photo & text by nacrowe
i found VIBRATE HIGHER (MCD, 2021) to be a highly unusual memoir since TALIB KWELI, the celebrated NYC MC chose to utilize the form as a means of celebrating and voicing the struggles and passions of his community. it is a distant cry from an ego-driven boasting of past glories and a tired, myopic, self-serving rise-to-greatness against-all-odds narrative which is sadly par for the course of most autobiographies concerning famous musicians. in a sense this wider perspective of this seen in his memoir dovetails quite nicely with the authenticity and integrity associated with his music career. large sections of this book highlight his past major collaborative relationships with the likes of producers such as HI-TEK, J DILLA and 9TH WONDER as well as the extraordinarily gifted YASIIN BEY (formerly MOS DEF). hey pays homage to both those that provided the path (CHUCK D, NINA SIMONE, KRS-ONE, HARRY BELAFONTE, A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, FUNKMASTER FLEX, RAKIM, PRINCE and DE LA SOUL) as well as fellow travelers (DAVE CHAPPELLE, THE ROOTS, COMMON, ERYKAH BADU) along the way.
the scope of this book is quite large and comprehensive and seemingly covers everything from PARENTHOOD, FAMILY, COMMERCIAL VS UNDERGROUND HIP HOP and ARTISTIC INDEPENDENCE to PAN-AFRICANISM, BLACK POWER, the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and BLACK NATIONALISM to modern SOCIAL JUSTICE movements like BLACK LIVES MATTER. just on his ability to meaningfully cover that sort of ground with a sense of cohesion is quite the achievement. but admirers of his CREATIVE WORK and POLITICAL/SOCIAL ACTIVISM would expect nothing less.
what i appreciated most about this book was KWELI's ability to articulate the seeming disparities and gaps between his PERSONAL LIFE and his PUBLIC PERSONA. specifically i am referring to how his career affected his relationship with his first wife and his time availability for his children early on. i thought that was particularly courageous to voice how he made mistakes in terms of INFIDELITY and paper-chasing early on and how that balance took a moment to suss out and recalibrate. especially since KWELI is often given the "CONSCIOUS RAPPER" tag in media profiles, for me as a fan it was particularly meaningful that he was able to fess up to when he didnt meet his own standards. that he was confident enough to admit his weaknesses and past mistakes just makes him that much more compelling as an artist in my opinion. makes him HUMAN.
another thread throughout this memoir is the importance of FAMILY and EDUCATION. being the son of educators, KWELI despite his uneven academic career always seemed inclined to maintain a sense of curiosity about the world and his place in it. even well past his days at NYU, his first impulse when presented with a difficult situation is to educate himself or surround himself with knowledgable people. this happens with regards to business as well as political matters. he seems to be the very definition of what they called in EDUCATION circles a "LIFE-LONG LEARNER." what makes that instinct all the more noble in my opinion is his inclination to use his pulpit and PUBLIC PERSONA as a means of furthering that message. there is a risk and an opportunity cost to being so outspoken in your lyrics, perhaps you are limiting your commercial appeal to some demographic, but seemingly this is what makes him him. his AUTHENTICITY and CURIOSITY is the commodity he trades in and this memoir does his REPUTATION justice.
i want to admit my bias as well, because given that i did my student teaching in graduate school at BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL, KWELI's alma mater, i cannot help but root for the guy. he just seems like a conscientious kid that did well and never forgot his roots. his city. his people.
VIBRATE HIGHER is a compelling memoir that educates just as much, if not more, about the struggle for political suffrage and economic/social justice of a community then the artist himself. i dont think he'd have a problem with that description of his book, which is probably why this is easily one of the better memoirs by a musician (of any genre) i have come across. highly recommended.