Rap is not a genre known for the quality of its stars live performances—too often the programmed beats of their recordings and their marketed, larger-than-life personas just don’t translate to the stage.
But over the course of 10 years of steady touring, Talib Kweli, whose name translates from Arabic as “seeker of the truth,” has proved himself an exception.
“The live experience is really what the essence of hip-hop is, so I try to stay as close to that essence as I can,” Kweli explained in a recent interview with Xpress. “In this era where you’re not sure about the future of the record business, when everything has gone digital, it’s great to have a following of fans who know that when they come to your show they’re going to get a great show.”
Kweli faults an industry that values fast money over nurturing sustainable careers for his shortage of peers in that regard.
“No one cares about artist development—that doesn’t even exist at these record labels anymore—making sure these artists know how to perform,” he says. “It’s the same way they develop players in the NBA and NFL. Now it’s happening in the music business. So now rappers don’t know how to perform, R&B singers don’t know how to sing; it’s crazy.”
Backed by Rawkus Records, one of the premiere hip-hop labels of the 1990s, Kweli began his own career when he joined Mos Def to form Black Star. The duo took their name from the Black Star Line, a shipping line started by Marcus Garvey, and a major symbol of his back-to-Africa movement. Critics greeted their self-titled 1998 debut with wide praise, crediting the two emcees with delivering some of rap’s smartest social and political commentary on the struggles of black Americans.
Kweli used the early recognition to build a solo career that has cemented his role as one of the sharpest and most entertaining minds in rap. From commercially successful collaborations with Kanye West and Jay-Z (“Get By”), to free, underground releases with Madlib (Liberation), Kweli has tried to strike a delicate balance between maintaining his street cred and reaching a wider audience.
The current tour comes on the heels of Ear Drum, his sixth album and first release on his own Blacksmith label. And while newer fans can expect to hear recent singles like the Will.I.Am-produced “Hot Thing,” Kweli assures older fans that he’ll be “drawing from the whole catalog.”
He says that being backed by the Rhythm Roots Allstars, a 10-member band, is inspiring him to approach all the material with a fresh perspective.
“To have a live band play my entire show every night is a different experience for me,” he says. “A lot of times the songs at this point take on different personalities. You can’t just recreate a sound like a boom-bap from a hip-hop record—you’ve got to do something fresher.”
Kweli is also drawing inspiration from the prospect that the crowds he’s performing for could soon help elect the country’s first black president. But he’s quick to point out that although he’s publicly endorsed Barack Obama, he prefers to let his lyrics speak for themselves rather than engage in onstage activism.
“I try not to take advantage of my audience and the respect that they give me. I get away with a lot of messages in my music, in my lyrics, so when I get on stage I want to try not to beat them over the head, not be so political in my statements,” he says. “When I get on stage my role is to entertain. When I get on stage, it’s pure love—that’s king to me.”
[Jake Frankel is a freelance writer based in Asheville. He can be reach at email@example.com.]
who: Talib Kweli and David Banner, plus B.o.B and Rhythm Roots Allstars
what: Sony presents Hip Hop Live!
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Oct. 19. 9 p.m. ($28 advance, $30 doors. www.theorangepeel.net)