After witnessing the Mos Def interview at the 92nd Street Y this evening on Manhattan's Upper (Upper) East Side, the title of this entry should be Inside the Rapper/Film Actor/ Broadway Actor/ Motivational Speaker/ Social Satirist/ All Around Controversial/Ultimately Very Humble Dude's Studio. Mos Def was interviewed in a public forum by Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis for a rawkus crowd of fans, thespians, aspiring rappers, and um, older folks and was not shy about speaking his mind and opinions. All topics from racism, music careers, growing up in Brooklyn, and even his controversial comments on Bill Maher's show regarding Osama not being responsible for 9/11 were brought up. Controversy is not something Mos Def is afraid of.
He talked about being brought up as a youth in New York City and listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire with his mother. He also spoke about being blown away by hearing rap for the first time back in 1979/80 with The Message and Planet Rock and how he was amazed how a fringe art form like hip-hop in the early '80's could become a cultural center like it is today. He talked about digging on jazz music and getting into Miles Davis and John Coltrane which allowed him to aurally escape his life and the challenges of the Projects. He also talked jokingly about his first passion, acting, and that it was the only escape for him when all adults wanted to do was put a basketball in his hands. Mos said he was much more of a book nerd and would skip school to go read.
But what was most surprising was that he did not come across as militant or controversial for the sake of controversy. What I learned about Mos Def was that he does not seek fame but seeks to share his visions and opinions without prejudice. And that he is incredible shy when riding in a Bentley. He told a great story about how his one time in a Bentley was when it had been lent to him by a hotel. His driver was a white guy, and when the driver pulled up to a curb with some young kids who clearly knew who he was, he said he wanted jump out and explain that this was NOT how he rolls with the white man being HIS driver and all.
The real good stuff was that we had the honor to listen to a track that Mos had made in the lab the prior night for his new 'as yet unreleased' disc tentatively entitled 'The Ecstatic'. The track is called 'Pretty Dancer' which he first performed acapella for us while the CD was getting set up to play through the PA. He also told the story of how the song got its name. Mos was watching an interview with Muhammad Ali after he had just kicked the stuffing out of Sonny Liston. Ali was standing next to Sugar Ray Robinson and he referred to himself and Sugar Ray as 'Pretty Dancers'. Mos couldn't believe, and rightfully so, that this masculine badass boxer, would refer to himself as a pretty dancer! He said THAT was the butchest thing he had ever seen or heard and had to use the phrase for a track. Even the 60 year old woman in front of me was nodding her head to the madlibs produced beat as Mos mouthed the words to the track as it was played. Even amidst all of the "aspiring" rappers in the audience doing their best to get Mos's attention, he was humble, inspiring, and a complete open book.
The challenge, I believe, with these "in-person" appearances is that the facade is blown. Oftentimes, I leave these events with the star losing their luster and no longer being a fan. But did the star this evening keep on shining after all of the questions from the host and the audience? Mos Def. (Oh come on, you had to know that was coming!)
Update: The event made Page Six, one of my favorite sources of quality unbiased journalism.