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Feb 25: Brooklyn Black History Maker, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def

Yasiin Bey has earned a place in entertainment as one of the most prolific actors and musicians of his time.
Yasiin Bey, BK Reader

Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973, in Bedford Stuyvesant. Yasiin has earned a place in entertainment as one of the most prolific actors and musicians of his time.

Yasiin Bey grew up in the Roosevelt Houses on Dekalb and Lewis Avenues and has been rapping and acting since he was nine years old. Yasiin's parents were culturally and politically active, raising Yasiin's own sensibility early on the topics of social responsibility and community activism.

As a young boy, he was most inspired by the early leaders of hip-hop, those who used hip hop as a battle of wits to teach, entertain and make others think. He was a natural performer and also embraced his love for the stage and acting.

He began his professional acting career at the age of fourteen, appearing in the TV movie God Bless the Child, and then the short-lived family sitcom, You Take the Kids, starring Nell Carter and Roger E. Mosley. His most notable acting role before his music career was that of Bill Cosby's sidekick on the detective show, The Cosby Mysteries.

In 1993, while studying experimental theatre at New York University, he formed the Hip Hop group Urban Thermo Dynamics with his younger brother D.c.Q and younger sister Ces. The group was signed to Payday Records, but only released two singles.

The group was short-lived, but still enough time for people to catch wind of the talented and burgeoning young performer. Soon, he was invited to join the Native Tongues Family, a group founded by Afrika Bambaataa and included rising stars De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.

In 1998, Yasiin Bey formed the group Black Star with Talib Kweli and signed with Rawkus Records. The title is a reference to the Black Star Line, a shipping line founded by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. They released an album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, to critical acclaim.

The album dealt with modern-day issues, philosophical ideas, and life in Brooklyn, New York City, as the two artists knew it. The album featured the smash hit singles, Respiration and Definition, both later listed in VH1's "100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop."

The success of Black Star earned him an instant loyal fan base and respect within hip hop circles as one of Brooklyn's consummate emcees. His intelligent lyrics pegged him as a conscious, revolutionary and underground rapper — a title that he constantly evaded. To Yasiin, titles spelled limitations, and he refused to be boxed into any one category.

"I'm not just inspired by just black art, but good art, representations of art that are sincere and genuine," said Yasiin. "The revolution is personal. I'm not doing this for public acclaim; I'm doing this because it's sincere to me, it's real to me and whoever has feelings about it."

In 1999, Yasiin Bey released his solo debut album Black on Both Sides, also through Rawkus. Around this time, he also contributed to the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie and the Rawkus compilations Lyricist Lounge, V. I, Lyricist Lounge V. II and Soundbombing.

For the next three years, he began a rigorous tour schedule, giving America its first taste Yasiin Bey, the adept stage performer. His amazing stage presence and lyrical skill became a non-negotiable fact. He became Brooklyn's prodigal son to the outside world, as he often made reference on his albums and on-stage to his love of Bed-Stuy and of Brooklyn.

After his first streak of success in music, Yasiin decided to re-invigorate his acting career. In no time, he was cast for brief appearances in BamboozledMonster's Ball and Brown Sugar. He began hosting the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, which ran for seven seasons.

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 also received positive reviews as the quirky Left Ear in the blockbuster hit, The Italian Job in 2003.

Finally, he decided to make both acting and music his full-time careers, refusing to choose one over the other. In 2003, he signed to Interscope/Geffen Records and released his second solo album, The New Danger in 2004.

On The New Danger, he performed with his rock band Black Jack Johnson, and collaborated with members of the bands Bad Brains and Living Colour. The single, "Ghetto Rock" went on to receive several Grammy Award nominations in 2004.

In 2005, Yasiin Bey won Best Actor in an 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 Award, a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award.

Since 2006, Yasiin Bey has acted in countless more roles on the big screen and on television. His movie appearances alone include HBO's Lakawanna BluesThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,  Dave Chappelle's Block PartyTalladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky BobbyBe Kind RewindCadillac Records and Next Day Air.

Yasiin's schedule continued to be packed. In December 2010, he was in another play, A Free Man of Color, co-starring Jeffrey Wright, at the Lincoln Center Theatre. Beginning in 2011, he has worked with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra as an artist-in-residence, collaborating with the classical ensemble on a variety of creative projects to fundraise for the orchestra and other community-based efforts.

At the start of 2016, he announced that he would be, "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." 

He did release Dec 99th, a collaboration with Ferrari Shepherd at the close of 2016, but his retirement still remains in the balance. In December 2016 he announced that he had two more albums ready to release, a solo album, Negus in Natural Person, and As Promised, the latter produced by the Southern hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh, who has worked extensively with Lil Wayne.

Despite announcing his retirement, he continues to tour the globe, selling out live music shows from Brooklyn to Boston to Bangkok, always without fail shouting out Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy, his home base.

Yasiin Bey is an artist whose many talents, hard work and innumerable accomplishments have catapulted him into a global arena and gilded him an international phenomenon. Yet, he always returns to his home borough of Brooklyn, where he still resides today.

Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def aka Dante Smith, we acknowledge your many accomplishments in music, theatre and film and honor your ongoing contributions to the borough of Brooklyn and the community of Bed-Stuy.


February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites– past and present– who have contributed to America’s fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.