The legendary rapper, who, along with Yasiin Bey, saved a pioneering African-American bookstore in the 90s, curates a booklist for self-reflection and revolution.
When Leothy Miller Owens founded Nkiru Books out of her home in 1976, it was one of Brooklyn’s first black bookstores. She would eventually move Nkiru Books to its own brick-and-mortar location at 76 Saint Marks Avenue in Park Slope. She had no idea at the time that two musicians would save the store decades later.
Legendary rapper Talib Kweli cemented his place in hip-hop history as the lyricist who formed Reflection Eternal with DJ Hi-Tek and Black Star with Yasiin Bey, who was then known as Mos Def. Kweli referenced literature in his lyrics over the years, like in Black Star’s “Thieves in the Night,” with the line, “I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye,” referring to Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. In 2011’s “Mr. International,” Kweli rapped, “My life is like a movie, a novel by Paulo Coelho.”
Kweli’s love of books started with his parents, who both worked at nearby universities and encouraged him to read. He spent his formative years working at a bookshop but wanted a job at Nkiru Books. Owens hired Kweli in 1994 as he and Bey formed the hip-hop duo Black Star in the mid ՚90s. Kweli and Bey purchased the bookstore in 1999, months after releasing their first Black Star album together in 1998, in an attempt to save the historic retailer. They would transform it into a nonprofit that focused on literacy and cultural education for people of color, holding spoken word performances, workshops, and lectures at its new location at 732 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, Nkiru Books was forced to shutter its doors in the early 2000s, and now it exists online as an e-commerce site at kweliclub.com. Kweli resurrected Nkiru Books as a pop-up during the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Festival from October 4 through 6 at The Plaza at 300 Ashland Place. Kweli searched through his stock to find five books that explore common themes of self-reflection, overcoming adversity, and fighting against inequality:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
“It’s a story of reinvention and loving self.”
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
“Required reading for anyone who does movement work.”
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
“It’s a spiritual guide that helps you unlock your inner potential.”
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
“It helps people understand the prison industrial complex.”
The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehesi Coates
“It represents my worldview.”
Read all of Document’s reading lists here.