Among hip-hop fans, the group Black Star is known for its lyrical muscle and strong literary-bent. Members Mos Def and Talib Kweli pack their tightly crafted rhymes with intelligence and wit that seems lacking in much of contemporary hip-hop. Their 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star was a welcome return to the days when the quality of a rapper’s rhymes was more important than what car he drove or how diamond-encrusted his knuckles were. Mos Def and Talib Kweli were among a small cadre of artists that ushered in a new era of underground hip-hop that strove to be meaningful, empowering, and intelligent and are filled with references to historical events, works of literature, Jazz musicians, and other artist.
The group’s name is a reference to the shipping line created by Marcus Garvey, the early 20th century African-American orator, journalist, entrepreneur, and leader of the “Back to Africa” movement. With intelligent lyrics aimed at empowering young African-Americans and celebrating the richness of their cultural heritage, Blackstar is a torchbearer for Garvey’s ideas and legacy. If the uplifting rhymes and hypnotic beats of Blackstar inspire you may want to check out Colin Grant’s acclaimed biography of Garvey, Negro With a Hat, to learn more about the fascinating and turbulent life of the complex leader.
The album itself is rife with allusions to literature, jazz music, and other works of art. In the second track, “Respiration,” Talib Kweli makes explicit reference to Betty Smith’s 1943 coming-of-age tale A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The tale’s heroine Francie shares the Brooklyn background and idealism of the hip-hop duo. Also, the song “Thieves in the Night” was inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, and shares the themes of African-American identity and the insidious effects of racism on the self-images of black Americans.
In Mos Def’s second album, The New Danger, Mos Def frequently refers to himself as Black Dante, calling to mind the outcast poet and author of the Divine Comedy. The comparison seems incredibly apt. Dante’s poetry is filled with many themes and characteristics that came to define hip-hop. Dante foreshadowed some hip-hop flair by airing his grievances through poetry (how many of Dante’s persecutors can be found in The Inferno?), his use of rhythmic braggadocio, and his frequent hometown shout-outs.
In another instance of Mos Def’s artistic ties-cum-references is his rock group Black Jack Johnson, which is also featured on The New Danger. Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion was a man who never let the racist assumptions of early twentieth century America get in the way of proving that he was the greatest fighter of his generation. Geoffrey Ward’s book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson or the Ken Burns’ documentary of the same title are both good starting points to get a sense of the grandeur of Johnson’s immense personality and the gigantic obstacles he overcame and why Mos Def was inspired by his life.