Excerpts from an interview by Clayton Perry on BlogCritic Magazine.
Pictures from the Kennedy Center Performance, February 26, 2009
Having traveled the world, you have an international view of hip-hop that a lot of people don't have, for better or worse. Is there a common thread of themes that transcends all continents that you have seen as you travel?
Yeah, there is. There are differences, too. I look at hip hop or any other kind of thing whatever it is — music or otherwise — and I just think you can exhaust that theme no matter what it is. As good as hip hop is, if there is no perspective shift, if there is no feeling of freshness or something new about it, it can kind of just become exhausting. When you go abroad and you see something fresh, it's eye-opening and it's beautiful. The one American perspective that we are all exposed to and the only one that exists is kind of exhausting. However, to the credit of the American form of hip hop, it's great that it is the one-track-minded element that it is, as well, because sometimes in the foreign world you find a corny element, too, that I can't listen to either. You find it rarely — the thread — but you find it. Sometimes it's great and fresh and not corny.
Do you think there will ever be a day when the lines between the labels of mainstream and conscious hip hop would be blurred?
Well, I don't know. I think that's dependent on what success the albums have. For example, my latest album is exactly what that is, but its success will be viewed on how it reaches people. Troubadour has incredible hook-based, melodic music. And lyrically, it's relevant. It has potential to be on the radio, so I don't understand why you can't do both. I think that is the answer to that question – not the only answer, but I certainly think that's one of the answers. It just depends on success.
At what point did you realize that your music had really made an impression upon people?
In 2008, I was playing a string of festivals in the US and I did a show in Honolulu. The turnout was so amazing! The organizers said they had to open up the back of the tent, which is something they never had to do before. At some point in one of my songs, I was singing to this crowd of thousands and I remember about 70% of the crowd singing along. It was amazing, because I haven't had any albums released in the US, at least not widely. I had no radio support, nothing like that. So I didn't understand how they knew the lyrics. It was a real pleasant and incredibly exciting and surprising moment. So much so, I stopped singing in the middle of the show and just started laughing. My band mates were laughing. The crowd didn't know what was going on. I said, "Excuse me, but I just want to ask how you guys know the song." People started cheering and whatever. It was a genuine moment for me, to actually take that moment and realize it and respond to it.
Over the years, you have mentioned three artists as major influences in your career: Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, and Nina Simone. Of these, tell me how one has impacted your life and shaped your career.
I'll take Bob Marley. I think the amount of impact Bob Marley has had on humanity – just what he's sown and how many generations it has changed and how many people it has raised and how many kinds of causes it has fulfilled – I think that is, like, way more than any musician has ever been in the history of music I think. For me, that is one of the great things about life – we have the privilege to live under the banner in which he's created this music and this ideology and his relentless kind of spirit of justice and so on. I see myself as someone who is a humble student of that world. To have a connection to his world, in a way, for me is incredibly humbling. To have recorded my album in his house and work with his family, his friends and so on is a big thing for me.
When did you first fall in love with hip hop?
I had a crush on it from the early stages when I was much younger and listening to Eric B. and Rakim. That world – it was just a crush, infatuation. But when I really fell in love with it and became inextricable from my life was 1993 when the album Illmatic by Nas came out.
What did you admire the most about Illmatic?
I am a poet by nature, and I saw poetry in what Nas was doing. And I saw that a young black man can express and share the incredible intricacies of his own life and out of all the things that surround him. He painted the American black experience and the ghetto experience in such a vivid manner that I thought if that was possible in the English language, then it is possible for me to do that with the English language and paint the African experience.