How Hip-Hop Lost Mos Def: Yasiin Bey Announces Retirement and Final Album

The artist formerly known as Mos Def announced his retirement amid bitter legal woes in South Africa. We should be saddened: Black culture is better when Mos Def is part of it.

Hip-hop artist, singer and actor Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) has been detained by South African authorities after he attempted to leave the country to perform at a show in Ethiopia—and the situation has apparently driven the artist to retire from music and film entirely.

Bey moved to South Africa in 2013 as an American, but according to South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, he and members of his family have overstayed their visa. Last week, Bey’s legal representative told OkayAfrica that the star was arrested for using a fraudulent document to travel—his “world passport.”

“From what I’ve read their allegations are wrong. He attempted to leave the country for a professional commitment and was denied the ability to board an airplane after providing his World Passport,” Bey’s rep stated.

“It’s issued by the World Service —in support of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. His understanding is that the South African government has previously accepted the World Passport to enter the country and to provide visas as recently as August.”

When asked if the rapper’s family had stayed past their visa term, the rep responded, “They may have stayed past their visa term, however, his arrest is because of the claim that he was allegedly using a false and fraudulent document.

“He considers himself a world citizen and wanted to to use his World Passport in support of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Although South Africa did not sign the declaration in 1948—probably because they were governed by Apartheid at the time—Nelson Mandela believed it was a necessary document for the continued growth of South Africa after the abolishment of Apartheid.”

According to South African Home Affairs officials, Bey had 14 days to leave the country. But in a frustrated audio message posted on his longtime friend Kanye West’s official website, he says he was held “unlawfully.”

An emotional-sounding Yasiin kicks a freestyle called “No More Parties In S.A.” over the phone before offering his version of what’s going on.

“This is Yasiin Bey. At this present time, I am currently in Capetown, SA. I’m being prevented from leaving unjustly, unlawfully and without any logical reason,” he says. “They’re saying that they want to deport my family. They are making false claims against me, some of these government officials even in the press are making false claims against me. Saying that my travel document that I was traveling with is fictitious. It’s not. Anyone can do research on a world passport, it’s not a fictitious document. It’s not designed to deceive or rob any benefit from the state. In fact, the world passport has been accepted here on numerous occasions.”

Bey continues to voice his frustrations with how he and his family have been treated throughout the message.

“I am not a liar. I’ve made no false claims. I have not misrepresented myself. I’m under unnecessary state supervision and scrutiny.”

In 2013, Bey teamed with the human-rights group Reprieve and released a video reenactment of a force-feeding similar to the ones endured by hunger strikers jailed in Guantanamo Bay. He also spoke about the serenity he’d found living in South Africa.

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“I lived in Brooklyn 33 years of my life. I thought I’d be buried in that place,” he told Rolling Stone that same year. “Around seven years ago, I was like, you know, ‘I gotta go, I gotta leave.’ It’s very hard to leave. And I lived in a lot of places. Central America. North America. Europe for a while.

“And I came to Cape Town in 2009, and it just hit me. I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I know when a good vibe gets to you. And, you know, I thought about this place every day from when I left. I was like, ‘I’m comin’ back.’”

“For a guy like me, who had five or six generations not just in America but in one town in America, to leave America, things gotta be not so good with America,” he said.

In 2014, Bey was forced to cancel a U.S. tour due to “immigration issues.”

An official statement from Boston’s Together Music Festival explained: “We regret to inform you that due to immigration/legal issues Yasiin Bey is unable to enter back into the United States and his upcoming US tour has been canceled.”

In yesterday’s message, Yasiin Bey made it clear that he feels he’s being targeted.

“I have reason to believe or suspect that there are political motivations behind the way that I’m being treated because this is following no reasonable strain of logic,” he wearily stated. “And it’s curious. I haven’t broken any law and I am being treated like a criminal. I know that I’m not unique in that regard and I’m grateful that I’m here with my family and I haven’t been physically harmed or anything like that. However, I have been detained and people in this state have taken punitive action against me. Unnecessarily.

“All I seek is to leave this state. I’m not looking to stake any future claims against them for damages or none of that. People can keep the little state jobs they’re concerned about losing.

“The state of South Africa is interfering with my ability to move or even fulfill my professional obligations. We don’t have to be enemies and we don’t have to be friends, either,” he continued. “We don’t have to be here. We’re complying in every possible way reasonably. Just today, state officials visited my domicile, asking questions about me and my family and they had no legal right to do so.”

Before signing off with a “thank you” to his friends and supporters, including West, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, and the Zulu Nation, Bey also made the unexpected announcement that he was done with music and film.

“I’m retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today and also from Hollywood, effective immediately,” he said. “I’m releasing my final album this year and that’s that. Peace to all. Fear of none.

“All of the people who have supported me, this is no reflection on you,” he shared. “I love the people of this continent. I love this country. But I’m not going to sit idly by and be persecuted by the state.”

If the artist formerly known as Mos Def really is done—done with making music and film, done with voicing his creativity for the public, done with contributing to the landscape of hip-hop—then we should all be saddened. We should be saddened that an industry isn’t more conducive to nurturing the best of our creators. We should be saddened that a culture stifled that creativity to the point that he had to seek peace via nomadic existence. We should be saddened that an art form didn’t value him more. And we should do as much as we can to ensure that this generation of high-profile black creatives don’t get so frustrated with the industry and their audience that they, too, decide the best solution is to walk away.

When I was a young man in the late ’90s, I thought of Mos Def similarly to the way a generation of hip-hop fans view Kendrick Lamar now. He was passionate and thoughtful, he could rhyme his ass off and Black On Both Sides was an album that blew me away from the very first listen. I would start my days with “Umi Says” playing in the background and ride to work blasting “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Mathematics.” Mos Def became quieter and quieter in hip-hop as years passed, seemingly finding more solace in acting and activism. As a new generation of thoughtful emcees has emerged, maybe the weight of Yasiin Bey walking away won’t be immediately felt. Maybe he’d been gone for a long time already, and this just made it official. We don’t know all that has happened and is happening to him as he embarks on his unorthodox personal journey and it may not be for us to know. But contemporary black culture is better when Mos Def is a part of it. Here’s hoping Yasiin Bey finds his way home.