Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli talks ‘grown-man’ rap and grassroots hip-hop ahead of his Sept. 2 show at Tower Theatre

click to enlarge Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli talks ‘grown-man’ rap and grassroots hip-hop ahead of his Sept. 2 show at Tower Theatre
Dorothy Hong

In one of its most anticipated billings since the Uptown 23rd District venue officially reopened, Tower Theatre is bringing legendary New York rapper Talib Kweli in for a rare appearance in Oklahoma City.

Kweli might best be known as one half of rap duo Black Star with fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def. He performs 8 p.m. Sept. 2 at Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd St. Tickets are $30-$40.

Black Star fans have just one studio album to cherish. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star was released in September 1998. Kweli and Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, still occasionally perform as a duo and have said in media reports that they now treat Black Star as a primarily live experience.

Outside Black Star, Kweli has released six solo albums and multiple collaborative projects. His album Fuck the Money is due in the near future on his self-owned independent label Javotti Media.

Kweli is also an avid reader and owns the Nkiru Books bookstore in Brooklyn. He recently finished a memoir, which will be published later this year.

Though known as one of hip-hop’s most relentless tourers, Kweli seldom performs in Oklahoma. His most recent stop in the state was in February 2016 at Langston University, where he was one of the school’s featured Black History Month speakers.

“People seem very excited about me coming to Oklahoma,” Kweli said in a recent phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette. “I tour a lot, but it’s not like I do OKC that often. The excitement, just from what I can see online, is exciting for me. I’m glad people are looking forward to me coming through.”

In his conversation with the Gazette, Kweli took the time to speak about aging rappers’ place in hip-hop and what is necessary for locally based rappers to establish themselves in the wider music landscape.

Growing pains

As the ultimate “what’s now” genre that has largely helped define what it means to be “cool” in the United States and across the world for the last few decades, hip-hop has little room for graying emcees over 40 — or does it?

The entire history of hip-hop culture barely exceeds four decades itself. It is true that radio has seen few rappers past the age of 50, but hip-hop also has not been around long enough to see most of its biggest commercial stars age past that point.

Jay-Z, the reigning Don of mainstream rap’s old guard, released his thirteenth studio album 4:44 on June 30 following his immensely hyped but stale 2013 release Magna Carta Holy Grail. Unlike his preceding effort, 4:44 felt fresh and inspired. Jay-Z raps over soulful, scaled-back production while baring his soul over issues like racism, community development and the much-publicized rockiness of his marriage to pop queen Beyoncé.

The project was praised by many music publications and rap blogs as a blueprint for “grown-man” hip-hop, or the way artists middle age and beyond should approach the genre. The Brooklyn-born rap mogul turns 48 in December.

Kweli, 41, said while it is good that 4:44 is getting a lot of positive attention from the media, Jay-Z is not breaking new ground.

“With all due respect to the incredible artist that Jay-Z is, the type of ‘grown-man’ rap that these media outlets are talking about has been done many, many, many times by artists other than Jay-Z,” he said.

Artists like The Roots, Common and Mos Def have been addressing personal and big-picture societal issues in their music for years. Kweli is a prime example of an emcee with a mature sound. On his most recent album The Seven, a collaborative EP with The LOX rapper Styles P released in April, Kweli raps about living life with an Arabic name, calling out privilege and other things.

Community and global consciousness has defined Kweli’s music for the length of his career. The idea of “grown-man” hip-hop seems to assume that young emcees only rap about parties and sex. Anyone who has listened to 30-year-old Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar in the last decade knows that is not the case.

“Kendrick is not rapping about sleeping with a bunch of groupies,” Kweli said. “Instead, he’s like, ‘I like this one girl.’ He’s rapping about being valuable in his community and giving back to his community.”

Kweli said 4:44 turned so many heads not just because of its refined tone or personal vulnerability, but because a widely beloved rapper seems to be completely at peace with his status as an established artist and brand.

“Jay-Z is making music from a very comfortable space,” he said. “He doesn’t have to impress anyone from the music industry; he doesn’t have to worry about sales or getting people to buy it in the fourth quarter. He’s really making music from his heart.”

Scene heard

Oklahoma City might not be nationally known for hip-hop music, but there is no shortage of locally based rappers to be found in the 405 area code — many of them with great musical talent.

However, very few emcees from the area have risen above city- or statewide fandom.

Kweli said locally based rappers in places like Oklahoma City sometimes become so focused on the prospect of blowing up on the national stage that they forget to earn the full support of their own hometown.

“I saw some advice from [Houston rapper and one-half of former rap duo UGK] Bun B today where he said, ‘Your first album is for your ’hood, your second album is for the world and if you make it past that, you’re making music for yourself,’” he said. “You’ve got to make music that represents where you’re from and get supported by your own community.”

Kweli also stressed the importance of building connections and networking whenever and wherever possible. He credited past support from The Roots, Mos Def, De La Soul and comedian Dave Chappelle for taking his career to new heights.

For Oklahoma City hip-hop to rise to national attention, Kweli said it is going to take unity and cohesion among resident artists.

“I think building musical communities is how artists blow up,” he said. “When you look at the Bay Area sound or trap from Atlanta or the Houston sound or any type of sound that’s blown up, it’s because it’s artists who have come out of a community.”

The rapper is eager to bring his live show to America’s heartland in a musical appearance he said is long overdue.

“That’s a big part of performance,” Kweli said, “bringing music to people who don’t normally get it.”


Print Headline: Star speaks, Eminent emcee Talib Kweli talks ‘grown-man’ hip-hop and community rappers ahead of his show at Tower Theatre.


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