Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) brings activist hip-hop to Ace of Spades

By Paul Piazza

During a week of massive civil unrest in Baltimore, one of hip-hop’s most celebrated poets and activists put on a show at the Ace of Spades that was both thought-provoking and healing.

We’re talking about Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def.

First, Karega Bailey and Kev Choice opened the show. Bailey, an educator and activist, was able to frame his opinions of current events with intellect and power. Choice came across a little subtler, getting his message across with a jazzier flow. By the end of their set, the stage was framed with back-up singers and friends holding protest signs with calls for justice.

Bey began his set gently covering the stage with a seemingly endless supply of rose petals that he pulled out of his baseball cap. Accompanied only by a deejay, Bey showed why he is one of the greatest to ever rock the mic—extra excellent to see because for the past decade or so, he’s been spending more time acting than onstage. Not that he’s a slouch onscreen or anything. Among his more memorable celluloid roles have been Brother Sam on Season 6 of Dexter and the distinctive voice of Gangstaliscious on The Boondocks.

In 2012, Bey changed his name from Mos Def due to materialistic pressures. He felt he was “being treated as a product and not a person.” The artist, who has resided primarily in Capetown, South Africa since 2009, has never been silent on social issues though. Let’s not forget his appearance in a 2013 video with him being force-fed under the standard Guantanamo Bay procedures. It’s pretty intense.

During his set, Bey pirouetted and free-styled. He engaged the crowd earnestly with both his free-flowing movements, distinctive vocal cadence and a setlist that spanned his career. After initially ignoring a call from the crowd for “Black Jack Johnson,” he broke out with a version of “Ghetto Rock” that practically had the place levitating. 

When the night ended, he brought out long-stemmed roses and handed them out to the crowd. Then, he scattered more rose petals on the floor and stayed on the stage for an extended period of time, seeming to steep himself in the moment and extend his message further. Then, he gathered his mic and ball cap and left the building.

Photos by Paul Piazza

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