“I’ve been to 104 countries in my mind I’m not a citizen of any country rather I have long considered myself an Earthizen.” – Chuck D
I wasn’t there when Mos Def decided that he’d finally let everyone know that he was officially changing his stage and legal name to Yasiin Bey (after saying he would the year before). Apparently, up there, vulnerable as ever, Yasiin spelled out the name for everyone after saying, “My professional name will be my chosen and my legal name, which is Yasiin Bey. … And I don’t want to have to wait for it to be in Source or Vibe or someplace. I figure we’re all here. We can see each other.” He did all this, apparently, in the parking lot of a popular pizzeria in Anchorage, Alaska. If you recall, Anchorage is home to ice, Sarah Palin (the woman who claimed you could actually see Russia from land in Alaska; fuck), and now Yasiin Bey’s moment of transition. When I heard the news, a part of my 90s nostalgia dragged itself from my stomach, through my esophagus… Crawled through that tiny opening, forced my jaws open and ran off into shadow. It hasn’t been seen since, but I do get these postcards through Google Alerts. “Yasiin Bey tours as Black Star with Talib Kweli in Paris,” it’ll say, and I’ll suddenly grow warm in the knowledge that Mr. Bey is still out there, somewhere. That he hasn’t given up on us just yet.
Some four years later it turns out we were wrong, but we should have seen it coming. Yasiin has felt larger than the confines of his albums, his own words for a while now. Like a comet charging through the desolate blackness of rhyme, he picks up words, sounds, music, thoughts, whatever, and his gravity grows and grows until he means to act. More than that, though, is Yasiin’s intense humanity. He seems to care so much more than the rest of us. So it goes that I was roused from my slumber again by Mos — now Yasiin, perhaps always — when another postcard popped into my inbox, “Mos Def Arrested In South Africa,” it said. A lump lodged itself in my throat.
From then on the innuendo has been a sight to behold. Words like “illegal” and “fictitious” started getting thrown around with gusto. He tried to leave SA on something called a “World Passport,” which, to most of us, is the equivalent of trying to drive cross-country on a handwritten note saying, “I can do whatever the fuck I want.” This is real life, I’d overhear people say. You can’t just travel where ever you want, whenever you want. But, firstly, why the hell can’t you? And, secondly, a World Passport is a real if not difficult to use document.
“Philosophers in the past said as the Govt wrote the laws the rebels chose to write the songs.” – Chuck D.
The ‘World Passport’ is a document invented by Garry Davis, a former WWII bomber pilot who came back to the states from the war disillusioned about the state of the world. He renounced his American citizenship in 1948 and became a so-called “citizen of the world.” The document he’s created gets its authority from the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Specifically article 13(2), which states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to any country.” I’ll leave that language for you to parse through, but it’s said that some 750,000 people carry them. And countries do honor them, even if they say they don’t. South Africa, specifically, honored the World Passport as near as August of last year.
All that is true and indisputable, as pictures of passports stamped by varying countries line the pages of the World Service Authority, but what is going on with our Golden Age emcees? Kanye West, Chuck D, Saul Williams, Talib Kweli and others have not only used travel to shape their perceptions of America and the West but have, at least in Yasiin’s and Kanye’s and Saul’s case, moved out of the country. It seems, then, that the country they are seeing from afar does not look good. As Yasiin himself said in an interview, “As an artist and as a human being, working in the way that I work in the world today… It’s really… America’s a very challenging place for me. Sure, there’s great business opportunities, familiarity and all that. But given the current social, political, economic climate, it’s very difficult. Unnecessarily difficult. To create to the degree of fullness, the type of robust, type of creativity that I like to have, it’s very difficult for me to produce that here.”
“Musicians preach freedom. Government enforces captivity.” – Chuck D
Yasiin has had a complicated relationship with America for a long, long time. Black people in this country generally do, but most wouldn’t go so far as to leave it forever. Most of us wouldn’t say the U.S. is not our homes. The reason lies, of course, in who Yasiin Bey is. The Brooklyn native continues to stretch himself out, bigger and bigger in order to taste true freedom, and he thinks the ideologies of nations and nation states do not trump the individual’s right to be free. Donald Trump would like to have a word, I’m sure. But it’s more than that, from Black Star to his four wildly shifting and quickly vacillating solo albums, Yasiin has always embraced the unknown in search of what’s out there. And he’s now turned that vision and stretched to its logical conclusion. The act of being stateless.
This mirrors the conditions of people in this country to startling effect. Weren’t there, for most of this country’s history, this or that people singled out to be refugees adrift in a sea of slavery, banishment, interment, prejudice, and death? It seems that it is a great act of irony, then, that Yasiin Bey has transformed this cultural history and tried to use statelessness as a badge of freedom.
“I Should Be Allowed To Domicile Wherever I Please.” – Yasiin Bey
His troubles with authorities in South Africa are another battle in the war of individual freedom all over the world. For Yasiin to extend his own personal feelings and ideologies (the ones he so faithfully extolled in rap) is to take “conscious” rap to an entirely new level. He’s acting on his lyrics, even. He’s eschewed trying to change the United States to simply leaving it. In some way, I envy him. Most of us simply don’t have that opportunity.
So the complex legalities of his arriving on a U.S. passport and trying to leave on a World passport are beside the point. The point is that, in his mind, Yasiin Bey shouldn’t need a passport. We should all be fit to move about the world as we desire, exploring, and looking for freedom. Looking for ourselves. That, for me, is the most important lesson Yasiin Bey has ever told. It’s his best lyric. It’s his most brilliant album. Sometimes people make art. And sometimes people are art. May this retirement stuff be nonsense. And this immigration stuff disappears into the void where it belongs.
“Some folks get on a plane, go as they please / But I go overseas and I get over-seized / London, Heathrow, me and my people / They think that illegal’s a synonym for negro’”– Mos Def
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter@drejones.