A few years ago, Talib Kweli was invited to open for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on a tour of the North and Northwest, taking the versed hip-hop artist, author and activist into what was essentially parts unknown. For the past two decades, Kweli has performed in clubs and concert halls throughout the world. But hip-hop in Sioux Falls? How foreign would that be?
“The context is key,” said Kweli, who makes his Lexington concert debut on Thursday at the Lyric Theatre. “Keep in mind, I was invited on these shows as an opener for a national pop act, so the people are there to see them. But hip-hop is folk music. It’s a music that speaks in a language that people are still speaking now. Regardless of race, if you’re speaking honestly, people are going to embrace that. Because of that, hip-hop is something that has connected more people in the world of different races and different creeds and religions than anything we’ve seen on the planet.”
While Kweli cut his musical teeth just up the interstate in Cincinnati during the late 1990s with the group Mood, his native Brooklyn has long served as a primary artistic base of operations. It was on its streets that he learned not only the ways and means of hip-hop but the unavoidable cultural meshing that gave the music its voice.
Hip-hop is folk music. It’s a music that speaks in a language that people are still speaking now. Regardless of race, if you’re speaking honestly, people are going to embrace that.
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“As the biggest borough in New York City, Brooklyn was the place where people came who dreamed about living in New York but couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan,” Kweli said. “Brooklyn was the closest spot.
“You know how in school they used to teach us about the melting pot of America? That is a myth, because in America they ask people to homogenize and lose their culture in order to become Americans. But if that was real, the closest thing I’ve seen to it in my life is Brooklyn. You have Jewish people and Muslim people and Russian people. You have Italians, Irish, everybody from the Caribbean, everybody from South America. You just have everybody. I was spoiled to grow up around so much diversity. Then I went out into the world thinking the world was like that – and, of course, it wasn’t.
“As an inner city community, Brooklyn was probably one of the greatest examples of systemic oppression in the world. But the genuineness of the people and the sheer amount of different cultures that had to live together in Brooklyn definitely contributed to my art, to my music and just to who I am as a person.”
Kweli’s career has long thrived on collaboration, from early projects like Black Star with Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) to television appearances with comic stylist Dave Chappelle to work on his own label, Javotti Music, that has formed connections to a whole new generation of artists.
Hip-hop as an art form takes place in a live setting.
“From people who I came in the game with, Hi-Tek and Mos Def, or Yasiin Bey, as he is called today, to people who I met coming into the game, like Dave Chappelle, De La Soul, The Roots, Common, I don’t even have the words for it,” Kweli says. “In my mind, I feel small compared to these giants, but I know I’m not small. I know I walk amongst them. I’m just stuck for words that describe how humble I am to be around some of these artists and also to be able to work with them, to get to be friends with them. That’s just incredibly inspiring for me.”
Ultimately, what Kweli’s music comes down to is the stage. As with so many genres of music, he sees live performance as the true reflection of hip-hop’s narrative and emotive power.
“Basically, it’s prayer. As an MC, as a hip-hop musician, the live component is important because the term MC means Master of Ceremonies. If there is no ceremony, there is nothing to master. The art of MC-ing is being able to be on a mike a lot in front of people. When you hear a hip-hop record, that’s someone trying to duplicate that experience. There are a lot of hip-hop artists who have done a good job of that, but hip-hop as an art form takes place in a live setting.”