When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, UPROXX’s People’s Party With Talib Kweli found itself in stable shape. We had episodes banked that would last us a few months, including this week’s episode, featuring comedian Gina Yashere. But that didn’t mean the show’s star was going to slow down. Kweli is a notoriously restless soul — if he’s not traveling for shows, he’s writing, producing, or promoting. Quarantined in an Orange County hotel, he started going on Instagram Live, playing DJ sets for his 855K followers.
This week, Kweli’s thirst to be at once productive and creative means the release of a video for his song “People’s Party” (the theme music for the show) featuring Sorry To Bother You director and The Coup frontman Boots Riley. Quarantined in separate cities, Boots and Kweli shot their verses of the video on their iPhones and then spliced them together. Still, the personality of both rappers is on full display and the video itself is a time capsule of this strange era.
I spoke to both artists (separately) this week about making the video, the desire to create during the quarantine, and how the shutdown has affected the art they’re excited to make.
How did this project come about? What was the genesis point for this?
Boots Riley: I was visiting New York in 2015 and I needed a place to stay for the night — I was really broke, trying to get the movie done. And I had $50 to be in New York for a week, so that meant a hot dog. I was spending each day in Lincoln Center, meeting all these studios and production companies, then sleeping on people’s couches at night. So Talib was like, “Well, why are you in New York? Come to the studio.” And I was just thinking, “Okay, well that fills up a night where I don’t have to sleep on somebody’s couch.”
Talib Kweli: Boots is someone who I’ve known for a long time. I went to South Africa with him in 2001. I’ve been a fan of The Coup and a fan of Boots almost since I started listening to hip-hop. I mean they had Coup videos on the Video Music Box and MTV around the time that I first figured out what good hip-hop was. Boots Riley is part of my journey.
I have a modest space in Brooklyn — it’s not fancy at all — where I run my company, Javoti, out of and Boots stayed over there. He didn’t sleep, but he spent the night working on this song and it was dope to me because this is my brother. It’s not like we hang out all the time. And we had another song together, “My Favorite Mutiny,” on The Coup’s Pick A Bigger Weapon album. But to see him sit there in the studio and work on this track — he really took his time and I’m very impressed with his verse.
Obviously, it took some time for the track to be released — which happens sometimes. With the People’s Party podcast blowing up and the quarantine leaving everybody longing to connect because of the quarantine, was this sort of the perfect moment?
Riley: Yeah, it’s been one of those songs that’s been around. It’s been like, “Oh, is it going to come out or what? What’s happening?” Then Kweli sent it to me and said, “Hey, we’re going to do a video for it.” So, I had to listen and had to relearn the part to do the video.
Kweli: I mean, I didn’t know that the show and the song would come together like that at all. But that’s just how things happen, I suppose. That’s the part that they call a mystery, but if you really think about it it’s not really a mystery. Even with the way that we released video — we had all these grandiose conversations about what the video was going to look like and we were going to get ADs and scout locations. We had a lot of conversations, but then the quarantine came and it was like, “Let’s just shoot on our iPhones.”
Boots, did you know that we’d been using it as the intro song for People’s Party?
Riley: No, actually. As a matter of fact, he mentioned it before we did the video — before I sent him my performance. But yeah, no, I didn’t know. I’ve been so locked in a cage, writing my next projects, that I haven’t really been catching much of anything. I knew he had the podcast and we really tried to connect a few times when I was in LA, but the timing just never matched up.
Kweli: I asked Boots to do a video with me last year, when we first started the podcast, and we just never got together to do it or our schedules didn’t line up. Then, a few weeks ago, I was sitting at the hotel and I was like, “Shit, maybe Boots is free to do a video now.”
And you literally just shot him a text?
Kweli: Yeah. And then he set the tone from there. I said, “Listen, I want to do a video. Everyone is quarantined so you shoot your part on your phone and I’ll shoot my part on my phone. I’ll send it to my editor Chino Chase and we’ll see when it comes out of it.”
So you shot it on your phones, during the quarantine —
Riley: It’s a true quarantine video, shot on my phone while I’m at my home. A selfie quarantine video. I like performing. I like putting on a show, so it’s all going to come out — even in a unique situation like this.
Kweli: I shot mine with the iPhone at the hotel that I was staying at. But people have been using the iPhone in creative ways for music videos for a long, long time. We’re hardly the first to do that. When I was working heavy with Jean Grae she was very… I feel like Jean Grae has done a whole TV shows on her iPhone.
What do you think it is that’s bringing people to want to create under these circumstances? Is it boredom or is it the desire — the innate human desire — to tell stories, especially in tough times?
Riley: I think — especially for folks who are already leaning towards creating things — that right now is a time when you have fewer distractions. There are less things that you can do; less things that you can handle. So I think it lets people just kind of get in this pure maybe… more pure creative place.
So for instance, I would normally have to go take my kids and drop them off in the morning and blah, blah, blah. But now just everybody’s just here at the house all day. So, in one way, it’s weird. But at the same time, I’m just always writing and spending time and all that. So it’s all mixed up in this sort of strange schedule of creating and putting things out. On one level, I think the quarantine has messed with production schedules, messed with the regular way that we have to deliver the things that we make. So people are doing things for more personal reasons. I’m interested to see what things come out of it and what aesthetics are built from this time.
Kweli: I think for me it’s very simple. For me — and I imagine it’s like this for a lot of people but I’ll only speak for myself — the focus right now is: “How am I going to feed my family?” How am I going to survive and how am I going to feed my family in this unstable world? How can I ensure that my people are not going to want for anything so that I can be more productive?
A month before this started I was hustling, but it was more like an autopilot hustle. Like things were in place. But now, once I make something — to feed that part of my soul — the focus immediately shifts to how can I get this out and support myself with it, because I deserve to and because I need to. That’s definitely, to me, more pressing now than it was a month before this started.
As a creator, is everything different after this? The systems that have failed us seem to be more clearly on display. Does that change how you create?
Kweli: Personally, I don’t know the temperature enough to know whether or not the masses are looking deeper into how capitalist systems work or if people are just looking for ways to be comfortable and convenient during this time. But I definitely think that it’s an interesting time for artists because we have to deal with pain and we have to provide comfort and we have to still figure out ways to make a living.
Riley: Look, what this situation, what this crisis has done is put a magnifying glass on who has the power and who has our interests at stake, which is why right now we’re in an unprecedented strike wave happening across the US. I think there’s somewhere between 35 and 40 strikes that have happened over the last two weeks, right? And a lot of them are still going on where people are saying, “Look, we don’t care” — or rather, “We do care. Your business is going to make no money or you’re going to make less money by keeping us safe.” And some of the strikes that are happening are things like the GE workers who were making jet engines and said, “No, we’re going on strike and demanding that we make ventilators.”
You have all these folks that are coming into not just the consciousness about what’s going on, but an awareness of where they’re able to apply power. That’s creating a new era that is going to guide artistic creation, not just for me but for millions of people who are not just coming up in a time where we’re stuck in our houses but coming up in a time when many of us are stuck in our houses and others are figuring out how to withhold their labor to demand compromise from the system, which ends up teaching young creators a lesson about how power works under capitalism.
All of this affects what I think needs to be said in my art. I don’t know exactly how it affects it, because it’s kind of like what I’m already talking about. But it affects where I think folks are at, and it affects how I think my art will be received, and it affects it aesthetically. It also affects it because I know that there will be other people making this art, and I think there’ll be a lot more. I didn’t come out of nowhere, I came out of a movement.
There’s a radical militant labor movement growing right now and we’re seeing it. We’re seeing it play out right now. I can’t predict what’s going to happen. I don’t know what kind of retaliation is going to happen. I don’t know what the capacity is for us to answer that retaliation. But it’s happening and it’s a different time that we’ll be talking about it — not just because of COVID-19 but because of how people dealt with it.
All of these contradictions in how the system works are becoming really glaringly obvious and there’s this whole new kind of radicalization of people in the United States. So you’d think that the art that big companies put out would be like, “Hey, let’s make something that all those folks agree with.” You’d think that we’d see more of that. But no, you’re about to see a lot of stuff come out like this fucking movie that I didn’t even see, but The Banker or whatever on Apple, whatever, where it’s like, “You want to see black power? See The Black Banker!” Just mark my words, you’re going to see a lot of that. You’re going to see both sides. You’re going to see people building and you’re going to see an effort to make it seem like this new radical movement isn’t happening.