A couple of years ago I wrote a short blog post about Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and his choice to live in Cape Town. Recent news reports indicate that he has been ordered out of the country and declared an “undesirable person” for attempting to use something called a Universal Passport (an online printable document that is not recognized by South Africa or very many other nations) for travel and ironically, leave the country.
Yasiin Bey followed his heart to South Africa, choosing to settle in that spectacularly beautiful, idyllic, divided and troubled enigma that is Cape Town, in 2013. The city itself is called “The Mother City,” because the tiny 1604 Dutch settlement on the tip of Africa became the governing society that evolved centuries later into modern day South Africa. On the Cape Flats behind Table Mountain, Cape Town has some of the worst ghettos and dangerous gang and drug problems anywhere; yet it is also a vibrant center for both South African jazz and its hip hop scene. It is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque cities on the planet, with awe-inspiring ocean scenery and heavenly mountain vistas. Cape Town’s ethnic and racial diversity, its income inequalities and sprawling townships, its sacred mountain, crystalline seas and natural creativity, became an inflection point that captivated Yasiin Bey’s soul.
But those ideals have come crashing into the realities of government bureaucracy and social control at a time when people all over the world are becoming more suspicious and resentful of foreigners. In Europe – especially France and Germany – there has been a mighty backlash towards immigrants, especially Muslims; in the Britain there is the Brexit vote that threatens to unravel the fabric of the European Union. In America there is the surreal ascendance of reality TV star Donald Trump, after he captured an Electoral College victory by riding on a wave of populist anti-immigrant anger. It seems that the whole world is moving in one reactionary, nativist direction, while the artist and poet in Yasiin Bey was trying to go in another.
Bey left a statement on Kanye West’s web site, explaining his position, and his dismay is understandable. Unfortunately, South Africa itself has been caught up in its own violent backlash against immigrants from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. For decades the South African Department of Home Affairs has been struggling with tidal waves of undocumented migrants coming from all over the Continent (especially the failing state of neighboring Zimbabwe) and as far away as the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Perhaps government officials were angry at Bey’s unwillingness to abide by the law, for even as his visa expired and he still brought his family with him to live in South Africa. Yet it seems odd that a renowned actor and artist who loved South Africa’s diversity would end up in such an ignominious public conflict. In his heart and mind Bey had chosen to live in a country where he felt more at home and accepted as a black man than he did in the nation of his birth. It’s too bad that the government forces that determine societal identity on paper – whether they are African or Afrikaner – were not as welcoming of his love for their country as South Africans themselves.
Bey has been banned from returning to South Africa, although he can apply for an exemption to the law. But that seems unlikely as he says “There will be no more parties in South Africa.” Apparently the parties on both sides of this conflict have grown tired and weary of each other. Sometimes there is a great symbiosis and mutual political and cultural identifications between African Americans and black South Africans; at other times there can be a sense of alienation, misunderstanding and ambivalence.
Bey also announced that he is retiring from the music and film industries, and he has produced his last album. (But Jay Z also retired before, right?) If Bey felt distraught or betrayed by his country in 2013, he is obviously coming home to a radically different political environment that is even more fraught with conflict. Despite the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the so-called “Alt Right,” African-American music, culture and entertainment remain a growing and dominant force in American society, and its presence is far larger and more powerful than one election cycle or one President. Maybe South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs was part of a karmic wake-up call for the soul of the artist and poet to address the stark realities of the homeland he sought to abandon. Much like author James Baldwin had to leave America in order to heal and wrestle with his own psyche as a writer, his life as an exile in Paris was only a temporary solace. The Native Son eventually felt a call to return.
For Yasiin Bey, the outer racial realities and paradoxes of his African-American identity have come full circle, forcing his separation from his adopted African home.