The Roots’ Black Thought on Philadelphia Style. And His Beard.

By Barry Michael Cooper Nov,1 2017   Tariq Trotter, 44, a fou...
The Roots’ Black Thought on Philadelphia Style. And His Beard.

By Barry Michael Cooper

Nov,1 2017


Tariq Trotter, 44, a founder of the music collective the Roots (and the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”), could be hip-hop’s Dostoyevsky. Like the Russian novelist, Mr. Trotter (also known as Black Thought) has refined literary fire from the soulful furnace of pain and suffering.

However, there is more to Black Thought than just music. His performance as Reggie Love, the philosophical Vietnam veteran turned pimp in “The Deuce,” is the latest example of his impressive acting skills.

He has also collaborated with the Clear Weather Brand on limited-edition sneakers (sold exclusively at Barneys New York), and with Moscot for the Grunya for Tariq Trotter line of sunglasses.

In a recent interview at a restaurant in Union Square, Black Thought talked about his challenging childhood, the visual arts that have inspired his career, and the royal nature of wearing a beard.

Q: On a recent episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the comedic actor Marlon Wayans tugged at your beard and said, “I’m so jealous of this. I want to rob your face.” What did you think of that?

A: I thought it was funny.

Philadelphia, specifically among black men, was way ahead of the curve in terms of the popularity of wearing a beard. Rocking a beard in Philly is like wearing a chin crown. To what do you attribute the popularity? I know that there is a large percentage of African-American men in Philadelphia who are followers of the Islamic faith. Do you think that is a factor?

I do. I was raised as a Muslim. I think the beard, and specifically long facial hair, is indicative of a sense of wisdom, strength and royalty, and not just in Islamic. In most of the religious books, when men of faith or kings are described, they are usually described wearing long facial hair. The beard is a reflection of both wisdom and royalty.

I also think the barbers from Philly are the best when it comes to the beard game. I made the mistake of going to a barber who was not from Philly, and let’s just say, I would never do that again.

Do you have a specific barber from Philly that is your go-to guy?

I actually have three barbers from Philly that I use. Shout out to Faheem Alexander and the Hands of Precision shop in South Philly, Darien Hilliard in the East Falls section of Philly and Shaun “Shizz 215” Porter, a Philly barber based in Los Angeles. Those guys are true craftsmen

Your freestyle at Harvard University in 2016 was searing and soaring epos. When I heard the line “What my father was into/sent him to his early grave/then Mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays” it felt very personal. Was it autobiographical?

It was absolutely autobiographical. I had a tumultuous childhood. My dad, Thomas Trotter, was murdered before I was a year old. From what my family members and those who knew him have told me, he was a good man, very kind to my mother and very chivalrous. Opening doors for women, very respectful.

But he was also feared. My dad grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and was associated with Mosque No. 12, which was also the birthplace of Black Brothers Inc., a.k.a., the Philadelphia Black Mafia. Years later, I discovered that my dad’s body was found near an alley in Germantown. Ironically, that same alley was not far from the location of “Night Catches Us,” a film I shot in 2010 with Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, and directed by Tanya Hamilton.

When I was 12, I was arrested for tagging a basketball court in a South Philadelphia park known as the Lot. I was sentenced in juvenile court to what was known as scrub time, in the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti network. I was supervised by a lady named Jane Golden, who now runs the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, of which I have been a longstanding board member. Talk about full circle.

Do you think that your talent for tagging city walls helped you get accepted to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts?

Absolutely, because it was connected to my passion as a visual artist. I wanted to be a painter or an illustrator.

This is the same school where you met Amir “Questlove” Thompson?

Yes. It was there that we formed the group Square Roots, that later became the Roots. Quest was a fascinating guy to me when I first met him. He has always been a brilliant musician.

How would you describe your high school years? Were they as tumultuous as your childhood?

Money was not a problem, but for a while I was selling crack. I didn’t have to, but everybody I knew at that time was either caught up selling crack or smoking it. Had it not been for one of my uncles shipping me off to Detroit to live with family members, I would have become a statistic.

After a few months, I returned to Philly. I was determined to turn my life and be successful. But not long after I returned home, my mom, Cassandra Trotter, had gone missing for a week. She had gotten addicted to crack cocaine, so it wasn’t odd for her to go AWOL for a day. I would usually see my mother once a month, which was around the time my dad’s Social Security and Navy benefits came in. However, when my mom went missing for a whole week, me, my grandmother and our family, we knew something was wrong.

Our family checked with the hospitals, the jails and then the morgue. An unidentified black woman matching my mother’s description had been admitted to the morgue. Dental records confirmed it was my mother. She had been stabbed to death.

I am so sorry. God rest her soul. Did the cops ever catch the person who murdered your mother?

Yeah. It was a 22-year-old dude who lived a few blocks away from my mom in Southwest Philadelphia. He was arrested and was supposed to have gotten the death penalty, but then through some clerical error, there was almost a mistrial and he had to be tried again. I sat through two trials. I was 16. He was found guilty again in the second trial, and he is serving a life sentence.

How did all of this affect you and your art?

I felt rage. The kind of rage you see from the families at the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer or the trial of any serial killer. I know that kind of rage. For a minute I was like: “My mom was murdered, and I don’t care about anything or anyone anymore. I’m going on a killing spree.”

But at that same moment, something turned me around to want to survive. Resilience spoke to me as opposed to nihilism. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to win, and I’m going to be a success. My mom would want me to achieve greatness in life.’ That tragic experience became a positive motivation for me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.