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The lineage of the African diaspora resonates in the raps and sounds of Reflection Eternal, a duo consisting of Brooklyn-based Talib Kweli and Cincinnati-bred DJ Hi-Tek. Combining raps about the middle passage, shout-outs to Nina Simone, jazz-inflected B-boyisms and streetwise jams, Reflection Eternal traces a musical journey from the present to the future that is heavily informed by the past. According to Kweli, the group chose its name "as a nod to our ancestors. It's meant to be a reflection of them because that's what we are, and eternal is just forever. Me and Hi-Tek doing it forever."
Kweli's name is part Arabic and part Ghanian: Talib, loosely translated in Arabic, means "the seeker or the student"; Kweli, in Ghanian, refers to "truth and knowledge." Combined, the name emerges as "The Seeker of Truth and Knowledge." With this sense of purpose, Kweli and Hi-Tek have tapped into a reservoir of disparate sources to create their self-titled debut full-length, released on Rawkus Records in mid-October.
The group's appreciation of cultural and musical influences is most evident on cuts like "Africa Dream." The track begins with an invocation of a Zimbabwean proverb ("If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance"), then melds African tribal drums and chants with bebop-style cool jazz provided by keyboardist Weldon Irvine and trumpeter Derrick Gardner before segueing into straight-up hip-hop, where Kweli offers this lyrical bling-bling: "These cats drink champagne and toast to death and pain/Like slaves on a ship talking about who got the flyest chain."
"I wanted to do a song that connects with the ancestors and that is in the canon of black music, in general," says Kweli of the song. "There is some African shit, some jazz shit, and there is some hip-hop shit, and at the end it brings it all together."
Throughout the disc, Kweli and Tek celebrate the works of artists from the past and build on their foundation. Take "For Woman" as an example, in which the group rewrites the Nina Simone classic "Four Women" -- which depicted four women whose differences in skin tones caused them to be subjected to various injustices -- both to pay tribute both to Simone's genius and to provide a counterpoint to the predominant representations of women in hip-hop today. Instead of exploiting women as merely the strange freaky fruits one enjoys with success in the rap game, Kweli pays homage to women who persevere under oppressive circumstances. The song starts with Kweli offering an anecdote about Simone's inspiration for the song: "In the South they used to call her "Mother Auntie," not "Missus," just "Auntie"/She said if anybody ever called her "auntie," she'd burn the whole place down." It then moves into a scenario where the rapper gets off the subway train and meets a woman who is more than one hundred years old. "Just her presence was a blessing and her essence was a lesson/Imagine that living a century, the strength of her memories felt like an angel had been sent to me," Kweli raps. "She lived from nigger to colored to Negro to black to Afro then African-American and right back to nigger/ You'd think she be bitter in the twilight, but she all right, because she done seen the circle of life." Kweli ends the song, like Simone, with a vignette about the tough, proud but bitter brown-skinned woman, a descendent of slaves whom they call "Peaches."
Kweli cites Simone as one of his favorite singers and says he chose to update this song because "it is the quintessential song. It's melodic, it's beautiful, it's deep at the same time, it's socially relevant, and it is very entertaining. I just decided to do a hip-hop version of the song. It's like a tribute."
The rapper's praise of women is refreshing in a hip-hop culture that far too often paints them in a demeaning light. Kweli admits this is a conscious decision on the part of the group. "I want to do music that celebrates love or that celebrates women with no conditions: 'Oh, the girl gotta be like this,' or 'The girl got to be like that.' Because there is enough of that. Plus, I'm no good at that shit. I got beautiful, positive women in my life. I know some bitches, too, but they don't move me enough to make songs about them."
With the help of the French sister duo Les Nubians, Reflection Eternal offers up an ode to love and the relationship between the sexes with sensitivity and introspective clarity on "Love Language." Kweli begins by painting a picture of something that often occurs in problematic relationships: "Niggas say bitches is trife/ Bitches say niggas is/We just don't understand our fundamental differences." But ultimately, he imparts this advice: "It can't be translated/ Learn how to speak it and become emancipated/It's a language." The song concludes with the sisters in a sensuous chorus of voices translating the "untranslatable" in a number of different languages.
There is a clear consciousness-awareness aspect to Kweli and Hi-Tek's work that has, undoubtedly, brought the two many critical accolades. But they are also mighty adept at bringing it to you straight, rugged and raw. Reflection's diverse sound should find a home among people who like both the M.O.P.s and the De La Souls of the hip-hop universe. As Kweli says on "Experience Dedication," the album's intro cut, "We don't represent the streets, we represent the folks in them." The song dedicates its music to those people; it is a purposeful attempt to get everyone under one tent, whether they're ballers, single parents or fellow spitkickers.