It’s not often you connect books and hip hop superstars – unless, of course, you’re talking about the release of a new Russell Simmons book. Or even better, Nelson George’s Hip Hop America – a classic. Either way, the focus tends to be narrow. Then there’s literature and hip hop. Hmmmm – slightly different angle. Talib Kweli and Mos Def together wanted to widen the conversation. In 1998, the rap duo known as Black Star purchased the Brooklyn based Nkiru Books, the oldest independent African-American bookstore in Brooklyn. The shop, formerly located a couple blocks from the Barclay’s center, closed in 2002 – an organic food store replaces the storefront that once served as a cultural headquarters for Brooklyn’s black community. But Nkiru Books lives on thanks to Kweli – only you can’t yet visit it on foot.
Nkiru (pronounced nKEY-rou) Books opened in the late seventies. Owner Leothy Owens. wanted to provide black and marginalized Brooklyn families with a place to read and buy multicultural children’s books. Gradually, the selection evolved, and literature by black, Latino, and African writers found its place on Nkiru’s shelves. Growing up, Kweli lived a few blocks away from the shop’s storefront on Saint Marks Avenue. In the early nineties, teenage Kweli found work at Nkiru, a position that cultivated the rapper’s life-long affinity for literature and art. Literary and musical events drew in crowds and celebrities like Lauryn Hill, Danticat, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. Despite how strongly interwoven Nkiru became in the community, the store fell into debt. Skyrocketing rent and competition from larger bookstores meant Nkiru was on its way to foreclosure. Mos Def and Kweli were determined to save Nkiru.
In 2000, the rappers bought Nkiru Books. They graciously took on the store’s thousands in debt and transformed the shop into a nonprofit that promoted literacy for people of color. Business improved for the first year, but the changes weren’t enough to save Nkiru. The shop closed in 2002, but Kweli refused to let Nkiru fade into history. Today, Nkiru is found on Kweli’s website, KweliClub.com. The site features inexpensive texts by black authors along with Kweli’s merchandise. As Kweli keeps the spirit of Nkiru alive, perhaps one day the shop will reopen in physical form. After all, Nkiru is Nigerian Igbo for ‘the best is yet to come.”
Kweli is not the first hip hop artist to approach social causes using entertainment and entrepreneurship. Most of the big commercial entertainers out there create foundations to fund a social cause. But if you’re a smaller artist without the sizable budget, you’re left to construct entrepreneurially – build a small business from within (even if its non-profit). Well, there’s a certain approach you have to take with such a startup. Companies like Enigma Canon (@enigmacanon), an entrepreneurship and business planning company, specializes in mixing entertainment with entrepreneurial endeavors. Your focus has to be on three key pillars to make sure you’re project remains standing for the years to come. Stay tuned next week as we’ll talk about how Kweli can successfully mix culture, education, and entertainment to create a successful business – on or offline.