Talib Kweli: A Hip Hop name you must know!

Talib Kweli will be performing in Johannesburg on Saturday. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Talib Kweli will be performing in Johannesburg on Saturday. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

If you need a second opinion, provided you spare five minutes of listening to Hip Hop, then kindly seek out Jay-Z's Black Album from within yours or the collection of someone you know and listen to the second verse of his track Moment of Clarity where he raps, "If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli". Personally, I can't help but chuckle when I hear this line because in it Jay-Z seems to acknowledge his own limitation, but I digress.

As I waited patiently in the media waiting area to meet Kweli it suddenly hit me; what if he is different from the persona on the albums? "Let him at least meet my expectations, please Lord." Fortunately this little moment of doubt was quickly dispersed when I shook the man's hand and sat across from him, a mild case of the jitters threatening to mess up my cool.

Given that he had been sitting in that same venue answering the same or similar questions for the best part of the morning my colleague and I both knew that we had to be on point. The fact that he responded to everything we were putting to him certainly came as a welcome relief.

Contrary to popular and often times uninformed opinion of Hip Hop or rappers, Kweli effectively goes against the grain. Coming from a very academic household, where both parents are college professors – his father in Sociology and his mother in English, the Brooklyn born and raised Kweli, it would seem, was always destined to shine in whatever he put his mind to and thankfully for some us that happened to be Hip Hop unlike say, law in which his younger brother is a professor at Columbia University.

While steadily making his way through the industry, he worked at the Shakespeare bookstore while attending Tisch School for the Arts at NYU where studied experimental theatre. He later worked at one of the oldest bookstores in Brooklyn, Nkiru, which he would go on to co-own, with his collaborator Mos Def – soon to be Yassin Bey, formerly Dante Smith – and they would relocate and convert it into a centre for education and culture.

With this kind of environment and influences in his life it's not surprising that Kweli, especially in his earlier work, makes reference to various sources of literature, from James Joyce to Toni Morrison. Of course one would have to know these sources in order to make sense of his lyrics or at the very least understand that his rhymes aren't just put together for the sake of it.

It is exactly on this point, apart from the obvious fanaticism, that I sought to speak to this living legend of Hip Hop in the first place. I wanted to find out what impact these influences, amongst others, have had on his career and to what extent he thinks Hip Hop reflects them in general. Candidly he spoke about how Hip Hop is primarily influenced by street culture which is everything that is happening around the dedicated observation of the writer that is first and foremost the role of the Hip Hop emcee.

To a large extent however, one could argue that this street culture has pretty much become popular culture, every tom, dick and harry is a rapper now and contexts need not be real. Kweli on the other hand belongs to that school of conscious Hip Hop, where the message expressed was far more realistic and factual.  

But Kweli does not strike me as someone who would like to be confined to any label as his apt response to the question of whether Hip Hop should spread information or not attests. "I don't think it's the job of artists or musicians to spread knowledge although in my personal opinion the best art is the art that does that but I also don't think that's the description of good art, the description of good art is to be honest".

I can't say I disagree with his position but one thing that even Kweli cannot deny is that he and contemporaries alike showed and proved to us that Hip Hop needn't be an empty art form for it to be enjoyed.

You can catch Talib Kweli's live performance at Newtown OST on September 1.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry. Read more from Mpho Moshe Matheolane


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