Hip-hop Wisdom: Yasiin Bey

Words: Yasiin Bey (as told to Saba G) // Photos: Michael Santiago / October 2, 2015

Yasiin Bey, known for most of his career as Mos Def, has helped shape the dialogue and definition of hip-hop, both musically and politically for nearly twenty years. His artistic mind and tremendous talent give rise to the kind of music that changes peoples lives. But his public voice has been a cultural force-of-nature, returning again and again to prove the power and potential of this genre. The following are his words of wisdom about the hip-hop recording industry, racism, his name, and his artistic integrity.

Hip-hop doesn’t have to be corporate.

Some of the classic hip-hop artists were seeing into the future, saying things like, “Don’t believe them. It’s a gas.” And it goes from that to, “I don’t trust these record labels, I’m torn.” Beyonce is saying it almost twenty years later. But Tip said it twenty years before like,“So kids, watch your back!”

Anybody who thinks of hip-hop as mainstream needs to review history. We didn’t need to be mainstream. It Takes a Nation of Millions sold a million records in three days in the eighties. Ice Cube came out with Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Kill at Will when it was physical space in the stores, when it was still the old record business. He came out with Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and it was like…I’ll put it this way: Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted I think came out the same day. I’ll never forget it, I was like 15 years old. We listened to Paul’s Boutique and I was into it. It grew on me as I got older. But Amerikkka’s Most Wanted? Amerikkka’s Most Wanted was so hard, that like if I was walking through any projects, if it was rush hour on a Friday going to school, I’d just put on Amerikkka’s Most like, “I dare anybody…I’m too amped right now.” Rap has been having that type of impact without pandering to mainstream American taste and sensibilities.

White supremacy doesn’t stop behind studio doors.

There’s a tradition that I’ve read, forgive me if I’m recalling it incorrectly, that says something like, “Love of prestige is worse than love of money.” And that’s a heavy statement, because you already see the wickedness that people will do for money. So imagine what people will do for a perception, to project an image of themselves. They’ll do even worse things than what they’d do for money. So I think really that’s what it comes down to. Even when we’ve been accepted, for some of us being accepted by our own is not enough. It’s not enough until we’re having our paper graded with an “A” by the system. But not just a sales “A,” from selling a lot of records. It’s the message of, “You’re acceptable. We’re comfortable with you. You can still, you know, we understand your background, you can still use all the parlance of the times. You can still speak in code, we don’t mind, we’re entertained by that, it’s exotic to us.” This is how what sounds like hip-hop becomes orchestrated by someone outside of it.

As an artist movement, as a global presence, hip-hop has been one of the few opportunities that people on a global level got to even see Black people when they weren’t playing sports. And it’s also a narrative, that even if it was exaggerated or fictionalized, it was a narrative that they were constructing. Like a screenwriter didn’t pick Ghostface Killah’s name, he did. So it’s very different. Some think there’s this inherent competitive quality to hip-hop, but I disagree with that. I don’t think art has to be about that, and I think the competitive nature they’re referencing has less to do with who has the bigger audience or more money, I think the competitive element in the beginning had to do with the skill set. Can you really do what you’re saying you’re doing? And then you know you got personal beef between two people, but that’s just like journalists and scientists who disagree with each other’s theories. But to say as a culture that it’s about one gets to the top and there’s many at the base, I think that’s more of a capitalist idea than it’s a cultural idea.

But it’s an idea that so many have accepted. It’s a compounded and complex sort of syndrome that’s happening to Black people in general in America, (and all over the world, but America specifically) and that complex syndrome plays itself out in the world of the arts and media. White supremacy don’t stop behind those doors. We have people who can’t stand Black people, who are afraid of Black people, who misunderstand Black people, who are making money off of Black people, and keeping company with them, and also promoting these ideas and preconceived notions that they have about Black people, Black culture, and Black expression, while they’re in the company of Black people.

Artists don’t have to compromise their integrity for wealth.

I mean, how much food does a person need, to be honest? I’ll quote Gil Scott-Heron; I remember when he was in the studio with us, and I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Hey, I can get groceries.” And to some people that might sound lazy somehow, like he’s not achieving enough for himself, but he was like, “I’m getting groceries.”

If you come from a poor circumstance to begin with, or you…I mean, look. You Black in America—I don’t care how well-off you are—you suffer. You either suffer in splendor, or squalor, or relative comfort, but you suffering, because you know that the system has people at odds with your success. Just for the fact that YOU have it. They don’t have a problem with people being successful, they have a problem with YOU being successful.

No one is “colorblind.”

White supremacy teaches Black people a lie about themselves, and it teaches white people a lie about themselves. I’m from New York so, I have a unique experience. White people in New York are definitely like, “Oh, those people are Black.” The Black neighborhoods in New York are like, “Uh, yeah…you don’t come up here for shit. You don’t even come up here to get drugs.” But white supremacy is a global problem. It’s a global issue. And the biggest issue that Black people, Moors, native people, original people, have in this continent, is that there’s no international advocate. The nations of the world don’t see us as members of the communities of the world. As terrible as the situation is in Palestine, there’s international advocacy. There’s always somebody speaking out on an international level, someone that’s not always necessarily Palestinian, saying to Israel, “How you doing people is WRONG.” Right? Jews, Blacks, whites, everybody, there are people in most countries in the world who will say, “I don’t like what they doing to them over there. That shit is wack.” We don’t have that type of international support at all. What happens to us is barely local news. Certainly not international news.

Our vernacular is evolving.

My first experience really thinking about the word “nigga” was looking at a map of Africa and seeing Niger on the map, and drawing a relationship between Niger and the word nigga. And me as a young child thinking, “Oh, this was white people mispronouncing or miscategorizing us.” That’s what I always thought. But there’s a reason it was said to us.

I think that “nigga” is a very dynamic word, because it’s the only word in the English language thats not a homonym, or a synonym or even an antonym, whose meaning changes, not only based on the context, but based on the user. There’s very few words in the English language that have that type of suppleness to them, or the visceral sort of response that it gets from everybody when they hear it or they say it.

For some people it’s like this taboo fruit that they gotta just touch. And for other people it’s a staple in their diet. And for some people it’s a spice that they throw on from time to time. And for some people it’s restricted from their diet. But there are very few words that have that type of dynamic to them. Now I understand the people who restrict it, because they have a certain experience with the word. But I think that what hip-hop has done is taken all of the venom out of that word for people who would try to use it to demean us. I think white folks in America, some white people have a problem with the word because they can’t play. When they try to claim it, it don’t have the same resonance. And when I’m in Africa, some Africans be like, “Yo, my neeGAH,” and I’m mildly offended. I’m laughing like, “You’re doing it wrong.”

But even they want a part of it! They living in straight…white supremacy is alive and well, doing push-ups and jumping rope, cardio and everything, and they like, “my neeGAH.” And they think that this is the thing that connects them to us. But I think that nigga is a unique word. Is it an invented word? Is it derivative of an ancient word? I remember hearing about the good King Negus from Abyssinia. I don’t know enough about the history at this point to say. What I do notice is that it always elicits a response. It’s not a word that anybody can be indifferent about. I’m intrigued by it. Particularly in the world of language and ideas. Certain people use it and it just has a certain type of sound. It sounds good to me. I mean I’m just being honest, on a sensual level. “Waka Flocka Flame one hood ass nigga/Ridin real slow bendin corners, my nigga.” I don’t know anyone else that can communicate like that.

“75 Bars” by The Roots, that’s the most nigga-ish rap ever. And it’s beautiful. He says, “And I race scared niggas/them snake head niggas/That take care of niggas who don’t break bread with us/Niggas make dead niggas and hate black niggas/Brown niggas high yellow niggas and them red niggas…Yeah niggas, make it very clear niggas/Been looking at y’all in my rearview mirror niggas…Neither is a bald eagle with a hair trigger/Haystack, try and find a needle up in there nigga/Leave you up in there nigga/show me the puppet/That don’t need a puppeteer nigga/shed another tear nigga…” It is the most rock n’ roll, punk rock, just balls-out, pedal to the metal, beautiful, raw, slash-you-across-the-face art that I’ve ever heard, because it basically just exists between live drums, a live emcee, and the things he’s saying. It’s just ridiculous. “I’m such a rare nigga/you in a battle telling me you not ready like you figured I’ma bear witcha/I don’t care nigga/you now listening to the sounds/Of the money making jam trillionaires nigga…”

But we need to start dealing with terminology. I think that these terms don’t really fit us, Black, African-American, I don’t think they’re really describing who we are. I think that hip-hop and jazz, all these things that they call us or call our expressions are not necessarily what they are. Ultimately I think that hip-hop is folk art, and the music is just one aspect of it. So hip-hop is much more dynamic than even the musical expression. It comes from people on the fringe of society, and I think the reason it’s more dynamic is because based on its origins, people all over the world who are young, and who have been abused, or who are underdogs anywhere or everywhere, relate to the energy and the culture because that’s where the culture comes from. So in its best form I think it’s a great motivator and can be inspiring to people who are living through those type of situations, circumstances and reality. But it’s a culture where everybody’s invited, it’s not exclusive. If there’s a sincere place where you enjoy it and feel good and really are with it, then it’s like, “Yeah. If you down, you down.”

So be you.

When I changed my name, it wasn’t about what I wanted the masses to know me by, it was more about what I know me by. So it had less to do with what I want people to recognize and more to do with what I recognize in myself and not keeping that a secret from anybody. So it was less about other people and more about me. Not in some kind of selfish way, but I didn’t feel right, or I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to have some sort of alter identity. Like some name that my intimates or people close to me call me, and then like this is how I address the world. I thought it was like kind of a crazy game to play with yourself, you know? And it’s a mixed crowd. There’s a lot of people in that room. And I just wanted to be very definitive. This is me. This is who I am. This is what it is. And I wanted to avoid being treated as some kind of commodity or object, like bread, eggs, milk safety pins, Mos Def, you know what I mean? Because ultimately it’s a tag. It’s a name that I gave myself in the streets but it doesn’t speak to my lineage or my true identity. It speaks to my creative identity. But I am Yasiin. And Yasiin created Mos Def. And being called Yasiin just consolidates my creative and my true identity. I was inspired by people like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and even Talib Kweli, who are like, “This is my name, this is me.” I wanted to avoid being appropriated as some sort of cultural mascot.

Interestingly enough there’s a lot that I’ve learned about myself and people by using my name. People who address me by that easily or are sensitive to it, they’re saying something about themselves and the respect level that they have for me and people in general. And people who don’t are saying something about themselves. So I’ve learned a lot of who’s really down for me as me, not just as a figure or an image or a concept. I learned a lot about that. And I mean I’m not angry at anybody, it’s just like, “Oh, ok.That was information that I may not have had in any other instance.” I might not have known that somebody had that type of idea, feeling, whatever. And also there’s a vibration to that name. “Mos Def” is great, it’s a great brand, I’m not mad at Mos Def; it was my idea. But Yasiin, that’s from someplace else, and another vibration to it. That’s a human being, and it’s something else. People ask me things like crazy, “What do it mean?!?” That’s why I chose it, because it’s beyond. Islam introduced it to me, and the way that that name came to me is, “So why not?” I just felt that it was time, you know? I didn’t want to be playing them type of psycho games with myself, like I’m Dante over here, but I’m Mos Def over here. I’m like, “I’m ME. Everywhere I go. Period.”


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