An articulate and intelligent Brooklyn-born rapper who crafted acclaimed socially conscious albums as Mos Def in the late 1990s, he is now known as Yasiin Bey. Arguably, Bey has made more of an impact with his acting and activism than with his more recent musical releases. He announced his retirement from music and movies in early 2016 — but at the end of the year he revealed plans to release two more albums in 2017.
Brooklyn Born and Bred
Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973 in Brooklyn, New York. The eldest of 12 children and stepchildren, he and several of his siblings grew up with his mother in the Brooklyn projects, while 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, the 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, he 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."
Young Actor & Rapper
In spite of the dangers surrounding him, the 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 Cosby by day, Mos Def immersed himself in New York's hip-hop scene at night. It was at this time that he first assumed the stage name Mos Def — short for "most definitely" — and formed a rap group called Urban Thermo Dynamics alongside one of his brothers, DcQ, and the female rapper Ces. They performed in small venues and underground showcases while attempting to break through to larger audiences.
The Formation of Black Star
In 1996, with appearances on singles by popular rappers De La Soul and Da Bush Babees, Mos Def really began carving out a name for himself. The following year he released a solo single, "Universal Magnetic," that became an underground hit and landed him a record deal with Rawkus Records, then making its name in New York's independent rap scene. Soon after, Mos Def teamed up with fellow Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli to form the soon-to-be-legendary rap duo Black Star; their 1998 debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, was one of the most inventive and critically acclaimed rap albums of the year. Many critics painted it in stark opposition to the production style of P. Diddy, then ruling the charts. Rolling Stone’s Kevin Powell commented on how the album’s thoughtful lyricism fed content-starved fans: “For Black Star, hip hop is skills, self-awareness and love of their art — not Rolexes, Benzes and the Benjamins.” One year later, Mos Def released his highly anticipated debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, featuring the hit singles "Ms. Fat Booty" and "Mathematics," which made him a star and established his reputation as one of the most intelligent and socially conscious rappers of his era. The album went gold — not bad for an independent artist on a small label.
Mos Def Returns to Film
Despite the success of Black on Both Sides, Mos Def subsequently shifted his focus from rapping back to acting. Throughout the early 2000s, he appeared in films such as Bamboozled (2000), Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001), Monster's Ball (2001), Showtime (2002) and The Italian Job (2003). In 2004, he portrayed pioneering heart surgeon Vivien Thomas in the HBO miniseries Something the Lord Made, a role that earned him both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for best actor. He also appeared onstage in the 2002 Broadway debut of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog. He built on this by being cast as Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), and co-starred with Bruce Willis in 2006’s 16 Blocks. The esteemed film critic Roger Ebert singled out Mos Def in his Chicago Sun-Times review, praising his, “character performance that’s completely unexpected in an action movie.” In 2008 Mos Def shared top billing with Jack Black in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and played Chuck Berry in Cadillac Records. He had a recurring role in season 6 of Showtime’s serial killer drama Dexter, playing Brother Sam in five episodes. From 2002 through 2007, Mos Def served as the host of the televised spoken-word program Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.
Beats, Name Change and... Retirement?
In 2004, he returned to the recording studio to record his second solo album, The New Danger, a commercial success that featured the Grammy-nominated single "Sex, Love, and Money" and production from Kanye West. It did receive mixed reviews, however. Two years later, in 2006, he released a less successful third album, True Magic. Entertainment Weekly writer Ryan Dombal summed up the album as full of, “lyrical inanities. Mos Def is probably closer to an Oscar than a Grammy nowadays.” However, his fourth album, 2009's The Ecstatic, was seen as a return to form and won widespread acclaim, with songs such as "Life in Marvelous Times" and "History" combining poetic and socially acute lyrics with catchy beats and top-notch production. The Ecstatic was nominated for best rap album at the 2010 Grammy Awards.
He changed his name from Mos Def to Yasiin Bey officially at the beginning of 2012. At the start of 2016 he announced on kanyewest.com that he would be, “retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today, and also Hollywood, effective immediately. I’m releasing my final album this year, and that’s that.” He did release Dec 99th, a collaboration with Ferrari Shepherd at the close of 2016, but his retirement still remains in the balance. In December 2016 he announced that he had two more albums ready to release, a solo album, Negus in Natural Person, and As Promised, the latter produced by the Southern hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh, who has worked extensively with Lil Wayne.
Mos Def married Maria Yepes in 1996, and the couple had two daughters before parting ways a decade later, in 2006. Shortly after separating from Yepes, Mos Def married Alana Wyatt, but they separated after two years. He moved his family to Cape Town, South Africa in 2013, but after trying to leave the country on a world passport (which the country does not recognize as legal) and outstaying a tourist visa, he was detained before being ordered to leave the country and has been placed on an undesirable-persons list.
Since his emergence on the national stage in the late 1990s, Mos Def has locked down a reputation as one of the most revered rappers of his generation as well as a highly respected actor. His intelligence, verbal skill and keen eye for social observation appeal to people from all walks of life. "My work is a reflection of the human condition," Mos Def says. "I don't want to hurt anybody. I don't want to mislead people. I want to tell the truth. All my songs are not happy. Some of them are even aggressive — some may say mean, but we all experience these feelings in life. I'm just being honest about what I feel and what sounds and ideas were motivating me at the time."
(Profile photo of Mos Def by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)
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