While other hip hop performers have made Grammy-winning careers celebrating the bling and booty of the good life, or the guns, drugs, and misogyny of the gangsta underworld, Talib Kweli has long been branded a “conscious” hip hop artist because of his career-long focus on everyday people leading everyday lives, as well as his political focus on social injustices, especially racism.
And despite enormous gains having been made in America over the last half-century, there seems to be no escaping almost monthly headlines–from Ferguson to Staten Island to North Carolina—making it clear how pockets of racism still fester beneath the surface of the national skin. So Talib Kweli has stayed the course, continuing to shine a light on such problems with his music.
But don’t be misled. Despite the sober realities of the lyrics in his songs, Talib Kweli still knows how to make great music and have a good time. And the sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday wasn’t elbow to elbow to listen to a lecture on the politics of race in America today. They were there for the grooves; they were there for the beats. And they got their wish–big time! (Of course, Kweli being Kweli, they got a little bit of a lecture too.)
Kweli peformed with a killer band—keyboards, guitar, drums, and bass (and later in the show, a trumpet). The walls and floor were pounding so hard, it felt like a 9.0 earthquake. Like the city of Jericho, I expected the walls of Brooklyn Bowl to cave in and swallow us all.
Before delivering on a promise to play some of his older songs, Kweli started out with work from his most recent recording, Gravitas, released last year. A showstopper was “What’s Real?” featuring the lines: “I’m born in Brooklyn like Biggie / I’m born in Brooklyn like Jordan / I’m born in Brooklyn like Tyson / You don’t live this, you just a tourist.” Then comes the hook: “What’s real? Do you know? / What’s real? Let me show ya.”
The crowd, which was mostly white, mostly male—after all, this was Williamsburg, still the capital of NYC hipsterdom, which is mostly white, mostly male…and mostly bearded–went wild. Kweli is a hometown boy, born in Brooklyn and still living there. (The next day he played the International African Arts Festival in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Fort Greene, where the audience was mostly black and mostly female.)
But this was more than just a night for Talib Kweli to perform. Instead, he used the two-night stand at Brooklyn Bowl to showcase other talents he supports on his own independent label, Javotti Media.
The show was like a mini music festival that went on for almost 4 hours! There were performers from Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, Africa, Brazil, and other places. And like a family reunion, there were also musicians who came back to visit from the old days with Black Star, the group that Kweli ran with Mos Def, each of these guests sitting in for a song or two, to sing along, or to finger a bass.
What they shared in common was a sense of social injustice welded to the clear conviction that music can—and must–make a difference in this world. In fact, Kweli has gotten himself in some hot water recently, scolding young hip hop performers for not using the visibility of their fame to be better role models and for not wielding the power of their celebrity to achieve more on a political level. Again, Kweli being Kweli.
The parade of performers began with MK Asante, who rapped stories from his troubled life growing up in what he calls Killadelphia, pulled from his best-selling memoir Buck. As you might expect from someone who is now a college professor of creative writing, Asante’s stories were compelling and literate, and spoke to the power of education to raise people up out of difficult or oppressive circumstances.
Jessica Care Moore, from Detroit (as if you couldn’t tell from the big D tattoo on her shoulder and the big D rhinestone earrings!), brought down the house with a powerful song about drug-lost characters on the streets of Harlem.
Steffanie Christi’an, also from Detroit, with long blonde braids flying through the air, performed a high-energy set that was like punk rock blues on speed. What Christi’an needs as a rock singer, since she is not a rock musician, is a band equal to her vocal talents and her prodigious physical energy. Very few female rockers can make a big name for themselves on their own.
K’Valentine, from Chicago, dressed to kill in a black leather bustier and bouncy little skirt, looked like a hip hop cheerleader, but lyrically came out rapping like a machine gun, shooting down men and women alike for what she sees as hypocrisies in hip hop culture. Her lyrics were blistering in their intensity, and for the most part unrepeatable here. You do not want to get on this young woman’s bad side! She will put you in a song and mess you up!
There were many other performers as well, including NIKO IS, from Orlando (who rapped a mile a minute but I couldn’t understand what he was singing about), but they weren’t on the marquee, and it’s not as if there was a printed program for a show like this, so, alas, I have no idea who they were.
But at the end of the night, a few things were clear: Talib Kweli turns 40 this year, so like Diddy, Jay-Z, and some other hip hop luminaries who are a few years older, the rappers of the late eighties and nineties are middle-aged now and have become elder statesman in a music genre based more than most on youth.
Also clear was that even though many years have passed since Kweli first got started in hip hop, the fire in his earlier passions has not been doused by time. In fact, these days he is putting his money where his mouth is by making sure the fight goes on by using his private label to support up-and-coming artists like the ones he brought to Brooklyn Bowl.
So, while Talib Kweli clearly is not ready to pass on the torch of conscious hip hop quite yet, he clearly intends to make sure the torch stays lit.