We Were At Yasiin Bey's (Mos Def) 'Negus' Premiere at Art Basel Hong Kong
Evan Dale // April 4, 2019
My mind was blurry, having spent the prior few hours aimlessly walking around Hong Kong’s Convention and Exhibition Center in constant trance of some of the world’s finest, most thought-provoking, and most expensive contemporary art. I flew to Art Basel pretty much on a whim, making the decision the second week of March to fly to Hong Kong and to be back before April even began. And I aimed to do it alone. My mind had been dizzied with layers of immense lifestyle change, a 10,000 mile move home from the life I had grown accustomed to the prior two years, and endless drama with women. I needed an escape and this, for a fan of art and travel, was the pinnacle trip I could have taken.
It was extravagant to say the least. The scene was snooty as hell, but with headphones in and a rare ability to become aloof to anyone and everyone around me, I tuned into the art and the art alone. I walked from gallery to gallery, losing myself and the time in the process. It was an escape.
Through one of the halls, I came to a room that had an oddly few number of people given the immensity of the rest of the fair. And in that room was a table with a sign:
Negus: A live listening event.
I asked the kind soul working the table what this was about, and the moment she uttered the name, Yasiin Bey, I knew this detour was meant to be – kismet even.
Years ago, the prolific lyricist, Mos Def needed an escape of his own. Fame, image, and critiques of everything he did, said, or made had him lost artistically and creatively. He wanted to focus more on sociopolitical explorations, not necessarily through his lane of the past, but though study and projects bigger than imaginable. He retired his stage name and seemingly disappeared from the limelight, becoming a figure of intense debate and mystery. But once an artist, always an artist. He continues to make music, but instead of releasing it to the public, has chosen to play his new album in private listening events at random locations around the world. Chance would have it that Art Basel Hong Kong was one of those events – and the first where Negus, his new album, would be debuted.
A familiar face walked past me and stood behind the same table where the woman explaining the project and its directive was herself standing. Yasiin Bey is a hard man to miss, impeccably casual – arguably quiet in his demeanor and his style, the only thing that gave him away to those who may not know his face from his previous life are his hands. Several gargantuan rings shuffled through the headphones, testing their power and connectivity with his publicist and photographer. He turned, smiled, introduced himself, thanked me, and ushered me outside to a patio overlooking Victoria Harbour. There, three other folks were sitting scattered around the makeshift lawn furniture for the event – a local boy and his mother, and a tall, lanky man from some corner of Europe that seemed a studied advocate of Mos Def and Yasiin Bey’s separate but not so separate journeys. I found a spot of my own, in the sun, and placed the headphones over my ears. Almost instantly, Negusbegan.
There were clear lines to be drawn to Mos Def’s vintage aesthetic – dynamic, vivid lyricism, storytelling ability rivaling all through the history of music, and of course, that unmistakable voice – but perhaps the thing that has driven his career more strongly than any other – experimentation – was the most noticeable aspect of the album. From the beginning, there were myriad instrumentation, mostly digital or off-digital like old-school synthesizers and what felt like scratching and spinning. From it, Yasiin Bey spoke entrancing poeticism, delivered violent rap, and occasionally stepped into a role more adjacent to a pure vocalist. Occasionally – often really – Bey’s own voice would be subdued completely or utilized in production as an instrument. It wasn’t really a hip-hop experience, but something altogether more immersive, complete, and defining of its artist than the labeling of any genre or styling could ever hope to suffice.
And that felt like the point.
Immersion, in fact, was the point, if not the primary directive of Yasiin Bey’s new journey. Upon entry to the patio, our phones were turned off and sealed inside cases locked with the same magnetic mechanics that make shoplifting impossible. It was meant to be the music and the view verses our subsequent emotional responses and inherent thoughts. Unfortunately, albeit not obstructive for me, I had brought my camera with and found myself inspired by the music to the point of sub-consciously capturing the view. After the silent disco had ended, Yasiin informed me that wasn’t meant to be part of the experience, but instead of being disheartened by the occurance, instead just seemed curious and accepting about how, perhaps why his music inspired it to unfold. He shook my hand, as well as the hands of the three other guests, asked for a few responses about the album, was open to conversation, thanked me for listening, and walked away.
In some way, he himself had gotten exactly what it was that he wanted from such an experience. Yasiin Bey is looking for clarity, honesty, and truth in the way that his music inspires others to act, listen, and react. He listens as well, carefully watching those listening to Negus, absorbing the organic responses to his art in ways far less elitist, far less snooty, and far more in-tune with the realities of human beings and their connection to art than any other artist at Art Basel.
For the listeners, there is no place to hide, no predetermined route of reaction to the album possible. There is no distraction (except the occasional idiot with a camera – sorry, Yasiin), and no way to quickly understand the fact that they’ll be listening to the project alongside a very humble, but very key role player in hip-hop history’s development. Accordingly, the reactions and responses to everything happening are real. There is nothing but truth possible, and in turn, nothing but clarity for Yasiin who gets the opportunity of seeing natural responses to his art. And that, in this day and age, is just about impossible.
Out of respect for Yasiin Bey, there isn’t much I can say about Negus other than that it was an appropriately bold, experimental, and fittingly subsequent step in his long music career. It was also experimental in a way that modern experimentalists are not exploring, coming from an artist with a secure understanding of experimental hip-hop’s past. There isn’t much I can say about Yasiin himself besides the fact that through his steady and comprehensive demeanor, it’s obvious that this whole process is not for show, not for some backhanded stab at underhanded fame where an artist is celebrated for being avant-garde. Instead, Negus is a celebration of the merging of hip-hop music’s roots where truth and organic response drove its creation, and it’s future where experimental risks make it to this day one of the most progressive channels of art in the world.
It was an immersion into the mind of a genius – a godfather of hip-hop music. And it was, without a doubt, one of the most fortunate, surreal moments of my life.