Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter talks ‘The Upcycled Self’ on ‘Writing Black’

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Following the publication of his NYT bestselling memoir, Trotter decodes ‘The Upcycled Self.’

As one of the most prolific and improvisational MCs ever to touch the mic, there are many stories Tariq Trotter, widely known to hip-hop lovers (and fans of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) as Black Thought, could tell. There is the story of how he co-founded the now legendary, multiple Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group The Roots alongside friend and “brother” Ahmir Thompson. Or the story of how he first found his voice as an artist. There is even the poignant and catalytic incident of setting his childhood home on fire.

The Roots live, theGrio.com
Black Thought of The Roots performs during Philly Fights Cancer: Round 6 at The Fillmore Philadelphia on May 20, 2023, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Philly Fights Cancer )

All of these stories have contributed to the formation of the man and artist so many recognize; however, they are only a fraction of the lessons he imparts in his New York Times bestselling first book, “The Upcycled Self: A Memoir on the Art of Becoming Who We Are.” If the title imparts the feeling of a self-help book, it’s intended to; in the process of becoming Black Thought, Trotter had an extensive, often intensely painful education.

“Having told my story — or some variation or version of my story — for such a long time, you know, there was no place left to go other than sort of the uncharted terrain, which was what I had avoided,” Trotter tells theGrio’s Maiysha Kai on this week’s episode of the “Writing Black” podcast. “I managed to build a career on avoiding, but yeah, at this stage of the game … it was sort of the only place to go, and I felt like, why not now?” he continues, adding, “I guess going into the process, I didn’t really realize how cathartic of an experience it was going to be, but it was.”

Part of that catharsis was revisiting his relationship with his mother, Cassandra, who died tragically while Trotter was still a teen, leaving him an orphan. “The Upcycled Self” is, in many ways, a tribute to Cassandra, reconciling her legacy in public view. As Trotter explains, sharing these and other revelations publicly was, ironically, a challenge for a man who has so spent much of his life on global stages.

“I’m always guarded, private, and [an] introverted sort of person. And I’ve just been super-calculated with the pieces of myself that I’ve made available to the listener; to my fans, the audience over the years — and not in a selfish way,” he says. “I think I’ve been generous in other ways, but the one thing that I’ve always held onto most closely [is] my personal story, you know what I mean? Like the origin story of it all — and I always knew that there would be some body of work through which I would be able to tell that story. I just hadn’t realized until a couple [of] years ago that it was going to be my first book.”

Part memoir, part inspirational guidebook, “The Upcycled Self” is an invitation to do just that — upcycle our understanding of not only Trotter but ourselves. Hear more about Trotter’s process, poetry and purpose in this week’s episode of theGrio’s “Writing Black” podcast, available on theGrio Black Podcast Network or wherever you find your podcasts.

Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades of experience in fashion and entertainment, great books, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body: Words of Change series and the host of ‘Writing Blackon theGrio Black Podcast Network.

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