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Perhaps more than other international MCs of his stature, Talib Kweli loves visiting Canada. The outspoken rapper has made numerous trips up here from his homes in New York City and California, and he’s returning to Toronto for a show at the Sound Academy on June 1 to preview songs from his forthcoming album, Prisoner of Conscious. As it turns out, he really does love us.
“Canadian customs always makes it very hard to get into Canada but once I’m in, Toronto reminds me a lot of Brooklyn,” Kweli says. “It’s a got a huge Caribbean influence and great music comes out of Canada. The people are just really nice and have this reputation for being some of the nicest people in the whole world.”
The "nice" rap. Canadians always get it from Americans and, not that it’s a bad thing, but what’s the deal, really? Does the border dividing us geographically really extend into our personalities and dispositions?
“It has to do with history,” Kweli says flatly. “I dunno too much about the history of Canada but America was formed on some pretty heinous acts and that translates into our worldwide reputation. Whether it’s wars or some of the other things we’ve participated in throughout the years.”
Ah yes, America likes to fight. In fact, just the other week, Pusha T sent a song into the world called “Exodus 21:3,” which most people characterized as a not-so thinly-veiled diss track lobbed at Canada’s own Drake, the current king of hip-hop. Drake seems to be evoking this reaction from a variety of sources these days, but Kweli isn’t having it.
“Respect to Pusha T because I like Pusha T a lot," he says diplomatically. “Drake is an incredible artist and his rise to the top was very, very fast and, sometimes when you get to the top that quickly, people don’t really know your story and come at you in certain ways. I’m not here to go into what Pusha T had to say because I really don’t know what is going on with him and Drake. I know what’s going on on the blogs but I dunno what’s going on for real, y’know? But my introduction to Drake was his mixtapes, before he was a big artist, and he still celebrates the same music that I do. He speaks from his heart and he’s injected emotion into hip-hop and made it possible for a lot of people to not have to pretend that they’re tough guys and gangstas. He can be a tough guy on the tracks when he wants to but that’s not really what you know him for.”
It’s a typically reasoned response from an artist who’s regarded as a pioneer of what came to be known as conscious rap – thoughtful music mindful of the world around us, with an ear towards spreading positivity. From his work in Black Star to collabs with Hi-Tek and his many solo ventures, Kweli has worn the conscious rap tag well enough, though his new album, Prisoner of Conscious (due, he says, this September), suggests it isn’t always an easy fit.
“It’s not a term I made up but I appropriated it for my album. I work with organizations that support prisoners of conscience – from Leonard Peltier to Mumia Abu-Jamal – people are in prison not because of any crime but because of their thoughts. So it’s a tribute to them but also speaks to my place in my hip-hop because people can sometimes make me a prisoner of the type of hip-hop that they think I do.”
If early single “Distractions” is any indication, this may mark one of the most political records of Kweli’s career. The song addresses the profound impact that the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street have had on waking people up across the world. Kweli isn’t merely tapping the zeitgeist for inspiration though; he’s really feeling these things.
“Occupy Wall Street has forced the powers that be to deal directly with the causes of the movement, like the disparity between the rich and the poor and the evaporation of the middle class,” he says. “These were things that were spoken of in an abstract way until OWS and, even though I totally disagree with most things they have to say, a lot of what is going on in the Tea Party movement. I personally feel that the Tea Party movement in America is very hypocritical but it springs from the same ideas that OWS springs from. I think that the Tea Party thing is like Occupy Wall Street, but just with people who are racist, know what I’m sayin’?”
Listen for more from Talib Kweli in a conversation with Vish Khanna about the health of contemporary hip-hop, the efficacy of the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements, the future of Black Star and more about his new album, Prisoner of Conscious. Download it here (right click + "save target as") or stream it by pushing play.
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