Music Exchange, one of South Africa's premier music, film, and entertainment conferences, was held in Cape Town's City Hall this weekend. The three-day conference, which describes itself as "a catalyst between the artistically anchored worlds of entertainment, film, music, and academia," welcomed critically-acclaimed and commercially successful U.S. Hip Hop recording artist and actor Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey). After being born in New York City in 1973—and living in Brooklyn for 33 years of his life—Mos Def left "The City That Never Sleeps" (New York) to take up residence in "The Mother City" (Cape Town). In his keynote speech to Music Exchange 2014 (presented below in Q&A fashion), he shared his views on Cape Town and much more.
Can you give people in Cape Town a sense of what it was like growing up for you in New York City?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York City. December 11th, 1973. To teenage parents. I was raised in Brooklyn in a part of town called Bedford-Stuyvesant. My first home was Marcy Projects. My second home was Roosevelt Projects. I come from a working-class family. Faithful people. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist Minister, a very devout man, a very serious, wise, strong man. My grandmother, on my maternal side, was much like my grandfather. She wasn't a minister professionally or vocationally, but she was a very devout and faithful person. Very strong, very humble, very meek but far from weak. My grandmother was one of my first heroes. My mother and my father were teenagers when I was born, so it was a challenge for them to raise me, coming together. My mother lived in Brooklyn; my father was from Newark, New Jersey, so it was a challenge keeping in contact with my dad when I was a young boy. But we managed, we managed. And my dad and my mom are both great heroes in my life and have been extremely supportive of my dreams and my initiatives...
[When I was a teenager], New York City was a crazy place. Crack had just been introduced into the social context, and it was crazy. It was crazier than I can even express. Neighborhoods that were already going through trouble were now in a state of crisis. Everybody suffered, whether they used it or not. I never felt safe as a teenager, ever, not one day in my development years in New York City, because anything could have happened, at any time—it didn't make a difference where you were—in New York City. You could be mugged; you could be shot; you could be stabbed; you could be arrested.... You could get your shoes taken; you could get embarrassed or humiliated, at any time, at any time. So, here I am, going to school a hour away from where I live, travelling to school, with millions and millions of New Yorkers with their aggressions and attitudes and dysfunctions and really wanting to be an artist, to you know, just study art. No career ambitions. It was just something that I really enjoyed doing. I auditioned for all of the arts schools and all of the arts programs that I could. My mother was patient and supportive of me in taking me to all of these auditions, you know, listening to my meanderings and ramblings about, "Oh, wow, this school is amazing! Dear Jesus help me!" And Hip Hop was goin on the whole time. Meanwhile, I'm reading plays. Doing off-off Broadway, working in the theater, with great people. Doing plays, reading plays. I was fortunate enough that in junior high school I got into a very good school that really encouraged us. It was a arts program, it was in my community. Philippa Schuyler 383 [Middle School]. I think that was a very important point for me in my development as a young person with this ambition, and this gift, this thing that I liked to do. And I was supported and nurtured, and yeah, it was a good time for me. And I was in junior high school, closer to being an adult, and it's a changing time, it's a different time.
What do you mean it was a different time?
I didn't quite fit into the cultural status quo of that day, which is kinda like you know big gold chains and velour suits, and very big tough macho guys—and I wasn't, it just wasn't me. Some of them I admired, but I couldn't be that. It just wasn't me. And into that equation comes De La Soul with their album Three Feet High and Rising and it was a great moment for me because they were—De La Soul is singlehandedly the reason that I have a career as a emcee today, because their example encouraged me to keep goin forward. I knew I wanted to do something with music, but I wasn't quite sure that Hip Hop, the craft of the street that I loved so much, was the place for me, in terms of my own personality. And De La showed me that it was certainly my place. I belonged there just as much as anyone else.
What are some of your earliest Hip Hop or artistic memories?
I first started doing anything artistic—like, the first piece of art that I could remember producing was a short story for my second grade class. We got an assignment to write a short story, and I just took a lot of joy in writing this story. I didn't know why it felt good, or why I was so interested in putting this story together. I was excited, but I couldn't tell you what the story was about now. But I was really, really excited about this short story. I told my mother, and I told anyone who would listen about my short story that I wrote for my second grade class. It was quite powerful. And that's the first time that I recognized, "Oh, you know, this is something that I like to do. I think I'm good at it, and I enjoy it. I enjoy doing this." I always liked to read. I love language. Coming from a religious family, there's a lot of emphasis on language. The Good Book, and on and on. And then when I was nine years old—I was either, seven or eight years old—I heard my first Hip Hop song, the first two Hip Hop songs I ever heard. One was "Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa. But the first one that I remember hearing clearly—I don't know which one I heard first, but there's two clear memories that I have of Hip Hop. I think I was seven or eight years old. I was in the Bronx. It was like 1981. I was standin on the corner, at an intersection—it was a sloping street. To my left, there was a doorway—it was a open doorway. And it was this sound that I had never heard anywhere before comin outta this doorway... [Begins beatboxing the beat and hard-hitting music of Run DMC], "Unemployment at a record high/People comin, people goin, people born to die/ Don't ask me, cause I don't know why/But it's like that, and that's the way it is!" Now, when you're eight years old, when my eight year old mind and ears heard that, it was—it just stopped me and I was like, "Woah! What is that? Who are those people? Where is that sound coming from?" Not just in terms of space, but like, who thinks to arrange thoughts or sounds or ideas in that way? It was the most curious thing I had heard in my life.
And then, I heard "Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. And I remember being in Brooklyn on Glenwood Road at this pizza—you know, it's amazing, but it's like crisp. I can see it like it just happened the other day. Standing at the counter of this pizza shop and they're playin "Planet Rock," and I literally started lookin up at the sky, as if the sound was coming from Planet Rock. And I said, "Man, whatever these guys are doin, what is that?" So, a year later, I said my first rhyme in public, and I said it at the basketball court in my projects. And, you know, I was a quiet kind of kid. I wasn't this social butterfly. I was a nerd for my, you know, social atmosphere. Where it was like really, really important for guys to be seen as cool, I wasn't the coolest kid, not in my projects anyway. So, it was a group of young boys at the playground and we would have this emcee battle. One kid said his rhyme, the other said his. And it was time for me to go, and I did. And as soon as I was done, everybody said, "Ohhhh!" [Laugher] And my life in my projects was a little different—a lot different—from that point on. I still was the, you know, still got the nerd tag and all of that, but it was different. It was like, "Oh, you're good, you're good at this rap." And, you gotta understand, New York City, early 80s. You're a young kid; you're rappin on the street. There's no career path or career ambitions at all. It was local music. It was just, I mean, local. People in New Jersey barely listened to Hip Hop. It was five boroughs and it wasn't a national phenomenon. People in Chicago were not listening to Hip Hop, not that I knew of. As far as I knew, Hip Hop was a New York City affair. That was it. It was just something that I liked to do. It was a craft of the street that I enjoyed, and I kept it up. And I kept writin and writin, and wantin to get better, and kept listenin, and kept getting inspired.
What were you reading in high school? What was inspiring you?
As I left high school, and during my high school years, I started reading more. I started reading novels. My mother gave me a great gift when I was 16. She gave me Miles Davis's Bitches Brew album... Yeah, and my mother, you know, my mother is not—that's not her type of music, but she knew I would get into it and she was absolutely right. And she gave me a novel by Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers. And I remember reading this book and just bein like, "Maaan, this guy is amazing. How does he put these words and thoughts together? I wanna write rhymes like that. I wanna be able to say in my rhymes, you know—I wanna be able to use the type of language that I'm seein in these novels in my rhymes." People like Chester Himes, Chinua Achebe, playwrights like Edward Albee, Jean Paul Sartre, Harold Pinter, man, you know. Certain phrases useta jump out at me, like, "Man, that would be amazing to say in a rhyme!", you know. And I wanted to make great literature, using Hip Hop as the medium. I wanted to be able to say great words, have people repeat great words, and communicate great ideas, but in the craft of the street that I grew up with, that was just a part of my natural environment. So, it was around this time I was findin my voice as a emcee, you know. There were certain prevailing notions that were goin around like in order to be a good emcee you have a gravelly voice, you had to talk about certain things, you know, you had to have certain themes. And I tried that. I tried other people's voices. And some of them I was good at mimicking. But none of those voices was as clear as my own. Sometimes I did things because I thought that's what you were supposed to do to have impact, to make people connect with what you're saying. But when I just left all of that and just started saying what I really felt in a way that was specific to me, then I was understood—more than by others, by myself. And I started to gain more joy out of what I was doing, as opposed to waiting to be accepted by others or understood by others.
Your brother was very integral to your career—can you tell us a little bit about him?
When I was 19 years old, my brother, DCQ, God bless him—I remember we were lookin at a video program and he says, "Yo, man, we can do this!" We were lookin at Common; Common had a video, "Take It EZ." "Yo, man, we can do this!" And I was just lookin at him like, "You're crazy. You mean be on TV?" He was like, "Yo, we can do this!" [Laughter] I thought it was the craziest thing that anybody ever said to me. I was like, "How? What do you do?" Just, I didn't even know where to go. What, do you open classifieds and... [Laughter]. "We can do this!" Sure enough he just starts making the rounds, you know, taking us to talent shows and meeting people and just networking, which is just something at that point in my life I did not have the social skill set to do at all, at all. But he recognized something in me, and in us, that he said, "Maaan, we can do this!" And he was right. So, my brother was a great inspiration to me. I got a lotta heroes in my life. People that not only knew how to deal with success but could also deal with failure or tragedy.
A short story about my brother Denard, emcee DCQ, Urban Thermo Dynamics...my first partner in Hip Hop. When my brother was five years old, he was hit by a speeding car on a street in Brooklyn, on a street called Glenwood Road. We were playin—I was a few years older than him and he got away from my attention and he ran in the street and got hit by a car. The car was going 75 miles an hour. [Pause]. My brother was in a coma, for six months. They told us he wouldn't live; he was gonna have permanent brain damage. He wore a brace for many, many years. Now, my brother teaches varsity basketball. He played on the high school varsity basketball while being paralyzed on his right side. I watched him retrain himself how to write with his left hand, as a fourth grader. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can do anything that you put your mind to...
That's an incredible story, and a powerful message, especially for those dealing with adversity.
Yeah, I'm grateful for those people, people like my brother, people like my grandparents, people like the streets of Brooklyn, people who created Hip Hop out of nothing, out of NUTHIN.
Can you explain what you mean by that? What was the situation?
America had forgotten about New York City. There was a fiscal crisis in the late 70s, early 80s. New York City went to the federal government for aid. The federal government's response was, "I'm not gonna be able to do it." New York City's response was, "Bet. No problem. We're movin on." And poor people in New York City's response was, "We're going to create the strangest, most beautiful, curious, dynamic art form that the world has seen in the last hundred years. We're going to rock and shock the world. We're going to speak only to us, and everybody eventually is going to understand. We're not going to compromise. We're only going to be us a hundred percent of the time. Weird, strange, beautiful, aggressive, angry, earnest—all the time. They'll come around, or they won't. But we'll be rockin on." So, I got a lotta heroes. And Hip Hop is a huge hero for me. I love it...
What do you love most about Hip Hop?
I love its vitality. I love the fact that it speaks to young people the way it spoke to me. It recognized my talent, it recognized that I was beautiful, it recognized that I was lonely, it recognized my despair and it told me, "Don't cry, don't despair. I understand you. I got something for you to do with all your energy. I got something for you to do with the hopefulness in you. I got something for you to do with the anger inside of you, with the sadness inside of you. I got a way for you to turn that around."
Can you take us back to the high school years, and when you first got into acting?
While all of this thing with Hip Hop is goin on, and I'm fallin in love with language, you know, with acting, with playwrights. And I remember tellin a guy, you know, I was 15 years old, a guy I looked up to in my neighborhood. And he was askin, "Yo, what y'all wanna be when y'all grow up?" I was like, "I wanna be a actor." He was like, "You won't be no actor." Like that! I was like, "Maaan, that wasn't nice." [Laughter] I wasn't even mad, I was just like, "Geez, man, I liked you... I thought we was cool." But I just took it like—I wasn't even angry. I was like, "That's not true. I am gonna do it." I didn't know how I was gonna do it, I just knew that I had to do it.
So, I'm workin as an actor. I'm fortunate. I come into high school. ABC comes to my school. They wanna have an open casting call for a new movie that they're doin, which means they were just lookin for cheap talent, [Laughter], it's a start, hey, it's how I got started. So, they come to my school and, mind you, school started in September. They came to school in October, it was my freshman year. They take us to these auditions. They're askin us who our agent is. I put down the name of my high school, my drama teacher, the Board of Education, [Laughter]. So, they ask me all these questions and, you know, "Do you like to travel? Would you like to dah-da-dah...?" "Uhh, I gotta ask my mom, but it sounds cool." [Laughter] And I get the part! And me and my mom are off to Montreal in 1988 to go be in this movie. Everybody in my school, in my neighborhood like, "Yo, you goin to shoot a movie? Like, a real movie?" I was like, "I guess so. That's what the people said." And so I go do this thing and it's a real movie with real actors I seen on TV and I'm like, "Woah." It really happened. And then it comes on TV, and then they said it might get nominated for an Emmy, and I'm like, "Woah." I had no ambitions of a career. I was just in school. So, my career got started literally like—I don't wanna say by accident—but by no effort of my own other than just showin up on time for drama class. My mother and I, after that, we started walkin the street, lookin—my other knew nothing about this business, neither did I. But it's 27 years later and I've worked with so many people that I admired. I can call them friends now. It's a great gift. I owe so much of it to the effort of my mother... [Takes a long pause, with his head down, clearly emotional, shedding tears, and begins speaking again]... It has been a really amazing and crazy year for me, going from 2013 til now.
And you've been living in Cape Town for nearly a year now—what made you move from Brooklyn to Bo-Kaap, so to speak?
I'm a Brooklyn guy. I lived in Brooklyn 33 years of my life, my natural born life. I'll be 40 this year, I mean, last year. I lived in Brooklyn 33 years of my life. I thought I'd be buried in that place. And around seven years ago, I was like, you know, "I gotta go, I gotta leave." It's very hard to leave. And I lived in a lot of places. Central America. North America. Europe for a while. And I came to Cape Town in 2009 and it just hit me. I was like, "Yeah." I know when a good vibe gets to you. And, you know, I thought about this place every day from when I left. I was like, "I'm comin back." People were like, "You're crazy. It's nine years away. It's crazy. It's scary. They're gonna eat you...[Laughter]... I saw this report on Nightline, it's very scary, don't go there." I was like, "I'm goin!" And last year in May, with the help of my dear friend (artist/manager), Abdi Hussein (Whosane), been talkin about it for a number of years, I was like, "I'm comin." So, I came and I said I'm not leaving, I'm staying. And I'm not here just for like middle class comfort, you know. Sure, it's a beautiful place, you got the ocean, the mountain, the botanical garden, the beautiful people, the history, the culture, the struggle and everything—maaan, let me tell you something, for a guy like me, who had five or six generations not just in America but in one town in America to leave America, things gotta be not so good with America. And I've lived in some beautiful places in America. I've lived in New Orleans; I love New Orleans. I love Brooklyn. Forget about it! New York City needs to thank Brooklyn every day just for existing! It was a hard thing to leave home, but I'm here. And I'm glad that I did it. I don't think it's any accident or coincidence that I'm here... And it's amazing, and it's crazy. South Africa's crazy! Cape Town is crazy! I seen some of the craziest people in my life walkin up and down Long Street, and I'm from New York! This guy is—this guy's crazy. These fights are crazy. These guys with the vests, "helping me park,"... [Laughter], they're crazy. Angry-lookin-faced people, crazy! People complain about nothing, crazy. But worthwhile. Not always easy, but more beautiful than a lotta places that I've been. I've been to some beautiful places. More than just the natural scenery, I've been really encouraged by the artistry and the determination that I've seen in this city and in this country. People like Petit Noir, people like Driemanskap, people like Khanyi Mazi, people like Smiso (Okmalumkoolkat), names that I'm forgetting... So many young people. Ill Skillz. Designers. Graphic designers. Painters. Writers. Lebo Mashile. So many fantastic people in almost every area of endeavor. And yet, I see the same dynamic people, many of them doubtful or fearful, or feeling like what they have to offer is beautiful only to them and not valued by the world, and that there's not quite a place in the world for it. And I find it curious that all of this enthusiasm that all of the rest of the world has for Africa in general and South Africa in particular is not really shared as heartily by Africans themselves. I find that to be very, very, very curious. Because I've seen some beautiful places. I've been to Brazil numerous times, all throughout Asia, all throughout the best places in Europe, the best places in the States, even as far as some of Scandanavia. Amazing talent, amazing places. But nobody, excluding any place, is like Africa. Nobody. And that's not a past-time or history, that's today—the arts, the crafts, the thoughts, the concepts, the energy, the people that are comin out of this continent are unlike any other in the world. And that's not something to trip on, or to take as a dose to the ego. But don't trip, be aware. Be aware that you are in a special place at a very special and unique time in history.
Do you have a particular message for South African artists, for young people?
Be encouraged. Yes, it is crazy, but that's OK. Hope has never been and will never be lost. Even though people will try to promote that, like, the end is nigh. That is a great trick. Some people will have you believe that your actions don't mean anything because the odds are too insurmountable, the stakes are just too high for you to win. And this is a fiction. This is a fiction. This is worse than a fiction. It's a lie. Don't believe that lie. If anything that you could take from what I've said today—looking at my story—it's not always about having the best odds. If you focus on how good the odds are in your favor you may never do anything of real value. Optimism, as my dear friend Cornel West said, is looking at a circumstance and based on empirical facts, seeing that the odds are in your favor and feeling positive. Hope is knowing that the odds are not in your favor and that things do not look positive. And that the sky on this day is black and bleak and the sun is not shining at this moment quite as brightly as you would like. But it is shining nonetheless. And that this great cloud must pass even if it's hanging directly on your shoulders on this day. Do not be discouraged, do not be dismayed. You are a beautiful people with a beautiful history, a beautiful legacy. A message, an example for this world. Should you conquer the ills of the past, you can build a society that does not quite yet exist. You can be the change in the world that you want to see. You do not have to live in the drudgery of the past, of even your sins. We can all get better. People often make the mistake about the future that it will be more of the past. And it is anything but. The future is something that we have never quite seen before anywhere but in our dreams and in our visions. And hope is only lost when we lose those visions and we stop believing those dreams, stop believing in ourselves, stop believing that a better world can be possible.
Lastly, have the power of a pure intention. Work to leave this world a little better than you encountered it, in whatever ways you can, using whatever talents that you have. If you can do only a little today, then do all of it good. Never think that you're little is not big enough, and never think that you're dreaming too big. Failure is not failure. The only sin is having a low aim. Aim high, even if you miss. The point is, what direction are you pointing in? Try to be pointed in a good direction, good for yourself, good for your neighbors, good for the world. Don't be scared, don't be dismayed, don't stop. Keep forward. Keep the sunshine on our face. God bless you.
H. SAMY ALIM is a professor at Stanford University where he directs African and African American Studies and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. Some of his books include Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture (2006) and Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. (2012, with Geneva Smitherman). He has written for numerous publications from The New York Times to Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo, Egypt.