Hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco

Hip-hop artist explains why it took three long years for the release of his latest album.

Mogul Jay-Z calls hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco a breath of fresh air. Known for thought-provoking lyricism, the Chicago native and devout Muslim was exposed to many different cultures as a child. He began taking his craft seriously at age 17 and went from underground phenomenon to mainstream success with his Grammy-nominated debut, "Food & Liquor." Among his many ventures are his 1st & 15th record label, which he cofounded, two clothing lines and numerous charitable activities. Fiasco's latest project is the long-awaited "Lasers."


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Lupe Fiasco back to this program. The Grammy-nominated hip-hop star is out this week with his long-awaited third CD. We’ll talk about that in just a second.
The new project is called “Lasers.” From the disc, here is some of the video for the single “The Show Goes On.”
Tavis: So you heard me put emphasis on the word “long” awaited third CD. (Laughter)
Lupe Fiasco: Yeah, man.
Tavis: What took so long?
Fiasco: Oh, man. Apart from just the natural creative process, the period of time where we were just on tour, and then a whole lot of label conflict and chicanery. It was a mix, a mix that led to I think three years in between albums, coming up on four years in between albums, yeah.
Tavis: That’s right. Your fans know that. We’ve been counting the days.
Fiasco: Oh, yeah, most of them.
Tavis: We know that timeline quite well. (Laughter) I only ask this because you’ve been pretty open about this and I don’t want to tarry here too long, but it’s worth asking. When you say chicanery with the record label, how record label politics gets in the way of creativity, how do you navigate that tension when you want to do something creatively and the politics at the label wants something different? How do you get through that?
Fiasco: With this route, I think I handled myself very poorly. I allowed myself to get depressed and go places that I shouldn’t have gone, in that sense. It’s a funny line when you’re walking – the creativity, the subjectivity versus the objectivity, creativity versus the business, and recognizing that you are in the music business, so there are certain things that you have to acquiesce to on the business side and certain creative decisions that you have to make for the purposes of serving the business side of it.
Being a business owner myself, it is a – you really have to embrace the duality of it. I just think in this situation the level of it, the level of the involvement of the record label and some of the things that were said and some of the business moves that were taken were unprecedented for me, and it really took me – let me stand back, let me conference with my business partners and see what the best route is for me. It was a very interesting story and time, this past couple of years putting this record together.
Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things now I want to go back and get you to unpack a bit more for me. First, when you in retrospect now concede that you handled it poorly – that’s your own judgment of yourself, that you handled it poorly – what do you mean by that?
Fiasco: I contemplated suicide. I contemplated some things that, like I said, that I shouldn’t have, but I thought it was a part of the process. It was part of the process of maturing.
It’s like between this record it became less about completing this record and completing this project and more about completing yourself as a human being. This is a very dark period for you. It wasn’t all music business stuff, it was personal tragedy, trauma, depression carrying over from the loss of my father and the losses of a few other people along the way, and just looking at the world as, like, this place can be a really dark place.
Then to confront it in a corporate situation and see it firsthand and know that it’s not a conspiracy theory and there’s no – like, this is really how people get out and there’s really a certain malfeasance to the whole situation, for me it was just like this is too much to bear.
Just life in general, like if this is a small example of it, I didn’t really see any light. It really took me to step back, and I did a song about it on the album called “Beautiful Lasers,” kind of documenting it once I got past it. It really took me literally, like, you like to perform music, and I was like, “Yeah, I do.” It’s like, you can’t do that if you’re dead. I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, so let me not do that, then. Let me not go down that route.”
I became very human, very aware of my mortality and very aware of the responsibility that I have here and the people that I’m connected to, in that sense.
Tavis: I love the conclusion that you finally arrived at for a lot of different reasons, first and foremost because I celebrate your humanity. Your lyrical content is just completely off the chain. As an artist, we all love you, so I’m glad for a lot of reasons that you didn’t follow through when you were tempted to take your own life.
But since you went there and since there are so many people watching and I was just reading the other day about the suicide rates, particularly in this country, amongst young people – I was in China not too long ago and their suicide rates are far too high. The pressure that these Chinese kids feel with all the competition in their country and only so many spots in colleges for a 1.6 billion people, so you know what I’m talking about here.
Young people are feeling, I think, more pressured now in this country and around the world than ever before, and because so many of them do respect you and because you are so authentic and so courageous to talk about it, tell me more about how you navigated through that particular phase, because I think there might be some help for somebody else in that answer.
Fiasco: I think I went through it very academically. I was reading a lot of Hunter S. Thompson at that time and I was trying to rationalize –
Tavis: Ironically, a guy who took his own life.
Fiasco: Right, exactly.
Tavis: Wow.
Fiasco: I was trying to rationalize it and make it make sense. Suicide makes sense if this, if I can deal with this world, then I could just go on to the next one and what have you.
It really took a – part of it was a leap of faith. Part of it was just like you need to stay here and endure this, and what came out of it rather – and it’s always been there, and it’s funny, because “Lasers” slides into it perfectly. It’s not a plug to plug the album or anything like that.
“Lasers” stands for “Love always shines every time; remember to smile.” I tell people when I do interviews about the album, I say it was a note to self. It’s not for the public, the intention wasn’t for it to be public or to be publicized or what have you, it was for me.
So every time I looked up and I looked at the album cover, I looked at the artwork or somebody said, “When’s ‘Lasers’ coming out,” the message behind it was that love always shines every time; remember to smile.
When I would get in those periods where I was really, really depressed or really, really sad, I would smile and I would laugh, and it was like comedy – laughter is the best medicine. I would enjoy myself in the moment, and there was enough time for those emotions and things to pass.
It’s something that you never get over. You always wrestle with it. You always wrestle with depression, you always wrestle with those things, because the events and the experiences are still there, and the things that take place are still happening.
When you look out into the world and you turn on the news and it’s just so dark, it’s still there. But it’s the battle, it’s the struggle with that, and at the same time to recognize that happiness and love and all those things exist as well.
Tavis: Since you mentioned “Lasers” and broke down what those letters stand for, Jonathan, put the album cover back on the screen for me just a second here, because it is, in fact, called “Lasers,” but I think I see an A over the top of an O.
Fiasco: Yeah.
Tavis: So I see “Lasers” on top of “losers.” See, you’re far too creative for me, so you got to explain (laughter) that dialectic, because I don’t quite get that.
Fiasco: Well, it makes the anarchy symbol, which is the pop culture icon of the rebel or what have you. But it’s really about taking something inherently negative, and starting with the word loser, starting with something that’s negative, and changing it into something that’s positive, redefining it, but doing it in a certain way, how – like I would say when I look out at the world and you see it’s dark and it’s just overbearing and every day is depressed, depressed, depressed.
What it took was to change my perspective a little bit. Not to change the world, to change my perspective.
Tavis: Your perspective about yourself or about the world?
Fiasco: About the world.
Tavis: About the world.
Fiasco: As well as myself. This is double duty. Just changing a little bit – you ain’t got to change the whole world; you ain’t got to change the whole world. You just alter it a little bit and you redefine it into something beautiful.
Tavis: How, then, does a process like the one you went through creatively impact you? How does it affect the music, the end product here?
Fiasco: Oh, man, for this album in particular it was about celebration. It was about doing songs. There are songs on the record which speak specifically to this is an amazing song to perform live. Thirty thousand people are going to bounce up and down for the next four and a half minutes when this song is on.
That’s it – there’s no push a political message, make a social statement. It’s about just go up there and just have fun. The other part of it was I embraced that, and you get songs – like I said, you go back to “Beautiful Lasers,” you get songs like that. There’s another song called “‘Til I Get There,” which is whimsical and it’s fun, but the concept of it is something of fame, and fame being pressed upon you, and success, and what does success mean, you’re not living up to success.
Whose success? Who defines success? I always say that you define what success is to yourself. But there’s so much artificial kind of unless you achieve this number or unless you achieve this status, then you’re not worth anything, your value is.
So I’m wrestling with things like that, and then at the same time too I go off into things like there’s a song called “All Black Everything,” which is my favorite song on the album, which is having fun in the sense when I have fun I think about what if slaves were paid?
Not reparations – what if slaves were paid from the doorstep? It was a ship that went to Africa and it says, “Hey, you guys want to come work for us? We’ll pay you right now and then we’ll pay you the rest and you’ll have land.” How would the world have unfolded? Not to a T, but would have it unfolded?
So the album cover is a lot of different bases. I guess I didn’t need that much to get over the hump, my own hump, creatively, dealing with the issues that I went through.
Tavis: I want to circle all the way back now to the earlier part of this conversation, where we were talking about the wrestling that you were doing, the marinating you had to do on what the record company was asking you or pushing you to do, and in that moment of tension, creatively trying to figure out what this project was going to be.
In retrospect, do you feel like you acquiesced to what they were demanding or asking of you, and if you feel in any way that you acquiesced beyond the point of understanding it’s a business, how does that make you feel personally?
Fiasco: I caved in a little.
Tavis: And you admit that?
Fiasco: Yeah, yeah, yeah, for the sake – the greater good was to get this album out. That’s the greater good, get this album out. So you, like I think that we all should sometimes, you submit to the greater good of things as opposed to fighting those battles to the – and then for me, part of it was out of pride, or hurt ego.
Tavis: My granddad said all the time, Lupe – this ain’t a Lupe lyric, but my granddad. (Laughter) Granddad said all the time, “There are some fights, Tavis – he’d always tell me this – “There’s some fights that ain’t worth fighting, even if you win, but there are other fights that you have to fight, even if you lose.”
So there are some fights you have to – some fights that ain’t worth fighting even if you win them, but other things you’ve got to fight even if you lose.
Fiasco: Yeah.
Tavis: Does that make sense?
Fiasco: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. The other part of this project was we gave up. At one point, we actually threw in the towel, in the sense where it’s like whatever with this album. We’ll move on to another record company, we’ll move on to another album, or I’ll just – the way I feel, I’ll move to Morocco and make punk rock music for the rest of my life and be done. (Laughter)
We had gave up, and it was really the brilliance of this whole thing, beyond me, beyond the music, is the fans that came out. So you had –
Tavis: The fans led protests on your behalf, public protests.
Fiasco: The fans actually put together – yes, yes, public protest.
Tavis: “Give Lupe a release date.”
Fiasco: Seventeen-year-old, a 19-year-old and I think another 17-year-old from New Jersey put together a protest, contacted New York City, got the ordinances, organized carpools and really put this thing together.
Tavis: There they are on the screen there, yeah, yeah.
Fiasco: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Fiasco Friday.
Tavis: Fiasco Friday. (Laughter)
Fiasco: Fiasco Friday. We call them the October 15th Liberation Front. (Laughter)
Tavis: How does that make you feel, though, when you have fans – these pictures could very well have been in Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana, as we see happening now. They could very well have been in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya, but you’ve got fans here who are leading protests for the record label to give your project a release date. That makes you feel how?
Fiasco: It makes me feel – I’ll put it to you like this: The fans were giving interviews, the organizers were giving interviews, and people were saying, “Why don’t you protest something meaningful? Why don’t you protest child hunger? Why don’t you protest poverty? Why don’t you protest street violence? Why don’t you protest breast cancer? Why don’t you protest something meaningful?”
Their response across the board was, “Well, if you listen to Lupe Fiasco’s music -“
Tavis: I’m glad you went there. That’s the right answer – he does all of that.
Fiasco: “- then you’ll understand why we’re doing that. We want him, we protest for that stuff as well, but in this particular space, music, pop culture, we want Lupe Fiasco in the mix.” So it makes me feel – it’s humbling, it’s exhilarating, it’s the whole gambit.
Tavis: Yeah. So since you went there, the fans understand, fans of your music, and I include myself in that, understand that you will speak truth to power. Our dear friend Dr. West, Cornel West, always reminds me that it is the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak. It’s the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak.
So that you are courageous in all of your projects and speaking that truth to power so the suffering can be heard, I wonder, though, whether or not there is a price to pay for that as an artist these days.
Fiasco: I don’t know, maybe for some. For me, I walk a line of fame and infamy. I walk the line of celebrity and non-celebrity, so there’s things that I could get away with that artists in calibers above me would not be able to, and that artists in the caliber below me that speak it more vehemently and more intelligently and more direct and have way more facts and way more source material than I do about these particular political, social subjects or what have you, they won’t get – people won’t even know that they’re even saying it, in a sense, except for a certain few.
It’ll never crack over into me talking to Tavis Smiley nationwide; let’s discuss “Words I Never Said.” So I don’t feel the backlash, especially what I went through. My greatest enemy at one point was myself, and so now once I got over the fear of myself I don’t fear any man. I never have.
Tavis: When you mention, as you did a moment ago, “Words I Never Said,” there is a critique on this project of President Obama, and I raise that because there are a couple of things that come to mind. One, on another track – I’ll come back to that – on another track you got John Legend on here. Nobody out campaigning more for Barack Obama than John Legend; maybe Matt Damon, and Matt Damon of late has been taking the president to task.
But I was online literally just last night and I came across a wonderful conversation you had on the BBC when you were over in Europe talking about President Obama, and I was – I’ve always known you to be a truth-teller, but I’m leaning back in my seat, I can’t believe that I’m hearing Lupe Fiasco say – well, I can believe it, but I was just taken aback at how honest you were.
Honest in an authentic, transparent, even vulnerable sort of way about what you think of this country and our politics and specifically President Obama, as I mentioned now, back to “Words I Never Said.” You got a critique of him even on this particular project. Where does that come from, the boldness to critique a man who would be, who is, in fact, the first African American president of this country?
Fiasco: Yeah, but that – the precedent of a Black man in power has already been set. I look to Robert Mugabe and I see the extreme of where it can go wrong. So there’s no – even when the whole thing started to culminate and it started to go, I was like, you judge a man on his actions. You don’t judge a man on his words.
So for me, I always looked at it like the system is flawed. The men can have a moral compass that is just unshakeable, they can have ethics that run to the core, but if you’re representing a system that is, I would say, in the majority unfair and corrupt and very biased, and bipartisan is a bad thing to me, you know what I’m saying, for you to be representative of that system, I don’t see you. I see past you.
I’m still looking at the system. My mother and my father taught me to look at the actual problem, not the face of it, not the veneer of it. So for me, I was never – I was impressed that it – racially, I was impressed, right, but now in America it’s about economics, and it’s been about economics, and honestly, everything’s been about economics since I don’t want to say the beginning of time, but it’s been about economics for a long while.
Tavis: No, you’re right. Again, back to Dr. West, who says America was a corporation before it was a country.
Fiasco: Yes, very much so.
Tavis: So it’s been about the money from the very beginning, yeah.
Fiasco: So when I see things – when I see the focus not being on – when I see the focus not being on a revolution of the economy or a change of the economic system, for me it’s the same old, same old. My main – it was so poignant. I remember I was in Chicago and I had the opportunity to be with his staff while they were playing basketball before he became president-elect, and I remember I didn’t shake his hand.
I was like, “I can’t shake his hand, because I don’t know what he’s going to do.” Then I went home because I didn’t want to go to Grand Park to be in the midst of the mayhem to hear the speech, and I was sitting there and I watched the speech on TV and I was like, “Yo, this is okay, okay, okay.” And it was forefathers and this and this and this, and I was like, okay, because I can agree with setting the precedent of justice and equality even if you own slaves, but you set the precedent, we can follow it 200 years later.
But when he said, “We need to get out of Iraq,” I was like, “Hey,” “And get into Afghanistan where the (unintelligible) is,” I was done. From that moment, I was done. So from the very inception, I was done. So it’s been – I respect him and I love him as a brother, but there are just some serious issues.
Tavis: How do your fans handle that? How do they digest that? I ask that, again, because your fan base is young and energized, and I haven’t done any scientific data, any research on the Lupe Fiasco fan club (laughter) beyond myself, but I suspect, as you might, that a good number, a goodly number of the people who are fans of yours in that younger echelon were people out campaigning for Obama two years ago.
Voted for the first time in their lives for Obama two years ago. Here you come with this powerful and compelling truth – truths, plural – about him and about the administration and about the system, and you think your fans can handle that?
Fiasco: Most definitely. I think that some of my fans are way more knowledgeable about it than I am, and I think there has to be a certain realization. We have to look down and see exactly what we’re doing. When we understand that our tax dollars, whatever which you vote – I don’t vote, but I pay taxes.
When you understand that your tax dollars pay for those tear gas canisters that were being fired into the crowd, and when you see that, and to know that a little bit of your fingerprint, your American DNA is a part of that, as well as those stealth bombers and that bomb that’s lodged in the side of the school that has “Made in USA” on it in Gaza, and all of the unmanned drones that are blowing up weddings and things of that nature, to know that you pay for that, you really have – you don’t have to do it now, but you need to think about that.
You need to think about that and the system that you live in and the comforts that you have. But the comforts that you have that are causing the discomforts of a massive amount of people around the world. It’s not that – I don’t want to put the pressure on us that we have to change it, but at least we need to start thinking about that very seriously, that the nuts and bolts, and what really holds this thing together and the real weight is the economy and where our money goes.
The biggest budget is the military budget. For what? We’re fighting two wars in very small countries that have no nuclear weapons, that have no capabilities to destroy anything. They probably couldn’t even get to America, right? But we’re over there fighting vehemently, and people are dying every day, and we’re paying for it.
So I think that my fans are – some of them disagree with me. I have a lot of fans in the Tea Party, and they disagree with me vehemently. (Laughter) But they’re fans, so we meet and connect and talk, so I’m open to everything.
Tavis: See, I don’t just love Lupe Fiasco, I adore this brother, and I think you see why, because it’s hard, I mean this sincerely, it’s hard to find anybody in the game these days – that is, the music game – who is willing to tell the kind of truths that Lupe tells, and you always are going to get that whenever you pick up an album that has his name on it.
The new project from this genius is called “Lasers.” Lupe, I am always delighted to have you on this program, and you back any time you got time to just kick it.
Fiasco: Thank you, sir, appreciate it, brother.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Fiasco: Thank you. You, too. You, too.
Tavis: I appreciate you.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm