Formerly known as Mos Def, Yasiin Bey is an American hip hop recording artist, actor, comedian, and activist from Brooklyn, New York. In 2011 he made the decision to legally change his name to Yasiin Bey by 2012, even though he had spent years cultivating a popular musical persona as Mos Def by then, because he felt, and feared that Mos Def was being regarded more as a product rather than a person.
Two years later, in 2013 Bey made another big decision to move to South Africa, having felt disillusioned with America by that point. Unfortunately he’s been dealing with immigration and legal issues in South Africa since 2014, which came to a head on Jan. 14, 2016 when he was arrested at the Cape Town International Airport, allegedly for using a fraudulent document when he presented his World Passport, which officials claimed is not an official or accepted document and therefore prevented Bey from leaving the country.
Bey had chosen to acquire and use a World Passport, issued by the World Services in support of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, because he considers himself a citizen of the world rather than of any one specific nation, and further claims that “the South African government has previously accepted the World Passport to enter the country and to provide visas as recently as August” 2015.
Deeply upset by this exploitative incident, Bey released a special message six days later on Kanye West’s website, in which he “announced that he was retiring from music and acting,” but also that he would be releasing one final album later this year. In the same message, he also mentioned that he and his family were being treated unlawfully, he having been detained and his family having been told to leave within two weeks, claiming his right to live where he chooses and suggesting that his arrest might have been motivated by political purposes. He has already begun proceeding with legal hearings and the next one is set to take place on May 12; no decision has been reached yet.
In recent years he has been less active in both the music and film industries, partly due to these legal troubles, but as a true artist, Bey’s prolonged absence from music is saddening on many levels. According to Stereo Williams from the Daily Beast, he, along with many others viewed Mos Def in the 1990s the way many fans see Kendrick Lamar today, and admired him for his passion and thoughtful lyrics. Williams also pensively noted that Bey’s departure from the music industry should be a signal to all of the overwhelming capitalist interests dominating the music industry and stifling the creativity of revolutionary artists like Yasiin Bey.
Throughout his career Bey has spoken out against a number of issues such as American exceptionalism, police brutality, structural racism imposed on Black Americans, and the unfair treatment of Muslims in America, which garnered him a spot on the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center’s list of the world’s most influential Muslims in 2011. In 2013 Bey also reenacted being force fed to bring attention to the 45 prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo who were subjected to force feedings daily. It’s a disturbing visual, so I have to offer a warning before viewing.
To Yasiin Bey, everything is political and his politics have often focused on the victimization and subjugation of black Americans and the rampant corruption of politicians who are often more akin to imperialists and colonizers. His politics are the politics of a people not at home in their own country; a difficult perspective to understand if you’ve never been forced to experience it, but its something millions of Americans do feel, those who face marginalization and erasure every day.
Yasiin Bey is truly an icon and an inspiration and his art and his message will continue to inspire generations to come, even years after his retirement.