This essay is one in a series of profiles showcasing musical luminaries who will be honored in the 2019 National Sawdust Gala, to be held on May 7 at Sotheby’s in New York City. For more information, see nationalsawdust.org/gala.
“Philly has become the city of the arts. There are close to 4,000 huge murals all over the city. You walk around Philadelphia and it’s an outdoor museum. When I was growing up, we didn’t have that. We had graffiti, we had street art. And those were the murals that inspired me.”
Black Thought – Tariq Trotter, the world-renowned emcee who, with drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, formed the groundbreaking hip hop band The Roots in 1987 – is looking back to his own roots: the foundational inspirations behind a journey that now has extended more than three decades. Trotter was involved in creative activity from an early age, thanks to a mother who enrolled him in a choir and sent him to art camp. For further inspiration, all he had to do was walk around his hometown.
“I was a young graffiti writer, 10, 11 years old,” Trotter recalls. “The first time I was arrested was for vandalism, for writing graffiti—that was my art at the time. We walked around with our black notebooks or our black sketch books and we would draw out those ideas. It was about taking those sketches from the notebook to a grand scale. I was inspired by the street art of New York City, and documentaries that I would see, like Style Wars, early hip hop films like Wild Style and Beat Street. That was my early inspiration not only as a rapper, but also as a visual artist.”
Working with The Roots, Trotter has made a significant impact on American culture. Blazing his own trails, he took his lead from the innovators who came before him. “Figures like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap—those three had a huge influence on me,” he confirms. “With Rakim, it was his substance; Kool G Rap was major on his cadence and flow, and Big Daddy Kane was big on style and presentation. Just studying their art pretty much made me the emcee, the writer – the visionary, so to speak – that I am today.”
Now, with decades of groundbreaking art to his credit, Trotter continues to look for fresh inspiration. “I keep an eye out for young emerging black artists in all genres – visual artists like Jibade-Khalil Huffman and Kameelah Janan Rasheed to musicians like Shawn Smith and Chika – and see how they can inspire me and I can inspire them in return.” He watches the news every morning, always keeps a book at hand, and combs Instagram for fresh data. Working with the Roots as the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk shows, too, has provided exposure to artists and sounds Trotter says he might have missed otherwise.
Asked if he believes that the arts can change culture, Trotter offers resounding affirmation. “Art can definitely change culture, because hip hop has—hip hop is art,” he says. “Hip hop has brought together different cultures of people who may not have had anything in common, except the music and the love for it. So from when I started, doing graffiti as a child, to now, with the music I’ve been able to create and the career that I’ve been able to build, shows the powerful and transformative arc of hip hop.”