Talib Kweli: Getting By in the Age of Donald Trump

The sharp-edged rapper explains why the new president is old hat for him, talks about life as an indie artist, and offers a prediction about his sometime partner Mos Def’s “retirement.”

Talib Kweli performs at Moogfest on May 18, 2017
Talib Kweli performs at Moogfest on May 18, 2017 (Chris Deverell / Moogfest)

Almost two decades since he burst on the scene as part of the critically acclaimed rap duo Black Star, Talib Kweli finds himself in a strange position: He still has to hustle to make a living, even more than he did early in his career, when a powerful music industry was pushing him. At the same time, he finds himself au courant for reasons that he doesn’t necessarily like: As a standard bearer for so-called conscious rap and a politically outspoken MC, newfound attention to police violence keeps him in demand.

“All of a sudden I start getting asked to be on talk shows, or people want to do interviews, and then I start hearing my music on the radio and this and that, and it’s not really a good feeling,” Kweli told me during an interview at Moogfest, a music and technology festival in Durham, North Carolina, earlier this month.

Kweli performed at the festival’s “Protest Stage,” capping off a night that included the gender-bending rapper Mykki Blanco and Omar Souleyman, the keffiyeh-clad Syrian wedding singer who has become an unlikely global sensation. Several hours before the stage, we spoke about what it means to be a politically engaged artist in the era of Donald Trump, what his old collaborators Mos Def and Kanye West are doing, and why he’s steadfastly committed to feeding the trolls on his high-volume, highly followed Twitter account. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Graham: This afternoon I wanted to see what you were up to and I checked your Twitter feed, and you were going at it, on a variety of subjects.

Talib Kweli: My Twitter feed is very quiet right now!

Graham: About 193,000 tweets, I think?

Kweli: Yeah. There’s people who I know that have more that that, but there are not too many people over a million followers have that amount.

Graham: How do you think about how you use Twitter and what kind of engagement that gives you with audiences?

Kweli: It’s layers to it. On a very selfish level, I need marketing and promotion to get my words out there, to get my music out there. So in an age where people don’t value art, and people only value art as commodified—marketed toward them and heavily packaged—for 99 percent of artists, who are working artists for a living, we have no chance for you to hear or know that something has come up. You know about The Seven not because you heard it on your local radio station but because you follow my Twitter.

In a broader sense, we do not have the luxury to look at the online space as harmless. Whether it’s white supremacist trolls trying to harass me or silence me, or whether it’s trolls trying to enable Donald Trump—and they’re very successful, you know what I’m saying? We don’t have the luxury to not engage with trolls. Even saying “trolls” is not giving them enough credit. These are people we work with. These people serve our food. These are young white people who go to these colleges who are going to have jobs and are gonna deny women opportunities and deny Latino people opportunities, deny gay people opportunities, these are not just random trolls that are harmless. I’m biased because they come for me personally, but I implore people to not wait for them to come for you and your family.

I was coming of age in the early ’90s, and Five Percent philosophy was taking hold of neighborhoods in New York City. They’re standing on the street corners having esoteric conversations, having spiritual conversations, having mathematical equations about the state of the world, and you have to be right and exact in these conversations. You have to show and prove. Your word has to be bond. If not, there might be a violent or aggressive reaction. So me arguing with and debating with real-life dudes from Brooklyn on the corner, drinking forties when it’s winter, this Twitter shit is lightweight. It’s nothing.

Graham: On balance, do you think the internet has been a net positive or a net negative for artists?

Kweli: Absolutely it’s been positive. Everything is a gift and a curse. People no longer value art and music in a particular way they used to, but it’s leveled the playing field for a lot of artists. It’s made my career better. But I think the best part of it is, it’s changed the paradigm of how people listen to and ingest music. When I first started in hip-hop, if you weren’t on a major label, the consumers were not taking you seriously. People would be like, I remember the Souls of Mischief lyric: “If you’re really dope, why ain’t you signed yet? Well I get my loot from Jive/Zomba”—they’re literally bragging about linking up with corporations.

That was the thing around hip-hop. Like, “You dope? Why don’t you have a deal?” Now it’s like, “You got a deal? You must not be that dope.” People are way more invested in discovering music on their own, and they’re a lot more wary of corporate marketing. I think that’s the best thing about where art is on the internet.

Graham: But you’ve been talking about commercialization for a long time, and in some ways it’s worse than it was when you started.

Kweli: I mean, yeah, it is. For me personally, I have to make decisions that I didn’t have to make early in my career. If I was going to take money to do an ad, back when I first started, that would be the most sellout thing you could do. You don’t take money to do ads. Now, I can’t depend on people to buy music. I can’t depend on my fans to support me as an artist. I’d be dead. I can’t. I have to be creative with working, with finding new revenue streams and figuring out how to get people to invest in me. So yeah, there’s decisions that I make now that I wouldn’t have made early in my career, like to partner with a corporation.

You see Chance the Rapper, who has changed the game, because he hasn’t even sold one record. But he has to link up with Kit Kat, or he has to link up with tequila brands in order to make money, because he knows people ain’t gonna buy music. So, back in the day, Chance the Rapper, as politically effective as he is, and as conscious, and as quote-unquote woke as he is, and as spiritually uplifting as his music is, had Chance the Rapper came out 20 years ago and on his first album had a Kit Kat commercial and a tequila commercial, he’d have been called a sellout.

Graham: Is that a good thing that people aren’t called sellouts for that now?

Kweli: I can’t judge what he does because the time is different. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I would turn down Kit Kat money, or I would turn down tequila money. I would think long and hard about it, you know what I’m saying? I got a family. I’ve got a son who’s Chance the Rapper’s age. I got bills I gotta pay. I came in on the tail end of when the music industry was really bloated. So I was able to make money just by being a dope rapper for years. When the industry collapsed I had to start thinking like an indie artist. But I had a leg up because there was already millions of dollars poured into me as an artist.

People romanticize the early stuff. “Kweli, I love Black Star, I love Reflection Eternal, I love Quality. I love it so much more than your new stuff.” Of course you do. ‘Cause there were companies spending $3, 4, 5 million to make sure that you loved it, as opposed to my last album with Styles P, we might have spent whatever it cost to make it. It’s not because I’m worse as an artist. I’m better as an artist. Of course, there are songs I made back then that I will never top. When I perform tonight, God bless Kanye West, God bless “Get By,” if it wasn’t for that song … . People will come to see you perform on a stage forever because of that one song, regardless of anything else I’ve done in my career.

Graham: One of the themes of this festival is protest. Do you think of yourself as a political artist, or as an artist who engages with politics?

Kweli: I’m a lot more of an activist now than I was two, three years ago. People always treated me or dealt with me as an activist artist, but I wasn’t really that until 2012, 2013. I didn’t want to name an album Prisoner of Conscious and not really connect with actual prisoners of conscience. I look at my job as an entertainer. David Banner said it best: Sometimes you get rappers who are really lyrical, really dope, and they think they’re doper than the beat, and they don’t care about the beat, they’re trying to out-rap the beat. And too much, a lot of conscious rappers are just wack, they’re corny. Know what I’m saying? It’s gotta be jamming first. The music has to feel good. I gotta do my job as an entertainer.

Graham: A lot of the acts who were grouped with you a few years back aren’t as much in the game: Common is acting, the Roots are a backing band on TV, Mos Def is retired. Do you feel alone?

Kweli: I would use different artists, but the point you’re making I think is accurate for different artists, who will remain nameless. The Tonight Show is no small gig. You get to that age that the Roots are at, you’ve been doing 200, 300 shows a year but you can just live in a house and just go to work, that becomes very attractive. Common’s acting wasn’t a fluke. He made a decision to throw himself out there. Common, by any metric, is doing better than me as an artist.

But there’s a lot of lyricists I know who gotta get regular jobs. I’m not a naturally talented musician. I’m naturally talented as a writer, not naturally talented as a musician. I just think that I want it more than anybody. That’s what it’s gotta be, because they’re just as talented as me. I get up at 6 o’clock every day. People are amazed by my Twitter, in particular the white supremacists. Like, “How is he doing this? How is it possible that he tweeted 500 times today? When all I did was play video games?”

Graham: So we’ve danced around this—we talked about activism, we talked about white supremacists—but what is it like to be an artist in the era of Donald Trump?

Kweli: I saw something online the other day, a joke somebody was making, where they were saying that the whole world is on fire and black Twitter is like, “Yeah, we already know that. What’s up with these rompers?” That’s why it’s hard for me to answer that question. Being the type of artist that I am, and the circles I run in, I’m doing this type of protest music 24/7, so it does feel like the world catches up, with Donald Trump, when something like that happens.

When a tragedy happens, like a young black kid is shot by the police, all of a sudden I start getting asked to be on talk shows, or people want to do interviews, and then I start hearing my music on the radio and this and that, and it’s not really a good feeling. I make my music so we can have these conversations to stop the tragedy, not as a reaction to the tragedy. These types of conversations, we cannot only have them as reactions. So I try to use my platform to point the light—that’s why I classify myself as an entertainer.

Graham: Do more lyricists need to step up and talk about those things?

Kweli: Absolutely, but not until they get the information. You have to speak about what you know. I don’t want artists to try to give me a dissertation-level rap on, you know, Palestine if they’ve never studied it. I don’t want that. I want you to speak your truth. Art has one job requirement: honesty. That’s it. Now, as a man in my community, I have a different level of responsibility, that is higher-level responsibility than just artist.

Graham: What’s up with Kanye?

Kweli: I don’t really know. I consider Kanye a friend, but I haven’t had a real conversation with him in years. I haven’t spoken to him or been in his presence in maybe over two years. I spoke to him publicly when he was out there with Donald Trump. I don’t like to see my brother out there enabling that. But I love him to death. I’ll defend Kanye West on a lot of things that people were mad at him about. Completely defended him. The Trump thing is the one thing I find no defense for.

Graham: There’s a running tension is hip-hop between authenticity, and innovation. As someone who cares a lot about authenticity, how do you avoid getting becoming stale?

Kweli: It’s important to pay attention to the trends but not get caught up in the trends. It’s very dangerous to dismiss what young people are doing as not authentic, or not real, or not hip-hop. That’s a dangerous trap. Some old-fogey, get-off-my-lawn-type shit. When I was in high school, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was one of the hottest rappers out there. There were 40-year-old men saying Ol’ Dirty Bastard is not real hip-hop. “That’s just noise. That’s garbage. That’s not hip-hop.” So who am I to tell some 20-year-old kid that some rapper he likes is not hip-hop just because that doesn’t appeal to my personal sensibilities? I’d be an idiot to say that. It’d be not fair for me to say that.

It’s fun to call people mumble rappers, it’s fun to clown younger people for how they dress, with tight jeans, and man bags, and rompers. All that’s fun. But I like seeing freedom. I grew up in Brooklyn in the ’70s and the way I hear and see hip-hop is gonna be different from a kid that grew up in Atlanta in the 2000s, see what I’m saying? God willing that artist learns from me and I learn from that artist. I can say that because I’m not threatened by that artist. I’m not competing in that space. I embrace all of it, and when a rising tide raises the boats, I celebrate it. People forget that the most successful hip-hop artists, MC-wise, are J. Cole and Kendrick. And they come straight from the tradition that I come from.

Graham: I asked some folks what I should ask you today, and—

Kweli: Black Star?

Graham: You knew it. Gotta ask. I’m sorry.

Kweli: Um, I dunno. Yasiin is out right now.

Graham: Is he really retired?

Kweli: I don’t think artists really retire. I don’t put much stock into what Yasiin Bey says when it comes to career. He might feel different tomorrow.