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Vibrate Higher

9780374717346 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2021
read an excerpt

From one of the most lyrically gifted, socially conscious rappers of the past twenty years, Vibrate Higher is a firsthand account of hip-hop as a political force

Before Talib Kweli became a world-renowned hip hop artist, he was a Brooklyn kid who liked to cut class, spit rhymes, and wander the streets of Greenwich Village with a motley crew of artists, rappers, and DJs who found hip hop more inspiring than their textbooks (much to the chagrin of the educator parents who had given their son an Afrocentric name in hope of securing for him a more traditional sense of pride and purpose). Kweli’s was the first generation to grow up with hip hop as established culture—a genre of music that has expanded to include its own pantheon of heroes, rich history and politics, and distinct worldview.

Eventually, childhood friendships turned into collaborations and Kweli gained notoriety as a rapper in his own right. From collaborating with some of hip hop’s greatest—including Mos Def, Common, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Kendrick Lamar—to selling books out of the oldest African-American bookstore in Brooklyn, and ultimately leaving his record label and taking control of his own recording career, Kweli tells the winding, always compelling story of the people and events that shaped his own life as well as the culture of hip hop which informs American culture at large.

Vibrate Higher illuminates Talib Kweli’s upbringing and artistic success, but so too does it give life to hip hop as a political force—one that galvanized the Movement for Black Lives, and serves a continual channel for resistance against the rising tide of white nationalism.

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An excerpt from Vibrate Higher

PROLOGUE


“Muthafuck the wagon come join the band

Vibrate. Vibrate higher.”

—Andre 3000, “Vibrate”

This is not the truth. My perception is only one third of this story. The truth will be known when I'm gone. This is not a rags to riches story. This is not a story of how a little ghetto boy rises above all adversity to beat the odds and then eventually reconcile with his past. I have no interest in playing up how badass my childhood was, even if I did there wouldn't be much to work with. Conventional wisdom about rappers is that we are rebels with a cause who constantly see red and express ourselves in coded rhymes that the establishment will never understand. The truth is that most rappers are super nerds. While we live at the top of the nerd food chain, we are, without a doubt, nerds who are good with words. We turn poetry into personality and nervous energy into swagger. Our need to be liked by everyone is why we use rhymes to try to explain what you are going through, and ultimately, bring you closer to us. Hip hop is the soundtrack for nerd world domination.

     This is not a rallying cry for real hip hop, or a guidebook on how to be more conscious in the way you live. This is not a manifesto handed down from the tops of mountains. This is simply me, in all my glory, pain, splendor, and shame. This is about the people and the events that shaped me. The stories about the places that raised me in equal measure with my parents. This is the revelation I have been running towards since I first put a 16 bar verse together. Writing this book has shown me what I've always known but was either too scared or too proud to share anywhere outside of the box that is a hip hop song.

     I have many vices, and I do not trust anyone who doesn't. I am insecure about my physical appearance, and I have a fiercely competitive nature. I can be selfish and like many great artists I am often driven by ego. I also realize that my story is one of inspiration. I am aware of my place in this world and what I bring to it. I recognize my position as a connector of like-minded people, as a griot, as proof that a life of creating substantial entertainment can very much be reality. I know I am a great lyricist not because others say it, but because of the time I have spent dedicated to my craft. I know it whether you do or not.

     This is not a lie. The life of the visionary who creates capital from ideas that spring from their ever evolving mind is not a life for the weak. To be your own boss is bravery. This book is my warrior's toast to us and those like us. For those who know you either have to put in, or put out.

     I never dreamed of being a conscious rapper for a living. I only wanted to be a great rapper. Before then, I wanted to be a marine biologist, then a baseball player. It was standing in the outfield swatting away bugs during baseball practice that I realized music was my true calling. There were so many lyrics running through my head I could no longer focus on baseball. Hip hop's mix of music and poetry was too seductive to ignore. Hip hop sank its teeth into me and never let go.

     I was blessed to come of age at a time when making conscious hip hop music was trendy. You could not be great and frivolous at the same time, your skill was intertwined with your ability to uplift people and spread information. This coincided with how I was raised because if I did not have the foundation in my home, I would have discarded conscious hip hop when the trend was over. This trend, as fleeting as it was, created some of the most indelible hip-hop recordings to date. People’s music preferences have always been stuck in the decades they came of age in, in the best times of their lives, whether it was the 60', 70's or 80's. For me, it was the 90’s.

     Musicians use the word "vibe" a lot. Intuition helps artists feel the vibes in the room and play off of them. You try to catch a vibe in the studio. You vibe at a concert. Vibe is a word tossed around so often that the actual meaning of the word seems to have died; it's become a cliché. To vibrate is the action of vibe. In a very literal sense, my job is to vibrate higher, or to vibrate on a higher level of consciousness. The definition of vibrate is to move or continue to move rapidly to and fro. As I find myself writing this book on planes trains and automobiles, I realize that vibrate is what I do for a living. This must be why the shark is my favorite animal. Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated with the idea that most sharks must be in constant states of movement for survival. They never sleep in the way we do because they need water flowing through their gills at all times for oxygen.

     We see light because of vibrations. Colors represent the vibration of waves at different frequencies, We also hear sounds because of vibrations. When you repeat a word over and over again like a mantra, it is not just the meaning of the word that tattoos itself on your consciousness, it is also the vibration that emanates from the sound of the word. I experienced this first hand on my first tour, the Spitkicker Tour with De La Soul, Common, Pharoahe Monch and Biz Markie in 1999. De La was enjoying the success of their latest album, Stakes Is High. On the title track sampled from James Brown's “Mind Power,” Maceo Parker repeats the words "vibe and vibration." So to introduce the song, all of us on the tour would join De La on stage and tell the crowd that when we say "vibe" we wanted them to say "vibration." We would reply, "Stakes is High.” I saw the literal affect our "mantra" had on the crowd. Every night we got them to vibrate higher.


  • "This memoir confirms what [Kweli's] work has communicated for years, demonstrating the sharp, nimble mind of an insatiable cultural omnivore...Whether discussing how he used to cut school to hone his rapping skills in Washington Square Park or recounting how he took his maternal grandmother, “the Obama Mama,” as his guest to the White House, Kweli turns back the pages of hip-hop history for music fans and has something to offer readers unfamiliar with his work. By the end of the book, even that latter group will appreciate the author’s standing as one of the most respected emcees in hip-hop."

    Kirkus reviews

  • "[An] outspoken and enthusiastic memoir. Kweli shares his upbringing as a “supernerd” from a middle-class Brooklyn family who went to boarding school and later incorporated Afro-centric philosophy into his “Black consciousness” hip-hop style. He narrates his rise as a whirl of deals and tours...Kweli is effusive about most of the musicians he knows, and waxes mystically about the “vibe”—a blend of social scene and creative ferment—at the metaphysical heart of musical collaboration...He revisits his activism... and weights in on his privilege...Kweli's fans are in for a treat."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Talib Kweli is a hip hop mirror ball, distributing light everywhere. For years, he's seen things, heard things—worldwide. It bodes the reader well to journey his mind and experiences in this book"

    Chuck D
  • "Thank you my dear brother Talib for these birth/family memories and your artistic/poetic Now words reminding us that we are indebted to your generation of poets/rappers for continuing the Trinity of Black language/music/and activism. Your brilliant life of poetry reminds us that A Luta Continua."

    Sister Sonia Sanchez

  • “Talib Kweli is one of the most important voices and minds of our generation. His work across the board always makes me think on a higher level and see things in a new way, and all the while it’s done with quality and excellence. This book is an excursion into the minds of one our great ones."

    Common