Talib Kweli Talks 'Radio Silence,' H&M's Controversial 'Monkey' Ad & Why He Thinks Trump Is a 'Classic Racist'

Talib Kweli
Dorothy Hong

Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli has been one of hip-hop’s most outspoken and lyrically gifted MCs. For the past 20 years, his music has provided both social and political commentary through solo albums and collaborative projects with Yasiin Bey, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek and more.

His work outside music is just as prolific. Talib’s awareness toward social justice issues, his activism, and his very busy Twitter account gives light to the strong influence of the Brooklyn-born lyricist.  

His newest release, Radio Silence, is a soulful reminder of the MC’s adept lyrical ability. He experiments with different artists and musicians such as Waka Flocka Flame, Anderson .PaakRobert Glasper, Maurice Brown and more. The topics range from racial inequality to love to the controversial story of Bresha Meadows killing her father in response to his domestic abuse. It’s an artful, sonically pleasing LP that shows Talib returning to form in a more mature yet nostalgic feel.

Billboard got the chance to talk to Kweli about Radio Silence, the craziest Twitter feud he’s been a part of, and the reason why President Donald Trump is a "classic racist." Check it out below.

This is your eighth solo album. These days, by their second, third or even fourth album, some artists are changing their sound. Radio Silence is business as usual for you. Why did you choose to stick to the formula with this release?

I've experimented through my career in many ways. There’s some things I experimented with where I was very happy with what I did and some things I've done that the fans were not as happy even though I was happy. So for Radio Silence, for the same reason why I used the same artist as Reflection Eternal, I wanted to go into my wheelhouse and focus on my skill set. But I wanted to add to the mix, my musical knowledge and the fact that I have relationships with a lot of musicians. So I was trying to create that same feel that fans wanted from back in the days but make it feel more dope, more mature, more live with the instrumentation.

How did you and Waka Flocka Flame get to working together in the studio?

If you listen to his verse on the album, he says “I'm enlightened now, they frightened now.” He's like a lot of artists that are very multidimensional. Just because they're talented in one style of music doesn't mean they always move in that space. I was partying with Waka in Vegas, and he was like, "Let's do a song." I took him up on the offer and he knocked it out very quickly. He lives a life as a man where he's not always in the strip club turning up.

Same with Rick Ross and other artists that I've worked with, like Gucci Mane. A lot of times, these artists come to me. Every once in a while I go to an artist and ask to be on a song. But I think it's interesting with me that it seems people that use my music and do a song with me have a chance to sort of purge and show a different side of themselves. I've done that with other artists myself, so I understand that instinct.

What made you want to use the story of Bresha Meadows on “She’s My Hero”?

Bresha Meadows was a story that I was thinking about and I felt connected to because I have a young daughter. Bresha physically reminded me, when I saw her, of what my daughter looked like when she was 15. My first connection to the story was very visceral like, “Wow. What if that was my daughter?” Then, the idea that a child can go through so much trauma and pain that they feel the only escape is not just to murder, but to murder someone who they're related to.

What could've drove her to that? It's all in the court records what they said happened. But whether it happened exactly how she said it or not, something happened to make her feel like she had no choice. That was interesting to me just as a human being. I didn't set out to write a song about her, but the beat made me want to write about her. When I heard the track produced by Oh No, it sounded innocent, but also was punctuated with phrases from these violent rap songs that reminded me of Bresha.

What does that song have in relation to the lack of equality for women and girls in the court system and society in general?

Her situation is interesting because it's an intersection of domestic abuse, child rearing and race. Her mother is white and the father is black. There are a lot of black men who get railroaded or the system doesn't treat right. But Bresha’s situation shows the conflict in privileges because black men do not get any fairness from the justice system. But when it comes to domestic abuse, regardless of race, women don't get any fairness.

That situation, even though he's a black man, he's representing the oppressor class with this white woman and his black daughter. It shows you that things are nuanced and it’s never black and white. In relation to sexism, I think the situation with Bresha is different because she actually took some sort of action. A lot of the things you see in Hollywood, the discussion gets tainted by the fact that a lot of these women felt silenced for so long. Because of professional situations and society, they didn't come out with it and now they're validity and truth is being questioned because they chose to be silent. She was the opposite of silent.  

How does this album fit into the political climate the country now?

God willing, my albums are not based on political trends and they fit where they're supposed to fit. When Obama was elected, there were journalists who asked me without irony what I was going to rap about. They were ignorant and assumed that my total output is based on racism and that somehow the idea of a black president means that racism is over so what else could Talib Kweli rap about? It was disconcerting that people asked me that. I thought us, as a country, especially journalists who are interviewing hip-hop artists, were more astute than that. I realized now eight years later we were far from that. 

Amsterdam News just named you "Man of the Year." What does that mean to you?

I don't take accolades and awards seriously at all. If I do, I try to pass the credit to the people who came before me. But the Amsterdam News award is a feel-good thing for me because it's like for black people on the east coast or just for people who are pro-black and care about issues of justice and community building, Amsterdam News is a pillar in our community. When I was a kid, my parents were culturally nationalist type of people. We talked about Africa in the house, we celebrated Kwanzaa, and there was always a copy of the Amsterdam News.  So no matter what accolades I achieve, I imagine if I ever won a Grammy, it wouldn't be as dope to me as being on the cover of Amsterdam News

How do you feel about Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comment and asking why can’t people from Norway emigrate here?

Trump is a classic racist. He's cut from the old school cloth. He's a 71-year-old white man whose father was a billionaire Klansman. His racism is not like this new atheist racism or Gamergate racism. Trump’s racism is based in eugenics and genetics where his type of people is better. He's not a smart man, he's just a very privileged man and he's not good at hiding it. All he knows is racism by default. It's not a mystery at this point.

What's interesting about the “shithole” thing is people think its hearsay. Someone heard him say it and is reporting that. In this space, that doesn't even count anymore because we actually heard him say things like grabbing women by the pussy. If we couldn't hold him accountable for saying he grabs them by the pussy and he said that on tape, the shithole thing is nothing.

What’s your thoughts on the whole H&M incident involving the young African American model?

Things like that happen because we don't understand the history of racism in the world and that's what leads people, in high positions, to be tone deaf. There's probably a lot of ignorant, mediocre motherf---ers at H&M with high positions. But because of the status quo of how racism works, they get put in these positions and so these people are not inherently malicious. They’re just racially ignorant about the history of racism in the world. The idea of black people being compared to monkeys and stuff, they're young white people they don't have to deal with that in their life at all.

I have white friends and I see white people call their kids monkeys sometimes. The idea monkeys are cute, it's some Jane Goodall shit to them. It's like they're not thinking or understanding how that image has been used. It's coming from a place of super ignorance. But the idea that it could go through that many checks and balances and for the ignorance to be to that level, it's a little bit shocking. To them, it was some cute shit. The most important thing is their response.

Their response to me felt like, "Whoa, that's f---ed up how did this happen? Who let that happen?" There wasn't an apology in it and they acted surprised and didn’t take responsibility. The end of it was H&M doing an investigation. You mean to tell me that you can't figure out who approved this? It should take three minutes to figure it out. Why do they need to do an investigation? As a response, it made no sense and it showed me that they're not prepared to deal with it in the proper manner.

You’re very active on Twitter and engaging with your followers. Can you tell us what was the craziest Twitter beef or spat you had with a user?

It has to be this guy Turtleboy Sports. He’s the type to be very racist, harass women online, and get into arguments with people about white supremacy and stuff. He started trolling me out of the blue a year ago. There’s people whom he's rubbed the wrong way who started sending me these stories and blogs of women who had said he sexually harassed them. Not like outright rape but just him being a creepy douche.

So as he's harassing me on Twitter, I start re-tweeting some of these stories. He took this very personal because I guess there were some lawsuits. His point that he was trying to make was these are people who are making up these stories about me [and that] anyone can write a blog. These stories were on a blog called Buffalo Bruisers and what he did was create a website called Buffalo Bruises and he wrote a false story about how I raped a 10-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. White supremacists are always inventing stories that I raped somebody. Anyway, the last line of the story says, “This blog is not affiliated with Turtleboy Sports.”

So, he basically told on himself. I sent him a cease and desist after, and normally, I don't ignore that stuff, but I have enough truth on my side that I confront all of it. But this one, I went the extra step and some blog got a hold of the letter and there’s now a story circulating that I'm suing this guy. There's no lawsuit or litigation happening. It's just like, "Ok. If you keep talking shit, it's going to be an issue.” That had to be the strangest one. 

What do you think makes those type of people think and feel that way? Is it psychological?

I don't know who to attribute this quote to, but it's a brilliant quote, “When you're used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” A lot of these guys are young white males who were promised, because of the status quo of racism in this country, that the world is supposed to be delivered to them on a platter. They grow up and they realize that it's not like that. They lash out because they feel like the world is closing in on them.

They see the world becoming browner and a lot of them, they don't have the political language or information to know why they feel that way, so they're preyed upon by outright white supremacists who see these conflicted young white men and tell them about free speech and wanting to kill anybody who doesn't accept their opinion. They fall into the idea of diversity being the code for anti-whiteness. It's a generation of kids who are the new racists. I've been on Twitter for 10 years and got called n---- more in the last two years than my whole time there. The racist trolls have always been there, but they would stop short of saying n-----.

Let’s take it back to the music for a bit. You released The Seven last year with Styles P. What are your thoughts on the recent trend of collaborative albums and do you think it's natural or forced?

I think it's natural. I think it's a good thing. It adds a creativeness and makes the fans excited. The artists have to look out for each other. Remember back in the day when Mase and Cam’ron got into a fight over Mase charging for him to be in [the “Horse & Carriage”] video? Those days are over. Now it’s like, “Let's just create." The industry got really bloated to a point where artists were only doing certain features.

You and Styles have mentioned making a sequel to The Seven. Have you started work on it or is it still up in the air?

I just spoke to Styles. Styles and them move too fast. Since The Seven, Styles put out the record with Berner, he put out a Lox album, [and] I think they got another Lox album coming out now and he asked me to be on the new D-block compilation. Styles probably got another solo album on the way. Those guys work too quick for me. The Lox might outwork me. I thought I outworked everyone. So I don't know I have to wait for him to finish with that next. 

It’s interesting that you mention Styles moving too fast. You had a busy 2017 releasing four different projects including yourself and your artists. Are you taking a break in 2018?

No, right now there's a lot on the table. First thing we have is Outernational, which is a rock band that I'm very excited about on Javotti. Their album is co-produced by Chad Smith from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. We have Space Invadaz, which is a group from Cincinnati with Buggs Tha Rocka who just changed his name to Speed Walton partnering up with Donte from MOOD and they have an album that I’m on.

The beginning of the year will be that along with NIKO IS. NIKO IS has a new album coming out called Uniko. I’m probably going to drop another solo album this year as well or maybe top of next year but soon.