Contact: C.B. Reis
How can we tell the difference between where we’re from versus where we’re at?
For Tarik Trotter—better known as Black Thought, MC of the Philadelphia hip hop group The Roots—that question cannot be answered without referring to a certain "Philly-ness."
"People usually suggest that where you’re from and where you're at exist on two different planes. Actually, they are coordinates that define an intersection in the same space," Trotter explained.
"Philly not only defines where I’m from and where I’m at, but also where I’ve gone as well as where I’m going," he said.
On this particular occasion—the Albert Gallatin Lecture on Sept. 26—Trotter had come to NYU from the midtown set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are the house band. A house band, and then some: The group has won Grammy Awards, an NAACP Image Award and a reputation for saving the African-American music of their generation.
As one member of the audience—a self-professed "MC, educator, agent of change and eternal graduate student at Gallatin"—put it: "You're the MC's favorite MC."
Perhaps in the spirit of his past, present and future collaborations, Trotter conducted the lecture as a conversation with Associate Professor Millery Polyné, a historian of African-American culture at Gallatin.
Soon after taking the stage in the packed Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts, Trotter and Polyné endeared themselves to the eager audience by playfully comparing their facial hair. (The hairline for a "true Philly beard," Trotter teased, is "above the lip.")
Geographic lines of all kinds—divisions as well as connections—would come to define the night’s conversation, especially when it came to the topic of Trotter’s hometown.
"Philly is a great city. It’s also a troubled city. I feel like I have moments of greatness, but I’m also a troubled person," said Trotter, whose father was murdered when Trotter was an infant and whose mother was murdered when he was a teenager.
"My father was really active in the 60s and 70s in the Philadelphia Islamic community," he said. "There was a duality within the Islamic community at the time; there were people who were well-mannered, well-dressed and well-spoken but also hurt people and lived a life of crime.
"My father was associated with that group of people," he continued. “There’s not much that I remember except the Robin Hood quality that he kind of had. So it’s always been in me to take from the rich and give to the poor, and to want to give a voice to the voiceless.
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