Talib Kweli discusses the return of Black Star after 24 years, including a return to some of the duo's foundational themes — black excellence, unity, Pan-Africanism and the raising of consciousness.



After 24 years, Black Star is back.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) I'm so on top of the spot with the metropolitans frolicking with the populists, toppling all the charlatans. My songs acknowledge the heroes that need honor and the promise we demolishing all Confederate monuments. I'm noticing how these Nazis become congressmen. They're softer than some moccasins and (inaudible) getting collagen.

FADEL: The hip-hop duo came up in Brooklyn in the late '90s. The first Black Star album launched solo careers for Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. They became some of the loudest voices of what's known as conscious rap. Later today, their second album, "No Fear Of Time," comes out on the subscription podcast platform Luminary. It's an unusual place to release music, and Talib Kweli says it's a statement about artists getting the respect and the pay that they deserve.

TALIB KWELI: People spend money on things that are important to them. But when you ask them to support art, they balk because, why wouldn't somebody go to a Spotify where you could pay $10 and hear any song you want? The onus is on me, as the creator, to figure out and set the price point and tell the people what my art is worth.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Get it to it. The belief you superior to the darker races just means you inferior, live in darker places. God's amazing. We artists. This ain't a product placement. Huh? Love is spiritual technology.

FADEL: So this album is a return to some of Black Star's themes of Black excellence, unity, confronting racism, Pan-Africanism, elevating consciousness. How do you see these themes resonating today in a world that really is markedly different than it was 24 years ago?

KWELI: Sure, 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. The fans have a lot more access to the artists. And so that can be a gift, and that can be a curse. I've experienced both gift and curse when it comes to that.

And I'm glad that you mentioned Pan-Africanism in particular. Black Star were named for the honorable Marcus Garvey, famously a Jamaican immigrant who came to America and was trying to build ships - the Black Star Line - to get Americans back to Africa. This is the sort of beginning of Pan-Africanism and a push for reparations. And so with Black Star, we've always been about hip-hop, about Pan-Africanism, spirituality, all these things that are necessary for the liberation of our people. And I think it's timely that we come back now.

FADEL: Releasing this album in this moment where we've seen the reinvigoration of the Movement for Black Lives, but also an extreme reaction to it to stop it, what is the message here?

KWELI: The messaging on the Black Star album - the first one - resonates now. And we weren't saying anything that much different than, 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 tall on the shoulders of our ancestors. The canon of Black art is amazing, and it is the lifeblood 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 have elevated the art, and we have been the ones who have made the most original American things.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Bismillah. Welcome to the Black Star. (Inaudible).

KWELI: Black Star started in Brooklyn. But at this point, we are citizens of the world. And I feel like this album represents that type of growth for us.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Facts. Grace of every morning, God opens up mine (inaudible). We all on notice that any next moment could be the last time you stand on this side. Slow down, son. You're killing them - but only the phony because the real don't die, on God.

FADEL: I mean, maybe it's because I was listening in Ramadan, but it felt really spiritual, like about the fleetingness of this life, about the coming of the afterlife.

KWELI: You're right on point with that. I mean, I have a decidedly Muslim name. I don't call myself a Muslim, but I definitely align with Islam in many, many ways. And many of my closest friends, from Dave Chappelle to Yasiin Bey, are Muslims.

FADEL: Yeah. And Yasiin is very open about his sort of Muslim identity. It's very part of his art.

KWELI: Absolutely - to the point where we were supposed to release this album earlier, but he refused to release it during Ramadan. And he said, I don't want to distract my fellow Muslims from focusing on Ramadan. He stood his ground on that. When people were like, no, we have to release it now, he's like, nope, I'm not releasing it now. As a writer, Yasiin is always trying to get closer to God. He starts all his albums with bismillah. And me, as his partner - I write different. His focus on spirituality helps me as a man and makes me write with a different sort of intentionality.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Keep on. Float on. No fear of time. Float on. Float.

FADEL: Is there a particular track off this new album that represents what Black Star is?

KWELI: The title track, "No Fear Of Time" - we're laying out our manifesto, and we sample a speech by Greg Tate - rest in peace - sort of our OG. He was a journalist. And the world that Greg Tate was describing - Black Star, we're the children of that world.


GREG TATE: Doors cracked open a little bit. The people downtown were looking for some new energy, and they were already feeling it from just the presence of kids from Brooklyn.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I want to thank you for helping me reach the understanding.

FADEL: I want to go back to how you're releasing the album and the statement that you're making with it, but it's also a risk putting your music behind a paywall like that.

KWELI: It's a risk for who?

FADEL: I mean, maybe that's the wrong question, but putting it behind a paywall means...

KWELI: That means the artists get paid. If you are truly a fan of Black Star, then you will respect the fact that what made sense for us businesswise was for us to put it on Luminary and get paid regardless of what happens in the music business. If you bought the Black Star album in the last 20 years, you paid Universal Records, which is the - one of the biggest companies on earth. You know who you did not pay? You did not 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 does not matter, you know what I'm saying? What Black Star wants matters.


FADEL: What would you say is the main message of this album?

KWELI: I would say that the main message is no fear of time. Do not let time, money, clout, trends dictate how you move - and to be closer to whatever your core is, whether it's a belief in God, whether it's a set of morals that you follow. Getting closer to what your core is.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) I'm dropping non sequiturs to bomb executives. You'll always be the winner if you decide what the metric is. Control the game. Don't be the game or the predator. Me, myself and I - such a formidable competitor.

FADEL: Talib Kweli - He and Yasiin Bey are Black Star. The new album is "No Fear Of Time." Thank you so much for joining me, and it was a real treat.

KWELI: Thank you for having me. And I really appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation with you. And I love what you do over there at NPR.

FADEL: Thank you.


BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Supreme alchemy. That ain't what the reverends say. I never hesitate... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.