Yasiin Bey (/ /; born Dante Terrell Smith; December 11, 1973), better known by his stage name Mos Def (/ /), is an American rapper, singer, actor and activist. Best known for his music, Bey began his hip hop career in 1994, alongside his siblings in the short-lived rap group Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), after which he appeared on albums by Da Bush Babees and De La Soul. He subsequently formed the duo Black Star, alongside fellow Brooklyn-based rapper Talib Kweli, and they released their eponymous debut album in 1998. He was featured on the roster of Rawkus Records and in 1999 released his solo debut, Black on Both Sides. His debut was followed by The New Danger (2004), True Magic (2006) and The Ecstatic (2009). The editors at About.com listed him as the 14th greatest emcee of all time on their "50 greatest MC's of our time" list. Some of Mos Def's top hits include, "Oh No", "Definition" and "Respiration".
Bey performing at the 2012 Ilosaarirock festival
Dante Terrell Smith
December 11, 1973
Prior to his career in music, Mos Def entered public life as a child actor, having played roles in television films, sitcoms, and theater. Since the early 2000s, Mos Def has appeared in films such as Something the Lord Made, Next Day Air, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 16 Blocks, Be Kind Rewind, The Italian Job, The Woodsman, Bamboozled and Brown Sugar and in television series such as Dexter and House. He is also known as the host of Def Poetry Jam, which aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007.
Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Smith in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Sheron Smith and Abdulrahman. The eldest of 12 children and step-children, he was raised by his mother in Brooklyn, while his father lived in New Jersey.
His father was initially a member of the Nation of Islam and later followed Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who merged into mainstream Sunni Islam from the Nation of Islam. Mos Def was not exposed to Islam until the age of 13. At 19, he took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He is close friends with fellow Muslim rappers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
Mos Def attended middle school at Philippa Schuyler Middle School 383 in Bushwick, Brooklyn where he picked up his love for acting. After returning from filming You Take the Kids in Los Angeles, and getting into a relationship with an older girl, Mos Def dropped out of high school during sophomore year. Growing up in New York City during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, he has spoken about witnessing widespread instances of gang violence, theft and poverty in society, which he largely avoided by working on plays, Off-Off-Broadway and arts programs. In a particularly traumatic childhood experience, Mos Def witnessed his then five-year-old younger brother Ilias Bey (b. Denard Smith) get hit by a car. Bey, who later adopted the alias DCQ, was described by Smith as "my first partner in hip hop".
1994–1998: Beginnings with Rawkus and Black Star
Mos Def began his music career in 1994, forming the group UTD (or Urban Thermo Dynamics) along with younger brother DCQ and younger sister Ces. In 2004, they released the album Manifest Destiny, their first and only release to date. The album features a compilation of previously unreleased and re-released tracks recorded during the original UTD run.
Mos Def signed with Rawkus Records and formed the rap group Black Star with Talib Kweli. The duo released an album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, in 1998. Mostly produced by Hi-Tek, the album featured the singles "Respiration" and "Definition", which both reached in the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
1999–2006: Solo career and various projects
Mos Def released his solo debut album Black on Both Sides in October 1999, also through Rawkus. The single "Ms. Fat Booty" charted, while the album reached #25 on the Billboard 200. Around this time he also contributed to the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie.
In January 2002, Rawkus Records was taken over by Geffen Records, which released his second solo album The New Danger in October 2004. It included contributions by Shuggie Otis and Bernie Worrell, Doug Wimbish, and Will Calhoun as the Black Jack Johnson Band. The album reached #5 on the Billboard 200, making it the most successful for the artist to date. The single "Sex, Love & Money" charted, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Mos Def's final solo album for Geffen Records, titled True Magic, was released in 2006.
2007–2011: GOOD Music era and name change
On November 7, 2007, Mos Def performed live in San Francisco at The Mezzanine venue. The performance was recorded for an upcoming "Live in Concert" DVD. During the event, he announced that he would be releasing a new album to be called The Ecstatic. He performed a number of new tracks; in later shows, he previewed tracks produced by Madlib and was rumored to be going to Kanye West for new material. Producer and fellow Def Poet Al Be Back revealed he would be producing on the album as well. The album was released on June 9, 2009; but only Madlib's production had made the cut, along with tracks by Preservation, The Neptunes, Mr. Flash, Madlib's brother Oh No, a song by J. Dilla, and Georgia Anne Muldrow.
Mos Def appears alongside Kanye West on the track "Two Words" from The College Dropout album, the track "Drunk And Hot Girls" and the bonus track "Good Night" off West's third major album, Graduation. In 2002, he released the 12" single Fine, which was featured in the Brown Sugar Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Mos Def also appears on the debut album from fellow New Yorkers Apollo Heights on a track titled, "Concern". In October, he signed a deal with Downtown Records and appeared on a remix to the song "D.A.N.C.E." by Justice. He appeared on Stephen Marley's debut album Mind Control on the song "Hey Baby". In 2009, he worked with Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan to produce the track "America" for K'naan's album Troubadour.
In April 2008, he appeared on the title track for a new album by The Roots entitled Rising Down. The new single, "Life In Marvelous Times", was made officially available through iTunes on November 4, 2008, and is available for stream on the Roots' website Okayplayer.
In April 2009, Mos Def traveled to South Africa for the first time where he performed with The Robert Glasper Experiment at the renowned Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He treated the South African audience with an encore introduced by his own rendition of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme", followed by a sneak preview of the track "M.D. (Doctor)".
In late 2009, Mos Def created his own clothing line with the "UNDRCRWN" brand called the "Mos Def Cut & Sew Collection". The items were released in select U.S. stores and almost exclusively on the UNDRCRWN website. 2009 also found Mos Def among the MCs aligning themselves with American entrepreneur Damon Dash's DD172 and collaborating with American blues rock band the Black Keys on the Blakroc album, a project headed by the Black Keys and Damon Dash. Mos Def appeared with Harlem-bred rapper Jim Jones and the Black Keys on the Late Show with David Letterman to perform the Blakroc track "Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)".
In September 2010, after appearing on Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Friday track "Lord Lord Lord", Mos Def confirmed he had signed with GOOD Music. Mos Def has been an active contributor to the recovery of the oil spill in the Gulf, performing concerts and raising money towards repairing its damages. In June 2010, he recorded a cover of the classic New Orleans song originally by Smokey Johnson, "It Ain't My Fault" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Lenny Kravitz and Trombone Shorty.
In September 2011, Mos Def announced that he legally changed his name to Yasiin Bey, and would continue to go by that name. Shortly after that announcement, he recorded as the narrator of the children's hip hop musical, Pacha's Pajamas: A Story Written By Nature.
2012–present: Later career and retirement
In 2015, Def was featured on A$AP Rocky's second studio album At. Long. Last. ASAP, on the track "Back Home", alongside Acyde and the deceased A$AP Yams. Bey again revived his Mos Def moniker for two new songs in August 2015, titled "Basquiat Ghostwriter" and "Sensei on the Block", respectively.
On January 19, 2016, Mos Def announced his retirement from both the music and film industries on Kanye West's website: "I'm retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today, and also Hollywood, effective immediately. I'm releasing my final album this year, and that's that." After announcing his retirement, he expressed gratitude to everyone who has supported him over the years and revealed his intention to enter the fashion industry and complete a handful of films. Bey also confirmed he still planned to release a collaborative project with Ferrari Sheppard called Dec 99th.
In October 2016, a planned concert in London was cancelled due to travel restrictions imposed on the artist, while other European dates suffered the same fate. On October 14, 2016, Yasiin Bey posted a video to Facebook where he announced that he's still planning to retire: "I'm retiring for real this year, this week. With the 17th anniversary of Black on Both Sides being released, I am grateful to have had the career that I have been able to enjoy." He also announced one last concert which he will be live streaming from Cape Town, South Africa. In November 2016, he was granted the ability to leave but not reenter South Africa and was put on "South Africa's 'undesirable persons' list". He said he would perform one show in Harlem and three in Washington D.C. after leaving South Africa. He announced that Dec 99th, his final album, would be released on December 9. He released three singles from it "Local Time," "N.A.W." and "Seaside Panic Room". On December 5, 2016, he announced the title of two albums, Negus in Natural Person and As Promised, the latter of which is a collaboration with Southern hip hop producer Mannie Fresh, initially titled OMFGOD. His claims of retirement were seen as questionable as he played shows on Wednesday September 13, 2017, at the Fox Theater in Oakland as part of Black Star and performed on Gorillaz' Humanz World Tour, performing "Stylo" with Peven Everett, who filled in for Bobby Womack, who died in 2014. He also has yet to release or announce a release date for the last two albums of his career.
In February 2018, Mos Def announced, on stage, a new Black Star studio album to be released in 2018. The album will be produced by Madlib. No specific release date was made available. Later on that same year, Bey appeared on the titular track of Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative effort of Kanye West and Kid Cudi.
In March 2019, he debuted his latest album, Negus at a listening session as part of Art Basel Hong Kong. In a press release, Mos said that the album “will continue to unfold as a series of varied installations around the world". He has no plans of releasing the album digitally or physically.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Mos Def among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
On June 28, 2019, Bey appeared on Bandana, an album by Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, alongside Black Thought, on a track named Education.
Beginnings as child actor
Prior to his career in music, Mos Def entered public life as a child actor, having played roles in television movies, sitcoms and theater, some of which were under the name Dante Beze. At the age of 14, he appeared in the TV movie God Bless the Child, starring Mare Winningham, which aired on ABC in 1988. He played the oldest child in the 1990 family sitcom You Take the Kids shortly before it was cancelled. In 1995 he played the character Dante, Bill Cosby's sidekick on the short-lived detective show, The Cosby Mysteries. In 1996 he also starred in a Visa check card commercial featuring Deion Sanders. In 1997 he had a small role alongside Michael Jackson in his short film and music video Ghosts (1997).
After brief appearances in Bamboozled and Monster's Ball, Mos Def played a rapper who is reluctant to sign to a major label in Brown Sugar. He was nominated for an Image Award and a Teen Choice Award.
In 2002, he played the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, a Tony-nominated and Pulitzer-winning Broadway play. He and co-star Jeffrey Wright won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Award for their joint performance. He played Left Ear in the 2003 film The Italian Job. That same year he appeared in the music video You Don't Know My Name of the song by Alicia Keys.
In television, Mos Def has appeared on NYPD Blue, on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show, and has hosted the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Def Poetry since its inception. The show's sixth season aired in 2007. He also appeared on the sitcom My Wife and Kids as the disabled friend of Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans).
Mos Def won "Best Actor, Independent Movie" at the 2005 Black Reel Awards for his portrayal of Detective Sgt. Lucas in The Woodsman. For his portrayal of Vivien Thomas in HBO's film Something the Lord Made, he was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award. He also played a bandleader in HBO's Lackawanna Blues. He then landed the role of Ford Prefect in the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In 2006, Mos Def appeared in Dave Chappelle's Block Party alongside Black Star partner Talib Kweli, while also contributing to the film's soundtrack. He was also featured as the banjo player in the Pixie Sketch" from Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, though his appearance was edited out of the DVD. He starred in the action film 16 Blocks alongside Bruce Willis and David Morse. He has a recurring guest role on Boondocks, starring as Gangstalicious. He is also set to be in Toussaint, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, opposite Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. He made a cameo appearance as himself in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In 2007, Mos Def narrated the PBS-broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves.
In 2008, Mos Def starred in the Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind, playing a video rental store employee whose best friend is played by co-star Jack Black. He also portrayed Chuck Berry in the film Cadillac Records, for which he was nominated for a Black Reel Award and an Image Award.
In 2009, he appeared in the House episode entitled "Locked In" as a patient suffering from locked-in syndrome. His performance was well-received, with E! saying that Mos Def "delivers an Emmy-worthy performance". He was also in the 2009 film Next Day Air.
In 2011, he began a multi-episode appearance on the sixth season of Showtime television series Dexter. He played Brother Sam, an ex-convict who has supposedly found religion despite finding himself in violent situations.
In January 2016, Mos Def announced his retirement from both the music and the film industry on Kanye West's website. In March 2016, it was announced that he had been attached to star in "his last live-action film", The Disconnected, a science fiction thriller dealing with policing, identity, and the intersection of technology and humanity.
Social and political views
In 2000, paired with Talib Kweli, Mos Def organized the Hip Hop for Respect project to speak out against police brutality. The project was created in response to the 1999 police shooting of Amadu Diallo, and sought to accumulate 41 artists to the roster, one to match each of the 41 gunshots fired on Diallo.
Mos Def is well known for his left-wing political views. In 2000, Mos Def performed a benefit concert for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In September 2005, Mos Def released the single "Katrina Clap", renamed "Dollar Day" for True Magic, (utilizing the instrumental for New Orleans rappers UTP's "Nolia Clap"). The song is a criticism of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. On the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, Mos Def pulled up in front of Radio City Music Hall on a flatbed truck and began performing the "Katrina Clap" single in front of a crowd that quickly gathered around him. He was subsequently arrested despite having a public performance permit in his possession.
In October 2006, Mos Def appeared on 4Real, a documentary television series. Appearing in the episode "City of God", he and the 4Real crew traveled to City of God, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to meet Brazilian MC MV Bill and learn about the crime and social problems of the community.
On September 7, 2007, Mos Def appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher where he spoke about racism against African Americans, citing the government response to Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six, and the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He appeared on Real Time again on March 27, 2009, and spoke about the risk of nuclear weapons.
In September 2011, Mos Def joined the cast of the environmental children's hip hop musical - Pacha's Pajamas: A Story Written By Nature - as narrator. He stated "the earth was given as a trust to mankind, so we have a responsibility to look after it, take care of it, treat it with respect 'cause it's a gift from the creator to us... We're so dependent on the natural world. The natural world's also dependent on us... If we don't treat it good, it's not gonna treat us very good either."
In July 2013, Mos Def, under the new name Yasiin Bey, appeared in a short film released by the human rights organization Reprieve, depicting the forced-feeding methods used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. This transpired after a document containing the military instructions for the procedure was leaked.
In September 2018, Bey and advertising executive Free Richardson opened an art exhibition to the public in an art gallery in the South Bronx, called the Compound, centered around hip-hop and fine art. The goal of this gallery was to help bridge the gap between the two fields, by showcasing artists from marginalized backgrounds who normally would not be represented in art galleries. Art forms with negative connotations, such as graffiti, as presented in a more optimal context. “The purpose of the gallery is to say all art is equal,” Mr. Richardson said. “But we are in the borough that created hip-hop, which is the biggest art form in the world, so it’s always an extending arm. It’s always present.”
About.com ranked him #14 on their list of the Top 50 MCs of Our Time, while The Source ranked him #23 on their list of the Top 50 Lyricists of All Time. AllMusic called him one of the most promising rappers to emerge in the late 1990s, as well as one of hip-hop's brightest hopes entering the 21st century. Mos Def has influenced numerous hip hop artists throughout his career, including Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, and Saigon. Kendrick Lamar has also mentioned Mos Def as a very early inspiration and someone he listened to "coming up" as a young rapper, though he denied being a part of the conscious rap movement.
Mos Def married Maria Yepes in 1996. He filed for divorce from Yepes in 2006. The former couple made headlines when Yepes took Mos Def to court over failure in child-support obligations, paying $2,000 short of the monthly $10,000 he is ordered to pay. Mos Def has four other children.
His mother Sheron Smith, who goes by her nickname "Umi", has played an active role managing portions of her son's career. She is also a motivational speaker, and has authored the book Shine Your Light: A Life Skills Workbook, where she details her experience as a single mother raising him.
In January 2016, Mos Def was ordered to leave South Africa and not return for five years, having stayed in the country illegally on an expired tourist visa granted in May 2013. Also that month, he was charged with using an unrecognized World Passport and having lived illegally in South Africa since 2014. Mos Def had reportedly recruited Kanye West to help defend him, and posted a message on West's website announcing his retirement from show business. There is an ongoing court case in relation to immigration offenses involving the artist and his family.
- Solo albums
- Collaborative albums
|1998||Where's Marlowe?||Wilt Crawley|
|2000||Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme||Himself|
|Bamboozled||Big Blak Afrika||Also recorded a song for the movie's soundtrack with other members of the Mau Maus|
|Island of the Dead||Robbie J|
|2001||Carmen: A Hip Hopera||Lieutenant Miller|
|Monster's Ball||Ryrus Cooper|
|Civil Brand||Michael Meadows|
|Brown Sugar||Chris 'Cav' Anton Vichon|
|My Wife and Kids||Tommy||1 episode: Chair Man of the Board|
|2003||The Italian Job||Left Ear|
|2004||The Woodsman||Detective Lucas|
|Something the Lord Made||Vivien Thomas||Nominated – Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie|
Nominated – Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Nominated – Image Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Mini-Series or Television Movie
|2005||Lackawanna Blues||The Bandleader|
|The Boondocks (2005-2008)||Gangstalicious||Voice over for the animated series|
|The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy||Ford Prefect|
|2006||Dave Chappelle's Block Party||Himself|
|16 Blocks||Eddie Bunker|
|Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby||Himself||Cameo|
|Journey to the End of the Night||Wemba|
|2007||Prince Among Slaves||Narrator|
|2008||Be Kind Rewind||Mike|
|Cadillac Records||Chuck Berry|
|2009||Next Day Air||Eric|
|House||Lee||Season 5, Episode 19, "Locked In"|
|2010||I'm Still Here||Himself|
|Yo Gabba Gabba!||Super Mr. Superhero||Season 3, Episode 44, Superhero|
|2011||Dexter||Brother Sam||Season 6, recurring, (credited as "Mos" in 2 episodes, as "yasiin bey" in 3 episodes)|
|2013||Begin Again||Saul||as Yasiin Bey|
|2014||Life of Crime||Ordell Robbie||as Yasiin Bey|
|The Getaway||Himself||Season 2, Episode 7, in Morocco. as Yasiin Bey|
|2015||Amy||Himself||Credited as "yasiin bey"|
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2005||"Sex, Love & Money"||Best Urban/Alternative Performance||Nominated|
|2007||"Undeniable"||Best Rap Solo Performance||Nominated|
|The Ecstatic||Best Rap Album||Nominated|
|2011||"Stylo" (with Gorillaz and Bobby Womack)||Best Music Video||Nominated|
Black Movie Awards
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2006||Mos Def||Source Awards||Nominated|
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2004||Civil Brand||Best Actor- Independent||Nominated|
|2004||The Italian Job||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Best Actor: T.V. Movie/Cable||Nominated|
|The Woodsman||Best Indie Actor||Won|
|2008||Cadillac Records||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2004||Something the Lord Made||Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie||Nominated|
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film||Nominated|
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|2003||Brown Sugar||Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture||Nominated|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special||Nominated|
|2009||Cadillac Records||Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture||Nominated|
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She said there were several attempts at reconciliation, but that Mos Def, who has six children with four different women, has a demanding though not abusive demeanour that she found difficult to abide. They have not been together since October 2006, but despite a $115,000 financial settlement are not officially divorced.
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