What do you get when you put two highly informed and opinionated lyricists together to discuss everything from the state of Hip Hop to race and politics? PlanetNotion did just that, acting as a fly-on-the-wall in this dialogue between London artist Akala and US rap heavyweight Talib Kweli. Hailing from Kentish Town, young gun Akala recently released his fourth studio album, The Thieves Banquet, and is set to play a number of UK tour dates. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Talib Kweli released his latest full-length Prisoner of Conscious last month. Both artists arguably at the top of their game, read the full transcript of their conversation exclusively on PlanetNotion.
Akala: Could you expand on the title of your album ‘Prisoner of Conscious’?
Talib Kweli: It’s a reference to how people see me… As a prisoner of conscious… that’s all I can do and I think people can be dismissive of that at times.
A: People trying to keep you in a box essentially?
A: What about the symbolism on the cover?
TK: That’s my name in Arabic.
A. When did you fall in love with Hip Hop?
TK: I think it was a general experience. Growing up in New York City when I was a teenager, I fell so in love with it, that I decided I was going to focus all my energy on it.
A: Is there a definitive track that made you think, ‘this is what I want to do with my life’?
TK: I don’t think it was anything immediate like that. There were certainly a list of artists and a number of songs that I listened to over time that got me to this point.
A: With this album, what have you approached differently and what have you kept the same?
TK: I’ve put a lot of strings on this record for the first time and I was very free with who I let get on it. I approached it as myself, as being an artist in the world, not just an artist in the world of hip hop – which there is nothing wrong with. At this point I hadn’t outgrown hip hop, but when I put out records I have to make them about me, not just about what’s going on in the world of hip hop.
A: With regards to the collaborations, how did they come about?
TK: Most of them were chance meetings and calling around. I was just kind of like, ‘Hey you wanna get on this one? You wanna get on that one?’
A: I’ve picked out a few quotes from some of my favourite tracks on the album that I’ll throw out at you and if there’s any you want to expand on feel free. In ‘Delicate Flowers’ you say, ‘acting out the stereotypes like Tyler Perry movies’ which made me laugh. Is there anything you want to add to that?
TK: Yeah, I mean I think that Tyler Perry is definitely in his place in movies and he plays up to different stereotypes in our community, so even when you see a respected actress pop up in one of his movies like Cicely Tyson, or even Maya Angelou, you realise that they’re doing it with the understanding that he’s playing up to the stereotypes on purpose. Now whether you agree with that or not is a whole different bowl of wax, but I think that he’s doing it on purpose.
A: And on ‘Turn It Up’ there is, ‘I ain’t asking for followers, I’m looking for new leaders.” Is that directed at social media, do you think that brings about a sort of microwave culture, or is it just a play on words?
TK: Yes, it is both. I’m definitely trying to have a play on words, as well as motivating social networks. I mean, a lot of people want to be followers and a lot of people are looking for people to follow them and I think that… we have professionals who motivate and raise leaders, so you know it’s a play on the fact that people who follow you on Twitter are sort of social commentary.
A: One of my favourite quotes was on ‘It Only Gets Better’ with Marsha Ambrosius. You said, ‘Post racial question mark in your intonation, more like most racial.’ Like, with the prison industrial complex and everything else that’s going on in the states at the moment, but also the contradiction of having Obama in the White House, is that what you were trying to address? How do you feel about the current state of race in the states?
TK: The United States more than any place in the world is born from racism and a lot of the racism we have today comes from the slave trade which the United States participated in, more than France, Portugal, England or anybody else. It was so dominant in Middle Passage and what happened during slavery, what happened during Reconstruction and Jim Crow is such a big part of our history that it drives a lot of our institutions; it’s ingrained in our institutions and it’s ingrained in to a lot of politician’s minds. The use of the tactics, especially by the Republican Party – I’m not saying the Democrats are innocent, they’re not – but they actually ingrained racism in to their basic, fundamental strategy. So what’s happened is, now we can directly talk about Obama, whether you agree with his policies or not. When you see a black man elected as leader of the country you see racism rear its head topically like you haven’t seen in years. For people on social networks, people buying guns to protect their land, Muslim socialists or whatever they’re called, all those things like him being a socialist, him being a secret Muslim, all those things are just code words for racism because Obama is a very sensual, very middle of the line politician and the caricatures of him involve a lot of racial hatred.
A: Like the way the war on drugs and other things are used as code words for ‘let’s get the Negros’ but people can’t say that anymore so they use something else?
TK: Yeah, that’s exactly it.
A: How do you see America in 5-10 years, when Obama is out, how do you see the situation and the future of America, and where does hip hop stand in that?
TK: I think that hip hop is always going to follow where the people are at and I think that Obama is struggling a little bit with his publicity right now with some of the decisions that his declaration are making, or not making. It’s artists like Kanye West and the songs that he’s choosing to perform like, ‘Black Skinhead’ and the media he’s choosing like the side of buildings and debuting songs on Saturday Night Live, I think artists like him, Daft Punk and Pharrell are still on the cutting edge and those experienced artists are the ones who are pushing the culture forward. You see them getting inspired by younger, new artists and I think that the cultural response, the musical response… art.
A: With that in mind, what is hip hop telling us about America today or the world in fact?
TK: Hip hop is driven in two different ways, you have the corporate sort of club and then you have the hip hop that people are actually listening to, which is the hip hop you find on YouTube and that’s what drives. You have the future Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz hip hop that everybody likes, that they play on the radio and people want to dance to and turn up, then you have Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar and artists like that, who people like and you have YouTube and independent media driving those sales. I think that you have to always pay attention to what’s on its way, not just what’s already here.
A: How have you managed to stay relevant throughout your career and through so many changes in moods?
TK: I just pay attention and I love it. I truly love it, there’s nothing that I do different. I’m not dismissive of it. I understand trends and I try not to be… and think that’s served me well.
A: We see you collaborating with a wide range of artists and I got the sense that with this album, to a degree, even though it’s called prisoner of conscious, you were sort of saying that you won’t be a prisoner to what people think you should and shouldn’t do, is that a message you were trying to put across?
TK: Yeah, I think that’s very accurate and exactly right, especially when it comes to the different artists I work with. You know, I work with people I have a personal connection with regardless of who the industry perceives them to be.
A: One of my favourite artists on the album is Seu Jorge, what was it like working with him?
TK: That was like a dream come true. Seu Jorge is one of those international artists who for me, being a hip hop artist from Brooklyn, it never crossed my mind that I would be working with him. I found myself at a jazz festival in Brazil and I tweeted that I would love to work with him and he hit me back. I was in Sao Paulo, he was in Rio and he drove down that night. I’d never met him and I wasn’t sure if he’d even heard of me, but I guess he had. It was actually a manager who tweeted me back, but then I got on the phone with him and the manager and they came down. I played him a bunch of tracks and we sat there for a while and listened to music and we settled on this one thing that Terence Martin had done and went from there.
A: Coming from America, where race is explicitly discussed, what did you make of Brazil, where race is just as much of an issue, but it seems to be glossed over?
TK: I think in Brazil, racism is a little more pure. As in, it’s more honest than American racism. I just came back from Brazil, I was there last week and every time I go I visit the museum of Afro-Brazilian history, which is a fantastic museum with fantastic displays and we have nothing like that here in the states and when you think of what black people have done to help build up this country you would think that there would be a museum or something. There’s the Seanbrook Center in Harvard and there’s another place in Denver, but these places are like small little classrooms compared to the Brazilian museum, which is a proper museum with different floors and exhibits and whenever you’re in Brazil you see celebrations of African culture all over. Is there still racism? Yes there’s definitely still racism and the fairer skinned people fair better in Brazil without a doubt, but you do see an acknowledgement of the African culture as part of Brazilian history that you don’t see in the States.
A: That’s interesting, because that’s the perception I have of America Vs. the UK, in the sense that it always seems to us here that black culture in America with all its contradictions is an acknowledged part of American culture which is looked to with a certain degree of reverence.
TK: I think you’re right when you say degree, because I would agree with you that we probably have more cultural things that we can point to here in the States than you have.
A: The funny thing is, in the UK we seem to have let the story of those who came over from the Caribbean after WW2 become the only narrative, with the story of those who came over way before that, being forgotten.
TK: Yeah, you see that in the hood definitely. I come from very academic parents so I come from a very academic, African-American background, but certainly in the hood, not everywhere but in the hood in New York and Miami the only thing they know about black culture is Africans, or people in the Caribbean who are first generation and recent.
A: How do you think your background affected your music, do you think having academic traditions in your household had an impact on your music?
TK: Yeah, without a doubt. My parents and my city are my biggest influences. Having those things swirled together you know New York City – Brooklyn in particular – the hip hop influence in Brooklyn, the Caribbean influence in Brooklyn mixed with the academic influence of my parents is what I think defined my music.
A: What are you excited about right now?
TK: I’m excited about my label Javotti Media. We have artists like Cory Mo and Reese who I’m excited about. I stay excited about hip hop there’s always new hip hop that I haven’t discovered even if it was made a year or two ago there’s always something new I haven’t heard.