Talib Kweli has been rapping and writing music for close to 20 years, and he has established himself as the conscious rapper of his generation. With lyrics that are as meaningful as they are rhythmic and beautiful his latest album, “Gravitas,” shows that Kweli has no intention of changing his style. However, having the label of conscious rapper attached to his name is not always easy, and Kweli testifies to this fact.
In an interview with TIME, in fact, he talks about how he does not like to be “pigeon holed” as a conscious rapper. His previous album “Prisoner of Conscious” included songs that mentioned Occupy Wall Street and the plight of Pussy Riot, but also contained messages about his personal life, relationships, and his position in the hip hop/rap world.
Kweli also talks about how women are perceived in most modern rap/hip hop songs: “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.”
On the title of his album “Prisoner of Conscious”, Kweli had this to say: “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.”
Kweli recently wrote a column for Complex.com where he talks about the influence that Nelson Mandela had on his life. “As the son of activist parents, I learned about Nelson Mandela early—it was like he was part of our family. While the news called him a “terrorist,” we called him a freedom fighter,” writes Kweli. He always respected and revered Mandela, and highlights Mandela’s movement to end apartheid as the event that politicized him. Given the legendary South African’s recent passing, there would be little surprise if there was an ode to Mandela in Kweli’s next album or mixtape.
Kweli’s own activism likely won’t end due to his longtime idol’s passing, either. Talib chose not to follow his parents into direct political activism, instead bringing his message to an audience through music. He also spends a good amount of time speaking to inner-city high schoolers and college students. The father of two finds the youth of society especially important, although he has also worked with other activists to publicize the issues of racism and political prisoners by speaking at events such as the Chicago Field Museum’s conference on hip-hop and social change.
Previously, Talib has been heavily involved in various youth based projects, one of his most recent being his participation in “Pacha’s Pajamas,” which is both a children’s book and hip-hop album. The book is narrated by Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated Mos Def, who appears on the album with Talib and others. The story centers on a young city girl determined to unite the world with a Mother Earth-inspired music festival – complete with singing plants and dancing animals. Talib appears as the butterfly Pebble, singing the track “Butterfly Life,” which croons: “Used to be a caterpilla till I metamorphisized/Used to have 16 legs and 6 pairs of eyes.” The album won a People’s Choice Award for Best Children’s Music.
Coincidentally, after working on the fictional children’s story, Talib chose to open his own album with science fiction. Or, more specifically, famous science fiction writer Neil Gaiman. Kweli uses a sample from his internet-famous commencement speech at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia to open “Gravitas,” and it works well with the albums themes. With every track, it’s more and more obvious that Talib Kweli knows what’s he’s talking about when he references the prison-industrial complex and feminism. And he manages to do it without pandering, which is what usually happens when men try to explain women’s rights to females.
The past few years have been busy for Kweli. He released two albums and a mix tape in 2011, and recently went on a United States music tour with hip hop artist Macklemore and Big K.R.I.T.. The tour spanned from October 22 to December 12, and included cities such as Portland, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Buffalo, New York, Washington, Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. The tour was both a critical and commercial success, and helped introduce Kweli’s music to a larger audience.
Like his touring partner Macklemore, Talib Kweli took the unique route of selling his album directly through his personal website. The album is available at http://kweliclub.com as a zip file, which can be unzipped to 11 MP3 files. In order to spread the word about his new albums, Kweli has been through a whirlwind of promotional events recently, including a live performance on DirecTV’s Guitar Center Sessions. Not known for being a showcase for hip-hop talent, the invite was a testament to Kweli’s popularity. He performed songs such as “Upper Echelon” during his impressive appearance.
Kweli’s “Gravitas” has been a critical success, with most reviewers giving it a very positive rating. “Demonology”, “Art Imitates Life”, and “Violations” are three highlight tracks, and feature guest performances from the likes of Black Thought, Rah Digga, and Raekwon. “Gravitas” stands out as clearly as the socially conscious and complex lyrical style for which Kweli has become justly known, and as he has continued to develop and produce independently, he has also remained active with collaborative projects that focus on social action, education and awareness, and cultural integrity.
Still, despite his efforts, Kweli remains humble about his job and role as a social influencer, telling The Progressive: “I’m sort of in a tower with a megaphone. I have to be real with myself about what I’m actually doing: I’m in the business of entertaining people. If I can do more than that, I will. And I think through my career, I’ve proven that I can and will. But I don’t get it twisted, like I’m some big activist. That would take props away from the people who are really doing it.”