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Initially regarded as one of the most promising rappers to emerge in the late '90s, Mos Def turned to acting in subsequent years as music became a secondary concern for him. He did release new music from time to time, including albums such as The New Danger (2004), but his output was erratic and seemingly governed by whim. Mos Def nonetheless continued to draw attention, especially from critics and underground rap fans, and his classic breakthrough albums -- Black Star (1998), a collaboration with Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek; and Black on Both Sides (1999), his solo debut -- continued to be revered, all the more so as time marched forward. Mos Def often used his renown for political purposes, protesting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Jena Six incident in 2007, for instance.
Born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY, Mos Def began rapping at age nine and began professionally acting at age 14, when he appeared in a TV movie. After high school, he began acting in a variety of television roles, most notably appearing in 1994 on a short-lived Bill Cosby series, The Cosby Mysteries. In 1994 Mos Def formed the rap group Urban Thermo Dynamics with his younger brother and sister, and signed a recording deal with Payday Records that didn't amount to much. In 1996 his solo career was launched with a pair of high-profile guest features on De La Soul's "Big Brother Beat" and Da Bush Babees' "S.O.S." A year later, in 1997, Mos Def released his debut single, "Universal Magnetic," on Royalty Records, and it became an underground rap hit. This led to a recording contract with Rawkus Records, which was just getting off the ground at the time, and he began working on a full-length album with like-minded rapper Talib Kweli and producer Hi-Tek. The resulting album, Black Star (1998), became one of the most celebrated rap albums of its time. A year later came Mos Def's solo album, Black on Both Sides, and it inspired further attention and praise. Yet, aside from appearances on the Rawkus compilation series Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing, no follow-up recordings were forthcoming, as the up-and-coming rapper turned his attention elsewhere, away from music.
During the early 2000s, Mos Def acted in several films (Monster's Ball, Bamboozled, Brown Sugar, The Woodsman) and even spent some time on Broadway (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog). He simultaneously worked on the Black Jack Johnson project with several iconic black musicians: keyboardist Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic), guitarist Dr. Know (Bad Brains), drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour), and bassist Doug Wimbish (the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Living Colour). This project aimed to reclaim rock music, especially the rap-rock hybrid, from such artists as Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, who Mos Def openly despised. What made Black Jack Johnson so anticipated though was not so much the supergroup roster of musicians or even Mos Def himself, but rather the lack of black rock bands. Following the demise of Living Colour, there were few, if any, that had attained substantial success. Mos Def hoped to infuse the rock world with his all-black band, and during the early 2000s, he performed several small shows with his band around the New York area. In October 2004, he finally delivered a second solo album, The New Danger, which involved Black Jack Johnson on a few tracks.
Two years later, after a few more acting roles -- including the Golden Globe-winning Lackawanna Blues and the Emmy-winning Something the Lord Made, both of which were made-for-television movies -- Mos Def released his third solo album, True Magic (2006). A contract-fulfilling release for Geffen, which had absorbed Rawkus years prior, the album trickled out in a small run during the last week of 2006. Bizarrely, the disc came with no artwork and was sold in a clear plastic case -- though its single, "Undeniable," did manage to grab a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance. The Ecstatic, released on the Universal-distributed Downtown label, followed in June 2009; at that point, Mos Def had significant acting roles in Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind (in which he co-starred with Jack Black) and Cadillac Records (he played Chuck Berry).
Yasiin Bey /æˈiː ˈeɪ/ (born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973), better known by his former stage name Mos Def /ˈoʊ ˈɛ/, is an American actor and hip hop recording artist from Brooklyn, New York City, New York. He is the host of Def Poetry Jam which aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007. Best known for his music, Mos Def began his hip hop career in 1994 in the short-lived rap group UTD or Urban Thermo Dynamics, after which he appeared on albums by Da Bush Babees and De La Soul. Alongside Talib Kweli, he formed the duo Black Star, which released the album Black Star in 1998. He was a major force in late-1990s underground hip hop while with Rawkus Records. As a solo artist he has released the albums Black on Both Sides in 1999, The New Danger in 2004, True Magic in 2006, and The Ecstatic in 2009.
Prior to his career in music, Mos Def entered public light as a child actor, having played roles in television movies, sitcoms and theater, some of which under the name Dante Beze. At the age of 14, he appeared in the TV movie God Bless the Child which aired on ABC in 1988. He played the oldest child in the 1990 family sitcom, You Take the Kids, shortly before it was cancelled. In 1995, he played the character "Dante" in The Cosby Mysteries. Since the early 2000s, Mos Def is well known for his roles in films such as Something the Lord Made, Next Day Air, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 16 Blocks, Be Kind Rewind, The Italian Job, and his portrayal of Brother Sam in the American drama series Dexter. Mos Def has also been vocal on several social and political causes."Yasiin Bey Would Like You To Quit Calling Him Mos Def". The Awl. 26 June 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2014. AllMusic Biography "Mos Def Digital Biography". HipHopScriptures.com. Retrieved 16 June 2014. "IMDb: Mos Def". IMDb.com. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
He was born Dante Terrell Smith in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Sheron Smith and Abdul Rahman. The eldest of 12 children and step-children, he was raised by his mother in Brooklyn, while his father lived in New Jersey. While his father was initially a member of the Nation of Islam and later followed Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who merged into mainstream Sunni Islam from the Nation, Mos Def was not exposed to Islam until the age of 13. At 19, he took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He is close friends with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (Q-Tip) of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest.
Mos Def attended middle school at Philippa Schuyler 383 in Bushwick, Brooklyn where he picked up his love for acting. After returning from filming You Take the Kids in Los Angeles, and getting into a relationship with an older girl, Mos Def dropped out of high school during sophomore year. Growing up in New York City during the crack epidemic of the 80s and early 90s, he's spoken about witnessing widespread instances of gang violence, theft and poverty in society, which he largely avoided by working on plays, Off-Off-Broadway and arts programs. In a particularly traumatic childhood experience, Mos Def witnessed his younger brother get hit by a car. The 5 year old Denard Smith (DCQ), who Mos Def described as "my first partner in Hip Hop", was in a coma for 6 months. He credits his brother, parents, grandparents and fellow New Yorkers for being an inspiration in his life and work.Asadullah, Ali (April 2001). "You're Gonna Serve Somebody". Beliefnet. Retrieved March 11, 2012. "The SPIN Interview: Mos Def". spin.com. 1 August 2009. Retrieved 16 June 2014. "From Brooklyn to Bo-Kaap". RollingStone.co.za. 10 March 2014. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
Mos Def began his rap music career in 1994, forming the rap group UTD (or Urban Thermo Dynamics) along with younger brother DCQ (Jashiya Illson; born Derente Smith) and younger sister Ces. In 2004, they released the album Manifest Destiny, their first and only release to date. The album features a compilation of previously unreleased and re-released tracks recorded during the original UTD run.
In 1996, Mos Def emerged as a solo artist and worked with De La Soul and Da Bush Babees, before he released his own first single, "Universal Magnetic".
Mos Def signed with Rawkus Records and formed the rap group Black Star with Talib Kweli. The duo released an album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, in 1998. Mostly produced by Hi-Tek, the album featured the hit singles "Respiration" and "Definition", which would go on to be featured in VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop. Mos Def released his solo debut album Black on Both Sides in 1999, also through Rawkus. Around this time he also contributed to the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie and Rawkus compilations Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing.
After the collapse of Rawkus, he signed to Geffen Records, which released his second solo album The New Danger in 2004. The New Danger contained a mix of several musical genres, including soul, blues, and rock and roll, performed with his rock band Black Jack Johnson, which included members of the bands Bad Brains and Living Colour. The singles included "Sex, Love & Money" and the B-side "Ghetto Rock"; the latter went on to receive several Grammy Award nominations in 2004.
Mos Def's final solo album for Geffen Records, True Magic, was released in 2006.
The song "Crime & Medicine" is a remake of GZA's 1995 single "Liquid Swords". Also, the track "Undeniable" samples a version of the Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield composition "Message from a Black Man". The song "Dollar Day" uses the same beat as Juvenile's "Nolia Clap".
On November 7, 2007, Mos Def performed live in San Francisco at The Mezzanine venue. The performance was recorded for an upcoming "Live in Concert" DVD. During the event, Mos Def announced that he would be releasing a new album to be called The Ecstatic. He performed a number of new tracks; in later shows, Def previewed tracks produced by Madlib and was rumored to be going to Kanye West for new material. Producer and fellow Def Poet Al Be Back revealed he would be producing on the album as well. The album was released on June 9, 2009; but only Madlib's production had made the cut, along with tracks by Preservation, The Neptunes, Mr. Flash, Madlib's brother Oh No, a song by J. Dilla, and Georgia Anne Muldrow.
Mos Def appears alongside Kanye West on the track "Two Words" from The College Dropout album, the track "Drunk And Hot Girls" and the bonus track "Good Night" off West's third major album, Graduation. In 2002, he released the 12" single Fine, which was featured in the Brown Sugar Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Mos Def also appears on the debut album from fellow New Yorkers Apollo Heights on a track titled, "Concern." In October, he signed a deal with Downtown Records and appeared on a remix to the song "D.A.N.C.E." by Justice. Mos Def appeared on Stephen Marley's debut album Mind Control on the song "Hey Baby." In 2009, Mos Def worked with Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan to produce the track "America" for K'naan's album Troubadour.
In April 2008, he appeared on the title track for a new album by The Roots entitled Rising Down. The new single, "Life In Marvelous Times", was made officially available through iTunes on November 4, 2008, and is available for stream on the Roots' website Okayplayer.
In April 2009, Mos Def traveled to South Africa for the first time where he performed with The Robert Glasper Experiment at the renowned Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He treated the South African audience with an encore introduced by his own rendition of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme", followed by a sneak preview of the track "M.D. (Doctor)"
Mos Def has designed two pairs of limited edition Converse shoes. The shoes were released through Foot Locker stores on August 1, 2009 in limited amounts.
In late 2009, Mos Def created his own clothing line with the "UNDRCRWN" brand called the "Mos Def Cut & Sew Collection." The items were released in select U.S. stores and almost exclusively on the UNDRCRWN website. 2009 also found Mos Def among the MCs collaborating with the Black Keys on the first Blakroc album, a project headed by the Black Keys and Damon Dash. Mos Def appeared with Jim Jones and the Black Keys on the Late Show with David Letterman to perform the Blakroc track "Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)".
In March 2010, Mos Def's song "Quiet Dog Bite Hard" was featured in Palm's "Life moves fast. Don't miss a thing." campaign.
Mos Def features on the first single, "Stylo", from the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, alongside soul legend Bobby Womack. He also appears on the track titled "Sweepstakes".
In September 2010, after appearing on Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Friday track "Lord Lord Lord", Mos Def confirmed he has signed with GOOD Music.
Mos Def has been an active contributor to the recovery of the oil spill in the Gulf, performing concerts and raising money towards repairing its damages. In June 2010, he recorded a cover of the classic New Orleans song originally by Smokey Johnson, "It Ain't My Fault" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Lenny Kravitz and Trombone Shorty.
In September 2011, Mos Def announced that he planned to use the name Yasiin instead of Mos Def beginning in 2012.
In January 2012, it was reported that Mos Def and Talib Kweli had begun "to resurrect" Black Star.
He began his professional acting career at the age of fourteen, appearing in the TV movie God Bless the Child, starring Mare Winningham. He then played the oldest child in 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 short-lived detective show, The Cosby Mysteries. He also starred in a 1996 Visa check card commercial featuring Deion Sanders. In 1997 he had a small role alongside Michael Jackson in his short film and music video "Ghosts".
After brief appearances in Bamboozled and Monster's Ball, Def played a rapper who is reluctant to sign to a major label in Brown Sugar. He was nominated for an Image Award and a Teen Choice Award.
In 2001, he took a supporting role to Beyoncé Knowles and Mehki Phifer in the MTV movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera as Lt. Miller, a crooked cop.
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 played Left Ear in the 2003 film The Italian Job. That same year he appear ed in the music video You Don't Know My Name of the song by Alicia Keys.
In television, Mos Def has appeared on NYPD Blue, on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show, and has hosted the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Def Poetry since its inception. The show's sixth season aired in 2007. He also appeared on the sitcom My Wife And Kids as the disabled friend of Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans).
Mos Def won "Best Actor, 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 and a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award. He also played a bandleader in HBO's Lackawanna Blues. He then landed the role of Ford Prefect in the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In 2006, Mos Def appeared in Dave Chappelle's Block Party alongside fellow Black Star companion Talib Kweli, while also contributing to the film's soundtrack. He was also featured as the banjo player in the Pixie Sketch" from Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, though his appearance was edited out of the DVD. He starred in the action film 16 Blocks alongside Bruce Willis and David Morse. He has a recurring guest role on Boondocks, starring as Gangstalicious. He is also set to be in Toussaint, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, opposite Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. He made a cameo appearance as himself in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In 2007, Mos Def narrated the PBS-broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves.
In 2008, Mos Def starred in the Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind, playing a video rental store employee whose best friend is played by co-star Jack Black. He also portrayed Chuck Berry in the film Cadillac Records, for which he was nominated for a Black Reel Award and an Image Award.
In 2009, he appeared in the House episode entitled "Locked In" as a patient suffering from locked-in syndrome. His performance was well-received, with E! saying that Mos Def "delivers an Emmy-worthy performance." He was also in the 2009 film Next Day Air.
In 2010, he appeared on the children's show Yo Gabba Gabba! as Super Mr. Superhero. He also appeared in A Free Man of Color, John Guare's play at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
In 2011, he began a multi-episode appearance on the sixth season of Showtime television series Dexter. He played Brother Sam, an ex-convict who has supposedly found religion despite finding himself in violent situations."About Mos Def". MTV.com. Retrieved 14 June 2014. "Manifest Destiny ". AllMusic.com. 2004. Retrieved 14 June 2014. Drake, David (September 24, 2011). "Review: Black Star at the House of Blues". Chicago Tribune. Posted by TheSavvySista on 6:52 AM (2008-10-01). "VH1's 100 greatest Hip-Hop songs". The-savvy-sista.com. Retrieved 2011-02-20. Black on Both Sides "New Music Report: Mos Def's "The Ecstatic"". Rolling Stone. Mos Def - Tru3 Magic - Hip-Hop Album Review "Al Be Back speaks on Mos Def's new CD". Hiphopgame.com. 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-02-20. "Hip Hop Single of the Day – Mos Def – Fine (2002)". WeLiveThis.com. Retrieved June 7, 2009. Pitchforkmedia.com Pitchfork: Mos Def Signs to Downtown Recordings, Remixes Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." With Spank Rock Newman, Kathleen (2009-04-29). "K'Naan Hopes To Break The U.S. With Help From Mos Def, Adam Levine". MTV.com. Retrieved 2011-02-20. "Mos Def Live at Cape Town Jazz Fest // 125129". Wearehunted.com. Retrieved 2010-03-01. "Converse — Connectivity". Converse.com. 2009-09-28. Retrieved 2011-02-20. "UNDRCRWN ~ Footwear & Apparel". Undrcrwn.com. Retrieved 2010-03-01. "Palm Advertising Campaign". palm.com. Retrieved 2010-04-15. Denis, Vanessa (2010-09-27). "Mos Def Signs With Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music - Music, Celebrity, Artist News". MTV. Retrieved 2011-08-11. Perpetua, Matthew (7 September 2011). "Mos Def to Retire the Name 'Mos Def'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 8 September 2011. Yeah, I Love it! Magazine "Faces: Yasiin Bey", January 31, 2012. "Awards Archive". Outercritics.org. Retrieved 2010-03-01. Mos Def Emmy Award Nomination Dos Santos, Kristin (2009-03-27). House: Mos Def'initely Deserves an Emmy. E!. Retrieved 2009-03-30. Brantley, Ben (2010-11-18). "Theater Review - 'A Free Man of Color' - John Guare’s ‘Free Man of Color’ at Vivian Beaumont - Review - NYTimes.com". Theater.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2011-02-20. Guthrie, Marisa (May 11, 2011). "Mos Def Joins 'Dexter'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
Social and political views
Def is well known for his left-leaning political views. In 2000, Mos Def performed a benefit concert for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In September 2005, Mos Def released the single "Katrina Clap", renamed "Dollar Day" for True Magic, (utilizing the instrumental for New Orleans rappers UTP's "Nolia Clap"). The song is a criticism of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. On the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, Mos Def pulled up in front of Radio City Music Hall on a flatbed truck and began performing the "Katrina Clap" single in front of a crowd that quickly gathered around him. He was subsequently arrested despite having a public performance permit in his possession.
In October 2006, Mos Def appeared on 4Real, a documentary television series. Appearing in the episode "City of God," he and the 4Real crew traveled to City of God, a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to meet Brazilian MC MV Bill and learn about the crime and social problems of the community.
On September 7, 2007, Mos Def appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher where he spoke about racism against African Americans, citing the government response to Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six and the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He appeared on Real Time again on March 27, 2009, and spoke about the risk of nuclear weapons. Mos Def said that he did not listen to any of Osama Bin Laden's messages because he did not trust the translations.
In July 2013, Mos Def, under the new name Yasiin Bey, appeared in a short film released by the human rights organization Reprieve, depicting the forced-feeding methods used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. This transpired after a document containing the military instructions for the procedure was leaked.Roberts, Roxanne; Amy Argetsinger (July 8, 2013). "Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, undergoes force-feeding to protest Guantanamo measures". The Reliable Source. The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 August 2013. Cite uses deprecated parameters (help) Odiaga, L.V.R. (2000-05-23). "Mos Def, Black Thought To Perform At Mumia Benefit". MTV.com. Retrieved 2011-08-21. "Mos Def arrested outside VMAs." Mp3.com. 2006-09-01. Retrieved on 2007-11-09 "Mos Def". 4REAL. Retrieved 2011-02-20. "4REAL Mos Def in Cidade de Deuas". 4real.com. Retrieved 2011-02-20. "episode 147". Real Time with Bill Maher. Season 7. Episode 6. 2009-03-27. HBO. http://www.hbo.com/billmaher/episode/2009_03_27_ep147.html. "Overtime". Real Time Bill Maher. Season 7. Episode 6. 2007-03-27. HBO. http://www.hbo.com/billmaher/video/. "Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) force-fed under standard Guantánamo Bay procedure – video". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 July 2013. Reprieve.org.uk
About.com ranked him #24 on their list of the Top 50 MCs of Our Time, while The Source ranked him #23 on their list of the Top 50 Lyricists of All Time. Allmusic called him one of the most promising rappers to emerge in the late '90s, as well as one of hip-hop's brightest hopes entering the 21st century. Mos Def has influenced numerous hip hop artists throughout his career, including Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, and Saigon.About.com Thisis50.com AllMusic AllMusic Birchmeier, Jason. "Mos Def". "Mos Def". Birchmeier, Jason. "Mos Def".
Mos Def has six children with four different women, including two with his first wife Maria Yepes.
He married Maria Yepes in 1996, and have two daughters together: Jauhara Smith and Chandani Smith. On August 17, 2005, he traveled to Canada where he married music video model Alana Wyatt. Following a tumultuous relationship, the couple soon separated after, but have not yet divorced. Wyatt published a tell-all book "Breaking The Code Of Silence" in January 2012.
Mos Def filed for divorce from Yepes in 2006. The former couple made headlines when Yepes took Mos Def to court over failure in child-support obligations, paying $2,000 short of the monthly $10,000 he is ordered to pay.
His mother Sheron Smith, who goes by her nickname "Umi", has played an active role managing portions of her son's career. She is also a motivational speaker, and has authored the book "Shine Your Light: A Life Skills Workbook", where she details her experience as a single-mother raising Mos Def."Scenes from a hip-hop marriage". TheStar.com. 29 June 2008. Retrieved 14 June 2014 "She said there were several attempts at reconciliation, but that Mos Def, who has six children with four different women, has a demanding though not abusive demeanour that she found difficult to abide. They have not been together since October 2006, but despite a $115,000 financial settlement are not officially divorced.". Check date values in: |accessdate= (help) "Daddy Is 'Def' Behind". New York Post. 15 February 2006. Retrieved 14 June 2014. http://www.avclub.com/article/ibreaking-the-code-of-silencei-is-a-tell-all-by-mo-88981 http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/news/id.4253/title.mos-def-tossed-out-of-court "Mos Def In Court Over Child Support". UPI.com. 15 February 2006. Retrieved 14 June 2014. Cite error: The named reference YasiinDef was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "Sheron Smith: Umi Says". All HipHop. 29 March 2007. Retrieved 15 May 2014.