Dante Terrell Smith, popularly known as Mos Def, is two people right now. We would do ourselves an injustice if we did not separate them or recognize his confusion. One is extremely good, the other is dangerous if swallowed.
Smith is easily the most sensitive and intelligent actor to come out of the hip-hop world, which is not a great feat in itself. He is, however, quite special simply because of his range, from contemporary black-nationalist knucklehead in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled to a Southern surgical genius of the segregated era in Something the Lord Made and, most recently, the Chuck Berry with which he so perfectly enhances Cadillac Records.
In TV appearances, the things Mos Def claimed not to believe included the success of the space program, the international existence of terrorism, and the troubles with Islamic fundamentalism that Ayaan Hirsi Ali laid down, from genital mutilation to murder, in her memoir Infidel.
That is quite a triangle of performances. The first alerts us to the ever-present danger of a crabbed and absurd sense of black authenticity; the second gives us luminous insight into those who fought the long and slow fight against imposed limitations, partially because their sensibilities demanded that they do their duty working in the life of the mind; and his turn in Cadillac Records, as Berry, provides insights into a man looking to sell out at the first chance but was done dirty by the pull of his carnal appetites.
We should all be happy in this time of ongoing minstrelsy because Smith arrives with a talent equal to those of younger men like Terrence Howard and Jeffrey Wright. All three share the ability to give such detail to a character that they can move beyond a handful of poorly executed “types” and provide the surprising individual vitality only the best actors summon.
The second Dante Terrell Smith lives up to his silly nickname. Not long ago, after reading a black political blog, I found myself moving along, link to link, until I went from Smith’s making hilarious fun of another rapper’s insipid lyrics to a very disturbing appearance he made with Cornel West in a discussion with Bill Maher on Real Time some time shortly before the presidential election. That was a gully-low moment.
I found it disturbing because it was the contrived Mutt and Jeff act of a public—or pop—black intellectual and a guy from the bottom. Successful people perform that act in order to prove that they are still connected to the community. While Cornel West pretended to sympathize with “where he was coming from,” the actor ran through the counterfeit lack of sense we see too frequently in those always trying to make it clear that they have not “left the ‘hood.” Their mask of brain rot allows them to genuflect in the face of ignorance.
Just a few weeks ago, Smith appeared on Real Time with Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, but his pretentious "brother from the projects" act did not go over well. His supposed courage to "express an unpopular opinion" was taken by Hitchens as an insult to the common intellectual knowledge that anyone should have about big issues in the contemporary world. Unlike those white Americans who have presented black illogic as a form of popular entertainment since the days of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, Hitchens was not having it and challenged Smith to back up his purported opinions. This is something the British are much better at than their American counterparts. Stuck in his act, Smith wavered forward, sinking with every syllable he uttered. That's how it goes: When the right white people are encountered, contrived ethnic authenticity doesn't cut it.
Watch Mos Def and Chris Hitchens debate the existence of Osama bin Laden on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Given his proven abilities, Smith does not “owe” the projects anything less than heroic morale and a broader understanding of life, not a corroboration of urban folks' limitations, as when he parroted the trickle-down exclusion from easily proven facts no rational person would deny.
Summed up from both Real Time discussions, the things Smith claimed not to believe included the success of the space program, the international existence of terrorism, and the troubles with Islamic fundamentalism that Ayaan Hirsi Ali laid down, from genital mutilation to murder, in her memoir Infidel.
Smith seemed lost in the Big Blak Afrika character that he delivered with such a brilliant combination of pathos, compassion, and satire in Bamboozled. In that film, a room made smoke-filled by marijuana contains Big Blak Afrika and his airheaded buddies spouting successive stretches of ignorant and “defiant” opinions. Given the actor’s awareness of the sorrow and the feeling of inadequacy hidden behind the blowfish chest-thumping, one would have expected more from Smith. Wrong again.
Whether they actually mean to or not, Smith and West end up condescending to the ignorant and the irrational as if that backwardness is no more than a version of “black style.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Ignorance is a lack of information, not a genetic defect or a “cultural style;” and irrationality should be fought at every step. Irrationality powered the toxic tribal blob that swelled over Hitler’s Germany and swallowed up its citizenry as well as their murdered victims. The exact same thing can be said about Bosnia and Rwanda. Tribalism. It is what it is and does what it does and can be recognized if we are not decoyed by color.
What both Smith and West embodied is the contemporary crisis of the Negro intellectual. At some point, highly intelligent people have to be willing to stand apart from and point out all of the shortcomings that can keep individuals, classes, and ethnic groups down.
Michelle Obama is so important because she understands that and its universal implications. Old-school to the core, the first lady is bringing it all back home to the heroic black tradition so deeply rooted in the most optimistic and humane elements of Americana. That is what the future first lady meant when she said more than a year ago, “Right now people think we are different, but we are not. We come from the same values and have had the same kind of support everybody else either has or wants to have. As they get to know us, they will see that we aren’t different at all.”
Michelle Obama is right and that is why we would all do well to expect, even demand, more from people like Dante Terrell Smith and Cornel West. Stop buck dancing for dummies. Remember: A mind is a terrible thing to waste—especially on pop superficiality and academic blather sticky with an irresponsible eloquence. That educated lingo is used to sweeten biscuits so moldy no one should be expected to swallow them. As one history teacher wrote me about West, "Things start to go downhill for intellectuals after they release their first rap album."
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.