[SHINE ON] Talib Kweli Empowers Youth via Action Support Committee and Nkiru Books
Article by Navani Otero | Photo by Dorothy Hong
[SHINE ON] is a monthly feature paying homage to those in the Hip Hop community who give back and pay it forward.
Way before being socially conscious became a mainstream trending topic on Twitter or a Super Bowl Show concept there were artists that lived and breathed it every day. Artists like Talib Kweli, whose music over the past 20 years has become synonymous with the term “conscious Hip Hop.” From penning love letters to black beauty like “Brown Skin Lady” on the classic album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star to discussing the everyday socio-economic struggles of the working class in “Get By” there is always a message in his work. These songs were more than touching, pensive lyrics; they represented a lifestyle.
Social activism and awareness became second nature to the Park Slope native while growing up in a household of educator and activist parents. So, it was no surprise that he would be one of the first artists to be on the front lines of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Ferguson, MI. He immediately sprung into action, starting a GoFundMe campaign that raised over $100,000 to support Ferguson protesters. The success of the campaign birthed the idea for creating an advocacy org called Action Support Committee to support “those taking action for social justice” where he still serves as a board member today.
Most recently, Kweli has been busy building community by resuscitating the legacy of Nkiru Books; the former brick and mortar bookstore he bought and operated with collaborator/friend Mos Def from 1998 until its closing in 2000. As of January 2016, the bookstore has found a new home online via #KweliClub. The Bee Shine caught up with Kweli, who is busy at work on a new album to discuss the creation of the Action Support Committee, the importance of creating space for authors of color and how to become your own leader.
THE BEE SHINE: How did the Action Support Committee come to be?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, the Action Support Committee is something that I put together after starting a GoFundMe for Ferguson Protesters. I met with protesters when I was down there and they explained to me how there were a lot of organizations in Ferguson during the uprisings that were receiving money and all these types of organizations that were bureaucratic and set up for these types of things, but yet a lot of people on the ground, activists, the ones who were out there every night protesting they were doing it at their own peril. They were losing their jobs and they were losing homes. They needed food, they needed supplies, they needed jail and bail support. So, I just started the GoFundMe—I had a platform so I decided to use it for something. But then right as I started it Officer Wilson was not indicted by the grand jury. But donations poured in so I ended up with a lot more money than I ever imagined we would raise. We ended up with about $115,000. I’m an entertainer, even though I have given my voice to struggle and platform for activism I’m not a front line organizer or activist. So, I formed a committee of people who I trusted to help me make the proper decisions on how to disseminate these funds and that’s what the Action Support Committee is.
TBS: That’s really interesting the timing of everything that happened and how that helped. So what is the group doing now to continue the work and support?
TK: Yeah and the Action Support Committee at first the main goal was to bail out and support protesters specifically in Ferguson and I believe we achieved to the degree that we could. Now, the challenge is being that we formed this committee and we saw what was possible, what’s the next step? So, that’s the point we’re at now. We just in December gave out the last of the money that we raised. So, now we’re meeting and having email conversations about what’s the next step and how do we become a proactive rather than a group that’s a reactionary group?
TBS: And who else is on the board with you?
TK: Now the core members I would list as Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter, myself, Miles Solay who’s an activist/musician for a band called Outernational, publicist Autumn Marie, professor/activist Rosa Clemente, publicist/organizer Liz Mann and Alisha Alexander from The Dream Defenders.
TBS: Okay, and so the group actually launched when exactly? Has the mission changed since inception?
TK: I put the group together last January, so January of 2015. Our mission was to give/raise money for the Ferguson situation and to get that money out. We completed that mission in December . So, now we have a challenge ahead of us. When I first started it it was supposed to be a one-time thing. I didn’t think about this holistically. I didn’t plan on being even this much involved to be honest with you, but when we raised that amount of money I just felt like, “Man, if I do something and somehow make a mistake, do something wrong, give this money to the wrong people that responsibility falls solely on me.” So, if that responsibility falls solely on me then I need to put together a group, a group of thinkers and on-the-ground people who do this all the time. So what I’ve learned from the process is every group needs a leader. So, I had to be the leader of the group because is it’s my ideas, my addition, but I mean everyone’s opinion and everyone’s position in this group are an equal thing.
When I put the group together Umi Selah from Dream Defenders was the first person I called. He’s the person who helped me put this group together. Part of the group is people that I know from my life, the other part is people that Umi Selah knows and Umi Selah was one of the first people I saw in Ferguson when I went down there. I had already visited him when his group, Dream Defenders, had just taken over the state building in Tallahassee. When I got to Ferguson, I met Patrisse from Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter as a hashtag and as organization just started to take off. So, I feel honored and blessed that the people who are in my group are people who would be doing this whether I made the call to them or not. People who are just forward thinking and already in the movement part, the action part, you know?
TBS: I feel like a lot of people in our generation don’t feel like we have leaders to look up to so that’s amazing that you have that network.
TK: And these people are younger than me, all of them, with the exception of maybe Rosa and my friends who are my age, these are all people who are younger than me. I’m looking to them for direction.
TBS: And also what is the Action Support Committee’s Revolution School? Can you tell me more about that aspect?
TK: Revolution School was an idea that when we first got together was one of the first ideas when we had the money, it was like, “Okay, let’s do a Revolution School,” which as I understand was not sort of a brick and mortar school building, but a weekend or a week of program activities based on teaching people civil disobedience, resistance, teaching people how to protest and struggle and work to revolutionize the system they’re oppressed in. It was an idea that we sort of fleshed out and we didn’t do—we actually never did the Revolution School. We had allocated funds for that at first, but then we used those funds to give to MORE which is the Missouri Organization for Reform and Education to help get some more people out of jail and then we used that money to throw a series of free concerts on the weekend that served as the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death. So, rather than try to do this very ambitious and difficult task of organizing the Revolution School we decided to do something that was more in my wheelhouse which is throw concerts and that raised more money. And we were able to give to groups like Hands Up United and Operation Help or Hush and pay some money to Mike Brown’s family. So yeah, the Revolution School was an idea that we had at the start that we never put to fruition.
TBS: Where do you think your inspiration to be an activist in some form has come from? When you were younger was there a specific experience that kind of influenced you?
TK: My parents were professors so education was always stressed in the household and cultural identity and an understanding that you are a part of the community that you come from and that you owe it to the community you come from to give back. My mother was, early in her life, was involved in grassroots organizing and activism from working with local politicians like Al Vann and Ed Towns who were assembly people back in the day. They were active in the sort of anti-apartheid movement that was in America at the time and I remember these things from being little. Then when I went to junior high school hip-hop was the most popular thing in the streets and the popular hip-hop at the time was positive and conscious and uplifting. So, the hip-hop that was popular aligned with the lessons that I received in my household. But if I didn’t receive that in my household I would have looked at that as a trend in hip-hop as opposed to being that’s the type of hip-hop that I decided to do for my career.
TBS: That’s a good point to make. What do you think is the role of hip-hop in social activism nowadays? Do you think there’s a responsibility there? Because I feel like hip-hop was birthed as a mouthpiece for marginalized people.
TK: Yeah, I think hip-hop by definition speaks to what those people are going through whether it’s talking about popping pills or whether it’s talking about the protests and hip-hop is speaking to people’s pain and struggle. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of artists to do anything besides be honest, but I think if you know better you should do better and if you know that you receive your influence from your community you should do everything in your power to give back.
I think that this new generation of hip-hop artists actually does do that. Artists whether it be like a Meek Mill or a Big Sean, both of those artists recently gave money to the Flint situation. You know Game gave a million dollars to Flint, Michigan. So, that’s not the first time Game has done stuff like that. When Trayvon was murdered Game had every big name MC in the world on a song– Rick Ross to Diddy– and no one paid attention to it. The hip-hop media didn’t pay attention to it, neither did the hip-hop DJs or the hip-hop program directors. So, I think too often the onus of speaking up for the hip-hop community falls on the MCs and when they do it the hip-hop community supports it, but the industry doesn’t support anything that they don’t automatically understand the profitability on.
TBS: And what do you suggest to people who want to become more active and don’t know what first step to make? Or just assume it means you have to be protesting in the street when there’s probably lots of other ways you can support a cause.
TK: Yeah, I think solidarity comes in many different shapes, forms, and sizes and it’s a matter of what is it that touches you? What in your community that you see that bothers you? And once you figure that out you can identify who are the people, organizations that are attacking it, the problem, and align yourself, show solidarity with those groups. And if you can’t find that group you may not be looking hard enough, but if you can’t find a group you’ll actually have to start your own.
Photo by Mike Schreiber
TBS: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the reopening of Nkiru books that you just put back online. I understand the original vision was the meaning of the word which in Nigerian Igbo is “the best is yet to come.” What do you hope to add to that vision?
TK: Yeah, that vision was specifically about children — the best is yet to come, the Igbo phrase that speaks to the children being the future and we’re building up our children’s bookstore. Leothy Miller Owens who started it her focus was children’s education, multicultural children’s books and so out of respect for Leothy that’s got to be what it is. But I find right now my audience, my clientele is not the people who buy children’s books. I’m trying to get more children’s books in there so that we can get these parents to understand that that’s part of this issue. Right now, it’s more people who—I’m a curator– so it’s people who are fans of Talib Kweli that’s who’s coming to the website through talibkweli.com Nkiru book section, but we’re trying to expand it so it’s more inclusive of what Leothy’s original vision is.
TBS: What’s your fondest memory of Nkiru Books when you had the brick and mortar store?
TK: The brick and mortar store was great, having conversations there where people would stop in and stay for two or three hours and talk about culture, religion, politics, spirituality with me and the rest of the staff. We used to do poetry readings and hip-hop concerts with myself and Mos Def, and Dead Prez, and people like that. Going out in the streets like DanceAfrica street festival or different festivals around the city selling books was always fun for me.
TBS: Why is it so important to have a space to promote and celebrate authors of color and to see representation of people of color in books and media?
TK: We live in a society that equates whiteness with the standard and with equal and tells people of color that if they’re not white then somehow they’re sub-standards and not equal. Whether that’s done intentionally or not is besides the point, it’s just done. It’s done on every level of our society from our entertainment to our health care to our housing to education. So, it’s very important, particularly in education, when teaching children of color in order for them to have some sort of esteem, for them to understand that they are equal and that their lives have worth and their lives matter that they see themselves represented in the things that they’re learning about. So, they see themselves represented in literature and in art so they don’t feel like somehow they’re “other” or “less than.” I recall feeling less than as a kid, feeling underrepresented in this society. I know how that feels on a very personal level and so anything I can do to help young children of color to have the same esteem and understand that their lives are worth the same as some white kid– anything I can do to help that I’m down for.