Black Star | Underground Essentials’ Latest Inductee
In 1919, Marcus Garvey organized the Black Star Line, a shipping and trading company meant to facilitate black-owned business across the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and North America. While it’s history was short, the significance of it is not to be understated. In a way, it was a symbol of determination and success for the diaspora, much like the 1997 rap duo Black Star from Brooklyn, New York. An underground staple on the scene, Mos Def and Talib Kweli stand as success stories themselves for the African American community and the city from which they were born. Co-opting the Black Star name, they have gone on to create anthems and hip-hop hymns that inspire us to this day.
Mos Def (known as Yasiin Bey off the stage, or by his birth name Dante Terrell Smith) was born in 1973, quickly showing his talents in entertainment through child acting gigs and a rap group UTD composed of him and his siblings. Known unanimously today as one of the best to ever do it, his first big debut came from Black Star’s first album, his duo with Talib Kweli. Talib himself was born in 1975, beginning his rap career with local groups shortly before joining up with Mos Def to make history with their debut project.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
In 1998, both emcees were preparing to release their first solo work. They had gained experience through collaborations with local acts, as they soaked up inspiration from other contemporaries such as De La Soul and Q-Tip. Putting their own projects on hold to join forces, they made history with their first (and so far only) album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Released to wide critical acclaim and charting at #53 on the Billboard 200, it was an important moment for the underground as these two talented, knowledgeable rappers told their stories of the crack-epidemic NYC years and expanded on the black man’s strife in modern America. Both having grown up students of the arts, the album still stands as an essential record for its timeless production and thoughtful, alternative lyrical content.
While they enjoyed great success in their joint venture, both were gifted in their own right and needed to spread their wings and follow opportunities. Mos Def and Kweli have been activists from the get-go, using their newfound fame to propel their voices to larger and larger platforms. They created the Hip Hop for Respect project, a group that would speak out against issues facing the community, mainly police brutality. Mos Def has performed numerous concerts in support of wrongly convicted inmates, oil spill cleanups, and in criticism of government treatment for damaged communities such as New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Talib Kweli has been active, publicly joining sit-ins and protests, speaking at rallies and appearing on television to speak on issues ranging from politics to the music industry.
As well as activism, both rappers continued to put out music. Mos Def (who changed his name to Yasiin Bey after signing with GOOD Music) would drop 3 more albums, including the famous Black On Both Sides, before announcing retirement from the industry as a whole. Kweli on the other hand has released 14 albums, collaborating with a wide range of producers and vocal artists. He announced at a Madlib show in 2018 that a new Black Star album was completed, but as of yet no singles or more news has been announced. Reportedly they are waiting for the right time to drop the project, figuring out when and how to do it. One thing is for certain, the entire hip hop community is ready for the return of the duo, particularly in a new decade where tensions and political agendas have been stirring even in the music scene itself.
Much like Marcus Garvey’s shipping company, the members of Black Star have been revered as important parts of black history, signifying a spirit of determination and perseverance. Neither escaped the grasp of controversy at points, but the message and ideals they carry are clear. Underground and alternative hip hop has always been the space for voices that speak to the soul, not to the streamers. The two emcees are prime examples and have been put on a pedestal for good reason. They may be activists, actors, and businessmen, but to the young man walking down the sidewalk bobbing his head to “Thieves In The Night,” Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.
“Underground Essentials” is an ongoing series of Loud News Net to recognize the most essential contributors to underground hip hop. On a regular basis, we induct artists into the “Underground Essentials” hall of fame.