Before his show at Skully's, the rapper talks about his particular set of Twitter skills, Kanye West and the much-anticipated new 'Black Star' album
Toward the end of 2008, Amir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots introduced rapper Talib Kweli to Twitter.
“Amir told me, ‘Kweli, you need to be on Twitter,’” Kweli said. “I’d never heard of Twitter. He was like, ‘It's perfect for you.’”
Questlove was right. Ten years later, Kweli has more than 1 million followers. “You know that Liam Neeson movie ‘Taken,’ where he's like, ‘I have a special set of skills?’” Kweli said. “That's what I feel like. He was trained in that movie to always get his family back when they were kidnapped. My training in life has prepared me for this moment.”
When we hopped on the phone for an interview on a recent weekday afternoon, the legendary rapper, who’s known for his solo records (most recently 2017’s Radio Silence) and the career-defining 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, had been active on Twitter all day, much of it spent arguing with people. Turns out this is not unusual.
“That's a regular daily occurrence,” Kweli said. “For some reason, people seem to want to pick a fight and then say that I picked a fight with them.”Even Talib Kweli's Twitter tormentors should get news and entertainment delivered to their inboxes: Sign up for our daily newsletter
While many high-profile types choose not to engage trolls on social media, Kweli takes the opposite approach. “I’m all about the engagement,” he said. “The reason why people come to my page is because I'm a famous person with a large platform and will actually respond to you. The sad thing I notice is that, more often than not, people are doing it for negative purposes. If somebody comes for negativity, and then I respond and they don't like what I have to say, then they have to get the last word.”
“They're trying to win something,” he continued, “but they don't really know what they're trying to win. These are lonely, lonely people. Their only interaction with people is social media. They're really desperate for engagement. If that engagement comes from being a part of this massive argument with Talib Kweli, they feel like they're winning because they're getting noticed.”
But the never-ending onslaught of negativity doesn’t deter the optimistic rapper, who views his special set of skills in light of a historical icon who more recently entered the hip-hop lexicon.
“I look at it like I'm Alexander Hamilton,” Kweli said. “If the play was correct — if Lin-Manuel [Miranda] wasn't lying — Alexander Hamilton would write passionately, ferociously writing down everything, writing out his thoughts, constantly documenting things he was saying and doing. And people back in the day were just like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And he's like, ‘I'm trying to make sure that history is being documented in real time.’ That's kind of the way I see it. I enjoy it, but I also see it as a tool. … The more time I spend combating white supremacist trolls or outing or exposing those types of things, the less time it has to spread and start messing with other people who may not have the resources or information or experience that I have.”
Kweli is just as outspoken about such issues in his music, too. Last year, he previewed a few bars from an unreleased song in a video on Instagram that addressed the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: “Liberals keep telling us these Nazis are not for real/Tell that to the woman down in Charlottesville.”
The song started out as a collab with Kanye West, a longtime friend of Kweli’s. But Kanye’s recent MAGA turn has put the brakes on the pair’s musical projects. “If that song sees release, it probably will not be on a Kanye beat or with Kanye,” Kweli said. “I still have a lot of love for Kanye, but I’m still very disappointed in him, and I hope that one day we get to work together again. But before I even start hoping that, I hope he gets off this Trump bullshit. The whole time I've known him, he's always made big mistakes and then came back and apologized and fixed it. He's such a genius. And people should be able to make mistakes, even big ones. [But] these are the biggest mistakes he's ever made.
"I do think that he's great enough to be able to turn that around. That might just be my bias as his friend, as somebody who knows him personally. And I can't even be upset if someone hears me say that and says that I'm being too soft on him.”
Another Kweli collab — arguably even more anticipated than any previous partnership with Kanye — is still in the works: a new Black Star album to follow up the group’s only full-length from 1998. Kweli said he and Yasiin Bey (previously Mos Def) have been working on the new record “a lot lately” with producer Madlib.
“But the thing that's occupying most of my time is this podcast with Uproxx, the People's Party, and the thing I'm doing on my YouTube channel, Vibrate Higher,” Kweli said. “I'm trying to just be creative in the TV and film space. … I'm trying to take more control of my career.”
That hands-on approach carries over to Kweli’s Summer Soulstice Tour, which will make a stop at Skully’s on Monday, Aug. 26. Normally, a Columbus promoter would get in touch with Kweli to book the show, but this time the rapper took it upon himself to nail down the gig after reaching out to local hip-hop legend J. Rawls, who worked with Black Star on its seminal album and runs Polar Entertainment.
“I'm going to be in the Midwest — there's some things that Chappelle is doing — and I was like, ‘Yo, I haven't been to Columbus in a minute,’ and I reached out to J. Rawls,” Kweli said. (It’s worth noting that comedian/Ohio resident Dave Chappelle is hosting a “Gem City Shine” block party/benefit concert in Dayton’s Oregon District, site of a mass shooting earlier this month, on Sunday, Aug. 25, featuring “a slate of locally and nationally known acts”; tickets are free but reserved for Dayton-area residents.)
“It's scary, because as a performer and as a businessman, I prefer a promoter contact me and give me a guarantee. Then I don't have to worry about the crowd or the ticket sales or nothing like that,” Kweli said. “But I was going to be in the area anyway, so I was like, ‘Let me try something.’”
Not unlike Kweli’s approach to Twitter, the rapper is hoping for good vibes and engagement with his fans on this tour. “The Summer Soulstice Tour is really about a jam. It's about a party. I'm really just trying to get up there and jam out with the crowd. It's supposed to feel like a DJ set or like a mixtape,” he said. “But, you know, it ain't a party with me unless I'm speaking my mind.”