At long last, Q-Tip was in the building.
The A Tribe Called Quest rapper and producer was perched behind turntables and a Macbook and a drum machine at the Kennedy Center recently, flanked by composer Jason Moran. Together, they shared music trivia and made Boogie Down beats rain from the speakers.
As Q-Tip made the rounds backstage after that inaugural concert, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter stopped him in the blindingly bright hallways behind the Terrace Theater. “This is the coolest thing in the whole world!” she told the rapper excitedly. It was precisely the kickoff she’d imagined for the Kennedy Center’s first artistic director for hip-hop culture.
If Moran was the “instigator,” the force that brought him into the Kennedy Center fold, Q-Tip said afterward, “I think I’m going to be the provocateur.”
He was decked out in a cream-and-black silk bomber jacket, chic highwater pants and tan leather loafers, and although the spare backstage room was dark, his sunglasses remained affixed to his face. But he smiled a Cheshire cat grin. “The provocateur in residence,” he said.
The artistic director job, announced early last year, was a grand gesture that acknowledged hip-hop’s place in the realm of high art. It was Q-Tip’s appointment, though, that assured fans that the music would be safeguarded by one of the genre’s all-time greatest.
Simone Eccleston, who was appointed to help develop the hip-hop season with the rapper in March, said that his influence is already being felt. “Q-Tip has such an incredible and dynamic curatorial vision,” she said. The rapper is responsible for “much of what you’ll see this season,” she said.
But Washington had to wait 18 long months for some face time with the rapper.
In the meantime, the members of A Tribe Called Quest reunited, recorded an album called “We Got It From Here: Thank You 4 Your Service,” their first in 18 years. The group (minus member Phife Dawg, who died of complications from diabetes after recording his verses) performed at the Grammy Awards. Played all the cool music festivals.
When he arrived Friday, no matter what the hundreds of people who’d ponied up nearly $100 for a ticket may have made of the night’s jazzy, navel-gaze noodling, the point was that he was here.
And he assured the audience that, going forward, his presence would be significant: “I’m going to be in D.C. a whole lot more now,” he said.
Asked about the concert later, Q-Tip was certainly provocative. The thread that wove it together, he says, was not hip-hop history but something more cosmic. (One of the tracks on the new Tribe album is called “The Space Program.”)
“This Earth is kind of imploding, with all of these natural catastrophes — Irma, Harvey, Trump, you know,” he said, laughing. “Space is looking more and more. . . . “ He pauses. “Because, you know, we’re ruining this place.”
It’s unusual to hear such a grim view of the world from Q-Tip, because the rapper is by his own admission an optimistic guy.
That optimism was on display as he bopped on the “Saturday Night Live” stage days after the election, when A Tribe Called Quest appeared with Dave Chappelle. Q-Tip opened the performance by urging the audience to raise their fists in the air. “We are all one,” he announced, pausing so that viewers could soak in the subtext. “We are the people.”
“I know that it meant a lot to people,” he said of that SNL performance. Audiences have come to expect life-affirming messages from the 47-year-old. A Tribe Called Quest was famous for championing Afrocentrism and the everyday experiences of people of color. But he shuns the notion that he is important.
“I accept that, but it does not mark who I am,” he said, leaning forward in his seat.
"I'm just thankful that the Creator had us aligned, at that moment," he said. "In this moment." (The rapper's real name is Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, but his nickname is The Abstract, and talking with him it's easy to understand why.)
This moment seems to have awakened something in Q-Tip. A few years ago, he was moved to explain, over the course of a few dozen tweets, a remarkably contextual history of hip-hop to Iggy Azalea. (She responded that she found it "patronizing.")
Just before Trump’s inauguration, he took to Twitter to urge unity but also throw shade at the president-elect for his unkind words about Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon.
"Respecting our elders @realDonaldTrump is a ancient, Godly, and worldwide principal," the rapper tweeted. Then, weeks later, at the Grammys, he raised his fist and chanted "Resist."
Social issues, he said, should be just as much a part of the discussion around hip-hop as the music itself. When he was named to the Kennedy Center gig, he said that it was an opportunity to address a time rife with misogyny and racism.
These are subjects that have permeated modern rap music. “We should be alarmed,” he said of young rappers who refer to women in demeaning terms. “But it’s crazy, because that bangs in the clubs, and we turn it up. Women . . . you turn it up all the same. That’s why we gotta talk about it. It’s not rappers. It’s society.”
He name-checked Cardi B, the stripper-turned-rapper whose “Bodak Yellow” bumped Taylor Swift from the No. 1 spot on the charts last month. “She’s funny. She keeps me dying laughing,” he said. “But you know, you see the hand of misogynistic society in it, as well.”
But he argued that hip-hop’s paradoxes shouldn’t keep the culture from earning recognition from vaunted institutions such as the Kennedy Center.
“Misogynistic acts have been going on since the beginning of time. We can’t be holier than thou,” he said. “You have to call it for what it is, but there’s things in these walls and these institutions by way of art that have not been pretty, either.”
These sorts of discussions, he said, are the ones he’d like have within the walls of the Kennedy Center.
Afterward, it was clear that Q-Tip was getting comfortable in the building. As he crept out for a late dinner, a DJ at a public after-party slipped on “Vivrant Thing,” a 1990s banger that became Tip’s most famous solo song.
In no time at all, the rapper was at the mic, rapping.
He had, after all, told the crowd that they’d see him again. But they probably didn’t expect it so soon.