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Thought and Vision: A Conversation with Roots Vocalist Tariq Trotter

02/09/2015 05:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

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Source: Douglas Gorenstein

About halfway through our interview, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter pauses: "Sorry, I'm in the middle of cooking dinner." On this particular day, dinner is lobster bisque, Arctic char, and sautéed kale. It is a homemade meal, made entirely from scratch. Apparently, the man can cook.

"Yeah, I'm a foodie. You better ask about me," he jokes.

This was the first of many things that I learned about co-founder and lead vocalist of the legendary hip-hop group, The Roots (also, the resident house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon). While it isn't surprising that such an inventive and innovative lyricist would be so multi-faceted, up until now Trotter has always been very private. With his recent foray into the fashion world, however, he is opening up and allowing us a rare glimpse inside. Here are a few things that you may not have known about one of your favorite emcees:

1. He's a visual artist.

Last month, Trotter and Roots drummer Questlove took to the Okayplayer website to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first major album release, Do You Want More?!!!!??!. Before co-founding the group, the two men met at Philadelphia's Creative and Performing Arts High School where Questlove was studying music and Trotter, the visual arts. "I've spent most of my life as a visual artist. I was inspired by the musicianship that I was immersed in -- and I continue to be."

2. He was a frontrunner to play the lead in a popular Broadway show.

This past September, The Roots rocked the mic as one of the headliners at the charity-focused Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. In addition to an impressive set that showcased Trotter's considerable talents as an emcee (his rapid-fire delivery had the crowd in a frenzy), the band also performed a song by Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. Some fans were surprised to hear him belting out tunes. "I'm a vocalist in whatever capacity I'm needed," he says. "I'm a singer. There are times when I sing; there are times when I rap. And it's been that way since our first album. Because I'm held in such a high regard as a lyricist, it's sometimes overlooked that I'm also a singer."

Trotter has performed Kuti's songs for years with The Roots. He was also in talks to play the lead in the Broadway show, Fela!:

At the time that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon began [in 2009], I was one of two people being considered for the role of Fela on Broadway. I was going to auditions with Bill T. Jones [writer of Fela!] at least three times a week, being coached by the show choreographer and rehearsing with the actor who was already playing Fela. I think the reason that I was not selected was because of the significant time commitment required for the Fallon show.

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Source: Douglas Gorenstein

3. He has a passion for fashion.

"Classic with a little bit of funk," Trotter offers when asked to describe his personal style. "I enjoy throwing caution to the wind. I'm well-versed in what is customary in the world of haberdashery. My personal sense of style is a departure from that -- a conscious, calibrated departure."

With the help of his brand manager, Duane Brown, Trotter searched vigilantly for the right opportunity to launch a career in fashion design. An avid collector of sunglasses, Trotter found the perfect match in luxury eyewear company MOSCOT:

I decided a few years ago that fashion design was something I wanted to seriously pursue. There were lots of offers but the MOSCOT collaboration just made sense. With MOSCOT celebrating their 100th anniversary and the Roots celebrating the 20th anniversary of our first album, it just made sense for me, as someone who has stood the test of time as an artist, to collaborate with a company that has been around for even longer. The quality of MOSCOT's product has never been compromised. And that's exactly where I am with my music.

Together, Trotter and MOSCOT have designed 300 limited edition, black tortoise frames. Each one is numbered for authenticity and bears Trotter's signature.

The collaboration is particularly meaningful to Trotter because 100 percent of the proceeds from the sales will be donated to GrassROOTS Community Foundation (an organization for which Trotter serves as co-chair of the board), and The MOSCOT Mobileyes Foundation.

The first 100 people to pre-order the frame will receive an invite to a live, intimate performance by Trotter and special guests, to be held on February 12th, 2015. Referring to the performance, Trotter revealed that, "there will be some surprises. And most importantly, it's all for a good cause."

As I speak with Trotter, I am reminded of one of his lyrics from the Things Fall Apart album: "I deal with the real so if it's artificial, let it be." Art mimics life; and life in turn, art. Trotter's authentic approach to fashion design seems, in fact, to mirror his approach to most things. That includes his charitable work and, of course, his music: "We [the Roots] don't do anything unless it comes naturally and feels organic. Otherwise, it's not even worth messing with the legacy."