Yasiin Bey (Mos Def): Living in peace in Cape Town

Mos Def 1               “The determination of people that I see in this city and country… writers, graphic designers, painters, so many fantastic people. Yet I see the same people, many of them doubtful or fearful or feeling that what they have to offer is beautiful only to them but that it is not valuable to the world.”

“I’ve been some places … some of the best places in Europe and the US. Amazing talents and amazing places. But no place is like Africa. No place.”

– Yasiin Bey

I completely understand why American actor and rapper Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) is feeling the vibe and enjoys living in Cape Town.  Being in Africa is powerful experience for anyone – but especially for African Amercans – and there’s a great hip hop, music and jazz scene, the world-renowned Cape Town Jazz Festival, not to mention, of course, that Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.  With all of these attractions and a growing interest in South Africa’s transformation and future, thousands of African Americans have been migrating to South Africa since the mid 90s.  In the meantime, the allure of Cape Town (now free from the stigma of apartheid) has made the city a highly attractive real estate market for international celebrities and the global jet set.

The well-known, picturesque images of Cape Town are virtually always presented from places like Muizenberg, Green Point, Camps Bay, Hout Bay, Sea Point and the V&A Waterfront with varying backdrops of Table Mountain, the city skyline and the pure, shining azure water of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.  These pleasant and at times spectacular vistas gives Cape Town its well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most delightful and scenic urban landscapes.  Following along the southern coast, and driving inland into the main areas of the city, the University of Cape Town, the Green Point Market, one can’t help being enchanted by the magnificent stillness of Table Mountain, with its iconic flat-top mesa standing in a heavenly blue sky with floating clouds, and an occasional snowcap in the winter.  Hilly, like San Francisco, with beautifully fashioned homes, condos and bungalows in colors that enhance the captivating landscape, Cape Town can make you feel like the southern tip of Africa is a land of dreams and splendor, a wonderfully-crafted urban civilization terracing into God’s country.  Now and over the centuries, as Sir Francis Drake pointed out in 1580, Cape Town remains “The fairest Cape in all the world.”

But behind Table Mountain, purposely hidden from the view of the Central Business District, away from the Table Mountain’s elegant Groote Schuur government residences, the trendy Sea Point bistros and boutiques, the charming hotels and bed breakfasts all along the coast, is Mitchell’s Plain township on the Cape Flats –  a glaring remnant of apartheid where the mixed-race Coloured community was forced to reside under the Group Areas act.  A little further to the east are Kayalitsha and Guguletu, black African townships of smaller, makeshift shelters and tin corrugated roofs that are even more economically and geographically removed from the glamorous side of Table Mountain, to the point where it almost feels like being on another planet.

Despite apartheid’s extraordinary ability to segregate wealth, class and race – music has always been a powerful, creative crossroad, bridging differences and bringing people together despite the political fears and intentions of old white minority government.  Back in the 30s and 40s – before the rise of the national party and the implementation of apartheid – urban communities like District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg were centers for sophisticated styles of jazz that blended American swing and bebop with African tribal rhythms and vocals.  These musical grooves have carried on and evolved to such a degree that South Africa is one of the only countries outside of the United States that has its own unique, identifiable jazz tradition.  And while the music scene is thriving in clubs and events in Cape Town, the music and social life – especially the hip hop scene – is vibrant in the townships like Mitchell’s Plain, Guguletu and Kayelitsha.  I am sure Yasiin Bey is finding a way to navigate these geographic, cultural and artistic distances in a manner that is quite enlivening and enriching to his soul.

Yasiin Bey and other African Americans witness a certain paradox in South Africa; while levels of inequality and poverty are dramatic, the interpersonal dynamics of race are refreshingly easier and less fraught with anxiety than in the United States.  I’m not trying to suggest that color isn’t a problem or that South Africans don’t struggle with their own conflicts of race, politics, power and economics.  In fact, these kinds of debates are very prominent in the media and national politics.  Nonetheless, many white South Africans had outgrown their government’s entrenched extremist ideology in the 70s and 80s, and while some political elites fought dramatically and desperately to hold on to power at all costs, the seeds of change were being sown by ordinary people and activists of all races and broad coalitions like the United Democratic Front the Mass Democratic Movement.  With the dismantling of apartheid in the early 90s and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, South Africans began to have their open “national conversation” – however limited or flawed – about race.  The work in South Africa to resolve the human rights abuses led to similar Truth and Reconciliation processes in Chile, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and many other countries, as well as an international conference on racism, held in Durban in 2001.

This kind of social atmosphere may be especially appealing for Bey as he engages the beauty and natural elements Cape Town along with its various racial and cultural environments for the introspection and creativity that he is searching for at this time in his life.  Of course, I wish him the best, and I’m sure he’ll find much to reflect on and contemplate.  While societies everywhere are grappling with a global recession, sluggish economies, inequality and a lack of jobs, every individual life is of value – regardless of their race, class or background.  Having a national conversation about race and being able to acknowledge historic injustices helps create a healthy climate for more open discussion and interaction as South Africa works to construct a new, more inclusive economy and democratic society.  It seems the United States is having a hard time even approaching these historic issues, and the current political polarization makes even a simple apology for slavery seem all but  impossible.  No wonder an actor, musician and artist in the hip hop tradition like Yasiin Bey is feeling more at peace with himself and comfortable living in Cape Town.

Yasiin Bey: Cape Town is crazy | Music | Music | Mail & Guardian

Yasiin Bey: Cape Town is crazy

07 MAR 2014 19:22 YAZEED KAMALDIEN

Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, says he came to live in Cape Town to spend some time to sort out his life and because SA is “crazy”.

“Where’s your skirt from?” was perhaps not the most appropriate way of asking Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, about his attire on our first encounter.

But he was humble in his reply: “It’s a wrap from Ghana.”

The New York hip-hop star and Hollywood actor has made Cape Town his home since last May. The 40-year-old star says the wrap is “what I’m comfortable in at home”.

He says of his new home in Cape Town: “I’m not here for middle class comfort.”

“Last year May, I came [to Cape Town] and I said I’m not leaving. I’m staying. It’s a beautiful place. It has the ocean, mountain, botanical gardens and beautiful people,” says Bey.

This has not stopped him from making music and staying involved in the music business. Bey is working on various projects, including a tribute album to legendary spoken-word performer Gil Scott Heron.

Bey was also the keynote speaker at the Music Exchange conference at the City Hall on Friday morning. This event gathers top names in music, film and entertainment to talk shop for two days.

His relationship with Cape Town started almost four years ago. “I came to Cape Town in 2009 and I was like, ‘Yeah’. I know when the good vibe gets to you. I thought about this place every day when I left. People were like, ‘You’re crazy. It’s light years away. They’re crazy. They’re going to eat you. You shouldn’t go there. I said, ‘I’m going’.”

Bey says he left America to spend some time sorting out his life. “Man, I’m going to tell you something. For a guy like me, with five or six generations from the same town in America, to leave America, things gotta be not so good with America,” says Bey.

“There are some beautiful places in America. I love Brooklyn. New York City needs to thank Brooklyn every day just for existing. That’s how I feel about it. It was a hard thing to leave home. But I’m glad I did.”

He sums up Cape Town and South Africa in one word: “crazy”.

“I got the vibes to be here and now I’m here. It’s amazing and it’s crazy. South Africa is crazy. Cape Town is crazy. I’ve seen some of the craziest people in my life walk down Long Street. And I’m from New York,” says Bey.

“These fights, they’re crazy. These guys with the vests, helping me park [my car], they’re crazy. Angry face people … crazy. People complaining about nothing, crazy. But worthwhile. Not always easy but more beautiful than a lot of places I have been to.”

He adds: “The determination of people that I see in this city and country … writers, graphic designers, painters, so many fantastic people. Yet I see the same people, many of them doubtful or fearful or feeling that what they have to offer is beautiful only to them but that it is not valuable to the world.”

Bey places Africa on a pedestal in his mind when he speaks of the continent.”I’ve been some places … some of the best places in Europe and the US. Amazing talents and amazing places. But no place is like Africa. No place,” he says.

“The arts, the crafts, the energy, the people coming out of this continent, are like no other in the world. Be aware that you are in a special place at a very special and unique time in history.

“Be encouraged. Yes, it is crazy, but that’s okay. Hope has never been and will never be lost.”

It seems fitting though that the “shy kid” who became a rap star wears a wrap from Ghana. He is perhaps back at that stage when he was a teenager, trying to find his voice.

“I was finding my voice as an MC. You had to have certain themes and voices. I tried other people’s voices. I started mimicking voices but none of them were as clear as mine,” he says of his teenage years.

“When I left all of that and started singing what I really felt in a way that was specific to me, then I was understood. More than by others, but by myself. I started to find joy in that.”

Bey went from being a “shy kid” and “nerd” to rhyme his way into popularity and wealth.

He says: “I love hip-hop.”

“I love its vitality and the way it speaks to young people. The way it spoke to me,” he says.

“It told me don’t cry, don’t despair. I got something for you to do with all the despair, anger and sadness inside of you. I got a way for you to turn that around.”

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Categories: Actors, Africa, An Eye on Africa, Culture, Music, Entertainment, Entertainment, Music, South Africa

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  1. The sad, painful shattering of Yasin Bey’s African dream – Island of Spice

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