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Talib Kweli on the war on drugs, internet trolls, and how "woke" has become a meme

An interview with the rapper and activist.

Talib Kweli performing during WE Day New York Welcome at Radio City Music Hall in April, 2017.
Kambouris/Getty Images for WE

In March, rapper and activist Talib Kweli got so frustrated with Donald Trump news, he decided to make a visit to the US Capitol.

He spent about a week listening to anti-Trump figures and emerged with a manifesto for activism in the Trump era. “Hashtags and RTs are cute and make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but without actual flesh on the ground, there is no movement,” he wrote in Medium post that called for sustained protest and political engagement.

It’s a theme he came back to several times in an interview with me earlier this month: “There are people who really have convinced themselves that all they need to do is make a cool Facebook post,” he said. “That type of shit is really, really, extra corny.”

Kweli, a fixture of the New York underground rap scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s, has weaved activism into his music for his entire career. His collaborations with Mos Def, together called Black Star, and solo work have spawned multiple albums meditating on issues like mass incarceration, misogyny and police brutality. Throughout his career, he’s advocated for social justice, protesting and speaking at Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests.

Today, Kweli runs the independent record label Javotti Media and continues to make music, his latest a collaboration record The Seven with rapper Styles P. He continues his political advocacy and vocally opposes the Trump administration.

I chatted with Kweli on the phone about the danger of a renewed war on drugs, why we need to engage with Twitter trolls, and fake “woke-ness” on social media.

Karen Turner

What’s your reaction to the recent Jeff Sessions memo and the pullback of Obama-era criminal justice laws? Some are saying this will be the return of the worst days of the war on drugs.

Talib Kweli

The only thing I can say is that the people who support Trump and Sessions and sat before him knowing he said Elizabeth Warren is Pocahontas, grab them by the pussy doesn’t bother them, all the Mexicans are rapists doesn’t bother them — all of these things that Trump has said, if none of those things bother them — maybe when Sessions comes for their pot, they’ll start to care. If humanity doesn’t matter to you, accountability doesn’t matter to you, bigotry doesn’t matter — maybe when it comes to you getting high, then maybe you’ll start to care.

Karen Turner

So you feel like there’s been a cultural shift in attitude toward drug use?

Talib Kweli

Oh, absolutely. Especially when it comes to weed, we shifted to a society of everyone smoking pot. We all smoke weed. We pretend we don’t, but the whole society does. Even your hardcore racist KKK dude is smoking a big fat blunt.

Today’s libertarians, I know many who are not racist, who are not bigots — they just believe in certain things about the government. They’re really about their freedoms. A lot of them overlap when it comes to government regulation and states’ rights with the Confederates and the Nazis. But a lot of them know people with meth habits or heroin habits that they have sympathy for. That’s been the shift and change, pretty recently. They see the effect of the drug war on these people directly.

Karen Turner

Given that cultural change, do you think Obama went far enough in terms of trying to dismantle some of the worst war on drugs laws? He’s faced criticism that he should have done more.

Talib Kweli

Well, in order to be the United States president, you have to be certain things. You need to be a Christian. You need to be an imperialist. Before Obama, you needed to be white. At this point, you need to be a man. Obama was never going to be a revolutionary. He has always been a pragmatist and always been someone who has tried to work with both sides.

So when people say Obama didn’t go far enough, from my perspective I think he did what he could do considering the crazy amount of obstructionism he faced. I think Obama being a black man and having that experience allows him to see things from a different perspective than most US presidents before him.

Now, intentions don’t matter as much as results matter when it comes to policy. But I do think his intentions were to roll back mass incarceration — he let out more prisoners out than any other recent president, and he told me personally that he wanted his legacy to be criminal justice reform. He said that to a room full of artists. I think Obama used what he thought could work to try to help more traditionally grassroots causes. But I think there’s different ways to do it and his way was definitely working within the system. His way was not revolutionary, and I don’t think he ever pretended to be.

Karen Turner

You’ve always been critical of consumer culture in your music. Do you think the more consumer elements of our culture and celebrity worship are all things that led to Trump?

Talib Kweli

We worship the dollar. Our holidays are Black Friday and Christmas. Our religion is consumerism and Trump is a patron saint of that religion. Anybody who was in New York City in the ’80s knows the whole concept of greed is good, capitalism is good — that was being sold as mainstream culture. We had yuppies, people celebrating capitalism, people celebrating credit. That was a big thing in the ‘80s — you spent what you didn’t have. And Trump, with his casinos and real estate, those were businesses all about spending what you don’t have. And he sold that image. He put his name on anything. He was an empty suit.

Karen Turner

And that image is one reason why Trump has been repeatedly name checked in lots of rap songs — although you’ve never done this in your own music. What do you think about that switch from admiration to criticism for so many people in the hip-hop world during and after this election?

Talib Kweli

I hesitate to say that rapping about Trump, seen as a symbol of opulence or a symbol of decadent wealth, was necessarily admiration. When you hear him in music back in the day, it wasn’t as much admiration as it was acknowledgement for what he represents.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, especially New York rap, you heard a lot of references to Trump. In ’96 and ’97, Raekwon was rapping “Guess who’s the black Trump.” But they aren’t saying I’m admiring him as a human being. They are saying he’s the universal symbol of wealth. It’s actually very dehumanizing of Trump. It’s not about who he really is. It’s not like they’re saying I admire the man for his politics or the way he treats women.

As far as the activist or the conscious community, Trump was always known as the guy trying to get the Central Park Five on death row. He took out a full-page ad in the New York Post saying they were guilty when they turned out to be innocent.

I was 15 when this happened. I was the same age as those kids when they got caught up in that. It was vivid. They were called the “wolf pack” by the media. So any random group of black kids was also called a wolf pack. I remember going to the mall and they made a rule at the mall that if there’s more than four of y’all, you can’t walk together cause then you constitute a wolf pack. They wasn’t happening to the white kids. The Central Park Five had a very real effect on my life.

Karen Turner

I’m really impressed by how much you engage with trolls online. But there is also a line of thinking on the left that engaging with them legitimizing them in some way or that that tactic isn’t going to change any minds.

Talib Kweli

I would believe that if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were president. I’d believe it if you said when you ignore the trolls, they’ll go away. But racism is a disease, and what disease do you know of that, if you ignore it, it goes away? Nothing. So this whole ignore thing — that’s the result of an overly polite, nonconfrontational society, and that’s from people, and some on the left as well, who benefit from the racist status quo.

The fact of the matter is, now they’re changing visa applications so they can look at your social media accounts. We have Senate congressional hearings with Republicans and Democrats saying that Russians bots have influenced the election with fake news. We got AI running around this motherfucker, and people are saying we can ignore the online space. That the online world isn’t real. We don’t have the luxury to say that.

If I’m a guy who’s only on Twitter, then you have every right to criticize me. But I’m not that guy. When Twitter’s gone, I’ll still be doing what I do in the flesh, whether it’s making music for the movement or physically putting my boots on the ground. But I agree that just tweeting or just posting on Facebook is wack. There are people who really have convinced themselves that all they need to do is make a cool Facebook post. That type of shit is really, really, extra corny.

Karen Turner

Speaking of, I saw in a recent interview that you used scare quotes around the word “woke.”

Talib Kweli

People be like “I’m woke” when they just aren’t. Others use it to disparage people of color. Some people think it’s a trendy word and don’t want to use it just to be trendy. It’s just become a meme.

Maybe when you hear the term woke, you’re thinking of people who may have good intentions but who are not really going to marches or rallies or doing the actual work. But that’s your association with the word. There is also a large number of people who are not maybe as savvy as a journalist or as a rapper. Who say woke and mean it sincerely. They don’t know, they’ve never been to a march.

But let me go further there’s a lot of people who organize and rally, contribute money, and still use the term woke. Who are not knowing where the trend, where the culture has moved who are not as hip as you and I might be. That’s why I evoke the term at all — because of them.

Karen Turner

What are your thoughts on the debate over punching Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who got punched at the Trump inauguration protest in a viral video?

Talib Kweli

I am anti-violent. I don’t believe that violence solves problems. But I am pro-karma. So when I see karma play itself out, I am not mad at it. Would I be the guy to punch Richard Spencer? That wouldn’t be me. He would have to physically threaten me for me to want to punch him, me personally. But when I see a white boy going all out of his way to use his privilege — that white boy who punched him knew that he wasn’t going to get shot by the cops as quickly as a black dude — I think, well the right calls us snowflakes all the time. Okay, this guy isn’t a snowflake!

I am not crying for any ethno-nationalists or any guy who likes Pepe the frog to get punched in the face. That’s the consequence of that free speech they’re always talking about. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequence.

Karen Turner

What’s the difference between the politically conscious rappers of today versus your generation?

Talib Kweli

The most glaring difference is with the hip hop that I listened to when I was growing up, the consciousness was more wear-it-on-your-sleeve. There were songs about blackness, wearing dashikis, all coming from a strong pro-black strain in our community.

As far as the music artists now that are pushing that pro-black message, they’re more in tune with the sonics and the frequencies of what the average person not as studied is on. So, I bring up Kendrick and J. Cole a lot. Those are artists that are making songs that are highly successful and when you hear them, you don’t automatically think consciousness or activism. But when you listen to the layers, it’s like a Trojan horse.

These younger artists who are conscious, who are inspired by my generation, they have gotten better, as they should have, at the messaging to new audiences with the way that they are making their music.

Karen Turner

What’s your message to progressives and activists today?

Talib Kweli

I can’t really say that I’m in a position to give a message to the activists. My job in that situation is to show solidarity with people doing the work and not tell them what to do. It’s for me to listen, for them to tell me what to do. That’s the best way I can be an ally.

Everybody else — you gotta put your flesh on the ground. Listen to what these front-lines activists are saying. Just posting isn’t enough.

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