Black Star's Mos Def talks about the state of hip-hop, social manipulation, and fallout from the Million Youth March.
AFRICAN AMERICAN ICON Marcus Garvey once urged his followers that "if there is anything you want in this world, it is for you to strike out with confidence and faith in self and reach for it." Founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, Garvey manifested his own ideals by creating the Black Star shipping line, whose mission was to repatriate African Americans to their genealogical and spiritual homeland.
With Garvey's project providing some of the inspiration for their nom de plume, Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) are setting out tomake hip-hop "with confidence and faith in self," but instead of revisiting a black-nationalist past, the two create a contemporary re-vision of the black art-black power aesthetic traditions. Their debut album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star, gets its inspiration from any number of sources -- in their poetic lyricism lurks the soul of Langston Hughes, their passionate delivery recalls the barbed beauty of Amiri Baraka, and from Chinua Achebe they inherit a literary gift for painting panoramic imagery with words. They are, as they put it, "real-life documentarians."
While 1998 has seen many striking debuts -- Lauryn Hill's inspired Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Styles of Beyond's kinetic 2000 Fold -- the Black Star collaboration is this year's most intelligent new album. Whether speaking on the multiple meanings of blackness ("8th Light"), city life/strife ("Respiration"), or moral direction ("KOS Determination," "Thieves in the Night"), Def and Kweli are articulate and provocative, a stark contrast to a rap music era of lowest-common-denominator themes and issues.
The new movement in hip-hop that the pair represent comes at a time of social turbulence. There was hell up in Harlem two weeks ago, across the river from Brooklyn, Def and Kweli's home, when the Million Youth March ended in near-rioting after the NYPD forcibly shut the event down -- ostensibly because march organizer Khalid Muhammad (a former Nation of Islam lieutenant) made inflammatory remarks about the police.
While Muhammad and New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani continue to blame each other for the event's violence, the chaos around the march suggests that African American youth are steadily running out of venues for self-expression. Hip-hop -- once vaunted for providing this medium -- has seen its cultural core silenced and marginalized by capital. Is Black Star doomed to repeat the failures of the past? While Kweli was busy flying cross-country, Def took some time out between studio sessions to muse on the state of African American politics and hip-hop culture.
Bay Guardian: What do you think about how the Million Youth March ended?
Mos Def: I'm very upset with Khalid Muhammad. There's a hostile environment in New York with Giuliani -- that's no mystery to anybody. [Muhammad] used his platform to get into some pissing match with Rudolph Giuliani, and you can't win that because Rudolph Giuliani has paid henchmen -- called the police force -- to do whatever he says. You got to pick your fights. I just thought it was real corny -- Muhammad played himself, because he played right into Giuliani's hands. Giuliani created the environment to force the tension and he reaped food from it.
BG: This kind of controversy seems to follow Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) everywhere.
MD: I think the NOI, in general, is an organization that is just capitalizing off the misery of black folks. As a Muslim, I think they are a terrible wedge in the American public's understanding of true Islam. That's part of the reason why they receive such wide media coverage -- as long as America or some part of the global community believes that the NOI represents true Islam, people are not going to be receptive to Islam.
BG: Certainly, the media can't seem to get enough of Muhammad or his former leader, Louis Farrakhan (who expelled Muhammad from the NOI).
MD: I have terrible complexes about speaking out against somebody like a Khalid Muhammad or voicing my opinions or objections to the NOI, because they're black and I'm black and I don't want to be used as one of those thorns that the media uses to take another black figure down. However, when the Black Panthers were around, nobody was rushing to give them any kind of media coverage for their marches. The NOI aren't as effective as the Black Panthers and the Black Panthers had a very short history compared to how long the NOI has been around for. The Black Panthers didn't have a twenty, thirty-year run; NOI is entering damn near its fifth decade and shit ain't changed at all. I think it's just a big game. I think that [the media] keep Khalid Muhammad and that kind of nonsense up front because it serves a purpose. Wherever they are, the cameras are going to be there because the media wants you to see them doing that.
BG: Yet the NOI seems to have struck a chord in the hip-hop generation -- they've been the most oft-mentioned black organization among rappers.
MD: It's easy to strike a chord with black youth. Just ask most rappers, shit, ask corporate America -- a lot of these big labels know what to do. It's really easy to manipulate victimized people. There's no fantastic science to it.
BG: So you don't think rappers do the same thing? Is that what rap music is about? "To kick the truth/to the young black youth"?
MD: I read something that shook me up the other day. It said, "Manipulating people and teaching people are two different things." There are a lot of people who call themselves teachers or leaders, but they're really just propagandists. I think that there are people in the hip-hop community that are not really saying anything. What's popular is just deliberately single-minded. Get money. Shake your ass. Shoot him. Get more money. Shake your ass. It's like shopping with rhymes -- OK, I've got my Cristal, my watch, my gun. To a degree, 10 years ago it was like that too; it wasn't as damaging socially, at least from where I stand, as some of this stuff that's out now. Back then it was just that a lot of cats were boasting about how ill they was, how dope they could rhyme.
BG: What's changed in that intervening decade?
MD: The difference between '88 and '98 is that most of the people who were fans were also active in the culture in some way. In '88 you'd have kids watching Video Music Box in their living room, working out dance routines. That might seem real trivial, but that is a fan watching these videos to learn these dances created by people in their community, more likely than not, somebody that probably lived on their block. It was interactive. Now the average hip-hop fan is into hip-hop because they like watching somebody else live.
BG: It's become much more of a spectator sport than a participant sport?
MD: Definitely. I mean, let's be real -- these white kids in the suburbs that buy their first Wu Tang record and lose their damn mind -- they could play an active part in the culture if they wanted to, but that's not why they bought that Wu Tang record. They bought that Wu Tang record to live out their fantasy of themselves as Raekwon or Ghost or Method or whoever. A lot of hip-hop nowadays seems like the primitive prototype for what virtual reality is going to be in the next few years -- live somebody else's life, feel somebody else's pain and frustration.
BG: What happened to those participant fans in the '80s, especially black youth?
MD: The economic conditions in black communities are such that people don't got no time to be leisurely involved in some culture. Most of the time, nowadays, when young black people are involved in hip-hop, it's for economic benefit. That's why the participation level in hip-hop has been diminished. It's been modified into business -- it's like a new job market. People still love it -- there are people who are still fans -- but people's situations are very pressing, sometimes very desperate, and people recognize hip-hop as a way to improve their situation.
BG: Where do you see Black Star fitting into all of this?
MD: I know this is going to sound corny, but it's about black love and esteem. These things that me and Kweli say on certain records are coming out of our love for our tradition and indigenous people in this country. [It's] about the resilience of the spirit to move forward. I'm proud to be who I am -- my history and heritage are rich. My ancestors were incredibly formidable people who survived things in history that killed others. Me and Kweli are constantly in the presence of that. It's because of them that we can be here saying things like "blacker than the nighttime sky / of Bed-Stuy in July." People made sacrifices for me to be who I am today, and I can't live my life not in their presence. Without them, things would be different for me. That's what it's really based on.
BG: Your influences seem quite far and wide, incorporating not just other MCs but also authors, playwrights, poets, etc. In the past you've talked about reading Achebe and Edward Albee for inspiration.
MD: We're just inspired by good art. What I take from writers I like is their economy -- the ability to use language to very effective ends. The ability to have somebody read something and see it, or for somebody to paint an entire landscape of visual imagery with just sheets of words -- that's magical. That's what I've been trying to strive for -- to draw a clear picture, to open up a new dimension.
BG: I'm struck by how well Kweli and you complement one another on the album. I suppose writing the songs wasn't that difficult.
MD: I knew it was going to be strong because of who Kweli is and who I am, and I knew once we linked up, it would flow naturally. What we were really concerned about was trying to give the album a certain type of sound. We wanted to create a sound that was swinging but not nervous, where if you want to get up and dance to it, you can, but if you want to just sit back, recline, and listen, you can do that as well. We wanted to create a very confident sound, a secure sound. It's not talking above you, it's speaking to you, none of this arbitrary hollering you hear on records nowadays.
BG: Your name is an obvious allusion to Marcus Garvey, and you have lines like "take the Black Star line, right on home," but on your song "8th Light" you also describe a "black star" with multiple meanings, including contradictory ones like "It is commonplace and different / Intimate and distant." What are you trying to impart?
MD: I don't want to be the one to create a mythology behind the name Black Star because honestly, I'll be the first to tell you -- I chose the name because I think the words black and star sound good together. They have a ring to it [he laughs]. But the name of this group has started to have a deeper relevance as time goes on. The best way I can describe black star from a thematic point of view is something that a good friend of mine, Alvin Seme, the writer, said: "The black space in the photo negative is the space that nobody looks at but it's the space that allows the picture to be seen." To a large degree, black people, indigenous people, are that black space in the negative of the photo. We get the least dap but we're the space that allows the landscape to get noticed. Me and Kweli want to call attention to the space that's really making it happen.
'Mos Def and Talib Kweli
Are ... Black Star' will be released Sept. 22 on Rawkus Records.