London is a great city filled with beautiful opportunities, but interviewing one of your most listened to hip hop artists isn’t an everyday occurrence. A couple of weeks back I got to sit down with Talib Kweli.
Exiting Highbury & Islington station with a swarm of Arsenal supporters, I could just about see the beginning of a line forming outside The Garage in North London. Crossing the road we were immediately approached by two eager enthusiasts trying to sell us their mixtape. Showcasing the tracklist on the back of a sleeved CD, the two friends gave us a pitch so perfect I wanted to ask for a freestyle.
Inside, in a more relaxed setting, we were among the first to arrive. Knowing it would be a while before Talib Kweli would actually grace the stage we decided to quench our thirst and headed straight for the bar, ordering two (overpriced) rum and cokes. Behind us, the DJ was keeping our stomachs full with tracks from Lauryn Hill, Slum Village and Mos Def, which made the wait a welcome one.
Over the next 20 minutes the intimate surroundings began to fill up as the DJ continued to play classic after classic. Coats and jackets were removed as some people started to dance while others were tapping their feet or nodding their heads to the soul healing sounds of 90’s hip hop. A couple stood face-to-face, noses almost touching, rapped along to Snoop. Whilst another couple close by got lost in the music, and seemingly in each other, as they kissed passionately for an entire Erykah Badu track. Others had already cemented their spot at the front to secure the most up-close and personal viewing experience, while two friends next to me were speculating what track Kweli would come out to.
It started to feel like a secret hideout for hip hop heads to come together and just enjoy some good music. No thrills, no glorified props or theatrics just one man, one mic and good music. Soaking up the atmosphere, I looked out towards the rest of the crowd. There were men and women of all ages and races, couples that appeared to be as in love with each other as they were with hip hop. Groups of friends were laughing together and drinks were flowing, the tone was perfect. It felt like the night was a chance to silence the outside world, forget any troubles and just let the next few hours become our escape. We all connected through one thing that night: hip hop.
All of us gathered together to hear Talib kweli tell his stories for another time. It seemed fitting for him to emerge to the classical ‘‘O Fortuna’’ piece by Carl Orff. The sound from the speakers filling every inch of the room, eyes transfixed to the silhouette of an iconic figure in hip hop hitting the stage.
‘‘Before you claim that there is no good music, why don’t you try and look a little harder’’ he later asked his audience.
Talib Kweli has an undeniable impressive body of work. Not only that, but this is an artist that is actively aware of the world around him. The hip-hop artist and activist has addressed political and current affairs in and out of his music; most recently the sorrowing case of Mike Brown and so many other victims of an unjust. Standing up for something he believes in, however, is not new knowledge. In 2000 Talib Kweli and the other half of Black Star, Mos Def organised Hip Hop for Respect after unarmed Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. These beliefs were later brought alive and recognised as a mass of us repeated ‘‘DONT SHOOT!’’ after he spoke on the matter in between songs.
Kweli gave us a night to remember; laced in nostalgia he took us back to earlier days and then brought us right back to the present moment, from ‘‘The Blast’’ to ‘‘Come Here.’’ We put up our hands and swayed to some Bob Marley, jumped around, sang the hooks and protested for an encore.
A few minutes after the final song he came back out to sign some CDs and have some pictures taken with fans. ‘‘Come through,’’ he said so pleasantly that I thought I now wanted to caption the picture we had just taken with ‘‘BFF.’’ Shit, this is the part where I actually have to ask the questions, I thought. For so long I have been a fan of Talib Kweli, but to actually interview him was something else all together. Kweli had just given us a show that made falling in love with hip hop feel brand new again, but now it was my turn to do something, brand new.
Walking through the fire exit we were lead to a small room with a couple of sofas taking up most of the floor space. Talib sat back comfortably, signalling he was ready for the first question:
So do you listen to any UK artists?
I don’t know too much about UK artists. No, it’s tough, UK artists – it’s weird in the states, we only listen to the stuff that’s in the states. You know, I’ve done songs with TY and that old school shit, like Kano and Estelle and stuff, but I don’t know any of the new artists.
What are some of the biggest differences when touring Europe and the US?
Well in London it is very much like New York. It’s very similar to the vibe of the audience, but Europe in general, you know, hip hop is an import culture, so people appreciate it on a different level. In the states we are a bit spoilt by it because we get hit with it all the time and in every situation, but it’s good to come out to Europe to remind yourself that there’s still people who are just here for the visceral experience of just being at a hip hop show and not caught up in what the blogs are saying, or the trends.
I think that’s what we sensed here tonight.
So, in terms of touring, what are some of your most memorable moments, or highlights?
Ah man, I mean I do 200 to 250 shows a year for the last 12 years, so I mean the highlight is just this career. You know, I mean, I’m sure there have been certain highlights. I had a girl steal my cologne out my room once – that was a highlight.
How did that happen?
I let the wrong girl in my room [laughs] I had a girl tell me once, she was backstage saying a bunch of racist shit, we said, ‘‘you’re a racist,’’ she said, ‘‘I’m not racist, I got a colour TV.’’ That was a highlight.
You are proof that you can have longevity, be relevant and not compromise your art. It can’t be easy, what is the recipe for that?
No it’s not easy! I pay attention to the artists that come after me and I give respect to the artists that come before me. And I take the lessons from everywhere.
So is this the advice you give your artists?
Yeah. Is that the advice I give you, NIKO? Are you my artist, NIKO [laughs]? The term ‘‘my artist’’ is troubling. I know why people say it and I get it, but it’s hard for me to say, ‘‘that’s my artist’’ because I wouldn’t be working with him if he wasn’t his own man.
How valued do you think the lyricist is in hip hop today?
You know, to be honest, lyricism is a bit over rated when it comes to song writing. You don’t need great lyrics to have a great song. Sometimes a great song could just be like, ‘‘Barbra Streisand’’ and those are the only lyrics and it’s a great song. Sometimes a great song could be, ‘‘TURN DOWN FOR WHAT’’ and those are the only lyrics and it’s still a great song, but however, what I do is I write very lyrical songs, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I do for a living, that’s what I love to do.
It’s a misunderstanding that you need great lyrics to have a great song – you don’t – but songs that have great lyrics often stand the test of time. So the songs that I mentioned are great songs, but they may or may not stand the test of time. Whereas artists with great lyrics, whether it’s Bob Dylan or KRS-One, those songs are gonna stand the test of time. People are gonna listen to those songs, forever.
I still think we need the lyricist, though.
And that’s your personal preference and I I’m glad, because if it wasn’t for people like you I’d have no career. So I mean I personally prefer songs with great lyrics, however, I do appreciate just great songs in general. I remind my audience because sometimes my audience tends to get caught – not all my audience, but some people in my audience – tend to get caught up in hating or disrespecting artists that are not lyrical and it’s like, there’s room for that too.
You need balance
Yeah, it’s just what I do is lyrical. Some people are not so lyrical.
There is a symbolic meaning behind your name, isn’t there?
The name ‘‘Talib’’ is a Muslim name – it means ‘‘a seeker’’ and ‘‘Kweli’’ is a name from the people of Ghana and it means ‘‘of truth and knowledge.’’ I’m glad that I have a name to live up to.
With a name like that do you feel like this is your purpose, like you were always destined to do this?
Yes I truly do. I definitely do, I feel like my parents gave me the name they gave me for a reason.
Listen to The Cathedral, the new mixtape under Javotti media here.