“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
…Talib Kweli explained at his show at Barts in Barcelona, part of the 2017 Grec festival. This statement was part of a speech made about hip hop and its origins, describing the music as the outlet, the expression, of an economically-deprived community in the Bronx, New York.
Alongside Talib was the nimble DJ Spintelect aka The African DJ, and together they provided an energetic display of quality mcing against a cascading backdrop of hip hop instrumentals and black music classics. We heard Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and Damian Marley to name a few. The crowd adored Talib, relishing his poetic philosophies and interpretations of his most popular anthems such as ‘Get By’ and ‘I Try’ – a nostalgic dance was had by all who attended. A poignant moment of the night was the rapper’s tribute to Mobb Deep’s recently-deceased Prodigy, paying homage with one of the group’s finest tracks ‘Quiet Storm’.
Talib Kweli can be considered an ‘elder’ in the world of hip hop, he debuted as a rapper over 20 years ago, and is famously known for his role in the rap duo Black Star formed in 1997 alongside his contemporary Mos Def. Talib has received recognition for the social activism work he does as well as his constantly-evolving vocal and production skills, shown across numerous award-winning albums. I got the chance to meet him after the Barcelona show, and immediately noted his energetic, articulate style of communication, as he fired out informed and inspired opinions on any and all subjects that arose.
He explained how he had grown up listening to the extensive record collection of his father (50s rock n roll, funkadelic, psychedelic, classical), who had been a dj at college. He spoke about how his parent’s generation had invented album cover art – realising that putting attractive images on album covers helped sell music – and that while flicking through the albums as a child, he’d been attracted to the visuals of the individual records and played those first.
Still as a younger boy he’d been into the radio-driven generic pop music of the day, Madonna, Duran Duran and Dire Straits for example. When he moved to junior high-school he wanted to impress the girls and be accepted, at that time he considered himself as a bit of a nerd – a social outcast. Hip hop was already popular in the mid-late 80s at that school, which he described as ‘more hood’, and so he became drawn to it and in particular to its poetic angle.
The role of his parents in his chosen career surfaced a few times throughout the chat, when discussing their professions – his mother is a teacher in humanities, writing and English as a second language, his father is a sociology professor – he concluded, ‘Taking sociology and mixing it with the English language arts, that’s hip hop.’
After taking some time to think when asked what the last track that had moved him was, and after an additional eureka moment, he declared it was ‘Element’ from the Kendrick Lamar album Damn. He went on to recite lyrics from it, and then play it from his phone so we could all re-live and appreciate it. ‘This song has so many things in it, it’s so deep and has the whole canon of black music in it, and at the end of it he starts rapping like Juvenile! The beat on it feels like DJ Mustard in the club, and then there’re these jazz keys on it. He’s also representing his hood and rapping his ass off – Kendrick’s a genius.’
He rejected the idea of there ever having been any competition between East coast and West coast hip hop, leaving the impression that that myth was a clever marketing scam, a theme that popped up in the media and indeed on some album content throughout the 90s.
Not surprisingly with anyone whose profession stems from words and expression, he had expansive ideas; we talked about the genius of Scorsese, and his view and portrayal of New York, and how – with all respect to the actor – Al Pacino’s accent on Carlito’s Way was no way near close to that of a Puerto Rican from New York.
I was honoured to hear snippets from his latest unreleased work, all I can say is that we can expect a dynamic, creative gem.
Talib is indeed a force to be reckoned with, in both persona and skill. With one of the most iconic hip hop love songs under his belt – ‘Talk to You’ featuring Bilal – if anyone still has any doubts about the origins of hip hop and what its social context is, listening to Talib’s discourse will enlighten, as proven with his latest work, an EP made with Styles P called The Seven. Hip hop is still social music, and is needed now more than ever.
Photo: Dorothy Hong