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Born December 11, 1973 in Brooklyn, this acclaimed rapper and actor is known for his socially conscious hip-hop music as well as for his performances in Monster's Ball, The Italian Job and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Mos Def was born Dante Smith on December 11, 1973 in Brooklyn, New York. The eldest of 12 children and stepchildren, Mos Def and several of his siblings grew up with his mother in the Brooklyn projects, while several of his other siblings grew up with their father in New Jersey. Coming of age at the height of New York City's crack epidemic in the 1980s, a young Mos Def found himself surrounded by violence, addiction and crime. Reflecting on his childhood home, the rapper later said, "I believe the projects were a social experiment; we were laboratory rats stacked on top of each other, and people just knew, inherently, that there was something wrong."
Yet even as a child, Mos Def was determined to overcome the circumstances of his upbringing: "I remember being seven years old and looking out that window, thinking, 'I'm gonna make some money.' Because we were good people." Surrounded by hopelessness, it was easy to feel that escape from the projects could only be won through superhuman effort. As Mos Def would later rap in his autobiographical song, "Life in Marvelous Times": "Basic survival requires super heroics/ No space in the budget for a cape."
Despite the dangers surrounding him, a young Mos Def managed to steer clear of violence and drugs, pursuing a different path to prosperity through his early passion for the arts. In 1982, at the age of nine, he simultaneously developed an appreciation for theater and hip-hop. "That was the first year I wrote a rhyme," he later recalled, "and it was also the year that I first saw Wild Style—in the theater, in the Bronx, with my mom. The place was packed. I lived for a summer in the Bronx, and you can't really describe that time and the energy and have it mean all that it did. It falls short. New York was another type of place, and hip-hop was local, community music, public-access channel. It was a culture that came up in a city on the decline." Not long after, in fifth grade, Mos Def appeared in his first play, a school production of "Free to Be…You and Me." He then enrolled in a performing arts magnet school, Philippa Schuyler Middle School, which he later described as "an oasis" of bright, talented kids in the center of the ghetto. Mos Def continued on to Talent Unlimited High School, another performing-arts magnet, landing his first professional acting role (in the TV movie God Bless the Child) during his freshman year. As a high school senior, he won a recurring role in the TV series You Take the Kids, leaving school to film the show in Los Angeles. Upon returning to New York a year later, he landed his most prominent role to date in The Cosby Mysteries (1994–1995). Even while filming alongside Bill Cosby by day, Mos Def immersed himself in the blossoming New York hip-hop scene at night.
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