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.
This inclusive directness translates into the no-holds-barred, street-reporting approach of tracks like "Ghetto Afterlife." The song addresses the effect of drugs on the black community -- a subject that has been tackled before by plenty of other rappers. But whereas the vast majority toss out tried cliches, few can boast metaphors on the level of Kweli's: In his version of things, the dealer is "the king, and your block is the palace." Kweli's delivery matches the stiletto sharpness of rappers such as the legendary Kool G. Rap as he continues: "One shot spill out your red wine/Rocked shots to death in your prime/Pieces of hot lead left in your mind/With slugs to the left in your spine/Forever laid to rest in a shrine."
Hi-Tek's beats and production help to congeal the group's sound and vision. "They're hip-hop," says Kweli, "and they're influenced by all forms of hip-hop because he is from the Midwest. No one has the swing of Hi-Tek, no one has the rhythm of Hi-Tek, and he deals with melody in a way that most producers don't." Tek moves easily through the amalgam of Billie Holiday-like scat and Middle Eastern sounds in "Too Late" to percussive piano in "Ghetto Afterlife" to the pensive soul of "Memories Live." He also shows his skills on the mike, alongside Kweli, on "The Blast," which the group hopes to release as its second single. The first, "Move Something," has already reached as high as number two on the Billboard rap singles chart.
Kweli and Tek first hooked up by chance in 1994 when Kweli, who attended New York University at the time, went to Cincinnati to see a friend. At the time, Hi-Tek was doing production on the debut album from Mood, a Cincinnati-based rap group. Hi-Tek's beat struck a chord with Kweli, and Tek was similarly impressed with Kweli's voice. The mutual admiration led Kweli to blaze a number of tracks on Mood's 1997 album Doom. From there, says Kweli, "I really liked his work, so I asked him to be in a group with me, and that's how we got started."
The group's first recorded output was the 1997 single "Fortified Live/2000 Seasons" which, along with Company Flow's disc Funcrusher Plus and Mos Def's single "Universal Magnetic," released in the same year, helped establish Rawkus Records as one of the premier underground independent hip-hop record labels. The following year, Reflection Eternal contributed songs to the Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II ("On Mission") and Lyricist Lounge Volume One compilations. All of these paved the way for the trailblazing Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, a disc on which Hi-Tek produced six of the thirteen cuts. Black Star produced such classics as "K.O.S. (Determination)," on which Kweli spit the lines that encouraged taking the path to empowerment: "So many MCs focusing on black people extermination/We keep it balanced with that knowledge of self-determination." The recording was a huge success -- so much so that it enabled Mos and Kweli to give back to their community by helping save Nkiru, one of Brooklyn's oldest black bookstores. The pair purchased it, and it is now known as the Non-Profit Nkiru Center for Culture and Education. For Kweli, this seemed only natural, since he had worked at the store for a number of years and had become inspired lyrically by a number of the books on the store's shelves. "I worked there for five years, and then we made some money, and we decided to try to keep the store open 'cause it was struggling," he says. "We transformed it into a cultural center, a community center. We still sell books, but it is a place where people can come -- different generations -- and build a place in the community, an institution in the community that belongs to us and is in our interest."
Such notions of community-building and empowerment form the foundation of much of Kweli's personal beliefs. And although Kweli shrugs off the suggestion that he is an activist ("I like to give that title to people who do that 24-7," he says), the rapper has become one of a growing group of figures who are central to the new "raptivism" now rising up in many forms. Among them is a project that Kweli and Mos helped organize this year: the Hip Hop for Respect EP, which came out in response to police brutality in the community in general, and the police murder of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in particular. The EP features an all-star lineup of artists such as Common, Pharoahe Monch and Rah Digga, among others, and the profits benefit the Hip Hop for Respect Foundation, a nonprofit started by the guys to combat police brutality worldwide. "We felt like it was time for our community to make a statement about police brutality. We hadn't made a unified statement for a long time," says Kweli, referring to such past collective hip-hop statements as the anti-violence "Self-Destruction" project, organized by KRS-ONE in the late '80s, and the West Coast-based "We're All in the Same Gang" project from the early '90s.
Earlier this year, Reflection Eternal participated in another community-minded release: The Unbound Project Volume 1, executive-produced by Frank Sosa; proceeds from the CD will benefit the legal defense fund of journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. All of the participating artists were asked to comment on the criminal justice system and its impact on the hip-hop generation. Reflection's cut, "The Human Element," although initially intended for the group's debut full-length, was given to this project because "it fit the subject matter, and when I was asked to participate, it was a no-brainer," says Kweli. The song starts out with Kweli talking about a real-life incident that happened to him when he walked down the street and some white guy tried to give him some "Free Mumia" pamphlets. "I told him right, and he tried to check me, like, 'Have you ever heard of the Black Panthers?' and 'Mumia was fighting so you could go to college,' and I'm like, 'You don't even know me...I know who the fuck Mumia is, man. Innocent niggers get locked up every day, man, that ain't nothing new,'" Kweli says of the exchange. "But on the other hand, you tell some brothers Mumia's on death row, and they think he's making records with Suge Knight. I don't know, man. I guess it's just really where you at."
For Kweli, this incident gets at the heart of the arrogance he often sees in the activist community. You might call it the "I'm more black than you, even though I'm white" syndrome -- it seems to afflict some people who mistakenly believe that, because they know Malcolm X's life story or are down with Public Enemy, they can relate wholly to the black experience. "They don't understand why these kids are not rallying around Mumia. They look at it as, 'Here is someone who has fought for you. Here is someone who is from the community. Why are you not rallying?' [The answer is] like, yo, my cousin is locked up for doing nothing. People got people in their families locked up. People see it every day. They deal with the police brutality every day. So the fact that Mumia is an innocent journalist is nothing new to them," says Kweli. Despite this, Kweli stresses that he "respects and appreciates anyone who moves toward change."
As any seasoned activist knows, change is incremental, and Kweli and Hi-Tek are doing their best to effect positive change both in the community and on wax. Will Reflection's new disc change the face of hip-hop? Probably not. But what they do hope is that the record will entertain while it upholds the legacy the pair has inherited from its ancestors, musical and otherwise. In the tradition of the great African griots, Kweli says, "I think good art should show a vision for the future and not just paint a picture of what's going on now. It should give people some information and motivation to keep it moving and make it better."
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