Last week, Talib Kweli, a Grammy Award-winning, politically outspoken rapper, and self-proclaimed “Twitter troll killer,” brought his talent and political insights to a week-long residency sponsored by Duke Performances.
Kweli, a Brooklyn-based hip hop legend, who got his start in the underground rap scene and is often labeled a “conscious rapper” for his socially relevant lyrics, participated in two free, public talks, visited two African American Studies classes, and capped off the week with two sold-out performances at Motorco Music Club with opening act Actual Proof.
The events were presented as part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative, made possible, in part, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
The residency began with producer/DJ and Duke professor 9th Wonder interviewing Kweli in front of a standing-room only audience at a lunchtime event, held at the Forum for Scholars & Publics Thursday on Duke’s West Campus.
Later, Kweli visited “The Culture and Politics of Respectability,” a course taught jointly at Duke and Smith College. He also visited “The History of Hip Hop,” a class that is open to the public and co-taught by 9th Wonder and Mark Anthony Neal, co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity. Nearly 200 members of the Duke and Durham community attended.
On Friday, “The Beautiful Struggle: Hip-Hop’s Role in the Trump Era,” held at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham, featured Neal interviewing Kweli about the current political climate and attracted an equally large crowd. The restaurant closed for 90 minutes to accommodate the free community event.
During the talks, Kweli, who has released more than a dozen albums over 20 years, shared his insights on the art of music, the evolution of hip hop, his musical family tree (which includes luminaries such as his partner in rhyme Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, Puff Daddy, 9th Wonder, and Q-Tip) and “The Seven,” his joint project with fellow rapper, Styles P of The Lox. He also discussed his approach to taking on anonymous critics and haters on Twitter, where he maintains an actively political presence.
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Kweli of the mental sparring. “One hundred and forty characters is like two bars. On Twitter you have to be clever and figure out how to make it fit… It trains my brain. It’s like exercise for me.”
Before an interview on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” Kweli spoke about the artistic process and life as a working-class rapper.
On the evolution of his career starting in New York in the ‘90s:
I can’t overemphasize the influence that New York City has had on my career. Because me and my friends, we’d make demo tapes. We’d see the addresses on the back of the albums and see the addresses of the record labels, like, ‘oh that’s on 5th Avenue’ and we would go there. We’d sit in the lobby and meet interns and runners and assistants of assistants. I spent my teenage years doing that. It was a natural process of being a rapper in New York City. I didn’t really appreciate how good we had it to be able to do that until I started traveling more.
There was a lot of rejection but it never was a deterrent.
I would put on Timberlands at 7 or 8 in the morning, go to school, spend all day in school, then go to the park and be in the park until 3 in the morning. And let me wear a pair of Timberlands right now for a half hour and I have to take these shits off.
On his writing process:
My love for hip hop comes out of peer pressure, it comes out of wanting to be accepted by my peers.
It’s really the challenge that drives me. I was challenged by Mos Def and [producer] Hi Tek, now I’m challenged by Styles P and 9th Wonder. As a professional writer of bars, it’s not even comparable how much more efficient I am now.
This album with Styles P, we did it in a month. Wrote and recorded in a month. Sometimes I hear a beat and I’ll write 16 bars or two verses within five or 10 minutes. That’s not every song. Sometimes songs take 6 months to a year or 2 years to finish.
On being a “conscious rapper:”
More often than not, it’s used in a condescending way. I do conscious hip hop proudly. I do it well. So it’s no coincidence that people associate me with conscious hip hop. The only issue I have is when that’s all that they see me as. Because the people who choose to put music into those types of boxes, that’s how they identify it most of the time.
I put entertainer first. I put the song first. And that’s no disrespect or value judgement on what they do. It’s just a choice. A strategy. A tactic. For me, it’s important that I put the song first. Because if the song is not right, no one really cares. My job is to entertain people. I don’t get paid because of my message. I get paid in cultural currency which is in many ways more wealth. Any my career exists because of my cultural currency. When I step on that stage with that contractual agreement I made at that venue, with that promoter, they’re not paying me to say ‘fuck Donald Trump,’ they’re paying me to entertain people, regardless of how I do it.
The way that I do it has been entertaining, but it’s because I put the song first.
I never sacrifice the musicality. And I don’t shirk from my responsibility as an entertainer.
For more information on upcoming Duke Performances events, visit https://dukeperformances.duke.edu.