Talib Kweli strikes a balance between entertainer and thought leader. Though he doesn’t embrace the title “conscious rapper” fully, he knows his place in the world and the platform he’s been given as a respected musician, who’s helped move the hip-hop underground into a larger academic conversation.
If you follow him on Twitter you’re privy to his heady conversations about race, social stigma and the music industry. On Thursday, Kweli will share the stage with Immortal Technique at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom for the Denver leg of their “The People’s Champion” tour. We talked to Talib Kweli about social responsibility, his favorite rappers and lyrics and his specific job title.
Do you feel like because you’re an artist that you have a social responsibility to speak out on issues in society like the SAE situation in Oklahoma?
I think we have to be really careful when we talk about an artist who has a social responsibility to do anything. I speak out on the issue with SAE because these are the people who will go on to be judges and major heads of corporations. I’m an artist and I have a platform, which means more people hear me talk about it or more people engage with me about it. My only responsibility as an artist is to be honest with my craft and speak from experience. When you have knowledge, you’ll do better because you know better.
If there is a balance between being an educator and an entertainer, have you found that balance? I’ve heard you speak on college campuses and talk about how Stokely Carmichael has influenced your work, so there is a level of academia to your style.
I’m an entertainer, being an educator isn’t my job title. I come from an academic family so there is an education piece that factors into what I do but if there was a balance between education and entertainment, I say I’ve found that years ago. I have conversations that uplift my community because again, it affects me as a person. People who are coming to those kinds of talks already know what it is in terms of how history and academics factor into my music.
Do you feel like you’re still explaining to people who have maybe only heard “Get By” or owned “The Beautiful Struggle” what it means to be a “conscious rapper?”
People see me as a conscious rapper because I’ve been marketed that way. The same way people who only know a song or two from Pimp C or Bun B, or Big KRIT or Jay-Z even might say they are “gangster rappers.” The hip-hop heads aren’t really on it like that with the “conscious rapper” tip because they know there’s a balance between decadence and truth to my music. Just like those who listen to UGK wouldn’t possibly say all they make is gangster rap. Or no one who has listened to Killer Mike would say he only makes gangster rap. People who are listening to the music beyond one or two songs know what it means and that’s the same with the music I make. Because I’ve been branded as a conscious rapper it’s easier to use that label but I’ve been talking about the streets and a variety of other topics.
I’ve read a lot about how you’ve transitioned your business to a more independent movement that many artists who are underground can benefit from. Talk about your evolution as an artist.
When I first started out, all I wanted was to be a dope rapper. I didn’t care about any of the business side of the music industry. Now, because I’m further along in my career and have a family and things like that, I’m more involved with the business side of things. I’ve seen the industry collapse around me and rebuild itself several times so you have to know all sides of it. Your publicist isn’t going to save you, it’s about the work you put in. I work long hours, I play a lot of late shows but that’s what it takes when you’re going to be a truly independent artist.
You’re playing Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver with Immortal Technique. The Denver crowds really seem to love you.
Denver is a place where the fans love live music. I can rock any kind of show and the audience is always live because Denver is just that kind of town where people come out and love live shows.
Rap verses you love and that have influenced you?
Eminem’s verse on “Renegade,” Rakim’s verse on “Follow the Leader,” Andre 3000’s verse on “Return of the G” and Bun B’s verse on “Murda.”
Ru Johnson is an arts and culture music writer living in Denver. You can follow her on Twitter here.