Talib Kweli on the Burdens of Being Hip-Hop’s Outspoken Conscience

"Young kids should be doing music that has shock value. They’ll grow out of it."

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John Sciulli / Getty Images for Samsung

Talib Kweli performs at SXSW on March 11, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Whether he likes it or not, Talib Kweli has become the Jiminy Cricket of hip-hop. The musician – who has been writing and performing for almost 20 years, both as a solo artist and as half of Black Star, the well-respected duo he formed with Mos Def — is known for being poetic and profound, as well as his commitment to a range of social issues. While Kweli has no problem sticking up for what he believes in, he balks at being pigeonholed in the “conscious rap” genre. It’s not that he wants to align himself with the misogyny or homophobia that is rampant in much of mainstream hip-hop, it’s that his skill as an artist is frequently overshadowed by his message. The so-called king of “conscious rap,” revealed how uneasily he wears the title, by naming his new album Prisoner of Conscious, which calls out critics, but also reads like a cry of exasperation at an industry seemingly intent on corralling him into the genre.

On the album, his fifth studio LP, it’s clear that Kweli doesn’t want to disappoint his loyal fans, delivering rousing calls to arms on at least a few tracks, but it’s equally clear that he doesn’t want to be creatively boxed into a message-driven – and perhaps, uncommercial – genre. He is, after all, first and foremost, an artist. On Prisoner’s 15 tracks, Kweli shows off a nearly elastic range, jumping from style to style effortlessly while collaborating with artists like Nelly, Busta Rhymes, Miguel and Kendrick Lamar. It’s an album that is didactic as it is diverse, showing an artist trying to make a place for himself in a quickly changing industry with ever-evolving taste.

We talked with Kweli about the album, “the c-word.” and learning to critique Rick Ross with love:

Your album is titled Prisoner of Conscious, a title that seems to beg people to ask whether you feel trapped by your consciousness or conscientiousness? You’ve become a role model of conscientious hip-hop, do you want break out of that?

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The album is that by design, to create those questions and give me a chance to answer. I don’t feel like I’m a prisoner of anything. The title alludes to the perception that has been sold to people by the media and the industry. Things have to be put into neat little boxes to be packaged or sold. It’s easier to sell things like that. What I do is so much more dynamic than “conscious rap.” I wanted to address that head on.

What have people reaction been to the title so far?

It’s been great. I sort of mentioned off-hand in an interview with Vibe that ‘prisoner of conscious’ might be a dope album title. It made it to my Wikipedia page and that became the first question that I was asked when I was doing all these interviews. People would say, ‘So, your next album is called Prisoner of Conscious?’ and I would say I don’t have a next album. But then the question got asked so much that I started to think about it and decided to develop an album around it.

So the title came first? It’s interesting because, in some ways, the title calls you out while also calling out journalists who want to pigeonhole you as such.

I don’t really feel like I called myself out. If you look at my career, doing albums with Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake, Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne or KRS-One and Jean Grae, I can’t be pigeonholed. Especially on this album, with the musical choices that I made, I’m specifically saying that I can’t or that I don’t want to be pigeonholed, whether you see me like that or not. It’s an interesting point, though, because when people pigeonhole me they are also pigeonholing the other artists I’m working with, saying that they can’t work with me. They also pigeonhole themselves by saying they only listen to music in a narrow way. It’s not healthy in any sense. People use music to express their emotions that they can’t express themselves. When a musician that they are invested in that expresses an emotion that they don’t get or that they don’t agree with, they take it personally.

You say you don’t want to be pigeonholed as a “conscious” rapper, but you do start your record with a mention of Occupy Wall Street and end it by saying Free Pussy Riot. So you do bookend the album by portraying yourself as a politically aware, socially conscious person.

That’s exactly what the intention was. It starts with Occupy Wall Street and ends with “Only Gets Better.” Those are the most socially conscious songs on the album, but that was done on purpose. Here’s my start, here’s where I’m at, I’m still valid, but if you listen to the meat of it, it’s about relationships and my place in this business and it’s more personal, in the meat of it. You’re right to notice that it starts and ends like that, though. I feel like music is an even exchange and once you buy the album, you don’t owe me anything more and I don’t owe you anything. But when you do business with people over a long period of time, that relationship becomes more personal. Because I’ve given fans this type of music for so long and they’ve invested in me as an artist for so long, I still want to give them that. That’s why I started and ended like that.

The artists you collaborated with on the album – Kendrick Lamar and Miguel in particular– have really crossed over into the mainstream. Did you specifically seek those artists out for that?

Well, the Kendrick Lamar and Curren$y song was recorded and the video was shot two years ago, way before he was even signed. Miguel was signed, but there was no “Adorn,” there was no jumping over people at the Billboard Music Awards. What Miguel had going for him was a record he did with J. Cole. I saw him as someone with incredible R&B chops who was open to working with hip-hop artists that I respected. When Miguel came to the studio – I have a side project called Idle Warship – and he came to work on that album and the song “Come Here” sounded like something that could fit on Prisoner of Conscious, so I took that from that session. I’ve always been able to work with artists and see where they are going to go, whether it’s Kanye West or J. Cole. These are all artists I worked with before they became mainstream. It’s something I continue to do with artists like Kendrick and Miguel, but I think this time I’m more experienced, so I knew how to make more people aware of that. Like Kendrick — I knew he was going to get signed and I knew that people were going to be looking and I held that record for that reason. I probably should have held it a little longer. When he dropped “Swimming Pools” and his video was on MTV, that was when I dropped “Push Through.” I was like, people are starting to understand. But that video has been done for two years.

He’s headlining so many festivals this year. He’s working really hard.

Yeah, and he should be. His whole crew is. He was the first thing they rolled out, but it’s a great crew of artists that he comes from.

Having been in the industry for over twenty years, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to come to the industry?

The biggest change that has come to the industry is that there is no industry. When I was coming up, there were still gambles being taken. There was still a business model where you could take a chance on an artist, where you could say ‘I really like this artist and I want to see if maybe other people feel the same way.’ A record executive used to be able to do that. Now, if you as an artist aren’t up on your social networks, if you don’t have 20 million views on YouTube, if you’re not on Soundcloud, no one is going to take a gamble on you. If you’re not willing to take a gamble on yourself, no one is going to take a gamble on you, no one is going to spend any money. That’s the story now. The kids have to discover it themselves first. Even artists that come out on major labels are presented as indie darlings that were discovered on YouTube.

As someone who has been working in this industry so long, when an artist like A$AP Rocky comes out and gets signed for a rumored million dollars after his first mixtape, is that frustrating for you? Or is it more like, ‘Go get ‘em kid!’?

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I’m always an optimist about it. A$AP Rocky before his deal used to come to my shows and be in the audience, you know? I have respect for what he does. My man Chace Infinite, he fell into a management situation with that crew, so I’m close with that crew. Their style of music is different. They grew up in a different era. The dude is named Rakim, you know? He grew up named after the emcee that I was emulating. A$AP Rocky surprised me with the album, though. I was impressed that they got the deal based on their YouTube and social network presence. I was impressed by that, but there were only one or two songs that I liked and I wondered, ‘Is there a whole career here?’ But then he put out “Goldie” and “Wild For the Night” and got into his fashion thing and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, he’s here to stay.’ At least for a couple years. I’m happy about that. I’m happy there are artists from New York like A$AP, Pro Era and Flatbush Zombies and people that are defining success for themselves and not taking the traditional industry path to success. I get asked about those artists in a lot of interviews from mainstream outlets, even though a lot of them don’t have deals yet, and I’m excited about that.

Then you have groups like Odd Future, who seem contrary to everything that you have come to stand for in hip-hop …

I disagree with that. When I hear Odd Future, I hear a sort of free-spirited cypher-based rap, the child of battle raps. Odd Future says some wild, out-there sh–. The first mainstream artist to really go there was Eminem. You have homophobic lyrics, you have lyrics about rape. It’s because it comes from such a cut-throat battle scene where anything goes, there are no rules, whatever you can say to cut somebody, goes. Eminem came from that and then was thrust onto a mainstream stage and now it’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so shocking.’ But from the community it came from, it really wasn’t. I’m not talking about right or wrong, I’m just talking about what it is. When I hear Odd Future, to me that’s not coming from the same angst or anger, do-or-die battle rap, but it’s definitely the result of it. It’s kids who probably grew up listening to Eminem records and are now doing their own version of it. Young kids should be doing music that has shock value. They’ll grow out of it. But what I do hear is technical skill, which I can appreciate.

I do find it interesting that Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean can be in the same crew.

It’s brilliant! The fact that Tyler the Creator can be as outlandish as he can be and still make nuanced statements about Frank Ocean and Frank Ocean’s place in his crew and the industry shows the brilliance of what they are trying to do. As they get older, they are only going to get better.

When you say things like, “Oh they’ll grow out of it,” it sounds like you’ve achieved some sort of elder statesman status. Does it feel like that to you?

I feel like it has been thrust upon me against my will. I don’t see myself like that, but the vast majority of people who listen to hip-hop do, regardless of how I see myself. It is what it is. It’s not a bad thing and it’s a platform that I can take advantage of.

To that point, you were one of the few voices in hip-hop willing or able to call out Rick Ross for his seemingly pro-date rape lyrics.

I don’t say anything different than what I’ve always said, but now as I’m marketing and promoting myself and my new album, there is extra weight to whatever I say. I think I’m very clear about the fact that I look at art and artists as a fraternity of brothers and sisters. I’m down with artistic community, but I’m not here to police them. It’s not my job and it’s not my intention. But I think within that community, I can’t be responsible just to the artists, I have to be responsible to the actual real community of people who are not artists. It’s difficult to be in both worlds, but I appreciate that challenge. The comments that I made about Rick Ross got a lot of people upset on both sides. People felt I was hard on him, and others felt I wasn’t hard enough. It doesn’t make me feel like I should have said nothing, but it makes me feel like, ‘wow, our community is that fragmented that we can’t even have a real discussion.’ I ran into Rick Ross a few weeks ago at a party and, well, my basic point about Rick Ross or any artist is that they can equally be the victim of any violence or negativity or misogyny that are perpetuated, as we are as the fans of his music. So if we’re going to criticize them, we have to do it with love and from a place of love. We can’t say, ‘you’re out of the hip-hop community and now listen to what I have to say.’ I think that’s a backwards strategy. That was my basic point, but I feel like that got twisted and a lot of blogs and social networks ran with that I was trying to diss him, which I would never do that. And I felt the need to tell him that to him, which was good, because he expressed the need to hear that from me personally. But that’s what these people who are critical of me don’t understand. I’m always going to be in these places. The way I move can’t be the way you move. You can say whatever you want to say, because you’re not going to run into Rick Ross at a party.

As a fan of hip-hop, I do appreciate having someone inside the hip-hop community who is willing to address the exclusionary homophobic or misogynistic lyrics and behavior.

Talib Kweli

John Sciulli / Getty Images for Samsung

Talib Kweli at SXSW 2013

I have my own feelings about lyrics and a lot of things that I don’t always share. I hear a lot of lyrics that I think, ‘oh I don’t like that, but I don’t get on Twitter and talk about that.’ The only reason that I got involved was a teacher asked me. I was having a discussion with Lupe Fiasco, and a teacher asked how they should approach lyrics like that with their students. I expressed my opinion that part of my problem with a lyric like what Ross said was a failure of our education system. And when we place the blame, we are ignoring the failures of our teachers and ourselves as parents — and I included myself as a parent. Because I said that, people started hitting me asking me, what do you feel about the lyric? Since I had already opened my mouth, I said how I felt. Then I got asked to be on Huffington Post because of saying how I felt. Then it got blown into something totally different.

Hip-hop seems to have a problematic attitude towards women. How do you think hip-hop can start to address or change its attitude towards women?

I think hip-hop is no more misogynistic than America is as a society. I just think hip-hop is a lot more brash, a lot more bold, a lot more loquacious. There are a lot more words that go into a hip-hop song than go into a regular song. So it’s the same reason why a hip-hop fan or someone from the hood will wear Polo with Polo across the chest. The materialism, the brashness, the misogyny — everything in hip-hop is amplified. Misogyny is a good example of something that is completely amplified in hip-hop. I do think there is more than enough of a balance, though, for fans who are willing to search it out. If you’re the type of fan who just takes your cues from radio, you’re not going to find balance, just going to think hip-hop is about b-tches and hos, and you’re going to feel shut out. But if you look a layer beyond the surface you’ll see that there’s a community of hip-hop that does not celebrate those themes. If you stick to that you’ll be fine.

I was shocked at the Danny Brown show a few weeks ago, hearing the things people in the audience were yelling at his opener, Kitty.

I have read comments on blogs where people spend serious time trying to make arguments that women can’t rap. Like, that’s a serious actual argument in hip-hop… But I feel like you see that same level of misogyny in most music, most of corporate America and in most aspects of society.

Right, like the argument that women can’t be funny that plagues the comedy world.

Exactly. It’s clearly not true, but you’ll go on a comedy site and see someone trying to make that argument with links and facts that they’ve compiled. I think that it’s my job, or the way I can do it, is by focusing on female’s contribution to hip-hop. With the exception of this album, I have had a female rapper on every single album.

I was going to ask you about that. You don’t have any women on your new record.

Yeah, and this is one of the first times I have ever done that. I personally think that women rap better than men. I think women are more in touch with the Earth, more in touch with themselves and can better express themselves musically. I feel it’s more organic and natural. I’m not a male feminist. I’m not a nationalist. I don’t like being put in those boxes. I would say I’m a pan-Africanist, the idea that people of African descent all over the diaspora should put aside all differences and work towards enhancing our communities. I do believe in that. But that’s the only sort of –ism that I still attach myself to. But, my music and how I’ve lived my life, my music can align itself with a lot of different causes. My music can represent a feminist cause or a black nationalistic cause or a free political prisoners’ cause. Even though I try not to put myself in those boxes.

Do you feel like “conscious” has become a bit of a C-word for you?

Yeah, I do. Complex magazine did a thing a couple months ago about the 25 Things Wrong With Hip Hop That People Are Scared To Say — and number seven or eight was “most conscious rap is condescending, simplistic and corny.” I would have taken issue with that already, but then they had a picture of me and Mos Def above it. I made a couple snarky comments about it on Twitter, but left it alone after that. But they actually hit me and said they were unfair, that using my picture undercut their point and was dismissive of my career and they said we would like to give you an opportunity to talk about that. But the C-word, we have come to the place where the media is saying we have zero respect for hip-hop and the imagery it’s selling and what it’s trying to tell us. But we also have zero respect for the people who are trying something different. We even think it’s cool and hip to be dismissive of their efforts. They could have made a list of the 25 Things That Were Right About Hip-Hop just to follow up, but no one is interested in that. People are far more interested in what bothers them instead supporting of what they agree with. That’s sort of been my mission with my music to give people that ammunition. To give people something to have when they are ready to support what they claim they want.

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