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Talib Kweli on Kanye West’s Donald Trump Tweets, Lift Yourself Song and Slavery Choice Comments
Talib Kweli was in the studio in 2001 working on what would become his debut solo album, Quality, when a young, relatively unknown producer came by looking to play some beats for Mos Def. His name was Kanye West.
“I was like, ‘Well, play me the beats because Mos Def hadn’t arrived yet,'” Kweli said in an exclusive interview with Esquire.com on Tuesday. “So that’s how we met, and he ended up giving me the biggest record of my career.”
From there, Kanye West’s origin story became entwined with Kweli’s career. The West-produced “Get By” from that album (which sampled Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”) became a massive hit. And three years later, Kweli made an appearance on “Get ‘em High” from West’s debut album, The College Dropout. Since then, the two have been friends and collaborators for nearly two decades. In 2016, Kweli and West both appeared on A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Killing Season” from We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. And as recently as early 2018, Kweli had been in the studio with West messing around on some new songs.
But after West’s baffling shift in personal ideology—endorsing Donald Trump and Candace Owens and saying slavery was a choice—that artistic relationship is in flux.
In a candid interview, Kweli—who’s currently supporting his latest album Radio Silence and is in talks with Mos Def about doing another Black Star album—unpacks the danger of West’s words being weaponized by conservatives, his current collaborations with the rapper, their personal texts, and who he knows as the real Kanye West.
Kanye West and Talib Kweli at John Legend’s 28th birthday party in New York, December 2006.
What has your relationship been like with Kanye in recent years? I know you had Instagrammed a photo of him earlier this year and mentioned you’d been working on music, so obviously you guys have still been close.
I did spend time in his studio earlier in the year, and we worked on a few songs together. Kanye is someone who is super famous—he’s in the stratosphere. I wouldn’t say I’m in his inner circle, but he started his career with me, and if I really need to I can get in touch with him.
Seeing that, it seemed like the two of you had overcome his endorsement of Trump in 2016. I remember you called him out, saying “[You] added greatness to my life. But lifting Trump up kills us. Come home.” Did you guys ever chat about that?
I posted that in public because Kanye had reached out to Jay-Z publicly in a similar fashion. As a friend, I want to respect the friendship, and I tend to not admonish my friends in public. But since he reached out to Jay-Z in a similar way, it seemed like a way to reach out to him. That was a time when I didn’t even have a number for him. When I said that on Twitter, I still felt like that was important to be said. When I finally got a number for him, he had deleted the Trump tweets, so I assumed that he’d changed his mind. But obviously he did not.
Having spent time with him recently, did you see any of this coming?
Candace Owens is someone who has a really cult-like following on the right-wing political side. I had never really heard of her until she came after me on Twitter in January. She was critical of things I was saying on Twitter. When Candace Owens came after me and I dismissed her, I was attacked on Twitter by racist Candace Owens fans. I had death threats, I had people calling me “nigger,” I had people calling me “monkey.” When Kanye said, “I like how Candace Owens thinks,” I texted him and explained to him who she was and how she comes after his friends. And his response to me was, “You know I love Donald Trump.”
That was a very disappointing and hurtful response. He’s a grown man he has a right to say that. What was disappointing and hurtful about it was that I didn’t mention Donald Trump. But the fact that he needed to express his love for Donald Trump but not express any love for me was hurtful. So, when a few days later, Ebro said, “I had a conversation with Kanye; he said, ‘I love Donald Trump,'” he had said the same thing to me.
I was disappointed by that. I told him I was disappointed and he didn’t respond, but then he posted on Twitter, “Find someone you disagree with and tell them that you love them.” And I did that and he hit me back immediately. I thought that was hypocritical on his behalf, but I realized that here’s a young man who’s really just looking for love. So as a friend, lemme put my politics aside and be loving. And that’s where the relationship has been since then.
Does this change anything for you especially since you guys have been collaborating again?
The stuff that we had been working on was open-ended, and it was organic—who knows if we’ll ever get back to working on that. I would find it difficult working with Kanye on music right now with his position on Trump and Candace Owens and his repeating white supremacist lines on black-on-black crime and “slavery is a choice.” I love him as a man, and I love him as an artist, but I would find it difficult co-signing him right now until he walks some of that stuff back.
I love him as a man, and I love him as an artist, but I would find it difficult co-signing him right now.
Can we resolve his personal political opinions with his music?
I think it’s really up to him to do that for us. Kanye West was the guy who used to do things that were obnoxious and then turn around and apologize for them—and apologize properly—and really understand what he did wrong. He’s a guy who is constantly evolving. That’s why I can’t give up on him. I know he’s smart enough to know better, but he just doesn’t know better right now. Over time, there’s a great chance to realize how hurtful he’s being right now, and he’ll reverse some of it.
I’ve seen people holding out hope that this could be some sort of performance art thing.
Yeah, I just don’t think that holds him accountable for what he’s doing. People have mentioned Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix with the rapper thing. I don’t think this is that well thought out—when you see him say he doesn’t know enough to be a conservative and when he’s sharing his conversations. He’s a sponge for information, and he’s trying to take in information. I think he’s getting information from very poor, misinformed sources. We’re used to seeing Kanye be a leader, and right now he’s following.
When he first came back to Twitter, it was supposed to be about the music. When he said “I love Trump” to me, that was a private thing. I didn’t go on Twitter to be like, “Kanye loves Trump.” Ebro, however, is a morning show personality. He has to compete with the Charlamagne interview. I don’t think Kanye meant for that to come out. And since it did, he doubled down on it. And that distracted him from what his point was on Twitter.
As an artist and a man in such a position of power, does he have a social responsibility about what he says or believes?
He absolutely does—but if he doesn’t know it, it doesn’t help any of us. He’s fighting to be Kanye, he’s fighting to be free. He’s fighting to not be attached to what people’s idea of black thought is. When you do that and you’re not careful, it puts a target on the rest of us because they weaponize you, and they use you against the people you claim to love.
I was going to ask you about that. What is the danger of ideas like this coming from someone like Kanye?
The examples I see: John Legend texts Kanye, then Kanye shares his texts, and the next day the NRA trolled John Legend. The NRA can’t be trolling John Legend. We can’t be allowing that. The NRA is an organization that we should all stand up against as people of color, as compassionate people, as people against mass shootings. I think that Kanye is not realizing that he’s putting a target on John Legend’s back.
When he uplifts Candace Owens, and Candace Owens fans are calling me a nigger and a monkey, he’s putting a target on my back. When Trump goes to a room full of people and asks if there are any Hispanics here, and he gets boos, then says, “Well, Kanye gets it,” he’s putting a target on Hispanics. When Trump is talking in front of the NRA and says, “Well, Kanye gets me, and Kanye is bringing all these black people to me,” he’s putting a target on their backs.
Chance the Rapper got roped into that, too, just by tweeting about Kanye.
Chance is a really good dude. There’s two types of Kanye collaborators. I’m in the first group—the ones that he came up with, the ones that he looked up to. Now, there’s a group like Chance the Rapper who came up under Kanye. Kanye is like a god to these people—especially in Chicago, and why shouldn’t he be for what he’s accomplished? Chance’s career has been elevated because of Kanye West.
When he saw Kanye being critiqued, Chance jumped in without context, and what he said was very true: It’s true that black people don’t have to be Democrats. On the surface that’s a true statement. I’m not a Democrat. I’m very critical of the Democratic party. When Chance jumped in, in his mind he was standing up for Kanye. But as he eloquently said in his apology, he didn’t realize at the time that his words were going to be used against us.
What can this younger generation do to talk about these things that he’s saying?
I think Chance did it right in his apology. It’s a shame it had to happen the way it did, but when he says I was used against my movement and I can’t allow that to happen. That’s what you have to do. I don’t think it’s fuck-Kanye season, but if it’s not being supportive as an artist at this point, it’s a spectrum. You can say, I’m not going to support your new album, I’m not going to buy your clothes, I’m not going to go to your shows. He’s going say, “I’m not going to allow myself to be weaponized in the same way you’re being weaponized.”
Did you read the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay in The Atlantic? What were your thoughts on that, and in what way are Kanye’s words bigger than he is?
I did read that, and I thought that what Ta-Nehisi wrote was very beautiful and poetic. I think he wrote that for us to feel better about how we feel about Kanye. I don’t think Kanye is going to gain anything from reading that. He’s in a position where he’s gained so much power in his life that he doesn’t have to be held to the same standards of accountability that the rest of us have to be. I want to see something that Kanye can hear and see.
Do you think that a critique of Kanye that he would hear would have to come from someone closer to his level?
Yeah, I’m not on his level. I can’t buy the things Kanye can buy. But if there’s someone who thinks like me who can afford to speak to him, then I think he would take it more seriously.
Talib Kweli and Kanye West perform in February, 2006.
What do you think his purpose and end game is with all of this? It’s so hard to rationalize.
I think he just wants to be loved. The underrepresented piece to all of this is that Kanye told Ebro that Obama didn’t invite him to the White House. When he did that Taylor Swift thing, Obama called him a jackass on a hot mic. If you’re Kanye West from Chicago, that’s got to hurt. The President of the United States, a black man from your hood, calling you a jackass because you were standing up for Beyoncé? That’s gotta hurt.
I think we’re seeing Kanye reacting to not feeling love from Kanye. That’s what he relates to about Trump more than anything: Trump is the ultimate I-don’t-like-Obama guy. That’s what he ran on. I went to the White House with a bunch of Kanye’s friends—Pusha-T, A$AP Rocky—and Kanye wasn’t there. I think Obama fucked us all up by calling Kanye a jackass and not inviting him to the White House. These are the bad things about Obama’s legacy—his immigration policy, drone strikes, and calling Kanye a jackass.
I’ve been working on this documentary called Of Truth Be Told, and there’s a piece of footage where Kanye explains, “When I first came out no body liked me but Mos Def and Kweli. They said, “Hey, we like you.” So that’s on his mind: He wants people to like him. For him to say that he got liposuction because he wants y’all to like him—that to me is a personal thing. He took the Obama thing personal.
Obama called him a jackass on a hot mic. If you’re Kanye West from Chicago, that’s got to hurt.
What was your initial response to the “slavery is a choice” comment?
I gasped audibly. I was in a room full of people, and they were like, “What happened? Who died?” Honestly, here’s the thing: Kanye started out with “I like the way Candace Owens thinks,” then he went to “I love Donald Trump,” then he went to saying “Lincoln was a Republican,” then he went to black-on-black crime and saying, falsely, that Chicago is the murder capital of the world. Then he went to “slavery is a choice.” This is a radicalization. These are all white supremacist talking points.
There are people in Kanye’s life who are leading him down this path because they have an agenda. When he said, “Slavery is a choice,” he meant it. I think when Van Lathan debunked him and he got all the backlash, he had to walk back on that statement. Even trying to clean it up doesn’t do anything for me, but I’m glad he at least tried. That shows the caring-about-black-people Kanye is still in there somewhere. I think he made an off-the-cuff statement based on what the people around him are telling him.
So who is the real Kanye to you, and who is this that we’re seeing?
The real Kanye is the one who said he didn’t have enough information to speak on conservatives vs. liberals. That was a moment of the real Kanye. When Van Lathan debunked him and he said, “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” that’s the real Kanye—the one that does care, the one that can remove himself and care about other people in the room and the country. I know that guy is real. His music, the things he’s said… He’s one of the first rappers to say he doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality—these things that he’s done show me he’s that guy. But he’s isolated in many ways even from his own self.
How can we rationalize who he’s been in the past with his radicalization with a far-right agenda?
He also tweeted that he doesn’t agree with everything Donald Trump says. How can you be a black dude from the south side of Chicago and work with Mos Def and Common and Dave Chappelle and then say you’re down with the Muslim ban? How can you be down with the wall? He’s not thinking about these things. He’s thinking about Trump as an outsider who was against Obama. That’s a failure on his part. I don’t think he’s studying enough.
How do you feel about this? Do you feel let down?
I’m absolutely let down, but people are going to let you down. I’ve been let down by Kanye before, and I’ll be let down by Kanye again. I’m not let down to the point of giving up on him. Kanye might think I’ve been harsh on him because I have not held my tongue recently with him. He might be like, “Fuck Kweli.” I’ve been sending him little clips and things all the time, because I’m concerned about the information he’s been receiving. I’m still praying for him. I’m not willing to give up on him. He has it in him to turn this around. James Brown made “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but he also supported Richard Nixon—that’s not part of his legacy.
Absolutely. I was going to ask you what this could do to Kanye’s legacy.
I think how he responds to this would affect his legacy. His body of work is so massive and so important to the culture that he has a lot of leeway. People are going to give him a chance, and I think he deserves those chances.
What were your thoughts on the two new songs?
The one with T.I. … I’m glad that T.I. got a chance to say what he had to say. Kanye is usually better at using his music to comment on things he’s recently done. Kanye has done things publicly and rapped about them in a certain way that have made me forgiving of him. I don’t think he did that with this song. The poopity-scoop song … As much as I’m angry at his position, I think it’s fucking brilliant. For him to have the whole culture paying attention to him and to drop that … As someone who loves comedy and art, I think that was brilliant.
That sample was awesome, too.
Yeah, the music sounds good, but the idea was, “I’m so dope it doesn’t matter what I say.” Like it’s all about the vibe and the feeling, it’s not about the words.
And you had mentioned that you’d been talking to Dave Chappelle about this. Do you know if he’s reached out to Kanye?
Yeah, I know that Dave and Kanye have had discussions about this. And it’s safe for me to say that Kanye respects the hell out of Dave. I know that the things that Dave has said to Kanye have been gracious and supportive and important.
It’s hard to tell a self-made man that he’s wrong about himself.
A lot of fans can feel so helpless, but it is encouraging that people like you and Dave are sending him are sending him love and facts.
It’s hard to tell a self-made man that he’s wrong about himself.
What would your message be to fans who are confused and hurt right now?
I can’t really say anything. I’m priveledged to be friends with him, so I can’t speak to someone who isn’t friends with him. They need to deal with it however they want to deal with it. If they want to be upset, then they are free to do that. If they now feel they can say, “I love Trump, too,” then they are free to do that. You can’t police how anyone reacts or responds.
I mean, I feel better having heard your perspective on this. Is there anything else you’ve been wanting to say these last few weeks?
What I want Kanye to know—if he ever sees this—is that the love that he’s getting by parroting right-wing talking points, that love is not genuine. Those people would drop him in a heartbeat. And when they’re done using him as a weapon against his own people, his own people are here for him.