Talib Kweli interview: Gil Scott is the godfather to my style

Mo Stewart talks to Talib Kweli about his connection to Gil Scott-Heron, recent releases, the impact of social media on activism, oppression in America and more.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 1st Sep 2016

Image: Talib Kweli

After emerging at the turn of the century as one half of the critically acclaimed duo Black Star alongside Mos Def (Now Yasiin Bey), Talib Kweli has built a strong reputation as a man worth listening to.

Highly respected by his peers, Kweli has seen his name rather unfairly become a byword for lyrical dexterity and honesty at the expense of commercial success - despite maintaining more than healthy album sales for someone operating outside of the major labels.

However, after dropping a free album of brand new material called Fuck The Money on Monday, it could be argued that matching the bank accounts of the likes of Dr. Dre or Kanye isn't high on his priority list...

Kweli is undoubtedly one of the busiest men in Hip Hop: playing “200-250 shows a year, every year”, with the odd DJ set thrown in for good measure, as well as being heavily involved in the fight for justice of Black people all over the world, from Ferguson to South Africa.

Intelligent, articulate, and always willing to engage and educate his one million Twitter followers on a variety of subjects, I managed to run a few things by him as he criss-crossed the county, and asked him about his connection to Gil, Black Star, and the impact of social media on activism.

Talib Kweli performs in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester in December - Find Tickets

You grew up in an academic family, and a very politically minded family. So I imagine you would have been aware of Gil Scott-Heron from a young age. Do you remember the first time?

Gil Scott's music permeated the house when I was younger. Especially 'Winter In America'. 

How direct an influence was he when you became an artist? What's your favourite line of his?

Gil Scott is the godfather to my style. My favourite lyric is: “You keep saying kick it, quit it kick it quit kick it lord but did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world can watch you die.”

How did his guest spot on The Blast come about – could Dave Chappelle not do a decent impression?

Gil came in to record a song with Yasiin Bey and I, called Little Brother. He never ended up recording the song, but before he left we got him to do that drop.

The plan was to get as many celebrity drops as possible. But when we didn't get enough, Dave started impersonations. 

For this show, you've manfully stepped in for Yasiin Bey. Was it him or the organisers who reached out to you?  

I've never seen the word "manfully" as an adjective, but the organizers reached out. 

Guests of honour are Gil's son Rumal and Ndaba Mandela, grandson of the great Nelson. I know you're a great fan of Mandela, and have spoken about his influence not only on your life but on those of all black men. Did you ever get to meet him?

I never got to meet Mandela. I know Ndaba though. 

You're sharing a bill with one of Gil's Protege's Malik and the OG's – do you know much about him? Have you ever been to Liverpool?

I don't know anything about Malik and the OG's, but will be excited to see them perform. I've been to Liverpool once or twice. 

Since I started preparing for this interview you've released two albums. First, Train of Thought - a collection of B-sides and rare releases - and then this week Fuck the Money.  

With FTM, the message is obvious, backed up by your decision to release it for free. What led you towards this subject?

The title track (Fuck The Money) I've had for years, but I didn't know which project to put it on.

When my good friend PH (Pumpkin Head – an acclaimed, underground Battle MC and former School friend of Kweli ) passed away recently, I decided that time was short and I needed to be as prolific as possible. So I developed an entire project around the song FTM.

The first song, 'Gratitude', is dedicated to PH .

Musically, Fuck the Money embraces some of the more recent trends: the sparse trap beats of Gratitude or Leslie nope; the title track wouldn't be out of place on a Flying Lotus album.

Have you consciously looked to push boundaries, or simply taking inspiration from new places and people?

I constantly experiment because for an artist, stagnation is death. Knowing that my sound on FTM was a bit more experimental than normal was also part of the reasoning behind giving it out for free. 

Do you still love Twitter? I look at your timeline and think it must be tiring as hell to have to deal with that all the time?

I love Twitter. When you see me there, that's light work. Not a challenge at all. 

You've got some guest spots on the album too – Styles P, Miguel, Ab-Soul, the most interesting of which is Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. How did that come about, and why didn't you let him sing?

Patrick Stump is singing! He's singing the low parts, Miguel is singing the highs. Patrick is a great musician who loves to experiment as well. Him and I have several half done songs together, and he wrote the hook for this one as well. 

Talking about Train of Thought – how long a period of time do the tracks cover? What inspired you to release it so soon before FTM?

'Train of Thought Lost' covers my career from 1997 to 2013. I noticed that many of these songs were on mixtapes or just floating around online.

I wanted to give them a home at Kweliclub.com (Kweli's own merchandise store which doubles up as an online resource for Nkiru Books, an influential African-American bookstore in Brooklyn, that Kweli and Yasiin Bey bought in 2000.)

I'm now going to ask you the question you get asked most often, but there are many people who would never forgive me if I didn't, myself included... you, Yasiin, Black Star....is there anything we should know?

The two of you have hardly been estranged - every couple of years or so you jump on a track together, a couple of which are on Train of Thought. At any point have the two of you just sat down and thought - “let's give it another go”? Hip hop duos are back in fashion now – Run the Jewels, Prhyme, Watch the Throne?

Black Star is an organic experience and we intend on keeping it that way. But we love the support from the fans. 

Some have argued that recently you've been more concerned with making an impact with your words than with your music – I guess dropping two albums in two weeks is a pretty good riposte?

People who worry about whether I have more with "words" or music are just jealous they can't do what I do. They want to be me but don't have the fortitude. So they speak from the sidelines rather than get in the game. 

Does this idea of drowning in activism concern you? I was watching the superb new documentary on Nina Simone, and saw the personal toll her involvement in the civil rights movement took on her, and her contemporaries.

It came to me while watching that you may be in a position to suffer a lot of the same problems – the power of your convictions restricting commercial opportunities, the mental exhaustion of the constant battles, the emotional torment felt when witnessing tragedies and their consequences. 

The trials of Nina Simone were lessons to all activist minded musicians. For my entire career I have always maintained that I am an entertainer. I don't call myself an activist, y'all do that.

My job is to entertain and if I start to suck at my job I will have no platform. So even though I align myself with certain activism, I never lose sight of what my role is, to make and perform great music. Thus, four releases in two or three years.. 

Are you just happy people are still listening, regardless of the medium?

I don't care how people hear the music, as long as they find ways to support what they claim to love. 

To my mind I think of you as hip hop's Bob Dylan, not just because of your lyrical prowess or background of protest, but I think you've almost been on tour as long as he has – how do you do it?

Wow, I don't know if I've earned that comparison. Touring is my bread and butter, so even when I don't feel like it, I go do it. But I am trying to change that my focusing on getting people to come to me at Kweliclub.com, which is why we sell not just music, but books, art, clothing etc. 

"In the late sixties and early seventies, black poets were the news-givers, because their stories were not covered in truth in the mainstream media," said Lemn Sissay, a friend of Scott-Heron's who produced a documentary on his work.

Do you feel that Twitter is the modern version of this, allowing you to shine a light on the things that would otherwise be ignored?

I think social network has the same effect that seeing bodies from Vietnam, or seeing black folk being bitten by dogs on the evening news had in the sixties.

This is not news to the oppressed. But now, we can show you. And social network shows you in real time as it's happening, before it runs through the filters. 

Do you think activism was easier in Gil's time, with less distractions but also less precedents, or now where people in general are more aware, but so many have become jaded and apathetic?

Activism is way easier now, with hashtags, retweets and camera phones. It was far more challenging to be an activist when you actually must show up in the flesh. 

You recently curated and performed at the Ferguson is Everywhere show, marking one year since the death of Mike Brown. It was a great bill, featuring Immortal Technique, M1 of Dead Prez, Bun B, Common, Pharoahe Monch and many others.

I caught some of the stream – it really struck me how much energy came from such a small room, like distilled, raw energy. How did it feel to be able to do something like that for those people?

It felt great, but it wasn't really about how it made me feel. It was about raising awareness and money for school supplies for neighbourhood kids and Mike Brown Sr organization Chosen For Change, and we were successful on all fronts. 

Throughout this past year there has been a depressing roll call of black people dying at the hands of the police in the US. In the last 24 hours another has fallen in St.Louis.

From our side of the Atlantic, it appears that Black Americans are in as much danger as they have ever been.

Do you believe that's true, or is it just becoming impossible for the police to cover these things up without anyone finding out? If so, in a warped way isn't that a good thing?

God bless the Ferguson community and the Black lives Matter movement for forcing this conversation. As I said, oppressed people have always known. But yes, it's good that it's now about for the national discourse. Let's see how long this lasts. 

On a personal level, I have family in the U.S – A mother and two teenage sisters – so I'm keen to try to understand what it's really like to be Black in America. What would you say to me?

C'mon back. see for yourself. 

Finally, as I ask everybody, which MCs are you into right now? Who should I be investigating?

NIKO IS (An up and coming rapper out of Florida) and K'Valentine (Chicago based poet turned rapper). 

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UK dates below: 

Leeds - HiFi Club, Friday 2nd December

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Liverpool -24 Kitchen Street, Monday 5th December 

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Manchester - Band On The Wall, Thursday 8th December

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