HBD Yasiin Bey: A Look Back At Mos Def's Work On 'Def Poetry Jam'
Yasiin Bey—better known by his former stage name, Mos Def—does pretty much everything. Today December 11th, is his birthday, and we initially wanted to honor him by rounding up his most impressive accomplishments. But we realized that that list could go on forever. So instead, we decided to focus in on one moment of his eclectic career, one that is often overlooked—his time as an occasional poet and host of HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.
Def Poetry Jam, as it was known familiarly, aired on HBO from 2002 until 2007, and had a run on Broadway from 2002 to 2003. It featured spoken word pieces by well-known poets, comedians, rappers, and singers alike, as well as little-known up-and-comers. Some of the most notable guest performers include Kanye West, Common, Eve Ensler, Alicia Keys, and Mos Def himself.
For the most part, however, the series showcased emerging talents predominantly from New York City’s slam poetry movement. It was seen as a platform to turn the spotlight on America’s “freshest and most fearless voices,” and emphasize the importance of inner-city poetry on modern culture.
Though Def Poetry Jam was not much of a hit on Broadway—the theater hardly ever reached 40 percent capacity—the people who did go liked what they saw, and it was met with much critical acclaim. The show’s director Stan Lathan speculated that many white audiences wrote the show off as a preachy, uncomfortable “ethnic experience” before they even saw it. Still, it was regarded by those who did see it as life-changing, and fundamental to the diversification necessary for Broadway’s survival.
The show, unfortunately, is no more. The good news, however, is that almost all of the performances can be found on YouTube, and that the spoken-word scene is very much alive and kicking in New York City. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, home of the city’s first poetry slam, is still very much a presence on the Lower East Side, and continues to host live poetry events and regular open mic nights.
And as for Yasiin Bey, there are no plans to slow down anytime soon. In the wake of the recent Paris terror attacks in November, the rapper dropped a powerful track entitled “NO Colonial Fiction.” While the song is a direct reference to police brutality, he argues that all violence is connected and “about the dignity and nobility of being a human being, not a machine.”
Happy birthday, Yasiin Bey! Here’s to you, and the effort you make every day to give a voice to those who deserve it, and to unite the world with your words.