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Black Star’s debut album was released in September 1998 to critical acclaim, immediately launching the solo careers of the duo of Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. The New York couple have become two of the most notable voices in what is sometimes called “conscious” rap.
Today, Bey and Kweli’s second album as Black Star, No fear of time, will debut via subscription podcast platform Luminary. It’s an unusual place to release music, but Talib Kweli says it’s a statement about artists getting both the respect and the pay 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 someone go to a Spotify where you could pay $10 to listen to whatever song you want? as a creator to determine and set the price to point fingers and tell people what my art is worth.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to 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 the themes of Black Star – black excellence, unity, anti-racism, pan-Africanism, raising 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: Of course, 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. Fans have a lot more access to artists, so it can be a gift and it can be a curse. I experienced both the gift and the curse on this.
I’m glad you mentioned Pan-Africanism in particular. Black Star — we are named after the Honorable Marcus Garvey, a famous Jamaican immigrant who came to America and was trying to build ships, the Black Star Line, to bring Americans back to Africa. [That] It’s kind of the start of pan-Africanism and a push for reparations. So with Black Star, we’ve always been about hip-hop, pan-Africanism, spirituality, all those things that are necessary for the liberation of our people. And I think it’s time for us to come back now.
Releasing this album at this time where we have seen the revitalization of the Movement for Black Lives, but also an extreme reaction to it, to stop it. What is the message here?
The message on the Black Star album, the first [Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, released in 1998], resounds now. And we weren’t saying anything very different from, you know, people like Amiri Baraka in the Black Arts movement and what Nina Simone was saying on stage towards the end of her career. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. The black art canon is amazing, and it’s the cornerstone of all great art that comes from America in particular. Black people in America have been the moral compass, and we’ve been the ones who raised the art and we’ve been the ones who did the most original American things.
Black Star started out in Brooklyn, but at this point we’re citizens of the world, and I feel like this album represents that kind of growth for us.
I mean, maybe it’s because I was listening during Ramadan, but the record was really spiritual, addressing the transience of this life, the coming of the afterlife.
You are right with that. I mean, I have a decidedly Muslim name – I don’t call myself a Muslim, but I definitely align with Islam in a lot of ways. And many of my closest friends, from Dave Chappelle to Yasiin Bey, are Muslim.
Yasiin is very open about his Muslim identity. It’s really 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 prevent my fellow Muslims from focusing on Ramadan. He held his ground on that, where people were like, ‘No, we have to release it now.’ He’s like, “No, I’m not releasing him now.” As a writer, Yasiin always tries to get closer to God. He starts all his albums with the Basmala. And me as a partner, I write differently. His interest in spirituality helps me as a man and makes me write with a different intentionality.
Is there a particular track from this new album that represents what Black Star is?
Mmhmm. The title track, “No Fear of Time”. We are preparing a manifesto, and we are listening to 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 are the children of this world.
I want to go back to the way you release the album and the statement you make about it, but it’s also a risk to put your music behind a paywall like that.
Who is it a risk?
I mean, maybe that’s the wrong question. But putting it behind a paywall means…
This means that the artists are paid. If you’re really a Black Star fan then you’ll respect the fact that what made sense to us, commercially, was that we put it on Luminary and get paid no matter what happens in the music sector. If you bought the Black Star album in the last 20 years, you paid Universal Records, which is one of the biggest companies in the world. You know who you didn’t pay? You didn’t 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 doesn’t matter. ‘importance. Do you know what I’m saying? What Black Star wants matters.
What do you think is the main message of this album?
I would say the main message is “don’t be afraid of time” – don’t let time, money, influence, trends dictate how you move. And to be closer to what is your heart, whether it is a belief in God, whether it is a set of morals that you follow. Get closer to what your heart is.