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Kweli, who participates in numerous awareness campaigns on police brutality, the case of death row inmate Mumi Abu-Jamal, and controversial new laws such as California's so-called anti-youth bill, is careful not to distance himself from others in the hip-hop community who aren't so outspoken. When asked if he believes there is a responsibility in being an MC, he replies, "I believe there's a responsibility for me. Definitely." When pushed, he won't acknowledge that a larger purpose is inherent in the role.
To him, divisiveness and finger-pointing have undermined the more conscious realms of hip-hop in the past, citing the moment in the early '90s when "it got to the point where X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers and KRS-One were all beefing over who's more righteous" as "when the movement lost its steam."
Kweli's message is more personal than overtly political. "I think the biggest issue for our generation, and especially my community, is self-love, self-esteem. Understanding how valuable we are and not allowing things to happen in our community that happen just because we love ourselves enough to not let them happen. That's what my focus is. Focusing on culture, focusing on how we talk to one another, because I think if we solve those problems, all the other shit will fall into place."
Because he and Mos Def rose out of the underground reaction to the debauchery and greed that is often marketed as the perfected urban lifestyle, Kweli is expected by some of his fans to maintain a Spartan economic status. Again, he's not comfortable sliding into a position that might sequester him from the rest of the culture, or limit his development. He caused a stink in indie circles a while back by posing for a Levi's billboard that was displayed on the side of the Hotel Sofetel in L.A.
"I assess every situation as it comes," he explains of his decision to take the offer. "On one level, Levi's came to me and said we want to do an ad, we want to put you in our jeans and put you on a billboard. And the extra added shit was we're going to give you a red sign where you can write whatever you want to write on it. So I wrote, 'We are a reflection of our ancestors.' And they put it up in L.A. with a sign declaring what I believe. I don't see nothing but positivity that came out of that." He pauses and then adds, "Plus, they paid me for that, and I do have a family and sometimes these underground hip-hop purist motherfuckers don't want you to pay your rent."
The relative commercial success of the Black Star record encouraged similarly minded artists who don't subscribe to the thuggery of the platinum sellers to focus on full-length efforts as well. Grassroots acts like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Styles of Beyond, and Cali Agents followed suit with nationally distributed albums. Balancing creative control with financial aspirations, members of today's underground are carving out niches where they can support themselves and retain their integrity.
"When artists start making money and their reality starts changing," Kweli says, "they have to grow and change, too. And you can get seduced by that shit real easy and start changing for the sake of that. Like, if I do this, I can make this amount of money, and what happens is your art suffers. So a lot of artists who really care about the art, or a lot of fans who care about the art, shun the money, shun those aspects because they feel that if they get involved in that, it's going to water down and dilute what we're trying to do.
"Sometimes that limits your art just as much as going ahead and selling out. You gotta grow -- as a man, as a human being, you're going to experience different things. But the idea is to be honest with how you grow and let the people know how you're growing, and then you should be all right."