Hip-Hop Fridays: Talib Kweli On Politics and Rap by Jessica Knab

Master of ceremonies Talib Kweli, whose name means "the seeker of truth and knowledge" in Arabic and Ghanaian, respectively, wants students to "grow up and recapture" people like Martin Luther King Jr. did.

Kweli spoke to a crowd that exceeded the capacity of the Assembly Room in the William Pitt Union on Monday night.

The speech, attended by high school students, college students and graduates, criticized the nation's celebration of Black History Month, political processes, and the black community's involvement with the Democratic Party.

The event, presented by Black Action Society, was held in celebration of Black History Month.

Kweli commented that Black History Month is meant to "bring light to the accomplishments of the black people in this country."

He also expressed his concern that the nation only recognizes the "African contribution to American history" as being "something that can be contained within a month."

"Black History Month, as much as I appreciate it, has become sort of annoying to me," Kweli said. "I think it should be a lot more important than just a McDonald's commercial, or you [seeing] more black specials on HBO."

Kweli discussed the positive and negative aspects of the Civil Rights Movement and their reflection on the evolution of political processes.

Kweli said that he found the Civil Rights Movement essential to blacks within the realm of politics because it gave the black community the power to vote.

"The good thing about [the Civil Rights Movement] is that it gave, not just black people, but the collective consciousness of America, a better self-esteem, self-worth, self-value," Kweli said. "The problem is that some of the things we were struggling for have become detrimental to us because they have grown out of check."

Kweli drew attention to politicians who "leave the community and still kick up and have a career [without being] accountable for the things that are happening in the community." He also criticized the black community for allowing the political process to become a "popularity contest."

"Ever since the Democratic Party has had candidates who have aligned themselves with the needs of African-Americans, we've given our votes on a platter to the Democrats, and that's kind of crazy," Kweli said. "You've got something that's beautiful, that's a tool, like a vote, but can become destructive because you participate in a process that's blind."

Kweli also spoke out against the Democratic Party's lack of ambition concerning the last presidential election.

"It's a shame that somebody like George Bush, who's obviously stupid -- obviously -- had to come into power before the Democrats could step up," Kweli said.

Kweli called the political process unfair and unbalanced.

"I can't say any of the candidates, like John Kerry, or Howard Dean, or any of these people who sound good and look good on television, I can't really say I relate to [them]," Kweli said. "And anybody who relates to me will never have a chance of winning, the way the system is set up."

Kweli asked students to recognize their resources and to find and empower a candidate who relates to, and acts responsibly toward, the black community.

Kweli also emphasized the importance of unification within the black community.

"I think that our revolution needs to happen on every level," Kweli said. "We need our revolutionary creatures, teachers, people who vote, people who don't vote, drug dealers, cops, whatever. We need to be one type of thought."

The master of ceremonies applauded the students for reaching out and making an effort, while warning them of the dangers of losing their direction.

Kweli used the example of Rosa Parks, who drew attention in the 1955 when she wouldn't give up her seat to a white person on the bus, and her current conflicts with the hip-hop group Outkast.

"You have Rosa Parks, or whoever is advising Rosa Parks, trying to sue Outkast over a song having her name as the title of the song -- that sounds crazy," Kweli said. "Outkast has successfully allowed the music to grow and revolutionized what hip-hop music can and will be. They have the power. They have power to us. To me, that's divide and conquer."

Though Kweli spoke of the power of hip-hop and the empowerment of the black community through hip-hop, he said that he did not feel the artists should always be held responsible for the beliefs they express in their work.

"I think [that] right now, there is no context for artists to be political," Kweli said. "Too often, artists are put into positions where they're treated like leaders because they have the attention on them and all the hype surrounding them. Do I think that's not fair for artists? Yeah, it's not fair. But it's not any less fair than any of you people having to play a role model to anybody in your life."

Note: This article first appeared in the February 11, 2004 edition of The Pitt News under the heading, "Kweli Covers Politics, Rap"

Friday, February 13, 2004