Actor and rapper Yasiin Bey, once known as Mos Def, puts politics at the heart of his music

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 12:08am

Few people receive such constant praise for their work in two different art forms as Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def. An actor since childhood with numerous film, television and stage appearances to his name, he is also one of the most respected figures in hip hop, a laconic purveyor of some of the most articulate, insightful lyrics in contemporary music. It's in the latter guise that he'll be appearing at Volar on August 21.

The 40-year-old, who was born Dante Terrell Smith, grew up in Brooklyn's tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. This was the time when hip hop was first emerging in New York as a local urban phenomenon that, back then, must have looked an unlikely candidate to take over the world's airwaves and become one of its dominant pop music idioms.

A fan of hip hop since his youngest days, Smith didn't take up rapping until his early 20s; his first love was acting. He was acting professionally by the age of 14, getting his first major role in a sitcom, You Take the Kids.

He secured a steady flow of acting work through the early 2000s, including a small role in Monster's Ball, but his biggest breaks came with the roles of Left Ear in 2003's The Italian Job and Ford Prefect in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. On TV, he was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of pioneering heart surgeon Vivien Thomas in Something the Lord Made.

He's also taken a regular role as an ex-convict in the serial killer drama Dexter, and was the long-term host, music supervisor and co-executive producer of the HBO spoken-word poetry series Def Poetry.

He's also been a regular on stage, including a lead role in Pulitzer-winning, Tony-nominated play Topdog/Underdog.

Smith formed his first hip hop group, Urban Thermo Dynamics, with his brother and sister in 1994. He soon struck out on his own, signing with underground hip hop label Rawkus Records; but before he'd released a solo album, he first teamed up with his childhood friend Talib Kweli as Black Star, named after Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line shipping company, to produce one of hip hop's best known and loved albums, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star.

With its downbeat vocal delivery and intelligent, politically conscious lyrics, it was a taste of things to come: 1999's acclaimed solo debut Black on Both Sides featured more excoriating social commentary set to an inspired mish-mash of organic sounds created by different producers.

Both 2004's The New Danger and 2006's True Magic received mixed reviews, with some critics describing them as rambling and self-indulgent, but Smith returned spectacularly to form with 2009's dazzlingly ambitious The Ecstatic, an eclectic collection of musical and lyrical journeys unconstrained by traditional notions of song structure.

Smith started to use the name Yasiin Bey after he completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1998, having been a Muslim since his late teens. Yasiin Bey became his stage name as well as his personal one in 2011, when he said he no longer wanted to hide behind the artifice of a stage name, adding he had started to fear Mos Def was being treated more like a product than a person.

That concern has led him to become a critic of the guns-and-bling excesses of some mainstream hip hop acts and the negative stereotypes of black Americans it perpetuates. "Extended exposure to commercial rap has got to have some sort of negative psychological impact," he told Spin magazine. "Reckless capitalism kills black people. This music has given young people in our community a dangerous road map."

He's been equally outspoken on other political issues, particularly the US government's response to Hurricane Katrina, a disaster which disproportionately affected black communities.

His most direct and effective political statement was when he was force-fed in the manner of the US military methods used at Guantánamo Bay; the resulting video, one of the most-viewed items on the website of the British newspaper with which he collaborated, The Guardian, makes for disturbing viewing.

A resident of Brooklyn for most of his life, Bey moved last year, and his destination was a surprise to many: Cape Town. In a keynote speech delivered to South African music conference Music Exchange earlier this year, Bey said he'd first visited the South African city in 2009, was struck by its vibe and thought about it every day after he left. Upping sticks from Brooklyn was a wrench, he added, but had been worth it. "Cape Town is crazy. I've seen some of the craziest people in my life walk down Long Street. And I'm from New York," he said. It's proving to be a big inspiration. "The arts, the crafts, the energy, the people coming out of this continent are like no other in the world," Bey says.


Yasiin Bey, August 21, 10pm, Volar, basement, 38-44 D'Aguilar St, Lan Kwai Fong, HK$300 (advance), HK$350 (door, before 12.30am), HK$400 (door, after 12.30am). Inquiries: 2810 1510