Not many hip-hop artists or musicians in any genre have the lyrical dexterity to reference Norman Mailer, the Freedom Riders and Lemony Snicket in their work. It's one of the intrigues of Brooklyn's Talib Kweli. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
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In a Greenpoint recording studio, Talib Kweli is pacing, thinking, searching for the right words. An hour later, with legal pad in hand, he raps.
"If I know I'm in the mental space to write, all I have to do is put on the music and thoughts will start jumping in my head, and rhyme schemes and ideas and thought patterns start manifesting," says Kweli.
His rhyme schemes, ideas and thought patterns have earned him international acclaim and industry respect, if not the instant tabloid recognizability of Diddy and 50 Cent.
When he's not on the road, Kweli lives in Park Slope. He grew up there, played baseball in Prospect Park and worked and wrote in a local African-American bookstore that he eventually bought and helped turn into the nonprofit Center for Education and Culture, which was chaired by his mother Dr. Brenda Greene.
His is very much a Brooklyn story.
"People marvel at New Yorkers, 'Oh, you're from New York!' So we get spoiled on two levels. We get to see all this culture and then we go places and people make it seem like we're special," says Kweli.
Much to his chagrin, he often hears the label "conscious rapper." Kweli is philosophical about the music business' need to categorize in order to sell product.
"Being called a 'positive, uplifting, conscious, underground' artist, those are all great things. Those are all great things. But as great as those things are, I cannot possibly let them define who I am as an artist," says Kweli.
He is often invited to speak on issues of the day, such as an evening on the 2012 elections sponsored by public radio station WNYC.
Kweli’s reputation as a wordsmith reached new heights in Jay Z's 2003 song "Moment Of Clarity," which includes the line, "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli."
"I remember it was just a moment of 'He gets it,'" says Kweli. "Satisfied, this is where I’m supposed to be, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Kweli has worked with a host of collaborators, most prominently his high school friend Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bay, in the duo Black Star.
But Kweli says his biggest influence has always been his parents. His mother teaches at Medgar Evers College and his father, Perry Greene, is an associate dean at Adelphi University.
"I'm the perfect blend of my parents. My father is a professor in sociology and my mother is a prof in humanities and English language. And you put that together with Brooklyn, and you have hip-hop," says Kweli.
Perhaps most intriguing is that as Kweli was choosing hip-hop, his younger brother, Jamal Greene, was attending Harvard and Yale Law School and clerking for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Jamal Greene now teaches at Columbia Law School.
"First year of high school, you know, I fell off the grid. And he never did that," says Kweli. "I think my parents were horrified by how I was behaving, and I think it scared, 'scared' is not the right word, but I think my brother took a lesson from that."
But when Kweli has a question about any issue, like Occupy Wall Street, his first call is to his brother.
"We have different lifestyle choices, you know, but as for core issues we feel the same. Whatever he says I’m like, 'I agree with him,'" says Kweli.
Kweli was a good student growing up, but at Brooklyn Tech, there was a problem, namely, attendance.
"Check in at homeroom and on my way to class, I'd say, 'I just don't feel like going to sequential math,'" he says.
Kweli says at 14, he was already politically engaged.
"I remember cutting school and reading 'The Autobiography Of Malcolm X' on the train while I'm cutting. I remember cutting school to go see [the Reverend] Al Sharpton talk about [rape accuser] Tawana Brawley on the steps of City Hall or marching over the Brooklyn Bridge with Black Watch over [shooting victim] Yusef Hawkins."
His parents sent him off to Cheshire Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut, a world away from Brooklyn and his growing love of hip-hop.
"I did well at school. I wasn't on the basketball team. I was one of the only black kids at the school who wasn't shipped into play basketball," says Kweli. "So they were able to point to me and say, 'Look we are diverse.' They played that up a lot so I played along and got what I had to get out of it."
He came back home, went to NYU briefly, worked at a bookstore and started hanging out with rappers at night, giving him the confidence to have a talk with his parents.
"I felt like I could rap just as good as anyone with a record deal. So if I could rap as good as them, and I think that's what made me sit my parents down. I can do this," says Kweli.
He was building a career, promoting his own shows.
"'Underground hip-hop back in effect' with seven exclamation points," says Kweli, reading an old postcard for a show. "Oh, this is horrible."
After a number of critically acclaimed albums, Kweli now estimates that he's on the road 200 to 250 days a year.
He says the biggest sacrifice is time spent with his two children, who live nearby with their mother.
"If you’re willing to just give it all, it’s going to pay off, but you have to sacrifice a lot. So it’s like, what’s the balance of what you’re sacrificing? I feel like I’m somewhere in between 50 Cent and Diddy and the guy who’s talking about ‘I used to just rap in high school,’ I’m like somewhere in the middle as far as what I’m willing to give to it."
Kweli's work has not been the subject of complaints leveled at other rappers for lyrics seen as violent and misogynistic. He defends his use of the word "nigga" as part of his art, but he believes that will come to an end.
"Can't be 40 years old, talking about 'n____, n____, n____' all the time. I'm a different person, I have a different set of responsibilities," says Kweli. "My music and who I am as an artist is no longer about what's the kids are saying or doing, and hasn't been for quite some time. It's about who I am."
He has never lived his life on the front page of the paper, or as a boldface name like some other rappers. Kweli says he believes in manifestation, what you put into the universe is what will come back to you.
"It would be nice to be rich and famous, but early in my career I professed to not care about being rich or famous and my life is played out that way because I didn’t really care about it," says Kweli. "I’m not rich and famous, I’m a very successful working-class artist and who makes a living doing what I love and what I feel like is the secret to life and I couldn’t be happier doing that."
Kweli's next album is entitled "Prisoner Of Conscious."