The Revolution Revisited
Though less than a decade has passed, 1998 seems like a lifetime ago. There was a Democrat in the White House and a robust economy, and the greatest threat to national security arose from a little stain on a blue dress.
1998 was also the year that America was introduced to Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli. Along with Mos Def, Kweli was part of the seminal underground hip-hop group Black Star, a name taken from the shipping line founded by Marcus Garvey to deliver the African diaspora back to the motherland. On their self-titled debut, the duo dealt with issues of reparations, racial segregation, and the role of hip-hop in black America.
Outside of maybe Kanye West and Common, those aren´t topics normally broached by mainstream MCs. They are, however, ones that Kweli has returned to throughout his career.
¨When I first came into the game, lyrics and art were a lot more respected than they are now,¨ Kweli says. ¨Now what people respect is your hustle and ambition. At the time, I just wanted to rap and have people tell me that I was dope. It was all I really cared about.¨
Make America Rock Festival Featuring Trapt, Alien Ant Farm
TicketsFri., Sep. 30, 7:00pm
TicketsFri., Sep. 30, 7:30pm
Opera Fusion: Not in My Town
TicketsFri., Sep. 30, 8:00pm
The Dandy Warhols: Distortland Tour
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 8:00pm
Prophets of Rage - Make America Rage Again Tour
TicketsSun., Oct. 2, 7:00pm
We´ve come a long way since those days and it hasn´t necessarily been progress. After a surge of social awareness following Hurricane Katrina, the reality is that hip-hop is returning to its standard money-mad mentality. Most recently, Dipset general Cam´ron was shot in D.C., 50 Cent aligned himself with George Bush, and in a recent issue of hip-hop bible Murder Dog, one of hip-hop´s most talented new MCs, Young Jeezy, declared he wasn´t a rapper as much as he was a hustler.
But wasn´t the hustler-first, rapper-second mentality what got us into trouble in the first place?
¨Now that´s the norm; it´s what everyone says,¨ according to Kweli. ¨I think it´s good for young black men to take control and be ambitious, to take something that belongs to them and make some money off of it. But with that said, I think that if the artistic integrity is allowed to fall too far, there will be nothing more to hang on to. It´ll be worthless.¨
Pressed further, Kweli provides an appropriate metaphor for the state of hip-hop: ¨I see people with these big, gaudy diamonds with all this color in them. The diamonds are huge, but they have imperfections in them, and they´re not worth as much as the smaller diamond that´s perfect.¨
But though Kweli is critical of their semantics and points of reference, he believes the artistry and entrepreneurial spirit of these artists is well-placed.
¨Hip-hop has transcended the rhetoric of saying it´s a lifestyle and has truly become one. You have real entrepreneurs and real moguls. Jeezy and the others´ intention may not be to contribute to the genre, and that´s what they´re saying, that their intentions are only to contribute to their well-being. But you can tell that they got a love for it. So a lot of what they´re saying is just posing, bravado, and posturing. Trust me, Young Jeezy loves hip-hop just as much as the next dude. He wouldn´t be as talented as he is if he wasn´t paying close attention to it.¨
Realizing that equity is the next step after equality, Kweli recently began his own label, Blacksmith Records. Kweli´s album Right About Now marks the label´s first release. Although the album lacks the polish of some of Kweli´s previous work he considers it more of a mixtape than an official CD there´s still plenty of social insight coming from a very personal place, a place Kweli can hardly avoid. ¨Music doesn´t get much better than when you´re honest about it,¨ he says.
Personal integrity and honesty may be hard values to reconcile with pop culture´s ever-growing demand for sexual bombast and ghetto fantasy, but Kweli is optimistic. ¨The future of rap is going to be people coming from a street perspective without having to act ignorant,¨ he says. ¨We´ve been there and done that, and now I have a brighter vision of the future. And artists with that mentality are going to be the vanguard of hip-hop´s future.¨
For those of us who listen to the radio and watch MTV2, it may be hard to share his vision, but it can´t hurt to give it one more shot.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.