Hip-Hop influences everything from corporate America to your local bodega, as well as fans reading habits. Many MCs have used this colorful art form to explore themes of Black liberation and Black power. Publishing houses have also helped to transition MCs into authors, further spreading themes of Black liberation (recent examples include Rick Ross’ “Hurricanes,” Gucci Mane’s “The Gucci Mane Guide to Greatness,” and Lecrae’s “I Am Restored: How I Lost My Religion but Found My Faith”).
Rapper Talib Kweli is the latest wordsmith to add memoir to his resume and to the growing body of hip-hop lit with his freshman read, “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four). The Brooklyn-raised MC invites readers into his life as a student of hip-hop, Black liberation and Pan-Africanism.
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The son of educators, the rapper born Talib Kweli Greene was raised in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. His love for hip-hop and lack of interest in formal education conflicted with his parents’ passion for traditional academia. For Kweli, committing to a physical classroom was a barrier. He loved education, but in his pursuit of didactic freedom, Kweli frequently skipped class.
“Black Cultural Nationalism, and to a larger extent Pan-Africanism, informed the values in our home,” he writes. “I developed an early love for reading and learned how to write long before I started school.” Despite his self-heuristic habits, Brooklyn Technical High School, which centered its education on science and engineering, collided with Kweli’s dreams of securing a lucrative record deal. “As a cultural movement, hip-hop was beginning to find its voice, and that voice sounded a lot like voices from the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s,” Kweli writes.
Still, Kweli’s parent’s educational values stuck with him. He skipped school to visit the Museum of Natural History, listen to Al Sharpton speak, read books and hone his rap skills at Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, a place where skilled lyricists held intense freestyle sessions. After he failed the ninth grade, Kweli’s parents sent him to Cheshire Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut.
Craving the freedom to choose his mode of education speaks to Kweli’s love for exploring themes of Black freedom. “I grew up appreciating hip-hop for the connection of its poetry to the Black Liberation Movement,” Kweli writes. His rebellion against traditional education eventually worked: In exchange for excelling at Cheshire Academy, Kweli was given free agency to live as an adult during his weekend visits to New York City. He used his freedom to sharpen his craft at Washington Square Park.
“My rap style was still developing, but I was heavily influenced by the Black consciousness that prevailed in hip-hop culture,” Kweli writes. Shortly after signing his first record deal in 1998 with Rawkus Records, Kweli associated himself with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and joined forces with Mos Def (who now goes by Yasiin Bey) to form the rap duo Black Star. It’s likely that the group’s name is partly inspired by Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey’s steamship corporation, Black Star Line.
Overall, “Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story” shows how hip-hop inspires alternative education. With a music career spanning over two decades, Kweli has never swayed from themes of Black Freedom. Both “Vibrate Higher” and Kweli’s music catalog are in conversation with the recent scholarship of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” Kehinde Andrews’ “Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century” and C.L.R. James’ “A History of Pan-African Revolt ,” which all speak to the power of rebellion and exploring Blackness.
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