Earlier this year, the artist formerly known as Mos Def gave his farewell performances in London. Hiphop’s own whirling dervish, who dared to whirl and pray on a simply decorated stage, dropping rose petals on a floor already filled with balloons. This was the Yasiin show. There was no formal set list (as was the case at the homecoming farewell at the Apollo in December); the artist chose from a celebrated back catalogue, as well as remixes of his own work. It was refreshing to see in a world in which live shows have become more and more experimental and elaborate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, but the control Bey had was true to who he is; never quite bending to current textures in a predictable way. Though there were new renditions, the set up was hiphop basics, a DJ and an MC. This is a man who has nothing to prove to the average rap fan; his own fans repeatedly profess their love for him and have that love reciprocated. Of course there are those who came to the shows wanting to hear their favourite songs from his debut Black on Both Sides, but the artist was doing songs that he wanted to do, and the privilege to witness them was ours.
I’ve tried to stop feeling entitled as a fan of the art. When we connect to an artist in a unique way, beyond a few songs on our phones, it is important to remember who the lucky one is in these relationships. With Prince’s death last year, I felt a true gratitude to be around at the same time as Bey. Perhaps there is some link between artists referred to as ‘formerly known as’ at some point in their career? The musician will be remembered by peers and admirers as a unique force, but also by some with sadness because they never got to see him live. It is strange to speak of a retirement in comparison to a sudden death, but if this chapter of his career is indeed over, we should celebrate as well as mourn.
“I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy/ I’m tryna live life in the sight, of God’s memory”
There is a quiet spirituality to Yasiin Bey that has gotten louder in recent years; greater realisation of the fickle nature of the material world and the adulation that comes with his stature. In Miami, in response to what I think was an audience member referring to him as a god, Bey laughed into the microphone and responded – “there’s only one God, and it’s not me”. He was back in the USA, where celebrity culture was arguably born; a culture in which being referred to as a god isn’t unsettling. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest this kind of environment made the move to South Africa an easier decision. The desire to detach from the idea of celebrity and attach to a human family has been apparent in both his words and his work for some time, most recently with his A Country Called Earth project. There are many, especially now, who claim a global citizenship but there are few who would put their money where their passport is in the way that Bey has. Last year he was barred from leaving South Africa, (a country he had made a home after leaving the US) due to the use of a World Passport. The World Passport is a real document and recognised by several countries, but on one occasion in 2016, the South African state decided to seemingly change policy and disallow its use.
It could be argued that Bey did not need to obtain the document, or even attempt to use it to claim a global citizenship. Of course this is true; it is true for many of us who may feel the same way. The difference for me, is what ties him to greatness. He could have continued to argue against borders all while travelling with an American passport without the charge of hypocrisy, but he went out of his way. He was willing to forgo convenience and possibly money to be true to his belief. It was not the first time he’d put himself on the line in this way for his convictions.
As some may remember, Bey underwent force-feeding (on camera), to bring to light the barbarity of the method used on Guantanamo detainees. Again, he could have made a song, he could have spoken out in a PSA, a petition, a march – all of which are valid and commendable, but he volunteered to undergo the pain of those he felt for. There was no preliminary announcement for it. To this day I don’t think I have watched the video more than once. It is very difficult to see, as it should be. The procedure had to be cut short as a man the world knows from acclaimed albums and movies – breaks down in tears in front of the world with no façade. Amir Sulaiman once likened writing poetry to performing open heart surgery on oneself in front of everyone. Bey’s life almost literally imitated this analogy of art.
Greatness, though not confined to proficiency and excellence, cannot exist without it; the musician’s long history of outspoken activism is noteworthy, but it would be unfair to leave commentary of his art to the side. There are few artists who retire with multiple classic albums, critical acclaim and almost unquestioned peer acclaim. There are perhaps even fewer who go further than this. Poetry in the Paris Review, Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for acting, creative director for Unknown Union…I’m sure the list goes on. A standout quality of his career behind the microphone has been the evolution of sound, and an embrace of the new (see collaborations with ASAP Rocky, support for Bobby Shmurda) – even when the new has been considered by some to be a betrayal of hiphop’s original sound.
If there is one constant, it has been the artist’s vice grip on his individuality and the desire to produce work on his own time, and disappear from the airwaves as and when he pleases. To spread rose petals on the stage, to cry in front of audience, to do a 7-part video series performing DOOM songs, to be quiet, to be loud, to release an album or not release an album – each decision is clearly his own. In a music business in which it is sometimes clear that decisions are not always the artist’s, it would seem Bey has, without too much commotion or tabloid drama, laid a blueprint that might be worth re-visiting for anyone considering this career.
And here I was, at what may be Yasiin Bey’s last performance in London. The red smoky lighting, the jokes in-between songs, the improvised set list, the passion and the sincerity were all there. It was difficult to avoid the emotion of what was happening and maintain presence in the songs. The world outside was both literally and figuratively cold. Inside it was filled with the warmth of hiphop’s hypnotic head bob, the fraternity of call and response, and a hero of mine who seemed to know his art was a brief, but important respite. To me it remains a reminder of the power of art, not only to escape but to inform and instruct, but perhaps above all to connect in a beautiful and mysterious way; to have the ability to uplift.
As a much younger man, upon discovering then Mos Def, it filled me with pride hearing ‘Travelling Man’, hearing him use a word like ‘Insha Allah’, a word we used at home. It let me know it was okay, it was cool to be honest in that way. He taught me to be outspoken, to speak out not only when ‘political stuff is in right now’, and to put the principle before personal gain. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the announcement of retirement hasn’t been as saddening as I thought it might be. It has come at a time where I now have a deep gratitude; gratitude for all that provides beauty and rest from a world that seems to be becoming more and more abrasive to my existence.
It’s scary like hell, but there’s no doubt/ We can’t be alive in no time but now!
Although rap has seen its fair share of short-lived retirements, even if the scarlet microphone isn’t bled into again, it won’t hurt. I saw Yasiin Bey on that stage, singing, rapping and joking– with greatness. It is a greatness not often seen and perhaps only truly appreciated after death. It is comforting to know the mic is being dropped on the artist’s own time, without a corporate directive or scandal to go with it. I doubt Bey will ever stop making art in some capacity, but if it is goodbye then as-salamu alaykum, Yasiin.
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The winner of Poetry Rivals 2015, Jamal Mehmood has had poetry and essays published on various online and offline platforms including Media Diversified and BBC Asian Network. His debut collection of poetry, ‘Little Boy Blue’ is out now, through Burning Eye Books. It is an eclectic first collection that looks at family, nostalgia and social pain as well as personal stories of identity and belonging. In 2016, his essay ‘Language, Life and Love: Our Immigrant Parents’ was published in Media Diversified’s ‘From the Lines of Dissent’ through Outspoken Press. His work explores themes of nostalgia, political issues and personal stories. He is looking to write for film in the near future. Find him at jamalbhai.com or @_jamabhai.