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.
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.”
WORDS: XERXES COOK
PHOTOGRAPHY: QUIL LEMONS