Talib Kweli, the Brooklyn-based hip hop artist, was on two stages at Moogfest on Thursday — first at the Carolina Theatre talking about work, music and politics, and later on a large outdoor stage outside Motorco Music Hall.
The outdoor stage at Moogfest is called the “Protest Stage.” Kweli performed a high energy range of songs including old school beats, reggae, A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star, the hip hop duo he was in with Mos Def. About halfway through his set, he stopped to talk about hip hop and society.
“This is pro-black rap. Because pro-blackness is about equality; it’s about equity,” he said. “Nobody is superior over anyone else. Race is a social construct.”
Kweli said that if they come to see him live in the flesh, then they get him live in the flesh, not just music.
“I’m 41 years old. I represent hip hop on this stage,” he said.
Earler in the evening, a few blocks away at the Carolina Theatre, Kweli participated in one of the four-day festival’s conversations with featured artists. Writer David Graham of The Atlantic magazine and Kweli were seated on a cinema stage, starting off talking about Kweli’s use of Twitter [he has 1.1 million followers] and engaging with white supremacist trolls. He said “trolls” isn’t the best word.
“These are people we work with, people who serve our food...They are not just random trolls that are harmless,” he said. Kweli said he is unapologetic about speaking out against them. “They come for me because I engage.”
Kweli talked about changes in the hip hop industry over the past 20 years.
“I have to make decisions I didn’t have to early in my career,” he said. “I was able to make money just by being a dope rapper for years. When the industry collapsed I had to think about being like an indie artist.”
It used to be that artists were accused of selling out if they partnered with a business, but today they have stakes in the businesses they’re promoting, he noted.
“I can’t depend on fans to buy my music,” he said. Now you have to find ways to get paid. “I got a family. I got a son Chance the Rapper’s age. I got bills that gotta be paid.”
Kweli said he’s a lot more of an activist now than a few years ago.
“I look at my job as an entertainer. A lot of conscious rap is whack and corny,” he said. He can’t go in planning to make a song with a message. “It’s gotta be jamming first.”
Kweli talked about growing up in Brooklyn as the child of professors, and the knowledge he gained.
“I’m an entertainer. But as an entertainer, I’ve created this great platform,” he said. “I’m seasoned at what I do.”
Kweli said he doesn’t want to hear anyone’s critique of Black Lives Matter or someone else’s social justice work if they can’t point to their own.
Graham asked Kweli about the notion of hip hop authenticity.
“Pay attention to trends, but don’t get caught up in the trends,” Kweli advised. Rather than becoming a “get off my lawn” type of critic to a younger person’s sound, Kweli said, “Who am I to tell some 20-year-old kid some rapper’s not hip hop?”
Kweli said that because hip hop is masculine-driven, it’s fun to clown someone for wearing rompers and man bags.
“But I like to see freedom, and people not tethered to what hip hop is supposed to be,” he said.
Asked about local hip hop artists 9th Wonder and Rapsody, Kweli said that 9th is leading by example, and Rapsody is an MC’s MC. Both 9th Wonder and Rapsody have credits on Kendrick Lamar’s recent albums.
“9th Wonder and Rapsody are everything that’s right with hip hop. It’s Southern, but it’s not. It’s East Coast, but it’s not,” Kweli said.
“They are leading the charge,” he said, referencing 9th’s indie label, Jamla Records. “I can’t wait for that moment when people see what’s going on in Raleigh, or Durham.”
Durham got to see some of what 9th Wonder is doing — he came out on stage with Kweli during the “Protest Stage” performance.