Talib Kweli made his name as a conscious rapper. His whole mode — from those first bars on Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star — was to speak truth to power, regardless of the consequences. That doesn’t exactly make for an easy life as an artist. Kweli is an active part of political and social movements and publicly defends his stances on the daily.
The rapper/ host welcomes all of that. He’s a mainstay in the culture and not going anywhere. But there are still downsides. The latest of these is the recent canceling of a German tour, which was meant to kick off at this weekend’s Open Source Festival in Düsseldorf. Kweli’s removal from the festival bill came when he refused to disavow the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement. A few days after his invite was retracted by the festival, artists and activists from Boots Riley to Peter Gabriel signed an open letter published in the Guardian, which stated:
“We hold diverse views on BDS, but we concur with 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars who recently wrote that “the three main goals of BDS – ending the occupation, full equality to the Arab citizens of Israel and the right of return of Palestinian refugees – adhere to international law.”
In the days since, the decision by the festival (and the resulting fallout) have ignited important conversations about the nature of free speech, the aims of BDS, and the consequences of standing by your ideals. Uproxx spoke with Kweli — who hosts the Uproxx-presented show People’s Party — about all of this.
So talking about Palestine, you took a really hard stand this week and said, “Listen, I’m not going to disavow this movement to support Palestinian… essentially Israel divestment, until certain Palestinian requirements are met.” Why did you know right away that, that was the right stand for you to take? Or how did that thought process develop?
That’s not a decision that I arrived at willy-nilly. It was based on my experience as an artist and my experience with Israeli-Palestinian conversations. I have to state off the top that I’m not the BDS guy. I don’t talk about BDS at my show, I don’t hand out BDS pamphlets, I’m not a member of any organization that pushes BDS. I just became familiar with BDS a few years ago. I was booked to do a show in Israel and people who support BDS were very critical of me, very frustrated with me, and expressed their concerns. And I argued with them back and forth and… long story short — because it’s quite a long story… people who represented BDS convinced me to cancel my show in Israel.
The show I was doing in Israel was — I was being paid 10 times more than I usually get paid…which is, you know, I accepted the show immediately. I wasn’t aware that there was a cultural boycott of Israel that was akin to the cultural boycott of South Africa in the 1980s. My parents participated heavily in the boycott of South Africa, they were very active in the anti-apartheid movement. I think that you can make a case to say that what’s happening to Palestinians in Israel is an apartheid, but I stay — me, personally — I stay away from using that word, “apartheid.” Because that, for me personally, derails the conversation and we start arguing about whether or not it’s actually apartheid as opposed to stating the facts: what’s happening is wrong.
You can get caught talking semantics forever when you link something to apartheid, slavery, concentration camps, etcetera.
Right. So, I try to steer clear of that. But that being said, talking to a Palestinian hip-hop group that lives in Israel, DAM — they told me that they were fans of mine and they would love to see my show in Israel but they asked me to respect the boycott. How could I disrespect that? You know, how could I — in the face of Palestinians who live in Israel, as second-class citizens, telling me that they’re my fans, telling me they want to see me but asking me not to come — how can I say, “Well, I’m still going to come because my music is so powerful, it’s going to heal the world.”
So that’s essentially what it was. When that happened to me, I was like, “Okay, I’ll respect the boycott.” And as you know when that happened, you know, I get trolled on Twitter a lot. Right now, the ADOS trolls are trolling me heavy. But you know it’s been gamers, it’s been anime fans, it’s been all types. The worst trolling I ever got in my life was when I canceled that Israel show. The Zionist trolls came at me. One troll was tweeting at me every two minutes, 24 hours a day for two weeks. I was finally like, “How are you able to do this?” He was like, “We’re working shifts, we’re not just one person.”
Whether he was kidding or not, you know I don’t know. That doesn’t change the fact that from that account I was getting tweets every two minutes.
Whereas the pushback from the BDS and the supporters of Palestine that I got was…it was fierce. People were frustrated with me, people were upset with me, but for the most part, that community was respectful in their critique of me. It wasn’t any, “You’re a n*****, you’re a coon, you’re a monkey.” But when I canceled the Israel show in solidarity with BDS, I got called n*****, and monkey, and all types of sh*t from these Zionist trolls, and it immediately made me feel like I’d made the right decision.
I took great pains in that backlash to make it clear that I’m not antisemitic and that I have no problem with Judaism or Jewish culture or Jewish people. I am highly critical of the government of Israel. As a matter of fact, I’m just as critical of the government of Israel as I am of the government of the United States or the government of China or the government of Russia.
And at the very moment when there’s an internationally sanctioned cultural boycott of America, I will participate in it. You know what I’m saying? If there’s a BDS for America — where artists and activists, writers, journalists, and freedom fighters are saying “we’re going to boycott America!” That’s something I would support at this moment. I didn’t start the BDS boycott. I’m just a supporter of the idea of it.
And even then, at the end of the day — unless I’m mistaken — what they really disinvited you for was even less than that, right? It was just saying, “I’m not going to publicly disavow the boycott,” which coincides with a government resolution called the Bundestag Resolutio — officially condemning the BDS movement as hate speech. Do I have that right?
That’s exactly right. So about three years ago. First of all, Germany is my biggest market in Europe. I can go to Germany and just do a month-long tour in Germany alone.
I’ve always had a lot of love for Germany and the German hip-hop audience has always been very supportive of my career. Without German hip-hop fans, my touring in Europe would not be as healthy as it’s been. So there’s a German venue called Coney Island. I shot videos there and I’ve sold it out every time I would come. And I had a show scheduled there three years ago that was sold out, then I got a letter from the owners saying that they were going to cancel me because of my support for… it wasn’t so much about support for BDS, it was about the fact that I canceled a show in Israel.
It seemed like they were saying, “you canceled a show in Israel so you’re antisemitic.” That was sort of the beginning of this. And it’s interesting that Germany, with its fairly recent history of fascism, is now positioning itself as the moral authority on whether an artist is pushing antisemitism. I personally don’t think they have that right, to present themselves as the moral authority on what is antisemitic and what is not.
That’s just my opinion, but back to the facts — Coney Island canceled this thing. So then this year, Open Source, I’m booked in Germany, I had five shows booked in Germany starting with the Open Source Festival. They sent a letter, did you read the letter that they sent?
I did [it’s here].
I’d have more respect for YAAM Berlin and Open Source Festival if they weren’t so fucking wishy-washy with how they’re presenting their case. You send a letter that’s asking me to disavow BDS, but I don’t speak about BDS in my show. So why do I need to disavow it? I’m sure there are artists who are coming who are pro-life; I’m sure there are artists who are coming who have a million different political views. Why do I have to sign something that says I disavow BDS — which technically and literally stands for Boycott, Divest, and Sanction.
My question to Open Source and the German government would be, “What qualifies as hate speech?” Because what they’re saying is support for BDS is hate speech. Well, how? Show me on the BDS platform where there’s hate speech. You can’t, it’s not there, so let’s move to the next point. Are you saying that support for BDS is hate speech because you say that BDS supports Palestinian organizations that have committed terrorism? No, you can’t say that, either.
One of the things that’s so interesting about you, I think, is that some of these situations you know, and we’ve seen this a hundred times in the past. There are celebrities who are politically involved to some degree, and they’re kind of half-stepping — they speak out before they’re fully educated and then they might get caught slipping, or in a situation like this, where after the backlash and the re-backlash they don’t know which side to apologize to. I think, one of the things that always catches people off guard is that you’re so thoroughly researched, and you think so thoroughly about these issues, that you have a counterpoint ready, and it makes sense and is logical. And it’s coming from this place of “Hey, I’ve really thought about this and wrestled with this — so let’s engage!” It leaves you wondering if they couldn’t have opened up a much more thorough dialogue by not retracting the invite.
See, that’s the smack in the face part. They retracted my invitation and then they planned a panel discussion on BDS at their festival. Which feels like, “we just don’t want to hear from the Black guy.” The petition that everyone signed — I’m so gracious to all the artists, and activists, and writers, and people who signed it — it’s very clear to say that people hold diverse positions on BDS and what Boycott, Divest, and Sanction actually means.
The idea that a German festival and the government by proxy is saying that “Talib Kweli has to disavow BDS before he’s allowed on our stage, regardless of whether he’s going to speak on BDS or not,” that’s what the people who signed that are reacting to. Anyone who supports the arts, regardless of how they feel about Palestine, should be against this decision.
In the United States and Germany especially, there’s often a sense that speaking out against the Israeli government is going to be immediately conflated with antisemitism. Is that how you feel?
I mean that’s quite on purpose. There are people who genuinely feel that way. Netanyahu essentially calls Israel an ethnostate, he essentially says publicly, “Israel is for Jewish people.” That’s really what I focus on. It’s very easy to say that if you critique the idea of Israel that you’re critiquing Jewish people in general. People come to that conclusion. I see the same thing happening with ADOS — they set up the straw man argument where it’s like, “Well if you critique what we’re doing with this organization, you’re critiquing 40 million Black people.”
It’s that same sort of dissonance. How are we able to have a discussion if, when I criticize you, I’m criticizing every Jewish person? It’s a very disingenuous tactic.
This next question gets a little sticky, but bear with me. We’ve seen people — Ben Shapiro is a good example, I won’t use Milo as an example because I think that he really does come pretty close to trying to incite violence — who have been removed from venues and disinvited from things. Do you feel like, at the end of the day, every festival, or every event, or every university has to make their decisions about when they do and don’t disinvite people? Has this shifted how you feel about it?
I’m very clear about what free speech is and what free speech isn’t. When Ben Shapiro gets disinvited from speaking at a college, that’s not a violation of his free speech. That’s just consequences for the things he chooses to do with his free speech.
When I get disinvited for something like that, I smirk, I smile, because I don’t expect the establishment to understand me all the time. I don’t expect the establishment to support me all the time. When that happens I’m like, “Okay, well whatever, now I’m going to make an example out of you.” I get excited about that. Yeah, disinvite me, it just gives me a reason to discuss these matters. You know what I’m saying?
Where my disappointment lies is with the community that says “we’re for the culture” or with the community that says “we want people to stand up for their rights!” But when people do, they go silent. I look at us artists, and writers, and poets, and activists, and painters, and filmmakers as part of a community. And I don’t agree with everyone. There are artists that I don’t agree with, you know, Eminem lyrics sometimes. I’m able to be critical of things in our culture without being dishonest about them. So you know, if I were ever to get disappointed it would be with people who won’t stand up for their fellow artists.
As a Black man, people have tried to silence me my entire life. So you know free speech is a very, very noble idea, it’s one of the greatest principles and ideals that have ever been created. The idea that people should be able to speak freely, unfettered, as long as that speech is not inciting violence or causing any harm to anybody, any physical harm to anybody, I’m down with that. But free speech is not freedom of consequences and I’m deeply aware of that.
Which is something I think other people lose sight of.
I use my free speech very, very, very often. I made a career out of my free speech. The consequences are sometimes venues are going to want to disinvite me. I’m perfectly fine with those consequences. It’s fine. I don’t need to be your friend, I don’t need to be around you, I don’t need to be at your festival, I am just fine with your decision. But since you want to act this way, I will make an example of you and I will stand with the other artists and I will call out your choice.
Thanks for unpacking that. I really appreciate your time and energy. I know that it’s Fourth of July, I know you got a lot going on, but —
The most patriotic thing I could do is have this conversation with you at this point right now.