The labels “political” and “conscious” have been ascribed to rapper Talib Kweli throughout his music career, beginning with his start as a member of Black Star, the underground hip hop duo he founded with Mos Def 15 years ago. While he has enjoyed commercial success -- his latest album "Prisoner of Conscious," released this month, is his sixth solo venture -- Kweli has cultivated a unique hip hop voice grounded in lyricism and political awareness that has distinguished him from his mainstream rap counterparts.
On the heels of his appearance in the film, #ReGENERATION, a recently released documentary that examines apathy and activism among today’s youth, the Huffington Post caught up with Kweli to chat about the “Me” generation; Occupy Wall Street; why he doesn’t vote; whether it’s worth it for young people to go to college, and more. #ReGENERATION, directed by Phillip Montgomery and narrated by Ryan Gosling, screens at Bonnaroo music festival on June 7-10. Information about hosting a free screening in your area is available here.
HuffPost: People talk about the label of “conscious” or “politically conscious” rapper. Do you embrace that term?
Talib Kweli: Being called a conscious rapper is quite a compliment. It’s a great thing to be. But as an artist, my nature is to not be in a box. Once you attach such a limited description of what I do, it shuts off a whole audience of people. I work to make sure that when I’m being described, all of it is being described, as opposed to just one thing I do.
HP: Can you talk a bit about your introduction to hip hop? Early hip hop sometimes questioned the status quo, the way people lived. Do you think music ought to do that?
TK: I think hip hop is a dance music that’s rebellious by nature. I don’t think that early hip hop stood out to be a social critique. A lot of fans of mine think that hip hop’s ultimate responsibility is to critique social structures. Good art paints an accurate picture of what’s going on. But the responsibility of an artist is not to be a politician or have a message. The responsibility of an artist is to be honest with themselves.
HP: I wanted to ask you about [the documentary] Regeneration. It asks an age-old question: can young people make any difference?
TK: I would venture to say that only young people can really make a difference. Even if an old person says something, it takes a young person with the energy to carry it out. The change comes from the student. It comes from the youth. Throughout history it’s not been the old guard, the status quo, who have been clamoring for change.
HP: The film talks a lot about what it calls the “Me” generation. Do you buy that there’s a “Me” generation, or that there’s something specific about our generation that’s more selfish or less politically involved?
TK: I think that this generation wants to help out other people and wants to be involved in the world in a big way. I think you saw that with the Stop Kony thing, where people felt like they could just click a button and automatically become an activist. People want to do that. People want to help. They just don’t know how. They don’t have the tools.
HP: You mentioned earlier about activism and clicking a button. Do you think that this generation is facing the problem of being too polite or too tentative to mix it up in real life?
TK: You can’t just sit at a computer and be an activist. You have to get out there in the streets. I don’t care if you’re on Pinterest, I don’t care if you’re on Tumblr, I don’t care if you’re on Twitter, you have to physically get up there and get your body on the line and put your life on the line to express your thoughts and what you believe.
HP: Today, kids are graduating now with pretty high unemployment rates. Do you think they’ve been told to expect something that’s unrealistic?
TK: One of the greatest tragedies of this generation -- and even worse for my community, for the black community -- is that (for) the generation before us, if you went to college and you worked hard, you could almost be guaranteed a decent job with a 401(k). Even if it wasn’t your dream job, you could carve out a living for yourself. That doesn’t exist anymore.
Now what you have is a system where people are going into debt for the rest of their lives with this dream that going to college is going to change their lives. So if parents are telling kids, “You have to go to college” without telling them why they have to go to college … you’re really crippling them for the future.
HP: In the film you talk about telling your kids they can be anything they want to be. Do you change what you tell them now that they’re facing a future where there aren’t as many jobs, or the same security?
TK: I think it’s actually easier nowadays to tell your children you could be whatever they want. You know, the idea that you could tell a child, say 5, 10 years ago, that you don’t necessarily have to go to college to be a success, that would sound crazy. But that’s the truth about today’s generation.
It’s just like voting: if you just go to college and you don’t know why you’re going and spending your money, it makes no sense to end up in debt and not know why you did it -– just like it makes no sense to vote without knowing who or what you’re voting for.
HP: I’ve read somewhere that you don’t vote. How do you see the role of a citizen?
TK: Citizenship is participation. I’m someone who has placed myself directly at the center and at the heart of things that are going on in my community. As I get older my stance on voting has shifted from saying “I refuse to participate” to “How can we participate in a way that’s smarter and conducive to our community?” We have to raise candidates that are worthy of our vote.
HP: You visited Occupy Wall Street in the fall … Do you think young people are becoming more involved because of things like Occupy Wall Street?
TK: Yeah. I’m proud of this generation for bringing protesting back. Protesting is something that I had a romantic notion of until I was 15 and I went to protest the Gulf War and no one was there. I felt like in my lifetime I wouldn’t see this type of protest movement. I think technology is a big part of it. And I’m happy to see it.
HP: Are you hopeful about the future?
TK: Yeah, I’m an artist. I can’t afford not to be. All artists, even the ones who claim they are not, are ultimately optimists. Or else you wouldn’t be making art. What would be the point?