Violence gave outsiders a reason to call my Baltimore neighborhood a problem. Even though our spot was rough and had its problems, we residents knew it as a magical place full of talented ballplayers, spiritual people and the most powerful grandmas. We made up a community with extremely sophisticated art palates and consumed everything from jazz and the blues to gospel and country music. We were an eclectic mix of everything, but you couldn’t see it unless you were a part of it –– just like hip-hop.
Decades after the creation of hip-hop, the genre is still falsely placed into a box as the music of thugs and gangsters. The complexities and rich layers that exist inside of hip-hop culture mirror the experiences in my neighborhood. This is a difficult idea for many to grasp because grouping and generalizing people and what they subscribe to is as American as rich people not paying taxes. Supreme hip-hop lyricist Talib Kweli offers must-read commentary on this topic in his new memoir, “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story,” where he documents the many facets of our glorious culture and why it’s dangerous to see hip-hop as one thing.
Kweli joined me on “Salon Talks” this week to discuss his writing process and stories of his days in the streets of Brooklyn, coming of age at the same time hip-hop was gaining national attention. Battles, shows, relationships, connections with people from different neighborhoods and a rapidly expanding B-Boy culture landed Kweli in Greenwich Village where he honed his trademark rap style and led to him touring the world, reaching legendary status as the go-to conscious emcee and collaborating with artists like Mos Def, Common, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Kendrick Lamar.
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Kweli here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the experiences that made him into the influential artist he is today, his take on cancel culture and what he thinks his longtime friend Kanye West needs to personally do to pay for his sins of Trump praise.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Most of your fans, we already know you from not just being a hip-hop artist but from owning the legendary Nkiru Books, for being an activist and an outspoken person. Now you’ve added writer. What is the comparisons of finishing a book versus finishing an album?
Well I’m definitely humbled. First of all, I appreciate your kind words brother, thank you. I’m definitely humbled to be in this new creative space because I’m confident in my skills as an emcee, but in the world of literature and the world of writing, my competition is not other emcees, my competition is Maya Angelou and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and people like that. I just hope that I did those people proud
I want to stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. I hope that my story comes across as a story of hip hop itself, that’s why I called it “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story” because I am not who I am without my parents, without my community, with hip-hop, without J Dilla, without Madlib, without Yasiin Bey, without Hi-Tek, people like – without Kanye. I don’t just tell my story in this book. I tell these people’s story as well because they make up who I am.
What made you choose “Vibrate Higher” for the title?
I feel like my career has always been as an artist. Me as an artist is the same as me as a man — I don’t separate the two. My career as an artist, as well as my path as a man has always benefited from me trying to raise the level of my consciousness and thus raise the level of the consciousness of the people around me. That’s been very rewarding for me as an individual. If I had to choose a religion, my religion is compassion. Vibrating higher or trying to move away from our base self and trying to live, trying because we all are not perfect, we all have flaws, but trying to live at the highest possible frequency is something that makes the whole planet better. When I think about my life, that’s what I’ve attempted to do. This book is chronicling my attempt.
One of the things I wasn’t expecting when I picked the book up is that it’s not just your personal story and it’s not even a personal story of the people who influenced you. When you talk about Yasiin Bey, when you talk about Madlib, everybody who you just named, it’s your personal story but it gets very intricate with pieces of their personal stories. It’s also like a hip-hop history book. Often there’s this disconnect between the younger generation of artists versus the people that paved the way for them, and part of that disconnect is some of the history that you laid down not being put into context for them. Could you speak to that as far as the creative process?
I feel like with hip-hop academia, the hip-hop literature, there’s still a huge gulf of non-information or misinformation. Things get dated quickly because hip-hop moves so fast. By the time someone has detailed their hip-hop story, it’s already old school. Me working in a bookstore like Nkiru Books, me reading all these rappers biographies, me being around with Trisha Rose who wrote “Black Noise” and Nelson George wrote “Buppies, B-boys, Baps & Bohos,” and when Kevin Powell and the poets started putting their writing into a hip-hop context, I understood that we have to tell our own stories. I understood that my unique perspective had not been told.
We’ve read, in the academic sense, books about how hip-hop got started in the South Bronx because of the highway and the highway gentrification and the music programs being cut in New York City and Zulu Nation coming together and the gangs now becoming B-Boy crews. All that is well documented. I’m thinking about hip-hop documentaries I’ve seen like “Style Wars,” “Wild Style” and “Rhyme and Reason.”
Beyond the Netflix docuseries that chronicles every era and down with myself, Yasiin and the people from the Rawkus Era, I’ve never really seen any real documentation on that era and on my unique perspective. I’m born in 1975, so when I came of age, Das EFX, Cypress Hill, Tribe Called Quest, these were platinum groups. Underground hip-hop was a platinum sound. When people talk about that ’90s era hip-hop, that’s what they’re talking about. They’re talking about House of Pain and Ante Up. M.O.P. didn’t go platinum but everyone else in that area went platinum. I’m not old school as like a Melle Mel. I’m not old school like LL. I’m not old school like KRS-One. So I feel honored and blessed to be able to write the Rawkus story, to write for the people who were in college when Rawkus happened. To write for the people who have seen El-P go from Company Flow to Run the Jewels. To write for the people who were excited when Madlib and Dilla and MF Doom, rest in peace, were all collaborating in the mid 2000s. I don’t feel like that era has been that well documented.
I feel you. It’s important and the way you’re doing it is so cool because you show universal love. In your book, you write about what was happening in the conscious community versus what was happening in mainstream. Then you talk about the different connections, like Jay-Z hopping on your song, your interactions with people like Diddy and how people always treat you as a lyricist and that love that exists. A lot of people think that if you fit into a certain type of group of hip-hop, you’re just boxed in.
On my People’s Party podcast, a friend of mine said to me that we have the hardest, most gangsta rappers on here sometimes and they all show you love, they all so show you so much love. People would be surprised that the hardest, most gangsta rappers are really in their spare time listening to Talib Kweli. What I said to him was it’s not just me, it’s the caliber of emcees and this particular caliber of emcees that I roll with that if you are a gangsta rapper who is really about making this hip-hop music, then you are someone who spends your spare time listening to Talib Kweli, listening to Mos Def, listening to Common, listening to Pharaohe Monch, listening to Black Thought.
There’s other conscious artists that I love and respect that are dope, but I find the people I just named, who are my immediate friends and peers, we are a group of rappers that other rappers look to as a vanguard. I love that. I think that’s because the people who make gangsta rap music who are serious musicians, they’re not doing it because they’re trying to be tough guys, they’re doing it because they’re trying to reflect or represent a reality in the streets. When they hear me and Black Star and Black Thought and Common, they say okay, well those brothers over there, they’re not gang banging, they’re not selling drugs, they’re not hustling, they’re not pimping. They’re not trying to sell sex, they’re not trying to rap about their car, but they come from the same neighborhoods we come from. Our Black community is not a monolith, even though these guys aren’t playing the tough guy role like we’re doing over here, we recognize that they are speaking to a reality in these streets. They recognize that people in these neighborhoods should be listening to the messaging that we’re trying to get across. That’s why it’s always been a mutual respect. All of us artists are in this together.
One of the things that frustrates me is when I see how people outside of our communities critique our communities. The dude on the corner hustling might be the one who put “The Bluest Eye” book in your hand and be like “No shorty, go read this. Go read the ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ Go think about this, go do this.” Nobody is one thing. We’re all walking contradictions full of ideas and thoughts and feelings. Just because mainstream media wants to box us in, it doesn’t mean the neighborhood don’t work like that.
Yeah you’re right.
The most gangsta dude in the neighborhood he might be into anime or something, you know?
I’m glad you realized that point because one of the things I really dislike, I’m trying to remove the word hate from my vocabulary because I really don’t hate anything, but one of the things I really dislike a lot is people, particularly people outside the community, whether it be Black or white, but disproportionately this is something a white person might say, people who say Kweli, I like you so much, you represent so much for hip-hop. You’re not like these other gangsta rappers. Kweli, I listen to you because f**k Gucci Mane. Kweli, I listen to you because I don’t like what DaBaby has to say. It’s like nah brother, don’t weaponize me against them brothers. Don’t use my name to tear them brothers down. I don’t play that at all.
In the book, it was cool to read about your family and how you have a lineage of Black artists in your family, I want to say starting with Stanley Greene, Sr.
Yes, Stanley Greene Sr., my grandfather was certainly a very humble and excellent working actor. He was in “Nothing But A Man” with Sidney Poitier, he was in “Landlord” with Beau Bridges, he played Uncle Henry in “The Wiz.” Because of that, I was in “The Wiz” as a little kid, a little baby flying around as a star when Lena Horne is singing. My father was in movies with Sidney Poitier. My father was a young actor. He did plays back in the day. get that from them. My grandmother Javotti, who I named my label after, she was an actress. She was a key cast member on the soap opera “Guiding Light” for a number of years.
For a lot of young artists, there’s a confidence piece that they look for. Do you feel like having people in your family that embraced art and worked as artists had anything to do with you finding your voice in your early career?
It helped. It made it real for me. My uncle, Stanley Greene Jr., world famous photographer, he just passed away recently. He was an artist, but the thing he was most famous for was war and conflict region photography. He was in the Kremlin when the Kremlin fell. His pictures are the pictures you see in Life Magazine when the Kremlin fell. It made me understand that a career in the arts was not just a possibility, but could be quite lucrative. My grandparents, they moved into a house in New Rochelle, my father was raised in New Rochelle. He went to NYU, he met my mother at NYU and then he became a Brooklyn resident after that. My grandparents had a big house and we were living in Brooklyn in small apartments. When I went to go see my grandparents, they would have this huge house. I remember thinking as a kid, wow, okay they got this from acting. Neither one of them were famous. They weren’t famous people, they were just working actors. The idea that you could work as an artist, whether you be famous or not, was intriguing to me.
That is the beauty even of being in a city like New York. You’re just exposed to so much. Whereas if you came from Baltimore like myself, you would never meet a working journalist or an actor or any of these professions. That’s why me and my artist friends we do so much in the neighborhoods we come from and the city in general because we know we have to be those people that we didn’t have coming up. Just to see it, it makes it real.
I really enjoyed the part of your book where you talk about running around the city as a teenager. You were hanging out in the Village, coming of age as a young person who was a part of the culture but also watching the culture become this big global conglomerate. People who you were probably in and out of battles with were getting record deals, becoming super stars, dropping albums. Take us back to some of them early days.
The Village is such a special place and I write a lot about it in the book a lot. On my podcast People’s Party I interviewed Onyx and I interviewed Sticky and Fredro. I remember hearing about Sticky and Fredro just from being in the Village because they was nice as barbers and they was nice as dancers before Onyx was a thing. These guys come from a harder circumstances. We’re all born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, all of us. But then they moved out to Queens, south side Queens. They had a harder upbringing than I did. One thing they say in their story is that “What separated us from everybody else in Queens is we were travelers. We got on that train and we went to the Village.” When they said that, a light bulb went in my head. I’m like, “That’s exactly what it was for me.”
I would be in Brooklyn and the dudes I was going to junior high school with, we would all end up just hanging out on the corners. I noticed the more we hang out on the corners, the more we having run-ins with low lives. Now we’re drinking more 40s. Now we’re thinking maybe we should be selling drugs. It started to become that type of thing. I was like, nah, I don’t want it. I saw that path happening early. I’m like, I want to see some stuff. You hit the nail on the head when you talk about New York privilege, the privilege of growing up in New York City and being around people, working actors and journalists and stuff like that. That’s absolutely correct. I can’t relate to living in a place that doesn’t have that.
Another thing that we had was the best transportation system on the planet. I lived in a two-fare zone, so I had to take the bus to the train. But I would either walk to the train because I was young and had energy, I had my Timberlands on, I’d walk a mile and a half in them Timberlands, in the snow. Or we had dollar vans because we had a Caribbean community. If I didn’t have enough to get on the bus or didn’t feel like getting on the bus, I’d just pay for a dollar van. The train was free. It wasn’t free, but we treated it like it was free. If somebody paid a token, we’re looking at you like you’re crazy, like what you doing? You don’t got to do that. Why do you pay? Just hop the turnstile.
Being able to hop the turnstile for free, to get on the best public transportation system in the world to go to the best city in the world for art, to be right there, to be able to go to 42nd Street at be at 42nd Street in under 45 minutes, or to be in the Village for free. I could walk out of my house, walk to the train station, hop that turnstile and be in Greenwich Village without spending no money. I was just introduced to a whole different paradigm, a whole different cultural community. I call it the stew. I come out of that stew. If I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have those creative people to bounce off of, whether it’s hardcore rappers like Onyx, or spoken word people like Saul Williams, Agent 99, Reggie Gage, comedians like Charlie Barnett and Dave Chappelle even was in the park back then. You had magicians, you had jugglers, you had people doing card tricks. It was everything.
You write about how Giuliani broke up the park and how his racist mentality toward Black people lead to policy changes.
I used to listen to Gary Byrd on WBAI. He had a show “The Gary Byrd Experience.” He used to call Giuliani “Ghouliani.” He used to talk about him every day. It was weird when Giuliani ran for president the first time as America’s Mayor, us from the conscious Black community in New York we were like, yo, what? What narcotic are y’all smoking? How are y’all not seeing through this man? The country largely sees through him now in the Trump Era, he’s really showed his a*s, but he showed himself to be exactly who Gary Byrd back then was saying he was.
I remember we used to smoke weed in the park and rap and freestyle. I was actually looking for a record deal and I was taking my demo because all the labels were in the Village area, taking my demo to all the labels. I stopped in this park to smoke and I got arrested. I got arrested for a little roach clip, a little half roach clip. I might get the numbers wrong and I have a lot of respect for Salon readers because they’re smart people who will deal with peer-reviewed sources so forgive me if I get these numbers wrong, but there were something like tens of thousands of arrests. Out of all those, like 90% of them were thrown out. That’s just a waste of resources. That’s just putting on a show. That’s not really solving anything. All that’s doing is creating more of a police state and that’s exactly what Giuliani did in communities of color.
He was trying to bring more tourists in. We saw the Disneyification of 42nd [Street] under Giuliani. It sucked a lot of the soul out of the city and got a lot of people of color to have records and be in the system that wouldn’t have been in the system. If aliens landed here and said, “who is the worst? We’d point at Giuliani. Like Chappelle said, they’re like Batman villains. He said Trump is the Joker and Giuliani is the Penguin. If you follow Batman, you know Penguin spent some time as mayor, so it’s accurate.
I think one of the things that a lot of people are going to pick up in your book is the power of education. I’m speaking to the education that you received from the schools that you went to as a student, but I’m also talking about the street education. As a young person you learned so much outside. You’re constantly seeking knowledge. I think a lot of people think that education starts and stops inside of schools, but I think reading this book will show people that education is everywhere, you just got to be open to receiving it and trying to obtain it.
Yeah, I speak about my privileges a lot in this book because I have a lot of them. I am also part of marginalized communities. I am also part of an underprivileged community and I also am a Black man in America, so I have the same racial trials, tribulations and struggles. One of my privileges, in addition to my New York privilege, and this is one of my greatest privileges, is being raised by educators. I make fun of my mother sometimes. Now at family or holiday time everybody be on Zoom now, so my mother was like “Okay, for Christmas, on the Zoom, everybody with kids, the kids are going to put on a talent show. We want to see everybody’s talent. You could do it ahead of time, make a little video.” It makes me think of my childhood because that’s the type of things I used to do because I was raised in a house of educators. There was a little kerfuffle with the family because some people in the family felt like my mom is just trying to give everybody homework. You understand what I’m saying. My aunt was like “Yo, this feels like homework.” I pulled my mom to the side, I called her on the side and I’m like “Yo, you’re an educator. This is fun to you. It’s fun to me too but it’s not fun to everybody to participate in that way.”
That’s not a dis, obviously I wouldn’t be dissing my family, and it doesn’t mean that just because someone doesn’t want to participate in something like that that they’re less smart than me or that they’re less educated than me. But it just goes to show you that I was raised by people who put an emphasis on presenting what you’ve learned, presenting what you know. It’s also something I struggle with because I know that most people don’t have the privilege to grow up like that. So it’s a struggle for me and I use my mother as an example because I love her, but it’s hard for my mother to be around ignorant people. Me, as someone who is in the music business, well I’m around ignorant people all the time. But it’s like I got to learn how to not make that become a judgment.
I don’t say I have to learn, I think I have learned how to be able to be like okay, I have the privilege to know more, to learn more, to be around more, to see more, to experience more. That doesn’t mean that someone else’s experience is less valuable. But how can I use my privilege to elevate the person who has not seen the things I’ve seen?
You’ve done it a lot in your music. I actually feel like the world doesn’t even have the ability to accept artists like Kanye West without Talib. The world doesn’t even understand the different realities that Kendrick and Cole bring to the table without a Talib Kweli putting it down and showing that other side or just opening our eyes up to the many different complexities that exist within our neighborhoods. How do you feel about your impact and the state of hip hop from a conscious perspective?
I’m so blessed and humbled, I really am, I really truly, I am. Because of Jay-Z, it’s become a thing to use my name as a metric or standard for consciousness in hip-hop. Whenever people are trying to represent from 2 Chainz to Kendrick to Pusha T, I could go down the list of rappers who have said my name in their songs. Conway just recently did it where they’re trying to show their conscious side as like you show your conscious side by saying Talib Kweli’s name in a rhyme. It’s funny to me, but I’m honored and I’m blessed.
To the artists you spoke about, Kendrick shouted me out on one of the Overly Dedicated songs. He shouted me out and Common out at the same time, years before he got his deal. Then, in interviews he would always talk about me. Kanye talked about me on his albums, put me on his albums, took me on tour because I took him on tour. Kanye has always showed the love. J. Cole, man that brother cold man. Two of J. Cole’s hit records he name drops me in two of his hit records. I can tell that I be on his mind a lot when he’s thinking about making these records because he keeps saying my name. It just feels right. I love and respect my peers, older and younger than me who have shown me this type of love.
You write about your relationship with Kanye. I like the way you approached it because, you know, it’s easy to rip him apart for the Trump antics and the goofy Candace Owens, wherever she came from. But you didn’t throw him away like a lot of people. You tell the whole story instead of just telling a piece of it. What do you think the healing process should look like between Kanye and the people who he’s hurt with the Trump antics?
I’m glad you said that I told the whole story, particularly in cancel culture, because I’m all down for accountability. But what cancel culture has become, because it’s in the hands of the wrong people too often, is to take one flaw or one mistake or one thing you disagree with someone and throw away the whole baby with the bathwater as if they haven’t given you this mountain of great content and stuff like that. The people who are loudest about it are the people who contribute the least. If you’re somebody who doesn’t really contribute to society, it’s very easy for you to get with the concept of throwing somebody out. You know why? Because we can throw you out easily. If you’re somebody that doesn’t have the record and history of Kanye West, if all I know about you is that you’re some anonymous person on the internet who got some nonsense to say, I can cancel you. I can block you. I don’t have to listen to you. But somebody like Kanye, I’m way more hesitant to do that.
I will say though, you used the right word, the people harmed. Kanye’s opinions and public statements have caused a lot of harm to a lot of Black people, to a lot of marginalized people. That can’t be ignored. Because of the harm that it’s caused, I don’t have a problem with people saying I can’t f**k with Kanye. I don’t have a personal problem with people saying I want to cancel Kanye. If that’s a personal decision you have to make, I have no argument for that because of how harmful his words have been. I am not in the position to do that because I’m uniquely positioned. This man is not some abstract celebrity who I’ve never had a personal conversation with. This man is my friend, this man is my brother. Friendship means the world to me. I can’t name one person that I agree with everything they say. I can’t name not one person in the world. We’re also in this new era of cancel culture, particularly around politics, we see it’s very toxic for us to be like if this politician doesn’t agree with every single thing I say then he’s the devil, not I disagree with him but I will never support him or his party ever. That’s toxic.
It’s massive group think.
Yeah, you’re right, that’s exactly what it is. Obviously I don’t agree with everything Kanye says or does, but I was very clear with what I said in the book. I’m never going to stop being Kanye’s friend or brother. Just as long as he supports Trump I find it hard to publicly support his artistic output. It doesn’t mean I won’t take his calls. If I’m DJing a party, I probably won’t play no Kanye records because it’s triggering to me and it’s triggering to other people. When I hear his records I think about Trump and I’m like I don’t want to feel like this.
Why can’t people get that? Why can’t people separate the two? You hold them accountable for what they did without trying to erase them from the narrative completely. These are the same people who want to be forgiven when they do something that’s not right.
These people don’t live with the scrutiny of the spotlight. The people who are excited about the downfall, it’s sexy to them, it’s like watching a car crash. I agree. I’m happy to report that in private conservations with me, as well as a couple times publicly, Kanye has rescinded his Trump support. There are people who say, “too little too late.” I agree with that. I agree that he should have rescinded his Trump support, he should have never supported Trump to even have to rescind his support. But I’m happy that my brother has rescinded his Trump support, to speak to your question about the healing process.
I think that’s the first thing you do is you rescind your support for Trump, which he did. I think the next thing you do is you hold yourself accountable for the fact that it was harmful. I think he has to publicly say my actions were harmful for it to be a healing process. But Kanye is also very talented and very blessed. The power of jam is a real thing. We all knew who R. Kelly was when Chocolate Factory came out. Even though we didn’t have the court documents. But Chocolate Factory came out and it was like “Yeah, that’s the jam. Did you hear that remix?” You come with that jam and people are willing to forgive a lot of things. Forgive me if it seems like I’m comparing Kanye to R. Kelly, I’m not, I absolutely am not, as bad as what Kanye has done it doesn’t compare, it’s not comparable to what R. Kelly did.
Forgiveness is everything. I’m not a Christian person but if you’re a Christian, you should believe that everyone is due a chance for forgiveness. I don’t give a f**k about whether or not people forgive R. Kelly, that’s not my do. Kanye, I’m concerned about whether or not people forgive him, so I’m interested in the healing process. I hope it’s not just him making a good song to make people forget about it because he does have that super power where he can make a good song and everybody will be like that’s the jam now. I hope that it’s real, actual work on his part. I can report that, from private conversations I’ve had with him, I feel like he’s in a place to do some of that work.
The top five conversation comes up in your book. As a hip-hop artist, how do you feel about the idea of a top five only being a part of hip-hop culture. Like you would never hear people out there like “Yo, who are your top five? Luther Vandross, Smokey Robinson?”
I think that speaks to the beauty of hip-hop. It shows that hip-hop, we care more. Y’all don’t care about music the way we care about this music. If you’re a true hip-hop fan, then you’re going to read the credits or you’re going to see where the sample comes from. If you see the sample comes from Roy Ayers, then you’re going to go listen to Roy Ayers. If you’re into hip-hop, the reason why D-Nice, that Club Quarantine thing did so well, in addition to D-Nice flossed out with his hats and his Rolodex of relationships from Beyonce to Michelle Obama, which I know he texted people like,”Come on my live.” He’s very smart with that s**t. In addition to that, D-Nice is part of a crew that are some of the best hip-hop DJs in the world. I’m talking about DJ Scratch, Clark Kent, Rich Medina, all the originals. They’re the best hip-hop DJs in the world. Biz Markie, Kid Capri. To be the best hip-hop DJ in the world, you have to know every genre of music.
If you ever notice, go on IG Live, you can watch Tony Touch, watch Maseo, they can go any genre. You never know, they might do a rock set, they might do a freestyle set, they might do a salsa set. They might do just a sample, just music from the ’70s, just ’90s hip-hop. I’m going to just do 2000s hip-hop. Hip-hop DJs can go anywhere because we care more about music, we know more about music than everybody just from the nature of how hip-hop is made. It’s made as a collage of things that have come in the past, at least real hip-hop is in my opinion. We’re so passionate about it. We’re passionate about it like how people are passionate about sports. Hip-hop is life.
What’s next for Talib?
I got this album with Diamond D coming in the end of the April, the Gotham Album. Black Star album Madlib is on it’s way, we’ve been working on that, and some other surprise that will be revealed soon.
Where can everyone grab “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story”?
You can buy anywhere books are sold, that’s Amazon or anywhere. But if you’re the type of person who wants to go to Black bookstores you can click the link in my bio. I have a link that takes you directly to independent and Black bookstores. You can also come to my store, my independent Black store, Nkiru Books online at kweliclub.com.