Mos Def in Cape Town. Picture: The VCG
Mos Def in Cape Town. Picture: The VCG

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 welcomed critically acclaimed and commercially successful US hip hop recording artist and actor Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey) to the city. In his keynote speech to Music Exchange 2014 (adapted below in Q&A form in collaboration with Prof H Samy Alim), Mos Def shares his views on moving to Cape Town .

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 11, 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. Neighbourhoods 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… 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…

I was fortunate enough that in junior high school I got into a very good school that really encouraged us. It was a arts programme, it was in my community. Philippa Schuyler 383 (Middle School), I think 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… I owe so much of it to the effort of my mother.

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… 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 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.” And last year in May, with the help of my dear friend (artist/manager), Abdi Hussein, been talkin about it for a number of years, I was like, “I’m comin.”

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-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… 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! But worthwhile.

Not always easy, but more beautiful than a lotta places that I’ve been… 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)… So many young people. Ill Skillz. Graphic designers. Painters. Writers. Lebo Mashile. So many fantastic people in almost every area of endeavour. 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 been some places; I’ve travelled… But nobody is like Africa. Nobody. 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.

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 favour 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 favour and feeling positive.

Hope is knowing that the odds are not in your favour 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… 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… Don’t be scared, don’t be dismayed, don’t stop. Keep forward. Keep the sunshine on our face. God bless you.

* Alim is a professor at Stanford University where he directs African and African American Studies and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. 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 US (Oxford, 2012). He has written for numerous publications from The New York Times to Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo, Egypt.

Cape Times