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Hip-Hop Voices Talib Kweli & Rosa Clemente in Ferguson, "Ground Zero" for Police Brutality Struggle

StoryAugust 25, 2014
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Talib Kweli

world-renowned hip-hop artist.

Rosa Clemente

longtime activist and 2008 vice-presidential candidate with the Green Party, and former director of the Hip Hop Caucus.

Mourners are gathering in St. Louis today for the funeral of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by a white police officer on August 9. His father, Michael Brown Sr., has requested a day of silence and peace after two weeks of nightly protests in Ferguson over the police killing of his 18-year-old son. We turn now to two well-known voices from the hip-hop community who have joined the protests in Ferguson. Talib Kweli is a world renowned hip-hop artist. Rosa Clemente is a longtime activist and former director of the Hip Hop Caucus. In 2008, she was the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee. "The fact that he’s someone who could be my son, fact that he’s someone who could be me," Kweli said, "fact that he’s someone who I relate to on a lot of levels, being a black man and my experience in America, it just really touched me in a way that the news stories couldn’t capture."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mourners are gathering in St. Louis today for the funeral of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson August 9th. His father, Michael Brown Sr., has requested a day of silence and peace after two weeks of nightly protests in Ferguson over the police killing of his 18-year-old son.

We turn now to two well-known voices from the hip-hop community who have joined the protests in Ferguson. Talib Kweli is a world-renowned hip-hop artist; Rosa Clemente, longtime activist, former director of the Hip Hop Caucus. In 2008, she was the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté caught up with Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente in Ferguson last week at the Greater St. Mark Family Church. They spoke in a packed gym, where hundreds had gathered to prepare for another night of protests in the Ferguson streets.

AARON MATÉ: This is Democracy Now! I’m Aaron Maté, with Hany Massoud. We’re in the St. Mark’s Church with Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente.

Talib, Rosa, welcome to Democracy Now! Talib Kweli, talk to us about why you’ve come to Ferguson.

TALIB KWELI: I’m in Ferguson because I respect life. I try to be a compassionate person. I respect people’s basic right to just exist. And even if there’s some sort of discrepancy or misunderstanding regarding the law, I respect people’s rights to due process. And this young man, Michael Brown, had all that stripped from him in an instant. And the fact that he is someone who could be my son, fact that he’s someone who could be me, fact that he’s someone who I relate to on a lot of levels, being a black man and my experience in America, it just really touched me in a way that the news stories couldn’t capture.

I saw a lot of celebrities, who could be using their voice to really help people to understand the justifiable rage going on here, really become critical of some of the other aspects of the "looters" or critical of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. But these are people who never speak out on behalf of the people. And it’s like, "You use your platform to speak out to criticize the people?" It made me want to show up myself so I could shine a light on the real protest movement that’s going on here.

A lot of people think that because they choose to ignore protests on a daily basis, they choose to ignore injustice on a daily basis, that the whole world is acting like that. And so they ask questions like, "Well, why is there no protest when a black man shoots a black man?" or "What about black-on-black crime?" And they ask these silly, irrelevant questions that distract and deflect away from these things that happened to John Crawford and Eric Garner and Renisha McBride and Mike Brown. You know, so it’s like such a ill pattern that I felt like I had to go past, beyond—go past the retweets at this point.

AARON MATÉ: Talib, this protest in Ferguson is getting so much world attention, but what can specifically we learn as a country from what’s happening here in Ferguson?

TALIB KWELI: We can learn that we shouldn’t give up our rights so quickly. You know, the fear that so-called terrorism has instilled in the country, the fear has been used to convince us to voluntarily give away our rights. You know, we’ve been talking for a long time about the—in the abstract, about the militarization of police force and the byproduct of it and the ramifications of it and what it means for the rights of citizens. And in Ferguson, it’s the first time they really get to flex that muscle in a real way.

You know, it’s striking to me how you have like an armed response from the people like at the Bundy ranch, where they were actually like, you know, talking about they’re going to use women as shields and put women in the front, because they know if women get shot, you know, those will be images that they want to put out to the world. Or they’re pointing guns at the feds, and the feds are like, "You know, we cool. Y’all got that one." Here, you know, you have somebody who throws a water bottle, or you have somebody who is yelling at the cops because they’re rightfully agitated, and that becomes a license to brutalize and terrorize an entire community of people.

AARON MATÉ: Talib, you came from New York. There’s a big protest this weekend over the death of Eric Garner, killed by a police chokehold. Can you connect what’s happening in your hometown to what’s happening here in Ferguson?

TALIB KWELI: Yeah, well, you know, New York has a long, storied history with the police brutality, just like any community of color. And, you know, but it’s not just New York. That connection of all these people who are murdered, unarmed, by the police is what makes the rage justifiable. How do people dare to fix their mouths to criticize protesters, to be like, "Oh, well, they shouldn’t be looting"? With all due respect, you know, shut up with that. Like, what are you talking about? Like, the issue is the violation of our rights that happen when people loot pales in comparison to the violation of rights. Why are you outraged about the reaction to this? Like, it’s the fact that these things are connected. It’s the fact that this connects back to Trayvon Martin, connects all the way back to things in New York like Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, connects back to Tawana Brawley and Michael Stewart, connects back to the New York 21—the fact that these things are all connected. If you don’t acknowledge the connection, that’s what allows people to say that the rage is not justified, when they’re able to look at things as if they exist in a vacuum and as if they’re isolated incidents that are not connected. These are patterns that show that—you know, like Mos said on our first album, "The length of black life is treated with short worth."

AARON MATÉ: And, Talib, you mentioned before the limitations of Twitter, of social media. Can you talk more about that?

TALIB KWELI: I got a lot of flak from younger people, the new generation, who really—they wrap themselves up in their social media like a warm blanket. You know, it makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside to support causes on Twitter. And I understand that. I relate to that, because I feel the same way. When I’m at my home or I’m in some hotel room or I’m enjoying my privileged life, and I’m able to just support a cause with a tweet, that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I feel really good, able to do that. So I get what feels good about Twitter. I get that I wouldn’t have the information I have without Twitter. Look, I’m on Twitter all the time. I love Twitter. I’m like the Twitter king. I love it. You know what I’m saying?

However, I remember a world before the Internet. And I remember what it really takes to have movement on the ground. Someone tweeted me back and said, "Well, you know, back in the day they didn’t have Twitter, but they had letters, and they wrote letters to each other, so..." I said, "Yeah, but ain’t nobody saying that the letters started the revolution." It’s not—people not saying the letters; they’re saying it was Malcolm being there. They’re saying it was Stokely Carmichael being there. When I look at the Green Revolution, when I look what happened to Egypt, when I look at what happened to Occupy Wall Street, yeah, the tweets helped—they helped a lot—but without those bodies in the street, without the people actually being there, ain’t nothing to tweet about.

If Twitter worked like that, Joseph Kony would be locked down in a jail right now. You know what I’m saying? That was the most tweeted movement in the history, but there was no actual movement connected to it. There was no actual bodies on the ground. There was no actual flesh involved in all those billions of tweets that almost broke the Internet over the Stop Kony thing, you know? And so, it was a false movement. And so, tweets that are not connected to action are false. We could tweet, we could—it doesn’t change the fact that tweeting makes you feel good. Great, tweet more, tweet as much as you possibly can. But don’t get it confused and think it’s something it’s not.

ROSA CLEMENTE: Yeah, and, I mean, I think part of building the movement is also changing the narrative. It’s not just African-American men being killed—disproportionately, of course, we know that—but there are women being terrorized by police, or sexually assaulted, murdered by police, by vigilantes. What is happening on the border to Latino brothers and sisters? You want to talk about a real militarized space in the United States of America, let’s look at how militarized the border is, right? And then when we look at the history in New York City, right, as they killed Yusuf Hawkins, they put Anthony Baez in a chokehold. As they killed an African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, you know, there are other—there’s so many cases.

And really, the bigger thing is right now, how are we dealing with the system of white supremacy? How are we dealing with a system that not only views us as inhuman, both as black and brown bodies, as men and women, as children to 85-year-olds? But particularly, how are we understanding the systematic attack against us as a people? If we begin to really look, as Kimberlé Crenshaw talks about, the intersection of violence, you know, there’s no way we can’t build a movement based off of what is happening right now.

I think Ferguson is—like Occupy changed the narrative on how we view capitalism, I think Ferguson is going to change the narrative of what a police brutality movement looks like and who’s going to end up leading this movement.

AARON MATÉ: And, Talib Kweli, you’re a very popular hip-hop musician. Can you talk about the response and the responsibility of artists in times like these?

TALIB KWELI: Well, you know, I personally feel that artists have responsibilities to the communities that support their careers. But, you know, you can’t blame a baby for what he doesn’t know. And a lot of artists don’t have the political education to know when it’s time to step up. And so, you know, it’s normal to get upset. I’ve seen artists that I know and respect, like, you know, T.I., like Tyrese, you know what I’m saying, like that speak on real issues that our community is facing. But, for me, it’s about a timing thing, you know what I’m saying? Now, with all due respect to T.I. and Tyrese, those are artists that—dudes I know that speak. I follow these dudes on Twitter. I follow them. These are not dudes that don’t say nothing. They speak about our community, whether it’s in the national news or not. But to speak—you know, to speak about, to focus—make your focus on the looters and the reaction, to me, it deflects and distracts from what we, as a community, should be focused on. That’s the language of our oppressor. The oppressor doesn’t want us thinking about the horrible circumstance, so the oppressor wants us to focus on, "Well, look how you’re all acting now." You know what I’m saying? And if we start using the oppressor’s language, we have no chance to have any semblance of justice for Mike Brown.

You know, look, there’s already no justice for the family. You know, let’s say the cop is arrested and sentenced to death. Does that bring Mike Brown back? No, it doesn’t. So that family will never have justice. We have to be satisfied with waiting for a verdict from a system that clearly is stacked against us. You know, that’s what we should be talking about as a community. We shouldn’t be talking about any time we see looters. You know, it’s like Malcolm said about airing your dirty laundry. We could talk about that amongst ourselves, but when we get out in the press, we do these interviews, when we on our Twitter feeds and all that, we need to be bigging up the people like Dream Defenders, we need to be talking about these clergy here, we need to be talking about these people who are organized to protest peacefully, before we do any criticism of people who are out there with justifiable rage and anger. So, you know, I’ve tweeted, and I’ve talked about it, and I challenged my other artists to and people out there to put the focus on that. But I can’t just say that—I can’t just say that from a protracted, abstract place. I’ve got to put myself here, in order for people to really hear me and say that. And I’ve got to be able to speak on it from a firsthand experience, or else I could be considered guilty of the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Hip-hop star Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente, speaking in Ferguson, Missouri. Visit our website to watch the full interview. Special thanks to Aaron Maté, Hany Massoud, Messiah Rhodes, Naqi Cruz, Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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