Durham, N.C. — Talib Kweli is a prolific hip-hop artist and activist who also served a week-long artist-in-residence spot at Duke University. He played two sold out shows last week at Motorco in Durham.
As part of his Durham visit, Kweli was part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative, which provides class visits, talks and performances by notable artists and performers throughout the year. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
Kweli is one of the most lyrically gifted and politically conscious rappers to emerge in the last two decades. He’s worked alongside Mos Def as one half of Black Star and collaborated with Kanya West, J Dilla, and many others. In 2011, Kweli founded Javotti Media, envisioned as a platform for independent thinkers and doers. He has collaborated with Durham's own 9th Wonder on several occasions, including their jointly released 2015 album Indie 500. On Friday, he sat down with Duke Professor of Black Popular Culture Mark Anthony Neal at Beyu Caffe to discuss hip-hop’s role in the Trump era.
“The role of artists is to be honest. If your experience is one of activism, then you have to represent that in art. I try to make music that speaks to the people, to systemic oppression 24/7. I become very popular when a young black person dies at the hands of state violence. I want to get to the point where people are invested in that type of art before the tragedy, not after," Kweli said.
Kweli’s background as the son of a college professor living in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn influenced his love for reading, writing and activism. “There were books all over the house at all times. The book that had the most profound impact on me was the autobiography of Malcolm X.”
As a teen, he was exposed to Spike Lee films, and most importantly, black-owned bookstores that provided him with a cultural space and access to well-known black authors.
Also a Brooklyn native, Neal reflected on the power of having access to black artists and intellectuals in the neighborhood in the early days of hip-hop. “It wasn’t unusual, particularly in a place like New York, where you would just walk down the block and see cats, like LL Cool J, just walking down 125th Street. We saw them as a fabric of these communities.”
In the era of President Donald Trump, Kweli and Neal emphasized the importance of using music as a voice to fight “things on the ground like building walls and Muslim bans.” Perhaps the most memorable line of the discussion was Kweli’s reflection on a conversation he had with a fellow hotel guest in Durham.
“Throughout history, it’s the artists who are the true historians.”
Dr. Allison Mathews is the founder and CEO of Community Expert Solutions, LLC, which uses crowdsourcing to identify and develop the community-based ideas into revenue generating projects. She is the director of the 2BeatHIV project, which engages community about HIV cure research. Her work has been featured on "Left of Black," TEDxDurham, The Lux Blog NC, and ExitEvent.com.