From Mos Def to Yasiin Bey: An Evolving Artist in an Evolving World

Artists, ever the mercurial types, have a tendency to change their identities like a diva changes wardrobes.The reasons vary from purely marketing a new image to often deeply personal motivations. This could include the growth of their creative process but it could include charting a new path in their spiritual journey; their relation with others, the unseen, and within themselves. Sometimes it may seem tacky, contrived or maybe just a little disingenuous (paging Snoop Lion).

But some artists having started their spiritual evolutions at an early age, makes for far more fascinating stories. As each bend in the river of life theirs is a journey worth watching. Mos Def, now Yasiin Bey, is one of those artists. This year, Mos Def announced his “official transition” that he has legally changed his name to Yasiin Bey and has made it known he wishes to referred to that name from now on.

Yasiin Bey was only exposed to Islam when he was a young teenager and made his declaration of faith at 19. While as Mos Def, his prolific and eclectic artistic career (“I’m not just inspired by black art, but good art, representations of art that are sincere and genuine”) started at a much earlier age when Hip-Hop was coming true to form in the 80s. He evolved from Black Star to Blackroc (with The Black Keys) to being in a Michel Gondry film, yet he has never sought to put his Muslim faith in the spotlight. His faith is hinted in “Umi Says” a classic track from Black on Both Sides that  uses the Arabic word for “mom” and is a cross-cultural work of musical genius with a deep message of spiritual enlightenment.

Changing his name to an Arabic one in 2012 in America is not an act to be dismissed lightly. It happens in a global social and political context, at a time of a supposed “Clash of Civilizations” (more imaginary than real but that doesn’t stop certain powerful actors from trying to make it a reality). What are the forces and factors that played a role in Mos Def’s decision to make a major change to his public identity?

Mos Def has always been socially conscious and driven to be an activist for his community. This has certainly played a major influence in his artistic work along with his non-creative projects. Inherent in this personal trajectory are spiritual values such as desiring social justice and sticking up for the underdog.

Arab-bashing and Islamophobia are not new in today’s society (Hollywood has been negatively portraying Arabs since it was born, see Reel Bad Arabs ). However, it is in the past 11 years since 9/11 that it’s taken on a much more widespread grip on the West, and turned into something darker and sinister. Hatred against Muslims is virtually tolerated in all parts of Western society and anybody who tries to advocate on their behalf are dismissed as naïve, politically correct fools or, at worst, ‘terrorist’ sympathizers. Indeed, through cultural programming the word ‘terrorist’ has become synonymous with Arab and Muslim, with Western leaders hypocritically praising Islam & its followers and advocating tolerance on one hand, then supporting their general persecution and mass murder on the other. From North Africa to Central Asia, the NATO countries regularly bomb, invade and destroy Arab and Muslim societies with impunity. Nobody gets upset any more when the news of a Predator drone killing a dozen men, women and children in anywhere from Yemen to Pakistan. It’s become banal, background noise that people end up tacitly (and sometimes overtly) supporting no matter how horrific it may be. Just look at Western people’s ignorant and dismissive reaction to the anti-US riots taking place in Western Asia and North Africa and divide between the two worlds become even clearer despite living in a globalized age of communication and cultural exchange.

9/11 became the catalyzing event for the violent and terrifying world we see today. It has become the poster child for Islamophobia, the justification for the murder of Muslims and the destruction of Muslim societies. So it is with this in mind that when Mos Def went on Bill Maher’s HBO show a few years ago and 9/11 was brought up that we saw a very revealing exchange.

When the topic of 9/11 came up Mos Def voiced his skepticism at the official narrative of the event including Usama Bin Laden’s supposed admission of guilt. Doing something like that on a very public forum is pretty ballsy to begin with, especially knowing it’ll be met with scorn and derision if not worse, especially from a philistine asshole like Maher. Mos did not get much backing from the other guests who still voiced the “Bin Laden did it” thesis and people watching it presumably just dismissed Mos Def’s comments as defensive, misguided apologetics for Muslims, not wanting to take responsibility for the events on that day.

So why does Yasiin Bey now decide to make his private religion now his public identity? There may be a myriad of different, personal reasons behind such a dramatic move but I suspect it is part of a more global phenomenon of people taking a stand on a world on the brink of collapsing and tearing itself apart.

What Islam represents is an alternative to the “Western” Capitalist way of life that is trying to take over the globe, stamping out all competitors, dominating everything it can. Islam has replaced “Communism” and is the new “ideology” to be defeated. Its values and practices contrast markedly from the hollow materialism of the “West” and offers another deeper, spiritual, communal worldview other than the infantile solipsism rammed down our throats by globalized Corporatism. And in a mind-numbing world of shallow narcissism and vanity, where gluttony and pleasures of body are worshipped, the values of modesty, charity, and the worship of community and the divine become more important and satisfying virtues that take on a undeniable liberating quality.

It is ultimately about Faith, not blindly believing in ignorance, but genuine Faith, the trust one has in the unseen and the unknown, both in the outside world and within ourselves, to stop letting the mind try to control what it cannot possibly comprehend and to learn to just “go with the flow”. Yasiin Bey chose to make that Faith known publicly, as an artist and an individual, someone who wants to live honestly, without pretension  and is committed to shining light on the human condition in an insane, inhumane world. Just like Umi Says.

“My work is a reflection of the human condition, 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.”

Long Life Productions recently dropped a recap video for Yasiin’s last performance in Montréal, with appearances from The Narcycist and other Montréal cats.


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