Hip-Hop has come a long way from the streets of the South Bronx transcending to a worldwide super power that continues to permeate practically every facet of our society, from the style of clothes we wear to the socio-political world that surrounds us. There are a handful of Hip-Hop artists who have managed to bring it back to the streets but not in the same manner it was birthed from. These artists are using their celebrity power to be a voice for the streets they came from and many other voiceless towns and people that are in need of proper representation. Talib Kweli is one such artist, or rather I prefer to say, artivist. M.K. Asante, author of It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop, describes an “artivist” (a combination of the word artist and activist) as one who uses “their artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation”. This definition describes what Talib Kweli is to our culture to a T.
The 90’s proved to be pivotal in upstarting Talib Kweli’s music career. At a time when Hip-Hop was reaching a new high ground and began bleeding into commercialism, Hip-Hop was also in the crosshairs of U.S. governmental figures who believed Hip-Hop music to be a catalyst in the racially charged Los Angeles riots. This followed by the tragic deaths of Hip-Hop icons Biggie and Tupac in 1996 and 1997, was only fueling the violence that Hip-Hop was becoming associated with, particularly by those outside of the Hip-Hop culture who may have felt threatened by the unfamiliar culture.
In 1995, a mere twenty year old Talib Kweli recorded an untitled demo with a song which captured this moment in Hip-Hop time with rhymes like –
We hold power
Right now our souls is devoured
Our time is now
But we busy adding chaos to the hour
We just children
We need to learn how to act with the behavior
Coast to coast we actin’ savage
I know this isn’t our nature
How on point is that rhyme for the time it was written? Kweli knew exactly what was occurring at this point in time of the 90’s and even as a newjack to the Hip-Hop game, made it a point to bring forth this truth in his rhymes with the acknowledgment that Hip-Hop has the capability (power) for positivity and the need to enforce this within the culture. For 1995, this type of lyricism was rare. A lyricist that wasn’t cursing out the authorities or focusing on negativity, but was rhyming about uplifting and the current state of his beloved culture which he knew held a strong presence in society. Talib Kweli’s strength of infusing social injustices and political awareness into his lyricism was just about to be flexed through his future projects.
In February of 2000, the four NYPD officers involved in the Bronx shooting and killing of Amadou Diallo, a young immigrant from Guinea who was shot at 41 times and killed, were acquitted from all charges in the shooting by an Albany court. Inciting an uproar from the black community over the injustice of this decision, Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (f/k/a Mos Def), organized the Hip-Hop for Respect project to speak out against police brutality, in particular the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Rounding up 41 Hip-Hop artists to represent the 41 shots fired at Amadou Diallo, Kweli and Bey put out a 4 song EP which voiced the frustrations of the injustices that New York City was experiencing. Through the Hip-Hop for Respect project Kweli, Bey and all 41 Hip-Hop artists created a voice for those yearning to have their frustrations heard while also inspiring young Hip-Hop artists to focus on a more positive style of Hip-Hop.
Twenty years later from when he first entered the Hip-Hop game, Talib Kweli continues to use his artistic notoriety for social activism, only now he has taken another approach. Kweli has taken his activism a step further upon realizing that simply putting out music about social injustice and civil rights will only go so far in sparking any change. With the most recent Black Lives Matter movement, Kweli has made it a point to be more hands on and get into the grit with his activism. Aside from making bold statements on his social media pages about the lack of value that Black lives have in our current society, Kweli along with his Action Support Committee raised over $100,000 through crowdfunding in order to support the protestors in Ferguson, all of which went towards community programs and grassroot organizations committed to social justice. Kweli also organized two free concerts with top billed artists, with all donations going to the Michael Brown family.
Talib Kweli stresses the importance of being politically and socially educated when taking part in any activism. Simply acknowledging the existence of an injustice is not enough to make a difference. Kweli is quoted as saying “You have a new generation that thinks that they started activism when they started a Twitter page,” Kweli said, “but the responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the movement has been around for a while and there’s education to be had”, which I am in full agreement with. The only way to effectively go against any injustice in our society is to become well-versed on the issue through learning the history of it, the many views held on it and becoming fully aware of the current state of it. This is a responsibility that every true activist should undertake.
Kweli has proven time and time again that he is one of our generation’s most powerful Hip-Hop artists who uses his artistic status to be that voice for the voiceless and has no filter about it, specifically when it comes to matters of social injustice. Through his style of dropping lyrics that are chock full of facts in relation to past and current socio-political injustices and his profound allegiance to activism in matters of social justice and civil rights, Talib Kweli continues to be one of our generation’s most formidable and influential Hip-Hop artivists. Artist or not, we can all learn a little something from Kweli as a stalwart activist and hopefully we too can be influenced to help spark the changes that our society and culture needs.