Talib Kweli Remembers Martin Luther King Jr. and His Impact on Hip-Hop

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, VIBE took time to chat with beloved rapper Talib Kweli about the first time he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, hip-hop’s respect for the holiday, as well the influence Dr. King had on him.—Diane “Shabazz” Varnie


VIBE: Can you recall the first time you heard Dr. King speak?

Talib Kweli: The first time I remember Martin Luther King having an impact on me was in ’82. I was six or seven years old and my mother took me to D.C.—they were having a rally to create the national holiday. I know that rally couldn’t have compared to the “March on Washington” rally in ’63, but it’s still a memory from my childhood that sticks through the test of time. I remember hearing speeches from Dr. King, and especially seeing Stevie Wonder perform “Happy Birthday,” which was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.

Do you think hip-hop still cares about remembering his legacy?

I think hip-hop culture does care. I think Dr. King’s legacy is so great that hip-hop culture is not immune to it. Hip-hop culture does not exist without Dr. King, and I think most people who listen to hip-hop recognize and understand that. I don’t know if most people employ Dr. King’s spirituality, vision and clarity into their everyday lives, but his legacy is certainly respected.

If Dr. King was still alive, do you think he would say that our race has been set back?

I think that The Boondocks did it best when they did the Return of the King episode, which is one of the greatest pieces of television I ever seen. Have you ever seen it?

Yes, and it was great.

Dr. King in that was just spot on, dead on. But you know, I don’t think… just like in Dr. King’s time, just like now, too much reasonability is put on artists because people don’t understand the job of art. It would be nice if all artists were leaders, if all artists were the Bob Marley types, but most artists are regular people with the same problems that you and me have. So that comes out in their art. The fact that their willing to express themselves, for our benefit along with their own personal catharsis, when they can be doing something worse. Would Dr. King as a Christian [be proud] when it comes to all the messages and imagery that’s used in some of the hip-hop, of course he wouldn’t. But I think he understood the need for solidary amongst people and put that ahead of his own personal and emotional preferences.

On Twitter you were talking about an upcoming project with DJ Smallz and how certain artists you would collaborate with would make people mad. How do you think Dr. King would feel about separation amongst the sub-genres in hip-hop?

I mean to be honest with you, as much as the division amongst hip-hop is a great topic for people who love hip-hop, that’s not even a priority on the scale of what we need to do be doing as people. The reason I say that is because, with all due respect, that’s something that the people really know better. The true fans of hip-hop, they don’t give a f**k. They’ll like down South music, they’ll like West coast, East coast, whatever. They like music that’s designed for the strip club, or they like music that’s designed for your headphones – as long as it’s good and the intention is pure. Clearly, from my experience in the business, I mean this year alone I’ve recorded with Quincy Jones, Jean Grae, Chrisette Michele, Gucci Mane, Nelly – twice, you know what I’m saying? Like Kanye West, Strong Arm Steady… you know, I’ve recorded with everybody from the most underground, underground artist, to the biggest, top of the food chain artist. I’ve recorded with everybody. It shows me that the artist, the people who are making the music doesn’t get caught up in that. We just make music.

Do you have any plans for Martin Luther King Day this year?

My celebration is going to come from just being with my family. I’m not really a holiday person. I do the Christmas thing with my family, but other than that, holidays is just another day for me because I try to celebrate in life.

Can fans expect any MLK inspiration on your upcoming album, Gutter Rainbows?

Dr. King… what he was talking about, was the “gutter rainbow.” When he’s talking about the mountain top—he’s talking about rising up. When he’s talking about the dream, he’s talking about that dream that exists inside of the struggle that allows you to get past the struggle. That’s what art is. I retweeted a quote that Omar Epps took from Russell Simmons where he said: “Art allows you to dream your way out of struggle.” That’s what I’ve been able to do with Gutter Rainbows and that’s what I think Dr. King’s ultimate goal was, to allow people to let their minds envision something more beautiful. That’s what the best part does, and that’s what I try to do with my music.