Talib Kweli is one of the few rappers who can claim mainstream appeal while also being considered one of the more socially conscious members of the genre. The Brooklyn native recently released his acclaimed “Attack The Block” mixtape as a prelude to his forthcoming album, “Prisoner of Conscious,” which is slated to be released on Nov. 20, but found time to make a fiery speech at a rally for NYPD reform on Thursday in City Hall Park. City & State managed to catch up with Kweli afterwards to ask him his thoughts on stop-and-frisk, Obama/Romney, and the meaning behind the title of his coming project.
The following is an edited transcript.
Do you think the relationship between the black and Latino communities and the police is irreparably damaged?
No, it’s not irreparably damaged. You have police and politicians that are here who support what we’re doing. We just have to make them the majority.
On one of your songs, “Beautiful Struggle,” you had a lyric that said, “They call me the political rapper/ Even after I tell ‘em/ I don’t f— with politics/ I don’t even follow it.” Obviously, that’s not the case, as you seem like you’re very into it and know what’s going on. What has changed since you wrote that?
That line I wrote about 10 years ago, I was a much younger man and I’ve seen a lot. When I wrote that lyric I was saying what my focus was [at the time], which was music. Now I do follow politics. I follow it because it’s entertaining. It’s like wrestling, it’s like watching Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant. It’s fun. It’s definitely a distraction, but on a deeper level. I’ve lived long enough to see Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, and George Bush the first, and Clinton, and Obama. And I’ve lived long enough to see how when people are moving together as a community, I’ve seen it affect the way we live. I’ve seen the way politics affects us. I’ve also learned a lot more about people like Adam Clayton Powell, people like Malcolm X who, as revolutionaries in this city, were able to utilize politics as a tool, which I think we should do.
Pivoting to the national election, in 2008 the hip-hop community came out in full force for Barack Obama, yet some conservative news outlets flipped that support on its head by highlighting select lyrics from certain rappers. Now you see Obama fundraising with Jay-Z and inviting Common to the White House. Do you think hip-hop is now a more viable force for change in the political arena?
Definitely, of course. It’s a force for change across the board. I had been strongly against voting for years, but it’s because I grew up in a country where the idea of a half-black, half-white man who spent some time in Indonesia and was born in Hawaii and came up in the South Side of Chicago with an African name, this was unimaginable that this person could become president. But he did, which means the country changed. So, I changed with it, and hip-hop had a lot to do with that.
You were a big supporter of the Occupy movement. Jay-Z was recently quoted as saying that he was not sure what the Occupy fight was about. Do you think there was a disconnect between the purpose of the movement and the messaging of the movement?
No, I think it’s evidenced by the fact that Jay-Z is still talking about it, that Diddy made a statement about it, that you asked me the question. I think that was the point, to create a conversation so that this group of people couldn’t be ignored. It’s going to come up in the political debates. It was based on the Arab Spring, it was a continuation of the energy that [movement] brought to America. It’s a little confusing because it’s a leaderless movement, but I think the point is what we’re doing now. If you and me are talking about it in this interview, for someone to say, “I don’t see the point,” it opens up the dialogue. I see Occupy Austin, Chicago, I see Occupy Anchorage, Alaska. It was like 10 degrees out there and it was like five people out there. These people are brave that supported it, but really to me, the thing that made the most sense was here in New York City at Wall Street.
Your coming album is titled “Prisoner of Conscious,” which is a really interesting title. What does it mean to you?
People have had expectations about me based on the music I’ve made in the past. I want to make great music and defy people’s expectations but give them what they want at the same time.