Outspoken emcee Talib Kweli has never been shy about sharing his views on the important topics making news in the culture. AllHipHop.com got the opportunity to speak with the legendary Brooklynite about the recent criticism over Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba, Rick Ross’ cancelled partnership with Reebok, the rising Hip-Hop movement in BK, and whether he feels he has gotten his proper respect as a rap veteran.
AllHipHop.com: What is your reaction to Senator Marco Rubio and other republicans’ criticism of Jay-Z’s recent trip to Cuba?
Talib Kweli: One, we should always know which side of the fence the GOP, and anyone who claims to be Republican, is. Republicanism as an ideal is about conservative and small government, but in reality it’s a racist reaction to the Democratic policies of 1964. Once you identify yourself as a Republican, you identify yourself as an enemy of people. That’s not to say Democrats are the greatest. Democrats can be just as bad, but once you say you’re Republican I already know what you’re about. So anything that comes out a Republican’s mouth you gotta look at where the intention is.
Corporate interests are against Cuba. Cuba was a government that stood up to the United States and decided they were gonna be masters of their own fate. All those people Marco Rubio’s talking about, how did they get so poor? From Batista and his government’s connection with governments like the United States. Say what you want about [Fidel] Castro and Che Guevara, they revolted and gave Cuba back to the people. Is it perfect? No, but does the United States’ embargo and sanctions against them help make it more perfect? No, it doesn’t. It helps to make it worse.
As far as Jay-Z, he’s a grown ass man and he’s a free citizen and he can do whatever the hell he wants to do. I’ve been to Cuba with Black August. Our goal there was to connect with Cuban Hip-Hop artists, and that’s what we did. You can watch the documentary about it on YouTube. But, did I also go on the beach, have fun, and smoke in Havana? Hell yeah, I did. Why wouldn’t I? Now maybe Jay-Z is playing up that image too much, but that’s what he do. He invented “swag.” He said it on the song.
AllHipHop.com: What did you think of Jay-Z’s “Open Letter”?
Talib Kweli: I thought it was pretty good. I always wish Jay would go a little bit more in the depth of what’s he’s talking about. He sort of skims the surface of things, but he approaches it from the perspective of a rich man. That doesn’t mean that the record is not dope. I just sometimes want him to go deeper, but that shit stills sounds fresh.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think that Reebok’s reaction to the Rick Ross lyric controversy will affect the way artists approach writing in the future, specifically, artists that have corporate interest connections?
Talib Kweli: Maybe in the immediate future, but not in the long run. Artists are going to be artists. Look at Rick Ross’ content before this was a controversy. Rick Ross, as talented as an artist he is, was talking a lot about murdering and killing. Just like a majority of rappers who are on mainstream radio. So that wasn’t an issue for Reebok.
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AllHipHop.com: So why do you think this particular line sparked such a response?
Talib Kweli: Because the people who were upset about it got to the point where it began to affect [Reebok]. It began to make their radar. I don’t think they did it out any moral obligation. If that was the case they never would have worked with Rick Ross.
AllHipHop.com: There’s been other lyrics in Hip-Hop that have addressed the same topic and other topics that can be seen just as offensive. Why do you think people got so upset about this subject?
Talib Kweli: It’s circumstance. Feminism as a movement in America is organized. It’s organized to a degree where there was an organized response that targeted Reebok. It was an organized group of people that got together and pushed. Same thing happened with Shawty Lo’s show. There were people who got organized and said, “No, we’re not having that.”
But there’s no organization representing young black men being murdered that would step up and be like, “no, we’re not having that.” That’s not to take away anything from any organized group of people. If people want to organize around stuff, we need to organize around all of it.
And I’m very clear about how I feel about artistry. I’m not down for censoring art. I get a lot of flack for saying that. In the face of some of the most despicable things that are said on records, I still defend it, and I get flack for it. When I defend it, I’m not saying that people in the community who have issue with it shouldn’t organize a response to it. Of course they should. That’s the natural response. Just like the artist has the right to say it, you have a right to organize a response to it. And we’ll see who’s stronger. And at that point people got to choose sides, and see who’s side they’re on.
AllHipHop.com: From you perspective, how’s does the depiction of “Hip-Hop” in the media, for example shows like Love & Hip Hop, affect the culture? And does your belief in an artist’s right to express themselves extends to depictions of television?
Talib Kweli: Those things to me are symptoms of the culture. I don’t look at Love & Hip Hop, and be like, “Ah, man. Young girls are gonna start acting like that.” I look at Love & Hip Hop and say, “Our young women are acting like that.” Now we see how corporations are starting to try to profit off of it, because people like to watch drama and the fighting. We need to get the community active to point where you see some bullshit like that and you be like, “Nah, I ain’t watching that.”
When that starts to happen and there’s no money in it, then we start to change the tide. You don’t change the tide by attacking the t.v. show. That’s a loosing battle. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be mad at a t.v. show you don’t like. I’m just saying strategically, how are you going to fight that battle.
My whole focus is always solution oriented. It’s never just complaining for the sake of complaining. What are we going to do about it? That’s why my whole career is based on presenting images and music that provides a counterpoint, that provides a balance to what we see in the mainstream. That’s why I always will work with a mainstream artist, and inject myself into the culture in that way. I realize my place in this culture. I realize that I’m a connector, and I can bring these ideas to the table. That’s just my strategy. Somebody’s else’s strategy might be different.
AllHipHop.com: Speaking of working with mainstream artists. Do you feel like people put you in a box and don’t see you going outside of that box when you work with certain artists, and that’s what kind of throws them off when you do?
Talib Kweli: It’s not just me. They’re putting whatever artist I’m working with in a box. They’re putting themselves in a box. People are used to dealing with things in packages. Everything we buy is pre-packaged. When you listen to Hip-Hop it’s all on the radio. It’s all on t.v. It’s used in commercials for advertisements.
Most people in Hip-Hop today don’t remember a time when they had to search and fine Hip-Hop in order to be down with it. Now you can be down with Hip-Hop just by turning on the computer. [Turn on] CNN and there’s a Hip-Hop beat playing in the background. You go on some blog and leave a comment and you’re Hip-Hop. You don’t even have to leave your house. You can be Hip-Hop in fifteen minutes. They have nothing truly invested in it. Matter fact they’re not even buying it, but they have all these opinions on it. So it’s an interesting relationship you have with the artist and the music. You don’t revere it. That’s something that artists who are making it now, who remember it like that, have to realize. You have to adapt or die.
AllHipHop.com: There seems to be a new renaissance in Brooklyn Hip-Hop happening right now. You have a lot of young artists starting to emerge from the Borough like the Pro Era crew, Troy Ave, Nitty Scott, and Flatbush Zombies. What’s you take on these artists?
Talib Kweli: Because it’s still Brooklyn, I’m still hearing a lot of street elements in the music especially with some of the artists you’ve named. But it’s refreshing to me, because what I see happening is that artists are realizing that they don’t have to take their cues from what’s going on in the mainstream. The way they’re marketing and promoting themselves is creative.
Mr. MFN Exquire, Troy Ave, Pro Era Crew, Flatbush Zombies, I think all that sh*t is fly. What I respect the most about it is that they’re not making industry moves. They’re moving as artists, and they’re serious about they shit. They’re making sure that they’re Soundcloud, YouTube, Tumblr, everything be in sync. They make the relationships they suppose to make. The fact that they’re names are even coming up in interview with me, and none of these people even get record deals, is a testament to how powerful they’re movement really is.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think that the era we’re in now allows indie artists to grow at a much faster pace or reach a greater audience…
Talib Kweli: I don’t think it just allows. I think it encourages. I don’t think there’s any other way of being successful. There are no more gambles in the music business. If you hear about an artist getting a deal on a label that’s because that motherfucker already got 20 million YouTube hits on each of his videos.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think a major is even necessary at this point?
Talib Kweli: I wouldn’t say necessary, but I would say it still can be a useful tool in terms of you spreading your craft. I think Kendrick [Lamar] used a major distribution situation to his advantage. Black Hippy and TDE used it to their advantage. You got Ryan Lewis and Macklemore who are killing it. With the moves they’re making they don’t have to go on a major at all right now. It would be in their benefit to be independent right now.
AllHipHop.com: You’ve been in the game a long time. Created classic albums. Do you feel like you’ve been given the proper respect or been properly appreciated for the work you put it?
Talib Kweli: I got no complaints. I’m sold to the media, to the labels as the underdog, under appreciated, and underrated and all that, but what I’ve focused on is what people give me credit for. I think that people don’t see all of what I do, but I don’t put that on people. I put that on myself. I think that I’m way more dynamic of an artist that I’m given credit for, but do I complain about it? No, I’m very blessed. My focus has been on lyricism, so no one can ever say nothing about me lyrically.
That’s one thing people can ever take away from me no matter whether they like me or not. If you say that I’m not a good lyricist then you probably just don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. But if you’re just like, “I don’t like his music, I don’t fuck with him,” that’s just personal preference. But to me, I’ve established the fact that I’m a top-tier lyricist. So I think I get that respect from all across the industry and across the board. But I do think I have way more to offer than what people think I do, but I place that responsibility on my shoulders.
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Talib Kweli’s 5th studio album Prisoner of Conscious is scheduled for release on May 7th.
Watch the video for Talib Kweli’s “Upper Echelon” below.