The Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series did not have to go far to find a hip-hop performer for its 2015 season: Take the A or the C to Brooklyn, and ask for Talib Kweli.
The rapper practically synonymous with his borough has been busy as of late, releasing three solo albums and two collaborative efforts since 2010 while also establishing and running his own record label. He found himself back in the spotlight last summer, too, when a trip to Ferguson, Missouri, and a cable news interview turned into a viral video.
amNewYork caught up with Kweli in advance of his "Songbook" performance for a chat about adapting his live show for a different audience, along with several other topics.
Does performing at Lincoln Center change what you can do as an emcee?
It doesn't change what I can do, but it changes what I feel like I want to do. Certainly, an audience that comes to SOB's will be more familiar with me as a musician. I could be wrong, but I feel like I'll be getting part of a Lincoln Center audience, one that might not be as familiar with me as a musician, but understands that if Lincoln Center is putting someone on stage, it's something they need to check out. It's the same thing at SOB's, too, that same "stamp of approval," but it's a different type of one.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of your first appearances on an album. What would you tell a kid starting out today is the key to longevity in hip-hop?
I would tell them to be honest in the craft and focus on making music from the heart. Pay attention to the trends, but never be dictated by them. And when I say trends, I don't just mean the music, but also how the music is received. I've paid a lot more attention to that than a lot of other emcees who came out when I did.
You've always been politically conscious, but it seems to have taken on more urgency after the Ferguson protests.
?I've been hesitant to be that person. Going to Ferguson thrust me into a position of responsibility, because you've got to be responsible for the things you say and do. I went to Ferguson and was part of a video that went viral, so that sort of catapulted me to the forefront of many voices -- whether it's Killer Mike or J. Cole -- of artists that speak up. And I've been asked onto several news programs since then and I've been careful about which ones I do. I've turned most of them down. ? I've tried not to be one of those talking heads.
Do you feel like there's an added pressure for you to "lead," in a way, because of how respected you are as a musician? And is that fair?
Communities of color in particular are in so much crisis, and we put the weight unfairly on our celebrities to speak out. Athletes, musicians, actors -- we're like, "Why aren't they saying anything?" as if that's part of their job description. It's not. Speaking for musicians, the only job you have is to be honest. And if you honestly don't have anything to say, then you shouldn't say anything. But our communities are in crisis, and we've seen vacuums of leadership in the past, so we turn to whomever the most popular is.
Your show is the night before Valentine's Day. What's your favorite hip-hop love song?
LL Cool J's "I Need Love." It's just raw and honest. You've got to watch LL perform that on "Showtime at the Apollo." There's something magical with him and that song.
IF YOU GO: Talib Kweli performs as a part of the American Songbook series on Friday at the Lincoln Center's Appel Room at 8:30 p.m., 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5456, $35-$100