How did we let “Social Justice Warrior” become a pejorative? What better cause is there than social justice? What altruistic pursuit is more deserving of warriors? F*ck an insult — “SJW” should be a call to action, a compliment, and a coda for a life well lived.
Talib Kweli has been warring for social justice just about as long as he’s been writing rhymes. The flow captain flew to Ferguson to march against police brutality and steps into the ring to box the anonymous white supremacists of Twitter on the daily — yet he still finds time to make music that’s at once powerful and poetic. The man shows no signs of stopping either: He stays on his grind while believing fiercely in his cause (and his art).
Kweli’s latest track is an ode to Bresha Meadows — a 14-year-old Ohio teen who fatally shot her father to escape what she, her mother, and her siblings described to authorities as a vicious cycle of abuse. It’s a deeply empathetic song, in which you can practically feel Kweli reaching across the void to give the young woman a lifeline.
Meadows eventually plead “true” to manslaughter and was released from prison over the summer. After psychiatric treatment, she’ll be remanded to family custody. The case can be completely expunged from her record in five years. Still, wading into domestic violence is a tricky issue and Kweli was contacted by siblings of Jonathan Meadows after the track launched. Members of the deceased man’s family maintain that he was no longer a threat to his wife and children — a position Meadows, her mother, her siblings, and the state of Ohio all disagreed with.
This week, Kweli spoke with us about the song “She’s My Hero” and his never-ending battle for political, racial, and social justice for Americans everywhere.
Tell me a little bit about this project, and what’s kind of going on, and how you got inspired to take up this story.
Bresha Meadow’s thing is something that I noticed people that I respected on social media were talking about, but it wasn’t really a mainstream story. Mostly black women on social media were sort of saying her name and asking me … People would tweet me about social issues. For a couple of weeks, just so many social issues of all types of injustice going on around the world that people tweet at me about. I’ve got to be discerning.
I can’t take on every single cause, because then it becomes disingenuous and it looks like … Then you become Al Sharpton. You know what I’m saying?
I didn’t pay attention to it for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t click on it for a couple of weeks just because there’s so much other stuff going on. When I read the story, it interested me for three reasons. Of course, it’s like an indictment of our criminal justice system, and it’s an indictment of domestic abuse, and all that, but the idea what would make a child, whether she was in the right or if she was in the wrong … I’m a pacifistic. I don’t believe that violence solves anything, but she obviously felt for a number of reasons she had to kill this man.
So, what makes a child, what goes on in the mind of a child that drives them to the point where they feel like killing a human being — especially their father, the person they came from — as their only option? She had to feel like it was her only option. Then when I saw her picture, she sort of reminded me of my own daughter, so it drove it home for me on a very personal level.
There’s another issue here, which is that black women being abused are often dramatically under-told stories. That’s really been established very clearly that the media’s heart breaks when a white woman is abused or tortured by a partner or a parent and that they kind of gloss over the fact that these same abuse cycles happen to black women.
Well, that’s the other part that makes the story interesting is that her mother is white. So, this is a black man who is allegedly beating on and abusing a white woman, so you would think that this white woman would get all the love and the attention in the world. The mother admits that she went back to him… which is another symptom.
I mean, the world cries for white women a lot more than it cries for black women, that’s for sure, but now you have a situation where you have a white woman who’s the wife getting abused. Then you have the children who are black … well, half who are mixed. Anyone of any intelligence knows a mixed child in America is treated like a black child.
Of course, there is this colorism and there’s issues of skin privilege, and the closer you are to white, the easier life is going to be. If you have any pigment at all, you’re treated like a person of color in this country
When you made the connection between yourself, and having a daughter, and the choice that Bresha had to make, is that when you started to think of, “Okay, this is something I can not only address on Twitter where I have a big platform, but also in music?”
I’m at the point where when I write … I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song about Bresha Meadows.” That’s not how it happened. I follow where the music takes me. Oh No, who produced the track, is one of my most consistent collaborators. I’ve done a lot of records with him, and there’s something about me that he gets and something about him that I get. I think we’ve made a lot of important records in my career, but more like the later years. I don’t think people have given Oh No enough credit, because I’ve done such great work with Hi Tek, and J Dilla, and Kanye West, and Oh No’s brother Madlib.
Oh No, in my last four or five years, I’ve been working with him a lot. When he sent me the track, the track was very, very emotional. It was very somber and reflective, but it was punctuated with vocal samples, a lot of them that were removed that I just ended up doing over. It was punctuated by vocal samples from people like Ghostface and stuff like that, really sort of hardcore hip-hop of sound bites and vocal samples — Nas, “Broken glass in the hallway, bloodstained floors” — that sort of thing.
So, it’s this really beautiful piece of music with violent lyrics that were discussing violence on top of it. When I’m listening to it, it’s the dreadful, innocent, and violent at the same time. I think that’s what made me start writing about Bresha.
In your career, you’ve never shied away from nuance, but America seems to be getting worse at nuance. Have you always been artistically fearless to handle a case like this where on one hand we don’t know everything? We do know that she came to this incredibly difficult crossroads.
Is that part of who you are as an artist? Is that just part of who you are as a man, like, “I’m not going to be afraid to talk about difficult things even if they might bend backward on themselves, and I might have to reconsider my opinions as more information comes out”?
Well, I’m absolutely a fan of evolution and reconsidering your stance and your position when you get new information. I’m a fan of that. I’m also a fan of Mandela who said that, “Fools multiply while wise men remain silent.” I’m at the age and point in my career where I have enough life experience where I can tackle things, and I’m somebody who I truly enjoy running towards a challenge. I enjoy a challenging discussion. I enjoy challenging myself to create something that I didn’t think I could do. It was a challenge to write this song because I was really trying not to take sides. Now that the song is done, I feel like I am definitely leaning … the bias of the song is definitely biased for the child. You know what I’m saying?
I definitely feel like I ended up taking the child’s side, not me personally, but the song took the side of the child because it was from the perspective of the child. I also tried to use words like, “allegedly,” and tried to frame it in a way like, “Listen.” When I’m talking about the stuff the father did, I say in the song, “It was alleged,” and “this is what was said in court.”
You know what I’m saying? I wasn’t there. So, I have to only go on what the … the father’s not here to defend himself. When I was researching the story, I noticed that … I read a lot about it before I wrote the song, never did I see the father’s name written anywhere. So, I thought that must a journalistic integrity thing, you respect the dead. So, that made me feel like, “Okay, yeah, I definitely can’t say his name in the song, and the song can’t be about him.”
As much as he’s a subject of it, and anybody who dies … Even people like Jeffrey Dahmer had families, so the family is, of course … There’s levels to it. You know what I’m saying? The family is going to of course mourn the loss of their family member. When the song came out, I tried to be careful as to not do anything besides state the facts of the case. His family members, a couple of them, if they were even real, a couple of them hit me on Twitter very upset saying, “You’re dragging our family member’s name through the dirt, and we’re still mourning. How could you do this?”
I was a little bit conflicted about that, because you don’t want to cause anybody any unnecessary pain. Just because this man may have done this, may have abused … Did he deserve to die? To be killed because he abused somebody? I can’t say that either. I have to be respectful of the pain the family’s going through, but what I was able to do is I was able to stand my ground with them and also invited them into the discussion. There was one kid who was just very upset, and he went quickly from saying “You disrespected my people” to “Your career is shitty,” and then it became ad hominem. So, I had to just disengage from that. Then there was another family member who actually apologized for the first family member and really tried to make her point in a very respectful way. You know what I’m saying?
It seems like a tough tightrope to walk — navigating a case like this for a track…
She made her point, and I felt like it was a respectful conversation. She may not have felt like it was a respectful discussion, but it didn’t end with insult. That was a first for me. I’ve never done a record in my career where as soon as it comes out, two days later, someone who’s related to someone I’m rapping about is hitting me up on a platform, like, “I know. You shouldn’t have done that.”
And you’re not one to step away without discussion. It’s amazing how deeply you engage with things. You seem to have been put on earth to connect humans, whether that’s through music or through … Last time we talked, we talked about how you will fucking deal with any white supremacist who comes at you no matter how petty sometimes they come at you, because these are issues that you deeply care about.
I mean, at this point in your life, is that how you see yourself as just kind of a bridge builder?
I think that’s a very astute observation. Just from the start of my career … You used the word connector, and that’s a word I have used to describe myself. When I look at my place, when I look at the fact that my career started with Mos Def and then Hi Tek, and then Madlib, and Styles P, and 9th Wonder later on, the amount of collaboration I’ve done, I feel like there’s a hall of fame for collaborations. When you listen to Miles Davis, you’re hearing John Coltrane on the horn. When you listen to later Coltrane, you’re hearing Pharaoh Sanders, and then those people go on and make an album. All the superstars come together to make one person’s album, but it will be under the name of that one person.
I definitely see myself that way, and it’s because I’ve announced that I see myself that way, I’ve sort of manifested that destiny even more, I guess.
It takes a lot to engage and go a little further and go, “Okay, there might be Liberals who think the same way as me generally but who are going to be mad at me for this one in specific.”
I mean, I’ve got to be true to self, because I think at the end of the day people respect you for that more than anything. Then it’s like a snowball effect, it’s when you start, you can’t stop. It’s a different level of engagement with the social media thing. I’ve always been the same in the music. By a song, you can just be dismissive and forgiving of a song, of a lyric. There’s plenty of rappers that are just like me publicly, but their music reflects a different personality, maybe a more misogynistic or maybe a more violent person.
Now, you can make excuses for that stuff in a song. You can’t really make excuses for that stuff in real life or when you’re on social media. So now, because I’ve chosen to engage so much, I can’t back down. Because I’ve chosen to be as bluntly honest as I’ve chosen to be, I can’t all of a sudden not engage and all of a sudden shut down when I hear an opinion I don’t like and because it can’t work that way.