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Hip-Hop Icon visits Ogden

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:39 AM

Nancy Van Valkenburg

OGDEN — California native Bryonna Jones, a Weber State University student, never thought of Ogden as particularly cool.

“But today, my friends are back in California and I am in Ogden with Talib Kweli, and I am in the coolest place,” said Jones, who attended a talk Tuesday by Kweli.

“It’s a very big deal,” said fellow student Cassidy Williams, 22, of Ogden. “He is a huge hip-hop icon, and he’s very inspirational.”

A morning concert in the Shepherd Union Building atrium was canceled because of audio problems, but at noon, Kweli moved to the ballroom and delivered a 90-minute speech to an audience of about 150 interested students, faculty members and area residents.

“Rappers are nerdy nerds that are good with words,” Kweli told his listeners. “We need to be liked by everyone, and that’s why we use rhymes.”

Kweli, who emerged as an artist in 1995, has collaborated with artists including Kanye West, Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar, Black Star, Mary J. Blige and Lupe Fiasco. Kweli has released six solo albums and five more working with other artists.

“I have walked the line between social activism and mainstream,” Kweli said, adding that having a mainstream audience increases his platform for his rap songs, a blend of social commentaries and philosophical observations, laced with references to life around him and in popular culture.

But closer to his heart, perhaps, is connecting his listeners with causes.

“I take my job as a connector very seriously,” he said. “And I love the craft of rhyme. I focus on the craft and being the best at what I do. It allows me to voice my ideas more effectively.

“The challenge of my career is finding ways to communicate intelligent ideas in lyrical fashion.”

He was born Talib Kweli Greene 37 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents, proud of their African heritage and determined their two children would be as well, used a book of African names to choose names for their sons.

Talib is said to mean “student” or “seeker,” and Kweli is said to translate as “truth.” Kweli’s parents both were professors, and Kweli spent some of his teen years at a Connecticut boarding school.

“I had not experienced the hardships of my ancestors,” Kweli said. “In the beginning, I just wanted to be a famous rapper.”

But life experience, historical study and the people he met taught Kweli about injustice, and he realized his poetic words and rhythms gave him a voice that could make a difference.

“When you realize music affects the mind, body and spirit, you realize its power and importance,” he said.

Kweli talked about the many stops on his spiritual journey, about the evolution of hip-hop music and his place in it, and about his wish that fans would either support artists by making purchases or stop complaining about the state of the music industry.

Kweli also urged fans with complaints about hip-hop to stop listening to only mainstream artists. The hip-hop field is wide and deep, he said.

Asked about the materialism reflected in some hip-hop lyrics, Kweli said the original purpose of hip-hop was to build up African Americans who were hurt by prejudice and poverty, and materialism seemed like one natural offshoot of that theme.

Asked how he avoided being depressed by continuing prejudices and social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, that don’t seem to spark immediate results, Kweli smiled.

“I’m more excited about change than discouraged by stagnation,” he said.

“What Occupy Wall Street did was a huge success, and we are still talking about it here, a year later. Protests were common in my parents’ generation, but y’all brought it back. Keep telling the stories of change, positivity and progress.”

Williams, a WSU business major, enjoyed the talk.

“He was highly motivated on much-needed topics,” the student said of Kweli.

Atim Aru, 24 and a WSU political science and philosophy major, liked Kweli’s advice on music.

“He said, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it,” Aru said. “He said science is his religion and that God is in everything.”

Jones lingered afterward for a photo with her rap hero.

“He really wants to be an active part of the community,” she said of Kweli. “He’s a very sweet person.”

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