In the midst of a tragedy in Madison, WI, in which unarmed African American teenager Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a police officer, Immortal Technique and Talib Kweli rolled into the Barrymore Theater, fresh on the beginning of their People’s Champions tour. Far from avoiding the politically charged atmosphere that Madison was soaked in, both rappers embraced it, participated in it, and ultimately lent their own voices to promote social justice by using their lyrical prowess and organic hip-hop beats. Musically, the performances were entertaining and energetic that any hip-hop fan could have enjoyed.
The show began at 8pm with a number of rappers taking stage for very short periods of time, all of which would eventually take the stage with Immortal Technique to help him spread his word. While this was going on, I had a chance to sit down with Immortal Technique to go deeper into some of the issues he so profoundly writes about in his lyrics.
It’s Monday night, it’s small market Madison. What’s going through your head now?
Technique: I mean I just came back from that protest at the Capitol building, and I had a chance to speak to one of the family members of Tony Robinson. I saw the mayor speak; it was really anticlimactic. He sounded like he was bumbling his words, he didn’t really know how to address young people. He was talking about a jobs program. It seemed like he was really out of touch and I think he’s symbolic of what the dinosaur of the left wing really is. He’s a leftist, I looked him up; you know what I mean? He’s a Mr. Anti-Vietnam. He was arrested in the past. I think we have to destroy that ancient idea of the left/right paradigm because you know this guy gets all kind of credit for being some kind of progressive but really he’s sitting here just trying to pacify these young people giving them pathetic excuses so I’m not even really thinking about the show I’m thinking about the fact that somebody’s brother is dead.
I guess you went to that rally [in protest of the Tony Robinson case] today. What’s your message for the people? The people of Wisconsin? The people that are victims of these crimes all over the country?
Technique: I always hear about having a conversation about race. But we never have it. It’s one of those things we keep pushing back. And I think its because some people are scared. It definitely isn’t black people that are scared to have this conversation.
So who do you think is scared?
Technique: It must be other people. By other people, I don’t just mean white people. I mean people that are in power are scared of having this conversation. Why? Because maybe black people in power are comfortable in power. Maybe Latino people in power are comfortable in power. Maybe they don’t realize how the rest of us have been disenfranchised because they’re living with a bunch of fucking horse blinders and they’re very well fed. And unfortunately they can’t understand what it’s like to be a person that’s worked here for 15 years and lived here with your family and all of the sudden ICE comes crashing through your door to separate your family. Your kids don’t know anything else but America. I think that when it comes to people of color, I think there’s a real big disconnect on the so-called left about what the progress is. For the young people I just want to let you know, there’s an old saying that rings true. “Gold is the currency of kings, silver is the currency of gentleman, and debt is the currency of slaves.” Are you guys really that free? What is the point of going to college if you’re not going to intersection with the people behind?
Blacks. Latinos. Disenfranchised groups. Diversity. How are we going to work together? How are we going to come together?
Technique: One of the tools is acknowledging that even though we have a lot of differences we’re part of one human race. Even though we celebrate our nationality, that’s a positive thing too, but we shouldn’t become blinded by what our country is doing. You can love your country and hate what its corporations are doing. I think that we really need to focus and get in gear for what’s about to happen. You know what I mean?
Thank you. I love music and I think that it’s powerful in the way that it can make a positive change in this world. I appreciate what you do and I’m excited for the show tonight.
Technique: Thank you.
Immortal Technique took to the stage to a raucous applause from the excited crowd, half of whom were wearing his t-shirts. He began the night with a “Crossing the Boundary” opener, igniting his fans looking for older material. Immediately afterwards he grabbed a sign that read “All Lives Matter: No Justice No Peace RIP Tony Robinson” from someone in the crowd and promptly put it on the stage for all to see. He mentioned how he spent all day at the rally at the Capitol Building and got the opportunity to talk with family members of Tony Robinson.
Between songs Technique spewed knowledge about politics, religion, nationalism, and everything in between. He mentioned how he was also a mischievous youth who got into his fair share of trouble, again referring to Robinson. With that he went into “Goonies Never Die,” referencing the 1985 gang of youths looking for adventure and mischief. Technique continued to spit lyrics from all junctures of his career, including old school favorites and newer tracks alike. He magically transformed the music into riveting storytelling.
With all his rap associates on stage, he rapped (and acted out) the tragic story of William Jacobs’ downward descent into drugs, gang life, raping his own mother, and eventual suicide in his song “Dance with the Devil.” As everyone nodded their head to the beat and smiled in enjoyment of the music, you couldn’t help but look over your shoulder as Technique warns that the Devil “follows me everywhere that I go, in fact he’s probably standing among one of you at my shows.”
It wasn’t all dark and gloomy, and before his last song of the set he proclaimed to the Wisconsin crowd that the New York Giants are the best football team in the world and the New York Yankees are the best baseball team in the world. Of course, the crowd responded with a resonant set of boos, the only boos heard all night, but it was all in good fun. With a grin from ear to ear, Technique ended his set with his lighthearted crowd-favorite “Obnoxious.”
Talib Kweli didn’t waste much time taking the stage after Immortal Technique departed. With the microphone in hand, Kweli went through song after song with little interruption. Apart from some microphone feedback issues, his lyrical doses on the crowd were relentless. “Never Been in Love” was one of his songs that he sounded particularly soulful rapping, making sure to let someone out there know how passionate he felt.
As his set continued it only got hotter, literally. Kweli quickly started taking off layers of clothing. Despite the frigid weather outside, Kweli had steady beads of sweat dripping off his face the entire night. He nodded to some of his musical influences as well, mashing up the “Eleanor Rigby” melody with some of his own material. Being a Monday night, the later it got the crowd became slightly thinner, losing patrons to tiredness, fatigue, and Immortal Technique hanging out in the lobby signing merchandise and taking photos. By 12:30, Kweli was finished and the show was over.
It was a very fun night for any hip-hop enthusiasts that made it to the Barrymore that evening. As much as any music fan might want to say about the music being the centerpiece for the night, in reality the minds of all the entertainers as well as the audience members were occupied by the tragedy that struck Madison only three days earlier. With all the “fuck da police” phrases you hear at hip hop shows, there was no surprise in how many were produced tonight. However they seemed to hold a lot more weight and have an increased sense of sentiment when Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, and company said it on this Monday night.