In Grand Rapids Community College’s latest installment of their Diversity Lecture Series hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, rapper and activist Talib Kweli spoke about his career and his autobiography while touching on a number of issues and topics at large in the world today.
The event started with a land acknowledgement, a disclaimer saying that GRCC administrators understand that they are gathering on the lands of various indigenous peoples, which read, “These events take place on stolen and colonized land.”
The famous artist and activist who is known as a “conscious rapper” appreciates the respect he has earned, but maintains that he makes music for all people.
“This industry has demonized the word ‘conscious’… I fight against that label and being put in that box,” Kweli said. “They are trying to limit the audience that can hear my music.”
The conversation was moderated by Bakari Kitwana, an author and journalist who is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which prides itself on holding town halls to discuss the difficult topics facing modern generations.
Kweli was in attendance to promote his book, “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story,” an autobiography. Though many hip-hop artists have decided to team up with a professional writer for their autobiographies, Kweli has opted to go it alone when telling his story.
Kweli has always been an avid activist. He was in Ferguson in 2014. When he and Yasiin Bey teamed up for Black Star, the inspiration behind some of their best music, was to protest the shooting in New York of an unarmed immigrant in 1999. They used the platform to continue the protest against police violence in their communities.
Still, he wishes to do more. “For me, as an emcee, it’s not as hard as it looks,” Kweli said. “It is easy for me to show up at a rally and rap a few lines. I want to do more as an activist.”
Kweli spoke at length about the pandemic, and how it influenced a major change in his chosen profession as a writer.
“When the pandemic happened, I was doing 200 shows a year for 20 years straight,” Kweli said. “I was stuck in LA, far from my family, staying at hotels by myself, and I was like ‘yo, what is it that I really do?’ If I can’t get on that stage and perform, who am I?”
This prompted Kweli to consider the benefits of writing books and taking a break from music. “I was trying to change my life and be more of a writer and stay at home,” he said. “These book people had already given me some money, so I finished the book.”
For Kweli, the objective of writing his own story was always clear. He wanted to inspire others the same way he did with his music.
“‘Vibrate Higher’ was the title from the beginning, the whole first chapter is dedicated to that,” Kweli said. “It is like an instruction to myself, it is something I attempt to do every day. I really do make a goal of it and a serious attempt to vibrate higher.”
Throughout the book, Kweli touches on the various things that impacted his growth, from his hometown to the first glimpses of fame.
“The story of me is the story of Brooklyn, the story of hip hop and the story of lyricism. I couldn’t tell my story without telling all those stories,” Kweli said.
“There’s things in there that I didn’t remember until I put my pen to the paper,” he continued. “The mind’s eye is incredible. If you close your eyes you can see something from the past.”
When he first realized his potential as a rapper, he cited confidence in himself as the key fuel that kept him going in the face of obscurity.
“Jay-Z called it the ‘fame of knowing’,” he said. “When you know yourself that you’re dope but you don’t have any fans yet. The music brings together different types of people.”
While Kweli recognizes his skill and accomplishment as an emcee, he also seeks to give praise to the workers behind the scenes who make his music possible.
“I have an engineer I have been using for 10-12 years, he is a pro tools master, but he also has a creative brain,” Kweli said. “What’s important is that our working relationship is so symbiotic that as I am recording, I just have to shoot a look or say half a sentence, and he knows exactly which part of the song I am referring to.”
Though Kweli has always chosen substance over style, especially as it relates to his lyricism, he understands the destructive potential that purists can bring to their favorite genre.
“When you look at what happened with jazz music, it is almost a tragedy,” he said. “Then, in my opinion, some of the purists in the jazz world took it so seriously and made it so academic that they started cutting the community out of it. Now you have jazz clubs and the only black people in there are the musicians on the stage. If we are not careful, the same will happen with hip hop.”
Still, Kweli sees the side of the argument that different music speaks to different people in many ways.
“A friend once said: ‘You listen to the lyrics, I listen to this for motivation to get money,’ That was a real lesson for me as a young man,” he said.
Kweli attributes his early success to the methods of positive visualization, and says he always saw himself as someone with real potential.
“It is manifest destiny,” he said. “When I was in high school, I would collect ‘Word Up!’ magazines. I would take the pictures out and my entire wall was covered with pictures of rappers. It was like a vision board for me.”
Even though Kweli is known as a musician and activist, his recent years have seen him rise in infamy on Twitter, as the one celebrity who refuses to back away from an online fight. In these encounters, he often pulls no punches, choosing to meet the attacking user where they are at.
“I am targeted by racist trolls because I engage all the time,” Kweli said. “I am willing to go back and forth. The people who argue with me, these are cowards. They go after the women in my life first. They would harass my daughter and my mother. My ex-wife would get harrassed. Some of this stuff I couldn’t let go. I was on my Will Smith.”
While activism remains important to Kweli for the foreseeable future, he thinks it is important to understand the places where each of us come from as being important in shaping our own outlooks on life.
“I have a lot of privileges. I am a man and an American,” he said. “I have class privilege and education privilege that I was born with. I have lots of privilege that I have earned too, from being a celebrity and a rapper. Just because Black men are the white men of the black community doesn’t mean we aren’t a marginalized group.”
Kweli, who has been in the rap game since 1997 recognizes the need to change as one grows up, and as new things become important to oneself.
“I spent a lot of time in the industry being competitive,” Kweli said. “I feel like part of my success has to do with the fact that I was being competitive with other emcees. I saw myself competing with every single rapper. The capitalist system makes us want to grind. I have put out more work than most rappers alive. I was rapping for money in the middle of my career. It felt like a hamster wheel, and I have a song called ‘hamster wheel’ on one of those albums. It takes away from the art and takes away from the soul. I had to stop doing that. When I made that choice, everything got better.”
Kweli, who received his bachelor’s degree from New York University, spoke about the benefits that our college experiences can lend to our future careers, even when it might not seem that way.
“When I studied experimental theater, it was about that style of acting, shedding everything that the world puts on you and getting to the core of yourself,” Kweli said. “That helped my stage presence. It was a lot of running and screaming and yelling. It freed me up as a performer. Learning sense memory, like how actors had to create a backstory for the characters that they play, that helped me write. “
When it was time for audience questions, Kweli entertained some lighter inquiries as well. One such question from a student led Kweli to speak on the importance of being comfortable in your own skin.
“I am a hat guy,” he said. “Women like to wear weaves, I like to wear hats. Baseball hats are the weave of the black man. As I get older, I don’t feel as insecure leaving the house without my hat. I try to spend more time in places where I feel like I do not have to wear my rapper outfit.”