Talib Kweli on Acknowledging Our Privileges and Curbing Racist Mentalities

Famed rapper talks tackling trolls on and off Twitter

Talib Kweli. Sciulli/Getty Images for Samsung

Remnants of slavery still reverberate through society today in the form of mass incarceration, police brutality and pervasive hate crimes towards African-Americans. Racism has been a driving force in American society dating back to the days before the founding of the United States, and in the past couple of years alone stories about racial-motivated crimes, police shootings, protests and activists have only further intensified the conversation surrounding race in a country still deeply divided on what racism means today. But with all the media attention, few solutions have been enacted to fix the underlying racist mentalities and the oppressive systems that perpetuate it.

“I don’t know if we’re going to stop racism. That doesn’t seem realistic to me,” hip-hop artist Talib Kweli told the Observer.

“What does seem realistic is we can make people a lot more aware of their position in it, their enabling of it, and how their silence on it allows it to thrive and live. I think that’s a more a realistic goal. That’s why I focus on symptoms of white supremacy, pointing out white privilege and pointing out privilege in general, because a lot of times fingers are pointed back at me when I point out privilege, because I as a man have to acknowledge all types of privileges I have. I have privilege over gay people, people not born in America, women, people who are disabled. There are a lot of people who are privileged over me, but if we’re not honest about what part we play in society, society will never get better. We can’t keep pointing fingers at other people unless we are able to turn that mirror back on ourselves.”

Talib Kweli has been a household name in hip-hop for nearly two decades. Since his collaboration with Mos Def on their 1998 release of the critically acclaimed BlackStar album, Kweli has appeared several times on Dave Chappelle’s iconic TV show on Comedy Central, was involved in the beginning of Kanye West’s career and has released material with Pharrell, Mary J. Blige, J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar and other notable music artists.

In 2011, Kweli started his own record label, Javotti Media. Despite his long-term success and rapport in the industry, he stays connected with his roots in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn is as much a part of me as my parents are. Brooklyn raised me, and it directly influenced much of my music content, lessons I’ve learned, and things that I’ve seen here.”

Since Kweli grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, the borough has seen significant changes; many neighborhoods have transformed through gentrification. Amid Brooklyn’s booming growth, lack of affordable housing has pushed residents out of their communities. Landlords often allow their buildings to fall into disrepair so tenants move out and they can remodel to charge higher rents. Columbia University psychologist Dr. Mindy Fullilove coined the term “root shock” to describe the post-traumatic stress induced on communities of color by gentrification. She compared the experience of root shock with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, in that people continuously relive that story after the “floods” have receded and the rebuilding begins.

“I grew up in a neighborhood called Park Slope, so I’ve seen firsthand the effects of gentrification,” added Kweli. “It’s still gentrifying as we speak. I grew up in an area that didn’t have certain resources, and so it’s great to see the city grow and get these resources as someone who grew up in the city. But when you understand the realities of how gentrification effects poor people and people of color disproportionately, who are displaced and their lives are unfairly disrupted, you have to question the intentions of corporations and the people pushing that agenda and you have to question their motives and their methods—whether or not they could do it in a more fair and humane way and whether they can grow the city and invest in the community without pushing out the people who actually live there. It’s a shame that neighborhoods do not get looked at or taken care of and so white people move in. That’s something anyone should be concerned with.”

More recently, Kweli’s Twitter account has trended as a result of him calling out racist trolls, ranging from anonymous profiles to media figures.

“The issue with these people who engage me is I didn’t set out to engage anybody. I’m on Twitter just like anyone else, and I speak about things to people who support me,” explained Kweli. “These people engage me. I think I have a responsibility as a person who chooses to be there to not be fake and false. I think you can develop a bad habit if you’re only responding to things that are positive.”

Kweli acknowledges that some might think he responds more disproportionately to the negative side of Twitter than the positive, but he insists this isn’t the case. “I think I keep it pretty fair and balanced in regards to who I respond to, but what happens is when you respond someone in the positive—like say if someone says, ‘Talib, I love your new album,’ I say, ‘Thanks, one love,’—and that’s the end of the exchange. When you challenge somebody, that exchange becomes something else, and I’m not going to lie, I’m somebody who loves a challenge. I’ll run to a challenge. I enjoy discussion, though I’m a lot more excited about challenges that are not about racism. I’d rather argue with somebody about the best movie or best rapper or something like that.”

Discussions about racism often find Talib Kweli due to the overtly racist responses provoked by his prominence in hip-hop and the issues his music focuses on. “It’s entertaining to me that these people go out of their way to find me and add their personal feelings onto whatever I have to say,” he said. “I enjoy the back and forth, and I think it’s important for me to expose this sort of mentality, because these people who are mostly anonymous, are our co-workers, our friends and family, the people who serve our food—I could do the whole Fight Club speech. But I think it’s important we know people think like this because these attitudes lead to dangerous policies and dangerous behavior from law enforcement and from people who have to hire people of color. I combat it whenever it chooses to find me.”