Talib Kweli Continues To Dim His Own Star

The hip-hop artist, once one of the few faces in conscious rap, has continued to undo his legacy by attacking and trolling people on social media.
Rapper Talib Kweli started making more news for his social media beefs than his music.
Rapper Talib Kweli started making more news for his social media beefs than his music.
Scott Dudelson/WireImage via Getty Images

Once again, Talib Kweli insists on shattering my heart through his social media tomfoolery.

This week, he went after journalist Britni Danielle for tweeting about Dave Chappelle’s recent onstage comment that he asked Elon Musk to overturn his buddy’s Twitter ban during the billionaire’s mind-boggling appearance at his comedy show. Danielle wrote that Kweli was suspended after he used his massive platform to go after a Black woman. (He denies this; more on that later.)

For those casually familiar with Kweli and his behavior online in the last decade and some change, I’m sure his attacks are expected and don’t register much. To me, it’s a continuation of a precipitous fall from grace of one of my musical heroes, which has been exceedingly difficult to watch unfold over the years.

You see, in my decadeslong relationship with hip-hop, there’s probably no single artist with whom I have a more personal connection than Kweli.

Respiration,” the second single from 1998’s “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star,” is among my top 10 all-time greatest hip-hop tracks; I used an English project as an excuse to lug my CD boombox to school and play it in front of the class as a high school senior in 1999.

Sending anonymous op-eds to the Black email lists as a freshman at the University of Michigan was the spiritual genesis of my writing career. My chosen sobriquet: “The Manifesto,” after Kweli’s 1998 track with DJ Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal from “Lyricist Lounge, Volume One.” It was the title of my column in the school newspaper The Michigan Daily, and “Manifesto” might be the only nickname I’ve ever had that wasn’t some play on my first name.

I’ve interviewed Kweli twice, for two different publications. The first was a phoner for The Michigan Daily ahead of his concert at the school. At that concert, I met my first love and college sweetheart. Kweli was running late to the show; as a flex, I pulled out my Motorola flip phone in front of her to call him. “Was that really Kweli?” “Why, yes... yes it was. He said he’s on his way. I’m Dustin, by the way. You are...?”

For many years, Kweli was top 10. In my heart, my headphones and my world. Then social media happened, and the roses started to wilt.

In my late 20s, I’d watch Kweli tangle with perfect strangers online and think, “Why is he entertaining these fools? He’s a living hip-hop legend ― Jäy-Z with the umlauts name-dropped him! Why is he bothering with the peons?!?”

Years passed, and his social media presence ramped up as his music, following the commercial peak of his 2002 debut solo album “Quality” (which benefited greatly from that “Old Kanye” West production), started a decline in, well, quality.

Today, there’s a powerful dissonance between Kweli’s citation of and inspiration from Black scholars and his devolution into internet petulance that’s very difficult to support. Much like with Bill Cosby, his art is indelibly overshadowed by his behavior. For many, he’s no longer the visionary behind the classic “Black Star” album ― he’s the dude who goes after Black women online.

Kweli often picks targets for his feuds that are far less prominent than he is.
Kweli often picks targets for his feuds that are far less prominent than he is.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

His admirable focus on anti-racism and social justice for Black folks has brought several proper undesirables into his crosshairs. But ever so steadily, he started making more headlines for his Twitter beefs than anything he had cooking in the studio. Feuds with inconsequential white rappers and the occasional white supremacist made way for those with other Black artists.

Kweli courted the highest negative feedback of his career in July 2020, when he tangled with Maya Moody, a then-24-year-old student. She had responded to a collage of rappers married to Black women, including Kweli, with a now-deleted tweet suggesting that many of the rappers have fair-skinned partners.

Moody’s tweet didn’t specifically target Kweli ― she even acknowledged that his then-wife, DJ Eque, is not fair-skinned. But that didn’t stop him from engaging in a smear campaign of Moody that represented the worst part of Twitter, and why I’m actually OK with the possibility of the Muskrat blowing it all up.

Moody mounted a defense against Kweli on Twitter, but there’s not much of a defense to speak of when a man with over a million Twitter followers and countless loyal fans executes a sustained attack campaign toward a woman around the age of his son Amani.

Kweli dedicated more hours than any grown man should toward such a thing, writing numerous tweets about Moody and tangling with virtually everyone who came to her defense. Twitter banned Kweli from the platform about two weeks later, though the rapper claimed he left of his own volition.

A spokesperson for Twitter told Jezebel at the time that Kweli was permanently suspended “after repeated violations of the Twitter rules,” adding that “[v]iolence, harassment and other similar types of behavior discourage people from expressing themselves, and ultimately diminish the value of global public conversation.”

Kweli, for his part, said in his recent post that he “never harassed anyone in my life. I was suspended from Twitter for posting the burner phone number of a troll who was threatening to rape and assault women in my family.”

Nearly a year later, Kweli feuded with Chicago rapper Noname, a Black woman 16 years his junior. That led to more headlines that, y’know, have nothing to do with his actual career.

Kweli is only drawing attention to his critics with his responses.
Kweli is only drawing attention to his critics with his responses.
Maury Phillips/BET/Getty Images for BET

I don’t absolve of responsibility any of the players who engage with Kweli’s puerile social media behavior, as it takes two (or more) to argue. But social media becomes a weapon when a prominent celebrity galvanizes their many followers to attack someone. (See also: Nicki Minaj). Folks get doxxed. Death threats are bandied about. Lives are put on hold until the dust settles.

Kweli had more than a million Twitter followers during the Moody debacle. As a “civilian,” she didn’t stand a chance.

To me, his record of defaming and shaming Black women is unimpeachable at this point. But I’d imagine an exhaustive perusal through the last decade and a half of Kweli’s internet battles would reveal that he has smoke for everyone. That’s the crux of his problem: Talib Kweli expends an inordinate amount of energy arguing on social media, which belies his carefully crafted persona as a conscious intellectual rapper.

Kweli had zero valid reasons to engage Moody, just like he had no reason to bring up Noname. As a celebrity, there’s no more futile exercise than playing whack-a-mole by responding to every person with a public gripe against you, but Kweli will do just that.

As a career writer with none of Kweli’s fame and a fraction of his social media followers, I’d rather count every grain of rice in China before engaging with every stranger who disagrees with me. I wonder if Kweli actually recognizes that he’s only bringing attention to those who’d otherwise get lost in the interminable ocean of People with Opinions on the Internet. Or if he even cares.

I’m also curious to know where he finds the time to engage everyone. For someone who has dubbed himself the “MCEO” ― a purportedly busy record label head and cultivator of talent ― dude sure has a lot of energy for accounts in his comments section with no picture and an anonymous handle. It makes one wonder where his Javotti Media label, along with his own recording career, would be if he channeled that big comments-section energy productively. (I’d love to know how the sophomore Black Star “albummight’ve turned out instead of the weed plate that we got. I’d also be interested to see if Kweli would log into Musk’s Twitter, if allowed back, and consciously benefit the type of white man he’s rallied against for years. But I digress.)

The irony of Kweli’s recent public tangles with Ye (previously Kanye West) is that while Kweli joins the loud chorus in lamenting his former friend’s public self-implosion, both men are two sides of the same sticky, tarnished penny: grown-ass men who’ve proven themselves in their careers yet move with powerful, obvious insecurity.

If Beyoncé has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nobility in maintaining an air of mystique as a celebrity. She’s deified by many in large part because she rarely does interviews or engages on social media. Her husband lamented two decades ago that he would rap more like Kweli “if lyrics sold.” But Hov is a hip-hop demigod in large part because he’s spent his nearly three-decade career being very measured about what he says publicly and what beefs he’s willing to engage with.

Kweli may well be morally justified in attacking his attackers at times, but that doesn’t matter when everyone only sees two people arguing on the internet. It all becomes noise at some point, and no one cares who’s “right.”

Talib Kweli is the living, breathing embodiment of “never meet your heroes.” Lord knows many of my favorite rappers have less-than-desirable proclivities, but it’s hard to queue up my Kweli playlist on Apple Music and screw-face lyrics that I know are from a man who comports himself in his late 40s in a manner that we caution our children against before they step into kindergarten.

The op-ed he wrote decrying white nationalists in 2018 is a much cleaner, more mature way for a celebrity to get a message across. I do hope he has a “come to Jesus” moment and gets back to that energy. He’s a hip-hop elder who still has tremendous influence and I hate to see him waste it.

And selfishly, I want to enjoy listening to “Memories Live” again.

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