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Talib Kweli on Black Star's return: 'We stand tall on the shoulders of our ancestors'

Talib Kweli of the rap duo Black Star, photographed performing in New York City on July 22, 2017.
Bryan Bedder
Getty Images
Talib Kweli of the rap duo Black Star, photographed performing in New York City on July 22, 2017.

The first Black Star album was released in Sept. 1998 to critical acclaim, immediately launching the solo careers for the duo of Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. The pair of New Yorkers became two of the most noteworthy voices in what's sometimes called "conscious" rap.

Today, Bey and Kweli's second album as Black Star, No Fear of Time, will debut via the subscription podcast platform Luminary. It's an unusual place to release music, but Talib Kweli says it is a statement about artists getting both the respect and the pay that they deserve.

"People spend money on things that are important to them," he says. "But when you ask them to support art, they balk. Because why wouldn't somebody go to a Spotify where you could pay $10 to hear any song you want? The onus is on me as the creator to figure out and set the price point and tell the people what my art is worth."

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Leila Fadel, Morning Edition: This album is a return to some of Black Star's themes — black excellence, unity, confronting racism, Pan-Africanism, elevating consciousness. How do you see these themes resonating today in a world that is markedly different than it was 24 years ago?

Talib Kweli, Black Star: Sure, I agree with that. Social media, I think more than anything we've seen in our lifetime, has changed the landscape and changed the conversation. The fans have a lot more access to the artists, and so that can be a gift and that can be a curse. I've experienced both gift and curse when it comes to that.

I'm glad that you mentioned Pan-Africanism in particular. Black Star — we're named for the honorable Marcus Garvey, famously a Jamaican immigrant who came to America and was trying to build ships, the Black Star Line, to get Americans back to Africa. [That] is the sort of beginning of Pan-Africanism and a push for reparations. So with Black Star, we've always been about hip-hop, about Pan-Africanism, spirituality, all these things that are necessary for the liberation of our people. And I think it's timely that we come back now.

Cover art for Black Star's <em>No Fear of Time</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for Black Star's No Fear of Time.

Releasing this album in this moment where we've seen the reinvigoration of the Movement for Black Lives, but also an extreme reaction to it, to stop it. What is the message here?

The messaging on the Black Star album, the first one [Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, released in 1998], resonates now. And we weren't saying anything that much different than, you know, people like Amiri Baraka in the Black Arts movement and what Nina Simone was saying onstage towards the end of her career. We stand tall on the shoulders of our ancestors. The canon of black art is amazing, and it is the lifeblood of all great art that comes from America in particular. Black people in America have been the moral compass, and we have been the ones who have elevated the art and we have been the ones who have made the most original American things.

Black Star started in Brooklyn, but at this point we are citizens of the world, and I feel like this album represents that type of growth for us.

I mean, maybe it's because I was listening in Ramadan, but the record felt really spiritual, addressing the fleetingness of this life, about the coming of the afterlife.

You're right on point with that. I mean, I have a decidedly Muslim name — I don't call myself a Muslim, but I definitely align with Islam in many, many ways. And many of my closest friends, from Dave Chappelle to Yasiin Bey, are Muslims.

Yasiin is very open about his Muslim identity. It's very much a part of his art.

Absolutely — to the point where we were supposed to release this album earlier, but he refused to release it during Ramadan. He said, "I don't want to distract my fellow Muslims from focusing on Ramadan." He stood his ground on that, where people were like, "No, we have to release it now." He's like, "Nope, I'm not releasing it now." As a writer, Yasiin is always trying to get closer to God. He starts all his albums with the Basmala. And me as his partner, I write different. His focus on spirituality helps me as a man and makes me write with a different sort of intentionality.

Is there a particular track off this new album that represents what Black Star is?

Mmhmm. The title track, "No Fear of Time." We're laying out a manifesto, and we sample a speech by Greg Tate, rest in peace, [who is] sort of our OG. He [was] a journalist, and the world that Greg Tate was describing — Black Star, we're the children of that world.

I want to go back to how you're releasing the album and the statement that you're making with it, but it's also a risk putting your music behind a paywall like that.

It's a risk for who?

I mean, maybe that's the wrong question. But putting it behind a paywall means...

That means the artists get paid. If you are truly a fan of Black Star, then you will respect the fact that what made sense for us, business-wise, was for us to put it on Luminary and get paid regardless of what happens in the music business. If you bought the Black Star album in the last 20 years, you paid Universal Records, which is one of the biggest companies on Earth. You know who you did not pay? You did not pay Black Star, because we didn't see any of that money. You know, people come and say, "Hey, what about what I want? I want the vinyl. I want it on Spotify. I want..." What you want does not matter. Know what I'm sayin'? What Black Star wants matters.

What would you say is the main message of this album?

I would say that the main message is "no fear of time" — to not let time, money, clout, trends dictate how you move. And to be closer to whatever your core is, whether it's a belief in God, whether it's a set of morals that you follow. Getting closer to what your core is.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Taylor Haney
Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.