The straight-talking Renaissance man breaks it down exclusively for HUCK, in a series of lyrical truths, spat straight from the heart.
Mos Def is rocking out to an obscure seventies black punk band called Death. His arms are flailing, his head is banging and his feet are running in place. “Dude, is this the sickest shit ever,” he says to me, in his room at NYC’s Hotel Greenwich.
We’re basically moshing inside the posh Downtown inn famously owned by Robert DeNiro. Much to the chagrin of his publicist and his girlfriend, his energy is as contagious as the rawk that’s pumping out of the speakers. “Can you believe these dudes are brothers?” he asks before screaming the words to the chorus, “Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhh. Can you imagine seeing these dudes in 1974? Wow, man… Fuck…”
My interview with Mos Def has just ended and this moment pretty much says it all about my time with him. He is a candid and hugely passionate artist. His knowledge, beliefs and most of all his ability to relate who he is without blowing smoke up my ass, or his own, makes him a veritable dude’s dude.
In the entertainment business, the thirty-six-year-old is known as a triple threat: he can act (Monster’s Ball, The Italian Job, Be Kind Rewind), he can rap (Grammy winner, five albums) and, most of all, he ain’t taking any shit – especially from some suit who seeks to sell out his persona to peddle flavoured water. His principles are firm, and it’s those exact ideals that intrigue and inspire many – and frighten a few.
His latest and most stellar collection of songs, The Ecstatic, brings Mos Def to the upper plateau of artists making any kind of music anywhere today. For the kid from Brooklyn, it’s exactly where he should be and, more importantly, it’s where he needs to be.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mos Def, in his own words.
Born Dante Terrell Smith in Brooklyn, Mos Def grew up in a three-window tenement apartment during a time that many in New York City would rather forget.
Mos Def: I was thirteen, fourteen when crack hit the streets and it was just like, the atomic bomb for the Japanese, and then there’s crack for my people and my generation. It hit a lot of people, but it hit us first, and hard. It didn’t matter if you were using or if you was dealing or not, everybody was affected, it just was indiscriminate. You didn’t have to be an active participant to feel the effects.
It was driving so many neighbours out of their minds and souls – and making others rich – driving them out of their minds and souls and sending them to the funeral home and penitentiary. There was a lot going on and nobody gave a fuck, the New York City local government… nobody gave a fuck about us, dude.
When KRS-One came out with ‘Stop the Violence’ he was telling them – he wasn’t just telling us – he was telling the world: stop the violence, stop your economic violence, stop your social violence. Stop the bullshit because you’re creating a generation of socio-pathic people.
Sure enough ten years later, you know, those anti-violence campaigns… we told you what the fuck was gonna happen. You know, we told you there would be the Crips and the Bloods. You go to Flatbush [in Brooklyn], it was United Kings and MOB. We aren’t even talking about the Caribbean gangs and all that, so it was a bunch of shit going on that you know when you’re a teenager.
As a teenager going to school, we were under constant pressure and stress. Myself and others like me in that time, and in times now, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You go to school with five million people on a train packed up like sardines. And you get to school and the worst gang in the city is just waiting there to just whip people’s asses for fun. You know what I’m saying? It was nine o’clock in the morning.
And on top of that, nobody cared. We were criminalised for being young. It was a heavy time, man. That time makes me wanna cry, because a lot of young people didn’t survive that. And that shit is still going on today.
I talked to my brother, and my nephew is like twelve going on thirteen, you know, a pre-teen. My brother is looking at me with genuine concern in his eyes like, “Every time he leaves to go to school I say a prayer because anything could happen to my son.”
In 2006, a school yard fight got out of hand in Jena, Louisiana, between black and white youths. The aftermath of the incident led to scare tactics straight from the 1950s Ku Klux Klan playbook, including the hanging of nooses to intimidate the local black population. Among the hundreds of protestors, Mos Def was one of the few hip hop artists to take a stand against it.
Mos Def: You know the sad shit about that shit, is the fuck loads of people who came down there. People left their jobs, they got fired for that shit, bro. These people ain’t famous, they were just concerned. We had all the people power. The people knew what they were supposed to do. I called everybody, man. I called everybody I could call, man. And nobody picked up. And then it was like, they’re throwing us under the bus. I’m like, I’m not throwing anybody under the bus. This is the fucking facts, holmes.
I was there in that hot-ass Louisiana sun, wearing a $55,000 watch on purpose. Those motherfuckers then see that this dude that you fucked with got big brothers who are big dudes and they’re not having it. But I was the only brother to show up. Shout out to everybody who was there, but I open up the magazines [and] the motherfuckers are on stage with millions of dollars worth of jewellery like it’s a motherfucking Fonzie moment.
You know, and this is like post-Katrina. You want to be Blake Carrington? Okay, what do you do after that? I’m sick of that shit, man, and it’s like you can’t even say nothing about it because it’s like, oh, you’re being judgemental, oh, you can’t understand. It’s like, listen, I can’t make no judgement because I don’t know these people. But I do know these people in power. I’m not making judgement on you. I’m making a judgement on your power policy. You know, you’re not just some random private citizen. You’re part of an industry that motivates people’s hearts and minds, like, what the fuck? You have to be checked.
Initially the hip hop movement was a New York/New Jersey thing until it spread nationwide thanks to underground mix tapes and simple songs designed to get the party started. Thirty years on, it is a global force, musically, socially and politically.
Mos Def: You know, like Gandhi said, you have to be the change that you wanna see. And with that being said, at the same time, people in power have to be called to some sort of accountability. That’s not just politicians. Hip hop and arts as a culture is bigger than the government. So if you’re in the position where you could influence millions and millions of people, people you’ll never see, why poison their table water, man? You can give them vitamins and nutrients that are delicious, they’d love to eat it. You know, it’s not impossible, man.
They can’t kill my culture. Because this culture [is what] told the world that we was not dead. We were just Lazarus pushing that stone off that grave. I’m not here for the brass thing because hip hop, I believe God put it here so my people could get free. Nobody came to save my people. They were very content to let us die and be where we was. And the world started looking at us through a lens of this culture and really dealing with the hell that we are living in, the hell that we didn’t create.
And these are good people with humble ambitions. They don’t wanna rule the world. They don’t want to be emperors and queens. They want to be able to make a decent wage and take care of their families and enjoy themselves on the weekend and have maybe one to two vacations out of the year, one would be fine. These are humble ambitions. You know, comfortable people do not become revolutionaries. They don’t burn down their towns, you know?
And to see somebody who is a concentration camp survivor and forget and try to act like that didn’t happen to him, you know, it hurts and it pisses me off and that makes me very angry. Because it’s like, you’re supposed to be here for us… that’s bullshit, those people don’t understand, they don’t even care. You’re some sort of charming sideshow for them.
To quote my brother, Kamal: “We came up in spite of America not because of America.”
The election of President Barack Obama temporarily motivated Americans to change, but to some rich Americans, both black and white, change is clearly not on the agenda.
Mos Def: A lot of people who should be showing more concern are not. And I don’t cry for the man in the business suit. As Supercat said, ”I cry for the youth of America.”
I’m not crying for the Bank of America. I’m not crying for none of these people who are like, I gotta have a few bottles less of champagne. I’m not crying for you. I’m crying for the youth, because the people should be giving them another type of dream, another type of inspiration…
Music changed my life. It was positive, you know, I heard Band of Gypsies and it gave me another type of dream; it gave me another vocabulary to negotiate my own feelings; it gave me another identity; it gave me another possibility. That’s not happening with these youths right now and not on par with the inspiration that has been provided before. That tradition is not being extended, it’s like, that was then and this is now.
I think that’s unfortunate and disappointing, especially for hip hop because, you know, at the end of the day, hip hop is really a synonym of sorts for black men. It represents black culture, but it’s all black men at the forefront, from a very defined generational space between fifteen and forty. That’s a defined generational space.
We had Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Bad Brains, and that’s just the music. We’re not talkin’ about James Baldwin, Colson Whitehead and John Edgar Wideman, all of these people, you know?
Some people are more aware of them than others, but everybody is aware of the bright lights. […]
You know, everyone thinks we’re gonna be the next leaders of the world – the new leaders of this world we live in. We’re going to be strong and compassionate. It’s not just about power. It’s about strength, wisdom and compassion. There are too many [problems] on Earth in this time and day for you to have some fucking cavalier attitude towards we humans, man, on planet Earth. And it’s like, we [are] all in this motherfucker together.
The gauntlet is being thrown down. And it’s an uncomfortable scenario for a lot of people. For me included because I want… I’m a peace-and-love person. I’m like, who the fuck wants to fight?
Mos Def knows exactly where he’s from and how far he and the American people need to go to get to the place where everyone is indeed created equal.
Mos Def: The Creator has a master plan… they make their plans, and the Creator makes his plans and the Creator creates the best.
Barack was supposed to happen at this particular time and it was written. We came over here as cargo. And the people who did survive that when they were here, they were making plans and the people they got torn from was making plans too. My ancestors prayed for a day like this. They prayed for, you know, Babylon war, and it happened. Babylon fall, anyway. If you think it don’t, then go to the museum and check out the Greeks and the Romans, the Aztecs, the Incans, the Mayans, the Egyptians.
Everybody that was like, it’s all about me, they become museum exhibits. And they’re not… they’re around but they’re not necessarily vital. They’ve been designated to another page of history.
Being a man is more than drinking legally, driving an automobile or knocking a woman up. It’s about doing the right thing.
Mos Def: I’m a dude’s dude. I love neighbourhood dudes. I’m one, you know, I love that. I love men who are men. You know, my dad was a real, and is, a real man. My grandpa… all these dudes are real dudes. That macho shit is like, come on, man. You can’t live and die in that space. It’s bigger than that and… they [are] teaching people to be selfish… they got women, [and are] really just devaluing themselves. We got the kids violent. It’s a bunch of bullshit.
I’m gonna tell these motherfuckers, “You’re a pig, you’re a creep.” And yeah, I got a right to be hostile because you’re fucking with me. That’s different. As opposed to just, like, you know, I’m smacking bitches just for fun. I don’t even know if there’s a song out but there probably is, you know, it’s just sad. Because the fifth and sixth graders hear that shit and that becomes a philosophical premise. It’s an agent for how to negotiate a relationship with the world.
In the ten years since his debut, Mos Def has been selective about what he delivers to the hip hop world. He’s shaken them with his punk-funk-hip hop outfit, Black Jack Johnson, and developed a legion of followers through his work with Talib Kweli with Black Star. Now the mic is his again.
Mos Def: I feel that my contribution […] to hip hop and to music is singular to say the least, and singularly positive and excellent. It’s a lot of that pound for pound, greatest fighter in the world thing and, you know, I’ve always wanted to be one of the best. I mean, you know, I grew up listening to people who were considered, you know, like, legends and greats.
I’ve always wanted that Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali, John Coltrane, Miles Davis… I wanted to be that writer, I’ve always wanted that. And to quote a proverb that says, “Do not speak too much, do not speak conspiracy. Be proud but do not remind the world of your deeds.” And then it ends in, “Many heroes are not yet born, many have already died.” So, it’s like, be proud of what you do, but have a humble heart. I’m extremely proud of this.
Compared to that swill that’s out there, I mean, you know it’s pretty easy to be better than swill but uh… it’s just on another level, man. I feel like my people needed it; I feel like the world needed it. I feel like I needed it and it’s here and they can’t erase it. They can’t erase it. This is the celestial broadcast. It’s coming through loud and fucking clear. You know, you can shut down, you can shut your blinds, but that is not going to stop the light.
It’s been ten years since my first solo album, so I feel like this is like a natural progression of everything I’ve been doing as an artist, you know… you know things that you don’t realise you know.
So I’m realising that I knew things that I didn’t realise I knew but I’m recognising a certain comfort and settlement with, okay, this is what I am, this is what I’m doing, this is who I am, and this is how I wanna ride. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything, just pure goodness relations, pure positive vibes.
I think a lot of it is Kismet. I feel like this is supposed to happen in this time, you know. I could have looked into the future and been like, “Where do you wanna see yourself in ten years?” This is a pretty good place to be.