Editor’s note: 2.0 is a feature on this blog trying to identify the artists, the scientists, the writers, the thinkers, the makers — the people who will (or should) get a mention in the next generation’s history books (which will probably be history e-books).
Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def, born as Dante Smith) has moved from world to world — from actor to rapper to poet, then back to actor (or from the streets of Brooklyn to Carnegie Hall) — swiftly and successfully.
Not many of Bey’s peers have been as successful in navigating between music and acting. He helped revive socially-aware hip-hop from the cacophony of gangsta rap’s explosion in the 90s with two critically acclaimed albums — Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998) and Black on Both Sides (1999). He hosted HBO’s Def Poetry for six seasons. He’s won awards for his acting on Broadway (Topdog/Underdog) and on screen (The Woodsman), was nominated for awards in other acting work (Brown Sugar, Something The Lord Made, etc.), and gained respect for his acting chops in still other roles (The Italian Job, Be Kind Rewind, etc.).
But, maybe more importantly, as Mos Def, he also got involved in the discussion of our times. He’s spoken a lot of truth. He’s also spoken a lot of craziness (apparently, he thinks landing on the moon was a hoax). An appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher showed Bey (then as Mos Def) being thought-provoking (hmmmm), dumb-founding (say what?!) and hilarious. He was one of less than a handful of artists to attend a rally for the Jena Six in 2007. He rolled up to the MTV Video Music Awards and played his song “Dollar Day,” a sharp (and blunt) criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, in the street, for which he was arrested (despite having a permit).
In every endeavor, he’s executed his craft with this … (what’s the word I’m looking for?) … smoothness. He’s been vintage in a plastic industry.
Classic song: Definition, on Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star
My favorite: History, on The Ecstatic
Quotable: “It’s one thing to be the greatest; it’s another thing to be necessary, and that’s the aim for me. The best are the most necessary: those who take less than they give and love more than they hate.”
His legacy: The mainstream finally caught on to Mos Def with his second solo album, The New Danger, in 2004. All five of his Grammy nominations came after Black Star and Black on Both Sides. But those two albums pinpoint Bey’s arrival in our culture. They were released after the deaths of superstar rappers 2-Pac and Notorious B.I.G., and were saturated with philosophy, spirituality and commentary on the state of rap and urban America, among other topics. Bey has stretched his musical prowess with each subsequent album — working in elements of jazz, rock and roll, Arabic tones (and more) into his sound — and continued to rhyme about issues of cultural substance. But Black Star and Black on Both Sides will forever be uniquely linked to their time.