(ARISE magazine, issue 18)
Such is the power of social media that before Talib Kweli had even touched down in South Africa this August, to judge the Sprite Uncontainable Hip Hop Talent Search, the US rapper was already embroiled in lively debate with his SA Twitter followers. On being told that Africans hate the term ‘the motherland’ he tweeted, “[It] could come off as corny, but for us struggling with the effects of the slave trade saying motherland is a point of pride.” When another fan declared African-Americans “not real Africans” he diplomatically replied, “I disagree but, hey, to each his own.” And when accused of referring to Soweto as a country he quickly, and indignantly, responded, “I’ve BEEN to Soweto. Did a show in the street with Black Thought, Dead Prez, Boots & Jeru.”
Kweli was referring to his 2001 visit as part of the Black August Hip Hop Project, which saw several US rappers tour Durban, Joburg, the Cape Flats, Cape Town and Soweto to promote Black August’s work fighting for the rights of political prisoners. The trip had a lasting effect on Kweli. “[It] defined my role,” he told Charise Cheney in her book Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics In The Golden Age Of Rap Nationalism. “I had access to food, shelter and education [growing up], I have to use those resources to help people all over the world. If I can’t see that after trips to all those places then I’m a fool.”
On Push Thru, the first single off his new album, Prisoner Of Conscious, Kweli proves he’s no fool, delivering lines such as “fighting for freedom like the people in Tunisia/ spread to Sudan and Egypt, this is the music for the movement”. “My aim was to make an album of love songs but it ended up being deeper,” he admits. “There are a lot of songs dealing with the opposite sex though.” He describes the album as “lush and romantic”, which is perhaps less surprising given some of his collaborators: Seu Jorge and R&B singers Melanie Fiona and Amber Strother (Nelly and Busta Rhymes also feature).
Prisoner Of Conscious is Kweli’s second release in recent months, coming off the back of his free mixtape Attack The Block. “People in this generation expect free music, period,” he says. “To work against that as an artist is to work against yourself. God willing the mixtape will drive up a buzz for the album, and I also wanted to do a mixtape with a real DJ like Z-Trip, that had actual mixing.”
Collaborating with established artists and discovering new talent are skills Kweli has nurtured throughout his career – from teaming up with Mos Def, Hi-Tek and Madlib to co-founding record label BlackSmith Music (with Corey Smyth). In SA he drew on this experience to decide the three winners of the talent contest: rapper Hydrochloric, graphic designer Dane (aka Stops) and b-girl ShamRock. “Cape Town was incredible,” he enthuses, “The performers were great and I look forward to seeing the winners in NYC [where he will mentor them]”.
Kweli took to the stage too, putting on killer shows at Cape Town’s Trinity club and Joburg’s OST. But SA is not the only pin on Kweli’s map of Africa. He’s also been to Nigeria (see right) and Tanzania (for the MTV show Tripping). “People of African descent have Africa running through their bones,” he says. “It’s a connection that slavery and colonialism could never erase. So when I touched down, even the distant felt familiar.” Kweli has expressed an interest in genealogical testing – but, he says, “the science I’ve seen behind tracing one’s roots past the slave trade is hokey at best”.
From the moment his professor parents named him Kweli (‘true’ in Swahili), Africa has been ingrained in the rapper’s life. “My parents’ generation came of age in 1960s America when black consciousness and pan-Africanism was on the rise,” he says. “Those values were taught when I was young, then reinforced when I listened to hip hop.” In terms of African music, Kweli namechecks MC Tumi, Seun and Femi Kuti and is keen to hear more. “African music, other than our popular music influenced by African rhythms, is not mainstream in the US at all. We have a long way to go with that.”
As well as an album, Kweli’s also been busy motivating his fellow citizens to vote, taking to Twitter to scorn Nicki Minaj for seemingly showing support for Mitt Romney (“Just heard a dude on Hot97 say he won’t let his daughter listen to Nicki Minaj cuz she endorses Romney. Really? That’s what it took?”). ARISE spoke to Kweli before the election took place, but he had no doubt what the result would be: “Obama will win for sure, no question. The election seems like a distraction, because it’s a popularity contest. And Obama is definitely more popular.” How right he was.
The rapper’s also been working on his autobiography and has already shared one chapter, That One Time When I Was Atheist, And The Influence Of Malcolm X, on his Tumblr. Coming from a man who once bought a bookshop in Brooklyn with Mos Def it’s not a surprising move. “I would like to create industry around myself rather than waiting for an industry to support me,” he says. “The book is part of that. I feel my story can be as inspirational as the music.”
Prisoner Of Conscience [Javotti], out Feb
[BOXOUT] LIGHTS, CAMERA, AFRICA!
Talib Kweli shot his video for Hostile Love in Lagos. But he’s not the only one repping Africa on MTV.
Rick Ross, Lagos (2012)
Rick Ross caused a Twitter storm with his Hold Me Back video, in which the rapper swaggers through the ghettos of Lagos State, dishing out dollar bills.
Solange, Cape Town (2012)
Solange roped in a troupe of snappily dressed sapeurs for her Losing You video, shot against the barbershops and streets of Langa township.
MIA, Morocco (2012)
In MIA’s Bad Girls, gun-toting, headscarved women strut the dusty streets of Ouarzazate. After the redhead genocide of Born Free it’s almost tame.
Westlife, Gauteng (2011)
Bafflingly beloved across Africa, Westlife shot their video for Lighthouse in SA’s Cradle of Humankind heritage site. Cue swaying grasses and safari tents.