FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the sixth edition of our series, Xerxes Cook meets up with Yasiin Bey at the Brooklyn Museum to discuss his long-awaited new album Negus, living on Spaceship Earth, and overlooked historical figures.
Yasiin Bey likes to take his time. Twenty years since the release of his debut album, Black on Both Sides, and 10 years since his last release, the artist formerly known as the Mighty Mos Def returns to Brooklyn for the launch of his new album, Negus. But this is no ordinary album release; its eight tracks are not available to buy, stream, or download.
Instead, Negus is an art installation at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, in which the audience can listen to the album via headphones while surrounded by large paintings by artists José Parlá, Julie Mehretu, Ala Ebtekar, and Bey himself, each made in response to the music.
Bey released Negus as an art installation to create “an environment that fosters a focused listening experience, as opposed to a hearing experience, and to couple that with a visual component,” he tells Highsnobiety. He likens the intimate setting to theater or opera; it's taking place over three months, during which groups of 70 people can create their own “unmediated” interpretations of the album – unmediated, that is, until he granted us this exclusive interview.
For the past decade, Bey has been staying true to his ‘'Travellin’ Man” moniker, living between Paris, Cape Town, Dubai, and now Barcelona: “I live on Spaceship Earth; I go where I feel I’m needed.” During one of these stints, moving through space and time (London in 2015), he was introduced to producers Lord Tusk, Steven Julien, and Acyde. “We clicked and immediately started recording,” Bey tells us. “It was pretty seamless. I love how the content inspired me to produce this exhibition. Without sounding evasive, Negus is something you really have to experience, more than anyone describing it for you.” That's as far as he’s willing to go, so deep is his dedication to not clouding other people’s interpretations of the album.
If you can’t make it to Brooklyn this winter, here’s a quick take on the experience. It’s 28 minutes of music, stripped back to the bare essentials. The first thing that hits you is the striking contrast to the live instrumentation of his landmark debut; Negus sees Bey’s delivery – with repeated refrains of “Focus” and “What is modernity?” – laid over driving, off-kilter drum machine beats, inflected with sparkles of early ’80s electro. There's not much else – no horns, strings, samples, or singalong melodies. Negus is perhaps a little darker than what you might expect of the man who brought us “Umi Says,” with its mantra of shining your light on the world. It's certainly the most minimalist arrangement Bey has ever released.
An experimental piece of music needed an experimental mode of dissemination. After exploring the idea of a cinematic release, Bey settled on a listening experience within a contemporary art context. Before its homecoming at the Brooklyn Museum, Negus went through two previous iterations. The first coincided with the 1-54 art fair at the Marrakech riad of artist Hassan Hajjaj, during which small groups of visitors left their phones at the door before listening to the album. Next came Art Basel in Hong Kong last May, which saw Bey presenting Negus on the terrace of the fair’s convention center, overlooking the city’s iconic waterfront – shipping crates overflowing with white flowers, spray-painted in Arabic and Ethiopic script (“Negus” means "emperor" or “noble person” in the Ethiopian language Ge’ez). A signed polaroid was the only item that the audience could physically take back home.
It was at a dinner in Hong Kong that Bey reconnected with the Cuban-American painter José Parlá. The pair first met 20 years ago, when Mos Def (as he was then known) and Talib Kweli were running Nkiru Books, a store dedicated to African-American literature on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. “They’d just got back from doing a concert in Cuba with The Roots – a very interesting thing to be doing back in those days,” Parlá recalls.
“Yasiin is one of the greats here from New York,” Parlá says of the humble everyman. Describing what Bey's music means to him, the artist continues: “[He has] such a special voice – what he and Talib [Kweli] were saying, it’s from that lineage of intelligent lyricism; a form of ‘edutainment’, as KRS-One would probably have put it. He’s from that camp of Brooklyn artists like Jeru the Damaja, DJ Premier, and Gang Starr. His music was so influential for my generation, and I was [in my mid-twenties] – imagine what those songs did for teenagers.”
Over the summer, Parlá spent months listening to Negus in his Brooklyn studio, reacting to its “poetry and improvisational rhythms” by auto-writing with paint and enamel in his signature illegible script, after which Bey layered “a beautiful piece of literature” above strokes of powder pigments and minerals, like amethyst and fool’s gold.
They titled the painting Shakur the beloved of the Eastern band. It will hang in the Brooklyn Museum alongside three other large artworks made in response to the album: Azimuth, a series of deep-blue panels of cyanotypes of the cosmos exposed to moonlight, starlight, and sunlight by LA-based Iranian artist Ala Ebtekar, and Negus Drawings by the Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu, celebrated for her monumental, gestural paintings.
There’s also a work by Bey himself. Pleasant, a 60-foot-long textile mural, hand-embroidered with copper thread, celebrates “overlooked historical figures,” such as Henrietta Lacks (the “immortal” woman, whose cells have been used in cancer research since her death in 1951) and Nipsey Hussle. It “deals with spirituality and the cosmic situation, and lineage and genealogy within the scientific reality,” Bey says. There's also a piano piece that fills the space beyond the headphones – created by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 95-year-old Ethiopian nun.
Bey only began experimenting with painting around the time he was recording Negus in London: “I’ve always been an admirer of artists like Eileen Gallagher, Arthur Jafa, Sanford Biggers, and Julie Mehretu, so visual art has always been something of meaning to me,” he says between pulls on a cigarette. “I feel like I’ve been involved in the art world since my early days, because I’m an artist.” He is a partner at The Compound Gallery in the South Bronx, which focuses on bridging the gap between hip-hop and fine art. Bey curated its soft opening last August with an exhibition of photographer Christina Paik's work: “An art gallery is just a space – we want to expand as much as we can on the notion that music is just as vital and important as anything you can hang up on a wall.”
But back to the new album. Instead of a singular, central message, Negus is a “layered experience,” Bey explains. “It’s not about how you’re supposed to feel or think. Just because I made it doesn’t mean I’m an authority in someone else’s emotional space. Instead, I want to clear the space so people can have their own experience with the work, as opposed to being didactic about it. You bring yourself, and you take it from there. I want to experience it, too, so I’m trying to get out of my own way, as it’s not just [my work]. It's the energy of Brooklyn.”
In the spirit of multiple subjective interpretations, Parlá chimes in with his own: “Everything now is so popular, so quick, and it has such a fast death. [Releasing an album that people can’t own] sends a message – it's not just about mass consumption, it's not just about making money, it is really, truly, about the art form. [Yasiin is] saying that artists focusing on their work is the strongest way to create strong messages. I think that's really courageous.”
In 2016, Bey announced his retirement from Hollywood and the music industry – on Kanye West’s website, oddly enough – "out of frustration from certain things I was seeing and experiencing,” he says. His career started when he was just 13 (under the name Dante Beze), as a child actor. He appeared alongside the likes of Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson before turning his full attention to music. He signed with Rawkus Records and released Black Star with Talib Kweli in 1997, followed by Black on Both Sides a couple of years later, which is still widely considered to be one of hip-hop’s greatest albums.
In regards to Black on Both Sides, Bey cites Jay-Z’s response to being asked how long it took him to make his debut album, Reasonable Doubt: “All my life.” Bey explains: “It was my first record; I wasn’t certain I would get the opportunity to do it again, so I just put it all out of my mind. And then five years later I did another thing, which was very reflective of my thoughts at that time, and then a few years later, I did another one.”
As bling began to dominate the genre in the years following, Bey returned to acting with films like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 16 Blocks, and Be Kind Rewind. He also appeared on stage in New York and London, in Suzan-Lori Park’s Pulitzer-awarded play Topdog/Underdog, and picked up Emmy, Golden Globe, and Grammy nominations along the way.
Ultimately, his retirement came down to time, as “you don’t respect that money if you get it for something you didn’t love,” Bey explains. “That’s just the truth of my own experience. I try to have a good time – not just fun, but a really worthwhile time, whatever I’m doing. Because it’s ultimately about the work; the work is the only reason I have a ‘public profile’, so I always try to keep the focus there.”
Is he making a statement against streaming algorithms, and the way in which Spotify's payment structure – where an artist gets paid only after a track has been played for 30 seconds, resulting in songs that are top-heavy with hooks and choruses – has affected song writing? “Not putting an album out on a streaming service, on a record label per se, or doing projects that are not necessarily in the recording industry of America’s cycle, doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be working as a creative person,” Bey muses. “There are a lot of other places and spaces to work and express; I’m not hostile against these other means of presentation and distribution, I’m just following a vision I had, and [am trying] to create as much positive space around it, so that it gets to breathe. It’s not about being all things to all people, or a combative posture. It’s certainly not angry; it’s not a rallying cry or anything like that.”
Nevertheless, Bey hasn’t been one to shy away from speaking truth to power. In Black on Both Sides, he elucidates on the link between political corruption and contaminated drinking water, alongside the freakonomics of American unemployment. In 2006, he was arrested after staging a guerrilla performance of his protest single “Katrina Clap” the night of the MTV Music Awards, and in 2013, he took part in a shocking short film directed by Asif Kapadia, in which he was force-fed through a tube in his nose, highlighting human rights abuses at Guantánamo Bay.
Would Negus have been a more political album if it had been recorded at a different time? “I would say this: the entire cosmic situation is greater than the poverty or wealth of nations,” Bey notes. “At this point of my life and career, that approach influences most of what I do, if not all of it. My work addresses that cosmic reality and references something eternal, hopefully. As far as the political crises that exist around the world, I think they’re being addressed in a lot of different ways across the world, as they have been since time immemorial.”
Even though the public has seen less of him in the last decade, Bey certainly hasn't been idle: “It’s been 10 years since my last album, but I’ve been active in that time. I’ve never felt a lack of inspiration. I do like to take my time, but time is relative – when people expect it and when it’s the right time are two very different [things]. Even if some people are banging on the table asking for more bread, it’ll be fine. I’m just back in the kitchen cooking up some new flavors.”
One of the new flavors he’s been working on is the hotly anticipated next Blackstar album, produced by Madlib, which he first announced on-stage with Talib Kweli 18 months ago. He says it’s “95 percent done,” and that the follow-up is coming “soon, soon!” He recognizes he’s been saying that for a while – but, after all, time is relative in Yasiin Bey’s world.
You can buy tickets for yasiin bey: Negus here.