When Chuck D's rabble-rousing first made Whitey fear a black planet, rap was a small, relatively united posse of black artists. As the hip-hop nation grew, however, it suffered the same cultural assimilation and commercialization that marginalized punk rock years earlier. What was once a united "us" gave birth to its own "them."
"Them" was no longer simply white America, or suppression of black music in mainstream media. Yo! MTV Raps! paved the way for prime-time airplay for hip-hop and rap videos. For Christmas, white parents went to Sam Goody to buy their kids the new Warren G album. By the late-'90s, not only was the nation of millions not holding them back, but they invited angry black artists into their elite social clubs for a thick snifter of Courvosier. Racial oppression will always exist, but white America's massive investment in rap and hip-hop-even if driven more by economic opportunity than cultural enlightenment-shrunk Goliath down to unexciting size.
There are still compelling narratives-the black experience, gang-wars-as-modern-day-westerns, etc.-but hearing a multi-millionaire like Jay-Z complain about The Man keeping him down lost its cultural resonance.
So hip-hop and rap turned on itself and became its own West Side Story. The metaphorical gang wars? Bling vs. spirituality. Gangstas vs. peaceniks. Playas vs. gentlemen.
Leave it to a bookstore-owning positivist from Booklyn to serve as the mediator in this self-eat-self war. Talib Kweli's mission resembles Bill Clinton's crusade to broker a truce in the Middle East. Though he'll undoubtedly fail (major label marketing teams and artists depend too much on territorial pissings), Kweli is trying to detoxify the bad blood between mainstream and underground hip-hop. And while unafraid to diss the weak rhymes of nameless MCs, he'll politically sidestep any attempt by the media to draft him into the ranks of mainstream haters.
Kweli is the product of educated, Afrocentric parents. At age 17, he was spitting rhymes with Mos Def in a Brooklyn park, and the two would later form the heralded duo known as Black Star. Kweli was already bored with institutional learning (though not with books-he was working in a black-owned, not-for-profit bookstore that he would later buy with Mos Def). Still, he graduated high school and enrolled for a year at NYU to study experimental theater.
Trouble began with the release of Kweli and Mos Def's debut as Black Star. Like countless other hip-hop albums, it was anchored in black empowerment. The problem was that the duo's title and main philosophy was based on the equality theories of Marcus Garvey-texts that were reserved largely for the educated (read: non-street).
And the largely white popular music critics in the world love an educated black man. The fact that the term "backpack" is used to describe intelligent, philosophical hip-hop and rap suggests that critics are basing high-mindedness on a classically white American model: academia.
Kweli also wasn't afraid to give props to the Invisible Man in the Sky, which caused some to lump him with the spiritual revivalist movement that included artists like Lauryn Hill.
The backlash began.
During a radio interview, mainstream MC Fat Joe-a fellow Brooklyn street kid-said he'd never work with Talib or Mos Def because he was sick of hearing how their work was authentic while his music was gratuitous bling-sling.
Showing his political instincts, Kweli immediately took to the airwaves himself and gave ups to Joe, explaining that it was "they," not he, who had calibrated the measurement of hip-hop righteousness. Though he possessed a strong personal philosophy, Kweli was more interested in assuming a Swiss-like neutrality, refusing to diss brothers who're more about Moet than Malcom.
To top it off, Kweli ditched credible DJ Hi Tek for his second solo album, Quality, enlisting mainstream beatmeisters like DJ Quick and Kayne West. The result was an album of dancefloor torches just like Nelly's, only while Band-Aid Boy was getting hot and nekkid, Kweli was extolling the joys of fatherhood and exploring American politics and what black Americans must do everyday just to "Get By."
The preachy opening skit to Quality explains how Kweli feels about being anointed with distancing accolades. In a sermon that sounds like the "sexual chocolate" scene from Coming to America, Kweli, "The Keynote Speaker" (a further academic parallel), is introduced as a "scholar, ghetto philosopher, three-time Nobel Peace Prize winner, first black man to pilot an aircraft, the nigger that made up the Nike swoosh, the man that made Kool Aid say, "Oh yeah!'"
He's lampooning the aggrandized image the press has laid upon him, essentially biting the hand that's attempting to sculpt him into a savior. He refuses to be enlisted as part of "Us" in the media-generated war against "Them."
Mainstream artists are, after all, from Kweli's block. And no matter how disparate the philosophies they gained from the same streets, as long as it's real and honest, it's a necessary message from Black America.
Or, as Kweli says, "And the story line goes on/ right to left, who's right who's wrong/ fuck the politics and pride/ I just to try to stay alive."