Budlight Event - 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals

Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter: The Icons That Have Inspired Me

The Roots frontman reflects on eight black men and women who made a difference.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter has made a career out of spitting pointed, politically minded lyrics as the lead MC of The Roots, which he co-founded in 1987 with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. Trotter recently struck internet gold with an epic 10-minute freestyle rap, touching on everything from gun violence to Henry Kissinger. Clearly his inspirations are diverse and many, so FOTO asked Trotter to sing the praises of eight black thought leaders and artists who've inspired him, in honor of Black History Month.

Nina Simone Getty Images Nina Simone A young Trotter was introduced to the jazz singer’s work by a high school girlfriend — during one of the most difficult periods in his life. “I was dealing with a tremendous loss: My mother had just recently been murdered, so I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty,” he says. “I remember listening to a lot of Bob Marley and Nina Simone. And Nina, she really resonated with me, specifically because she bore a startling resemblance to my mother.” Given Simone’s matter-of-fact nature, any imagery in which she’s caught smiling (including this shot taken in 1964) has particular significance for Trotter. “She maintained a certain sort of seriousness that it made any glimpse into the lighter side of her that much more of a treat.” Alain LeRoy Locke Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Alain LeRoy Locke In Locke — a philosopher, educator, and the first African-American Rhodes scholar, pictured in his office at Howard University in 1946 — Trotter sees something of himself. “Locke is one of those figures who played a huge role in the Harlem Renaissance, but he’s one of those unspoken heroes,” explains Trotter. “I personally identify with him in that I too am an influencer...though remain much of an enigma. The Roots have been together since 1987, came out around 1993, and all that time I’ve maintained the bar in the same place and only just this past December [thanks to the viral video], do I feel like the world has kind of come to recognize that.” Assata Shakur New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images Assata Shakur Ask 100 people about Assata Shakur (a.k.a. Joanne Deborah Chesimard) and you’ll likely get 100 different opinions. A former Black Liberation Army member, Shakur was convicted of the murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She has adamantly denied the charges, and in 1979, while housed in the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, escaped and fled to Cuba, where she lives today. “She’s a real-life American folk hero,” says Trotter. “It’s almost a revolutionary fairy tale in that she escaped from prison. Which, for me, is super symbolic. She literally escaped, and also figuratively. You could place Assata Shakur in modern day and there would still exist very many of the issues that were a huge concern for her and the organization she associated with. I feel like it just speaks to the justice system and mass incarceration and due process or the lack thereof.” Shakur remains on America’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. James Baldwin Bettmann James Baldwin “I feel like this image gives us an insight to the creative process of Baldwin,” Trotter says of this shot of the novelist taken in his New York apartment in 1963. “[It’s] an intimate photo; it almost looks as though he was caught off-guard. It brings to mind something that he said in an essay about the creative process. I’m not sure of the exact wording but how the artist illuminates darkness and confronts the ugliness and banality of the world that most of us avoid. I feel like this image is asymmetric in that way, and what it says to me is that in the creative process, there will be blood, so to speak.” Kerry James Marshall The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images Kerry James Marshall Born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in South Central L.A., artist Kerry James Marshall’s work is bold and colorful — a graphic gut-punch of sorts. “I wasn’t familiar with him as an artist until an exhibit that my wife and I attended about a year ago at the Met Breuer. His work is just breathtaking,” says Trotter of the artist, pictured in his Chicago studio in 2013. “I just really identify with his take on the black figure and his style of portraiture and how vivid his color choices are and how bold his works are. I feel like at its best, great art inspires other art. After having seen that first exhibit I left inspired and it made me want to go to the drawing board and to create.” Marian Anderson Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Marian Anderson While the most recognizable image of the singer is undoubtedly the 1939 photo capturing her triumphant performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial (after being refused the stage at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution), Trotter finds inspiration in this quieter tableau from 1938. “It brings me into the mind of channelling the pain of the past in order to get something beautiful. I feel like she kind of looks like an angel.” And Trotter has used Anderson’s story as a bit of divine inspiration for his own 12-year-old daughter. “One of the first biographies that I provided her with years and years ago was a book about Marian Anderson,” he says. “I'm proud to be from the same city.” Patrice Lumumba Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images Patrice Lumumba The first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lumumba helped transform Congo from a Belgian colony to an independent republic. But following a mutiny in 1960, Lumumba was executed by a firing squad, at age 35. He is considered a martyr for the Pan-African movement. “There are many people who are elected or who rise into positions of power and abuse it,” says Trotter. “And I feel like what Patrice Lumumba represents is the right kind of leader. And the sad truth is that too often those are the people that we lose before their time because they’re so brave.” Paul Robeson Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images Paul Robeson Singer. Actor. Activist. Paul Robeson was nothing if not a hard-working Renaissance man, illustrated by this 1949 photo of him marching against Jim Crow practices at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving. “I feel like that speaks to me about the responsibility of an artist and how those of us who are blessed with a platform have a choice — we can use it for the purpose of betterment and empowerment of people or we can sing songs and just be entertainers,” explains Trotter. “And it’s not to take anything away from people who choose to only entertain, but I’ve always tried to make my personal brand and The Roots brand about going above and beyond that and really rising to that responsibility to use your voice as a singer and as an entertainer to give a voice to people who are otherwise voiceless.”