either. The reason why America is having a crisis in education, science, and finance, is because we’re not prepared to deal with a world that is interconnected.”

One political movement Kweli has taken an interest in is the Occupy protests. Kweli says that he grew up in a protest culture and believes they are a “natural” part of society. “People aren’t just accepting things as they are; people are peeling layers back and seeing things for how they really are.”

Kweli, like many other black rappers have dabbled in the Five Percent Nation, an American organisation that believes 10% of the world’s inhabitants know the truth of existence, 85% live in ignorance and the remaining five percent know the truth and are determined the spread it. “I’ve got huge respect for the five percent,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I dabbled in the five percent, I also dabbled into Rastafarianism and Islam, I was trying to discover myself. I’m very much in touch with my spirituality now. I don’t claim to follow a particular religion.”

Why has he now disassociated himself from the five percent? “Disassociate is a strong word. I don’t like dogma. Even atheists will disagree with me but there is dogma to atheism, there’s a dogma to the five percent, whether people say there is or not. I would like to take something from every thought process. Nothing turned me off [the five percent] it makes a lot of sense, it makes as much sense as Christianity to me,” he says. “But I’d rather be open to see and receive everything,” he adds.

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