Apr 30, 2024

Honoring Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter: A Journey of Musical and Artistic Genius

by: Chad Eric Smith

“The anticipation arose as time froze
I stared off the stage with my eyes closed and dove
Into the deep cosmos
The impact pushed back the first five rows
But before the raw live shows
I remember I’s a little snot-nosed
Rockin’ Cazal goggles and Izod clothes
Learnin’ the ropes of ghetto survival
Peepin’ out the situation I had to slide through
Had to watch my back, my front, plus my sides, too
When it came to gettin’ mine, I ain’t tryin’ to argue
Sometimes, I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you
Hip-hop, you the love of my life, and that’s true.”

Tariq Trotter, Photo: Steve Weinik.

Those are the opening lyrics to one of my favorite songs, entitled “Act Too (Love of My Life)” by Grammy award-winning hip hop group The Roots from their 1999 album “Things Fall Apart.” This is one of my favorite hip hop tracks on one of my favorite hip hop albums. Not surprising when you consider it was their breakthrough album, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 charts and earning a gold record, signifying U.S. sales of at least 500,000 units.

And those opening lyrics, a heartfelt tribute to hip-hop and an expression of its profound influence, were rapped with swagger by one of the best hip-hop emcees ever to touch the mic: Philly native Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, who co-founded The Roots in 1987 with fellow CAPA high school friend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.


Tariq Trotter.

On Friday, May 3, 2024, Trotter will become the recipient of the 2024 Visionary Artists Award at Mural Arts Philadelphia’s (“Mural Arts”) biggest fundraising event of the year: Wall Ball 2024, presented by Citizens! Taking place at the 2300 Arena (2300 S. Swanson Street) and presented by Citizens, the organization’s annual signature fundraiser will celebrate its 40th anniversary and celebrate the theme, Roots & Reimagination, which invites friends of Mural Arts to reflect on the organization’s 40 years of impact, beginning with the creation of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN) in 1984, and resulting in Philadelphia earning the title of “The Mural Capital of the World,” and will also allow the opportunity for folks to reimagine the possibilities of what the convergence of public art and civic engagement can be in the next 40 years and beyond.


Legendary mural dedication, 2013. Photo: Dia Jones

If you’re a hip-hop fan like me, Trotter might be in your proverbial “Top 5” emcees; if you’re being intellectually honest, that is. If you’re a night owl, you might recognize Trotter from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, as The Roots are the house band for the late-night talk show. If you’re a movie aficionado, you might know that Trotter portrayed saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis in the James Brown biopic Get On Up and had a cameo in the Academy Award-nominated musical Tick, Tick… Boom! And if you’re an avid fan of Mural Arts, you might know that Trotter is a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.

His relationship with Mural Arts goes way back. In fact, Trotter’s connection with Mural Arts and its executive director, Jane Golden, dates back to when he was just 12 years old—after being arrested for tagging buildings in South Philly, Trotter, who had already faced significant trauma in his young life, met Golden. This meeting introduced him to the PAGN, which later evolved into Mural Arts. Trotter’s early life challenges, from the murder of his father to the burning down of his house by his own hands to the arrest of his brother, underscore the commonality of such hardships among youth in Philadelphia and highlight the importance of finding creative outlets for expression and healing​.

“Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, but it’s also the city of the arts,” Trotter said in a panel moderated by Larry Platt during last year’s 5th annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival®, presented by Comcast NBCUniversal. “That’s a great deal attributable to Jane and her efforts here. These murals are our armor.”

The admiration goes in both directions. I asked Jane Golden about her memories of meeting Tariq and why he is deserving of being honored at this year’s Wall Ball as part of our 40th Anniversary, and she wrote back the following:


VIP event The Roots, 2012. Photo: Steve Weinik.

“I remember meeting Tariq when he was young, and what I noticed was his talent. Back then, the graffiti writers I met fell into a few categories. Some people wrote because it was something to do, then you had some who were drawn to it for their “rep” as people often said back then, they would put little crowns over their names to indicate that they were well-traveled, then you had the artistic crew, those who loved the artform of graffiti, the pieces, New Yorkers, etc. They loved the form, color, and movement. Graffiti tapped into other creative impulses. Tariq fell into this category. He seemed full of energy, and it was clear early on that he had a creative drive. Fast forward to today, and I can’t believe we have been in touch for so long. That young person I met so long ago has become a contemporary artistic powerhouse – a musician, writer, poet, actor, and I could go on and on. To say he is multi-talented is not a strong enough statement because he is someone who has talent, drive, and passion and knows no bounds.  His brilliance is matched by his kindness, empathy, and ability to connect with so many.  When he talks about his family, you feel the love he has for them, and when he talks to us about Mural Arts or meets someone on the street, he is real, he cares, and he is able to not let “fame” get in the way of being who he is – a most amazing person on every level. This is why he is incredibly deserving of the Visionary Artist Award from Mural Arts.”

The Talented Mr. Trotter. Photo: Steve Weinik.


As we prepare to honor Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter with the 2024 Visionary Artists Award at Wall Ball 2024, it’s clear that his journey mirrors the transformational power of art and music in shaping lives and communities. From the streets of Philadelphia to the grand stage of Mural Arts’ biggest fundraising event of the year, Trotter’s life story is a testament to survival, creativity, and the profound impact of hip-hop. Just as he once rapped about the challenges he faced and the pivotal role hip-hop played in his life, Trotter now stands as a beacon of inspiration, embodying the essence of our mission to “Beautify. Inspire. Empower.” His achievements and contributions reach far beyond the raw live shows and into the heart of our community, illustrating that, indeed, hip-hop and the arts are not just the love of his life but also a powerful force for transformation, inspiration, and empowerment.

Wall Ball 2024 will be held on Friday, May 3, 2024, at the 2300 Arena (2300 S. Swanson Street, Philadelphia, PA 19148). Get your tickets by clicking the button below!

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Last updated: Apr 30, 2024

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