28 NOVEMBER 2016 | LAGOS
Lanky, warm, self-assured, the energised guest, settled into an armchair, fresh from his Lagos watering-spots tour to discuss various issues with friends, promoter and a steady stream of visitors. Oti’s Place is the rendezvous.The ambience is vespertine with lowered light, bookshelves, vintage liquor, a Baby grande and of course the low-volume tones of Mos Def, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
It is a place for quaint sophistry and ideas.
Coffee and cigarettes make the rounds, over rare Jazz history, knuckle politik, anecdotes on Race and identity politics. Yasiin is insightful, sensitive and straight-no-chaser about several issues within the issues. This is Yasiin Bey’s first visit to Lagos, in what has been described, by him as an eye-opener.
He explains that he had a wholly different impression of the Lagos scene, from travel
advisories before he came.
His prior views have been hard-reset by the social vistas, talks, energies, wonderful scenic views and the very welcoming crowd at the sold-out LJS Gig at the Muri Okunola Park, penultimate Friday November 28th 2015. This year’s Lagos Jazz Series was exceptional in it’s 6th incarnation of eclectic musicianship – featuring some of the finest abilities in modern African sonic sensibility.
His performance, from firsthand experience, electrified the vast audience, which cut across a swathe of bohemia, professionals, elders, city slickers, expats and seasoned music
Lagos, truly appreciated Yasiin Bey’s music.
Yasiin Bey was born Dante Terrell Smith, and was formerly known by his former stage name Mos Def, is an American hip hop recording artist, actor, comedian, and activist from Brooklyn, New York City, New York.
Yasiin embarked on his hip hop career in 1994, alongside his siblings in the short-lived rap group Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), after which he appeared on albums by Da Bush Babees and De La Soul. He subsequently formed the trio Black Star, alongside fellow Brooklyn-based rapper Talib Kweli, and Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek and released their eponymous debut album in 1998. He was a major force in late-1990s underground hip hop while under Rawkus Records. In 1999, Mos Def released his solo debut, Black on Both Sides, under Rawkus and Priority Records. His debut was followed by The New Danger (2004), True Magic (2006) and The Ecstatic (2009).
Yasiin Bey has been vocal on several social and political causes, including police brutality, the idea of American exceptionalism, and the state of black Americans.
Yaasiin, over an hour, speaks to The Lagos Jazz series about his ethos, music and ideas.
Interview by Lanre Lawal, for Lagos Jazz Series.
LL: Could you discuss the transition from MD to YB? What precipitated that?
YB: Well Mos Def, is of course, not my natural born name.
It’s a nom de plume.
Along the same lines as when Muhammad Ali was no longer Cassius Clay.
Its that simple.
LL: Is Yasiin, a reference to Surah Yasiin, the Chapter in the moslem book?
YB: Of course, its the only way anyone can come to knowledge of that name is you know,
is a direct reference to Islam , to my faith as a Moslem.
LL: Why do you believe in Islam, as a way Of life?
YB: For the same reason that anyone believes in what they believe in.
A personal relationship with their philosophy, with their perspective.
For me, even beyond what I can explain, its my own personal experience.
I think everyone is entitled to that.
LL: What is the function of culture today in 2015? How does it decide societal direction? And
where do you see yourself within the mechanics of that?
YB: Well, the role of Culture, the role that culture plays, depends on who is casting Culture.
For some people, the role of culture is a matter of business solely.
Gains and Losses. A simple matter of buying and selling. And there’s that aspect of it for me as
well – but that is not – the primary motivator, and its certainly not the sole aim.
I think that art, in whatever medium is expressed, has – well good useful art anyway – has
elements of beauty – not just glamour – and truth.
And if something is beautiful and true, then in a perennial sense of time – it is a useful and
renewable energy resource.
Everything else, as attractive as it maybe for awhile, regardless of well arranged or clever it
maybe, tends to fall by the wayside.
LL: Where is Culture headed? What would you say is the Future of Culture?
Its a complex question..
YB: Yeah, it’s a complex question, but an interesting question.
I am very encouraged by the present, and by what i sense coming which may sound curious
to some people, but that depends on whatever their focus is in this moment in time.
Some people may feel that the future of all things are fairly bleak.
And to that I would say they are not wholly incorrect.
There are some, challenging times on the horizon. Darker times.
Also, in that same space and time, there are much better days ahead.
And the brightness is far greater than the darkness even in a small degree.
All you need is a small ray of light to break apart the strongest depth of blackness.
LL: The stars get their brightness from the surrounding darkness…
YB: [nods] Dark is not always negative either.
There is always a kind of positive solitude that many people – not necessarily a mass of people
– but a greater mass than we can possibly imagine, will start to develop a positive sense of
solitude and independence and development of true knowledge and skill; and also positive and useful self determination – that is less dependent on it at all on what we have traditionally come to know as system of governance – or governments.
More positive engagements in trade and commerce.
LL: All within the framework of Culture ?
YB: As culture positively affects all of these areas – and not solely just – because culture is
applicable to a lot of different human activities.
There is a culture of land cultivation, growers, crafts people –
caregivers, gangsterism – many cultures.
What each culture has to contribute that is useful would determine the future of those cultures –
LL: What would you say is the central issue with mainstream culture? Is there one?
YB: I don’t believe in the mainstream anymore.
I don’t think the things that are quote or unquote, most well-known or renowned are necessarily
the best products.
Or that thing is a true indicator of what some might term Impact.
Yeah, that’s a term that is used often – does it have Impact?
And that word has a lot of connotations to it –
Impact can be assaultive – I prefer does it connect and not solely just on a market level –
and also, having a certain presence in the market that is not always indicated by numbers.
Numbers don’t lie- but don’t always tell the whole story.
LL: They tell a picture…
YB: They give a glimpse into the reality of a certain circumstance or whatever –
LL: They are quotations…
YB: Yes, but they are not the whole story…
LL: Would you characterise culture as being far more visual globally, than aural?
What are the fallouts of that? In the sense that Western media is heavily visual? What does it do
in your opinion to the creative instinct?
YB: Well, the thing that is interesting about music is that – music is referring to an interior space,
that doesn’t necessarily require a visual reference. All music requires is – in a unique way in my
opinion – is a certain presence and openness.
Literally. And I think that’s true for very few art forms – to see advanced performance, you have
to see it. But you can feel the music.
And I think it gives people the opportunity to create their own visuals – but on an interior level.
It’s a means of journeying in a way.
So, but in terms of what you are asking about Visual, –
LL: What does the emphasis on visual, do to the creative instinct?
YB: That’s an interesting question. I think it can force a certain amount of, pre-occupation
with aesthetics, and it can distract an artist from a certain level of earnestness – which is
One of the things, I found challenging in creating art – is to just – constantly taking the inventory
how open and sincere you are being – how none self-absorbed you can be.
That is being it, as opposed to just being indulgent or gazing out – or a kind of staring in-space
focus – and it’s a sort of disappearance, if you will, that forces a certain presence.
The focus on being o visual so much, can be – if it’s not checked – and really managed can start
to take precedence – how good does this look, how well is it packaged – and if the package is
good – or aesthetically pleasing – or just eye catching – manipulative at the end, then it doesn’t
necessarily have to be – the ingredients don’t have to be as good as the packaging.
But i think that’s part of human nature too, people are drawn to what’s attractive or pleasing to
Some people manipulate that. Others use it as a means to bring people close.
LL: What is music? In the sense of utility?
In the sense of utilitarian African art?
What are your comments on the concept of rhythm?
YB: Something that Georgia Anne Muldrow said to me comes to mind. She said all African Art is
functional. And it was really key for me to hear.
There is something in me that really agrees with that; as the principal purpose of – I wanna say
– indigenous, creative, native people art. Not to say some other peoples are fabrication, but
some of them are – but ultimately what I think some people would term original, indigenous or
native peoples art – at the heart of it – is expressing the wide dynamics of human emotion and
experience. And how that experience is connected to a cosmic presence.
The feeling and the notion that we all have in our- even if most of us struggle with it.
Some of us in the Western world, struggle with the concept that life and energy is an eternal
enterprise. That it is an expanding enterprise.
The reality that the more you do anything, the better you get at it.
So it means that there’s no…
LL: There’s no ceiling
YB: Right. Right. And that Time is relative, in that it keeps going on. The local time is always now.
Everywhere. Then was someone else’s Now,
So, Now is always. From that perspective, there’s no death.
it’s a pause, as anything. A change, a transition.
Energy is eternal. Vibrations are eternal.They stop being one thing to become something else. It’s one
thing to become something else.
It means they didn’t stop they just transformed.
I think that music is there to connect us to a cosmic presence that is in us and all around us and
that is us. Certain vibrations, – I mean there is music all around us – the waves are music –
birdsongs, laughter. All the things have a rhythm.
People’s voices can be very sacred things. A child’s voice is amazing music.
It’s one of the blessings of hearing, you know that you can – experience the cosmos through
But the thing is interesting about music – you can close your eyes, nostrils, mouth, but your ears
are still open.
These are a dynamic of frequencies. Bottom line is some people use them to help others be
free, and some use them to enslave and entrap others, and turn them to zombies for their own
And this is what you have in the balance of powers in the world today, because the
techniques, these questions that you ask, the motivations have been well established.
As Mr Max Ehrmann said in the Desiderata, the universe is unfolding exactly as it should.
So in that regard, there is no need to worry.
LL: What are your thoughts on democracy? As a basic concept?
What are some of the areas you think America could make a better job Of democracy?
YB: That is a super Big Ass question
YB: [sits up, Laughing]
LL: I mean give the compact version
YB: Democracy as a basic concept – is one system of governance. I ain’t saying its broken, but
if it ain’t broken, then the m*therf*ckers who working it – they ain’t working it right!
You f*cking up democracy.
If it’s supposed to work, you doing it wrong – All y’all n*ggers is doing it – this is some shit – You
got it on backwards! It’s like when the baby, put on his shoes and the front end is here, there is
nothing wrong with the shoes!
You got it on the wrong f*cking feet!
And its more than one way to steam some fish, by the way.
Some people plug into the gas line and use a stove, somebody else get an open drum and a grill
plate and some charcoal.
They both cookin’!
Who is to say the man with the stove is better than my man with the barrel?
As a matter of fact, my man with the barrel and them coals, might give you something better
than my man with the big f*cking 100 dollar –
LL: More tasty?
YB: What?!!! Okay?
YB: So you got your system of governance, why are you insisting, this be – THE system of
governance, for places that it is not even native to?
Let’s be clear, culture, all that stuff relies on human beings. Alright.
I love the birds. They don’t give a fuck I am here.
Creation, Nature is completely impartial to my presence, to human beings.
Everything that we do, we can do to add and everything we do to take away, only takes away
‘Cos whether human beings are present or not, universe is been here, and will continue to be.
It’s no big deal. So, since its almost completely meaningless, Let’s make it count.
Why not make it a better time for yourself and everything around you?
I think it’s a cop out attitude to say Fuck it – it doesn’t matter.
That fucking blasé attitude that’s like – it’s all useless.
Is so easy! Its fucking useless to me – and a lot of people have it – and I have had those
moments where it’s like…
We’ve all had them – but to just sort of resign to that – thers no vitality
or joy in that.
Where’s the ‘Life is meant to be awesome…?’
We are not born to just f*cking breathe and die?!!!
LL: Would you say Art has a role as a simulator in people’s lives, and to what limits could that
YB: You said Simulator – Oh Wow.
LL: …that it could disengage from the rigour of real life. The idea that even art, can create
detachment, to the very audience, enjoying it… the idea of living vicariously.
Also this concept of artist and audience, would you say future forms of art could be systems
where artists and audiences are co-located?
Maybe the resonance factor or idea transmission could be faster?
Just [talk about] general ideas about art?
YB: Art is expressed in a lot of different ways you know. So i think, that many things are art – I think what gives all art its lasting value, is its usefulness.
Automobiles are art – but if had one that’s less toxic to the environment – within –
I guess in terms of performance there’s that risk – I don’t think that all art necessarily has to be performance, and it depends on the intention the audience comes to the work with –
If something is looking to come to Art to – with an ulterior motive – then the experience will become or not become what they look up to it to be –
it may either disappoint or confirm their expectations.
If someone comes to an art – or any experience that’s open – having a positive or negative expectation – there is more interesting experiences there.
I think people come to experiences anyway, with so many preconceived notions –
So they sort of get in their own way of having an experience –
They suppress themselves, from being able to connect – ‘cos they are looking for the Art to do something for them – and missing out on the totality – because they are focussed on one thing.
And that’s a common mistake.
They don’t even care man.
They just wanna be entertained.
I think it speaks to an issue of class too. And a sort of miscasting – or abuse of creative people in the world – In the Opera, Rigoletto, the court jester – and he could joke and say real shit too – but he had to dress like a clown –
LL: Just to get that across…
YB: Right. So the implication is that, he is not someone you should take seriously anyway. And its just sort of cast as amusement.
And I’m like fuck amusement you know?
I am not in the amusement industry.
Some people have those expectations. But I am not here for the amusement factor…
LL: What would be your idea for a more stable, harmonious world. Where while there may not be enough resources, there is enough willingness to collectively…
YB: There’s no lack of resources in the universe.
I think that is – in my observation – a technique to spread fear amongst the general populace.
I do not believe we live in a constrictive universe.
I believe we live in a physical/Spiritual space of expansion.
2015 | Lagos Jazz Series