Unbound Stories: Black Thought

by Renée Joslyn


As a reminder of all the good work that is happening around the world in the middle of what seems like endless chaos and injustice, I decided to launch a series of inspiring stories of philanthropy that focus on the amazing work of people whose names we all know, and even some that may be new names to you. These will be stories of people who are unapologetic about how they show up for their communities and use their time, influence, and resources to shine a light where they can. This is Unbound Stories.


Stories of love, stories of triumph, and stories of living life beyond the boundaries of your own needs and wants. This is not about giving back. It is about giving forward!


I felt compelled to start with one of my personal idols, and I must say, I enjoyed getting to know him and his influences a little better. I hope you will find it just as interesting as I did…


You may think you know him. I thought I knew him. But do we REALLY know one of the most famous faces from the Roots Crew — Black Thought? Yes, he is a great lyricist and writer, but are you aware of the impact he has had in the Philadelphia community and beyond? Let’s take a deeper look into how Black Thought continues to shift narratives with his love of community and philanthropy.


Born October 3, 1971, Tarik Trotter took on the pen name Black Thought early in his career, reflecting the potential “darkness and genius” of one raised in the predominantly Black Philadelphia neighborhoods of Mount Airy and Point Breeze. In spite of the reality that he lost both of his parents early in his life, Black Thought found solace in community, reading, and music, which prepared him to become one of the most prolific lyricists, and eventual philanthropist, in hip hop music history. Although a well-known figure, there is something mysterious and introverted about him that always made me think he was pondering something deep and knowing that he was not quite ready to share. Then he would drop a new album…and wow!

Courtesy of according2hiphop.com


In one of his rare interviews with NPR in 2018, he stated: “There’s lots of information that I would receive, I guess because it’s what I was being exposed to, in the household. Speeches that I would hear, newspapers, all that sort of thing, pamphlets that my mother would have when I was growing up.” He found himself reading the Qu’ran and the Bible, but it was in school that he began to favor English Literature, History, and Social Studies. Reading and writing became both a way to engage the world around him, as well as an opportunity to escape the violence outside of the home that would soon impact his life.


Community played a major role in navigating struggles in mental health and personal development. Trotter shared in an interview with NPR that,

“I suffer from PTSD, and it manifests itself in different ways at different times. What was normal for me as a child, I’ve grown to understand, is not normal. And it wasn’t only this way, but many of the things I saw as normal in my neighborhood had… I can’t even articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s an everyday sort of struggle, that’s just real. Very many of us suffer from undiagnosed mental health issues and traumatic stress issues just based on where and when we sort of grew up,”


“For me, the arts have always been sort of my saving grace. The moments in life that I cherish most were those brief moments when I would get to escape: either like mentally I would get to escape because I would be deep in the creative process, or physically. I took to Shakespeare and the cadence in which he would write sometimes. When I saw rappers using that, when I saw Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap and Rakim rapping in iambic pentameter, I was like, yo, this is dope! It had a huge impact on me as a young writer.”

As community programs have been a safe haven for Black Thought, it comes as no surprise that one of his largest philanthropic vehicles is the GrassROOTs Community Foundation. Started with friend Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, the GrassROOTS Community Foundation (GCF) is a training organization with an emphasis on public health and social action. GCF works to invest in community members’ collective well-being. They support, develop, and tailor wellness programs for women and girls, particularly those who grew up in economic distress while also advocate for policies and practices that reduce racial and gender disparities and foster equity. GrassROOTS’ work targets ten cities in the US where women and girls experience the highest incidences of obesity, breast cancer, suicide and HIV/AIDS.


In addition to his health and wellness work with GCF, Black Thought has partnered time and again with his equally famous bandmate, Questlove to raise funds for a myriad of foundations and initiatives including the charity concert Power Forward, the CAPA Foundation which supports financial gaps of the Creative and Performing Arts high school both artists attended, and finally the legendary Roots Picnic where they bring together headlining artists and up-and-coming local talent for a day-long concert. Finally, last weekend, the Roots Picnic partnered with Michelle Obama’s organization When We All Vote to drive voter registration while also providing a virtual platform for artists to perform and for audiences to enjoy.


Black Thought is a perfect example of what we can do when we use our setbacks to enlighten us and light the way for others. We see you Tarik, and will follow you into “The Next Movement” because “You Got Me.”