Yasiin Bey Talks ‘Negus,’ Visual Art, And Unreleased Music

Yasiin Bey Talks ‘Negus,’ Visual Art, And Unreleased Music

For most artists, success is often rooted in how accessible or attainable they are. Not Yasiin Bey. He’s been outside this year, but you have to be there to get a taste. The rapper/singer formerly known as Mos Def performed in Washington D.C. when his friend Dave Chappelle received the Mark Twain Award, rocked for several nights as a co-headliner for Robert Glasper’s second residency at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, and lent verses to Glasper’s jam session-turned-mixtape F**k Yo Feelings and Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s album of the year contender Bandana. And this November, he launched yasiin bey: Negus, a listening installation that combines visual art from Bey and his friends with a new, unreleased album. No Billboard charts or streaming records, but that’s not his game anyway.

In recent years, Yasiin Bey has been experimenting with new ways to release his music while figuring out his role in an era that demands more music and compensates less money for it. In January 2016, he announced in an audio clip on Kanye West’s website that he would be “retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today, and also Hollywood, effective immediately." He planned to release his final album that year, and for the rest of the year, he would release several loosies and go on a short retirement tour of shows. Then, that December, he announced that he would have three albums on the way: Negus In Natural Person, a previously teased album with Mannie Fresh called As Promised, and Dec. 99th, a project with his friend Ferrari Shepard. Until now, the only of those three to see a formal release was Dec. 99th, which was released exclusively via Jay-Z’s TIDAL streaming service. In the time since then, he has largely gone back into hiding–until recently.

After arriving at the Brooklyn Museum space for Negus, entrants are asked to put their cell phones into a Yondr pouch that they’ll be able to keep on their person, but can only be unlocked by a machine that’s handled by museum staff on their way out. (Yasiin is known for asking the crowd repeatedly to put their phones away before starting his performance.) From there, they’ll be given a pair of headphones that allow them to adjust the volume, but nothing else: no ability to rewind, skip, or pause tracks. As a peaceful composition by Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryan precedes the album, they’ll walk into a room with art pieces on each of the four walls.

Yasiin Bey originally recorded Negus in London in 2015 with producers Lord Tusk, Steven Julien, and ACyde, with raps he had written a few years prior. He then presented the album as an art installation at art fairs in Morocco, Dubai, and Hong Kong; the Brooklyn Museum exhibit is the first time it’s available for public consumption, and it has a tracklist and visual element unique to Brooklyn. According to a press release for the exhibit, negus (pronounced neh-goose) means “king” or “ruler” in Ge’ez, “an ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia.” (Kendrick Lamar used the term on “i” from To Pimp A Butterfly.) Yasiin uses the word to refer to noble figures, and the presumed centerpiece of the exhibition is a giant textile mural that has an embedded photo of the late Nipsey Hussle and visual renderings of the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black cancer patient whose unique cells were taken without her consent and used as the basis for billions of dollars of medical research and biotechnology. On the opposite wall is a starry, celestial piece by Ala Ebetekar. Another piece is a collaboration between Bey and Jose Parla, which Bey described to Zelaya as “the beginning of a story that was never told.” And on the other wall, are two pieces by Julie Mehretu. Ebtekar, Mehretu, and Parla all created their pieces specifically for the installation after Bey played the album for them.

It’s difficult to comprehensively review the music of Negus: Yasiin Bey usually creates music that demands multiple listens, not only to discover the lyrical nooks and crannies but to get accustomed to the sound. Bey has taken on different production styles with nearly every album since his seminal Black On Both Sides from 20 years ago. With it being the first piece of Yasiin Bey music in two years, it’s frustrating to have limited access to it. But off of two visits to the exhibit and a live performance of the album at the museum, much of the album is sonically reminiscent of Dec. 99 with its spacy soundbeds. The best song appears to be called “Waves,” and it’s one of a couple that uses soul samples that feel more familiar. Topically, the album conveys people’s responses to difficult times: on one song he says “it’s easy to catch a fever in a cold world,” and three songs later, he sounds more determined to actually persevere through it. On another song, he gives a shout out to Bobby Shmurda and uses the phrase “polar cap Kool-Aid” to speak about the dangers of climate change, in what sounds like a sparse follow-up to his brilliant 2000 song “New World Water.” It’s easy to miss a bar or two since you can’t rewind or pause, but Negus feels more rooted in vibe than it is in lyrical sustenance; it’s more about the total experience than it is about minute details.

In the week of Negus' opening, Brooklyn Museum hosted dance parties for the exhibit that included Dave Chappelle and Q-Tip as attendees. On Thursday night (Nov. 21), Yasiin Bey and Lord Tusk gave two live performances in the museum’s auditorium that featured stirring visual imagery and the reveal of several songs that didn’t appear in the exhibit itself. Yasiin spoke to VIBE for fifteen minutes in the museum’s outdoor courtyard before his second performance and surprisingly resumed the conversation for another half hour in front of the building afterward. He detailed his embrace of visual art as a medium of expression, how he’s not at war with streaming services, and why so many of his recent works have taken so long to come out.

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VIBE: You recorded this in London in 2015. How did you and Lord Tusk connect?

Yasiin Bey: I was introduced to Lord Tusk by a partner of mine that I was working with at the time, Samira Hamid Sharifu. She was a fan of theirs and recommended that we meet in East London. It just clicked. I met Tusk first, then Steven Julien, then Dean Blunt, and the other artists working in that area and NTS Radio crew. That’s how we first made contact. I was already in London; I think I was doing a show or something like that. I spend a lot of time working in Paris and Europe, so whenever I’m there I have a place where I stay pretty regularly, on a part-time basis. I think I was settling between London and Paris, and I was in the work cycle, doing dates here and there. I made a stop in London and I said, “I should do some things here.” And A$AP [Rocky] was around, and people were coming and going, so it was an active time, it was a good time.

Each of your albums sounds almost completely different. How’d you find a sound for this?

The sound was already there. To be candid, I was responding to the frequencies that were there. Also, shout out to ACyde, who was a part of that time as well. A lot of those rhymes I had written in 2011-2012 when I was living in New Orleans. All of them just fit with the rhythms. I had never heard any rhythms like that. Everything sounded so familiar, yet singular, and I was really excited about it. I just responded to what was there. It happened fairly quickly—everything was recorded in two weeks. It wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting at all. Just one, two, three takes. Shout out to Mark Ronson as well, who opened up his studio to let us do some big room mixes of the material on there. Personally, I was partial to some of the unmixed stuff we did with Tusk and Steven. We did some things in the studio with ACyde while he was working with Rocky. But I was super happy with everything, everybody felt that way. Then the question came to how are we going to put it out, where is it going to go? It just came to me, a vision in how to do it. And hamdullah, mashallah, here we are.

What made you decide to not release it in a conventional way?

I had a vision for an environment that the work could be experienced in. Over time, that vision refined itself. In 2016, I started a painting. A gentleman I was working with at a time, he was a painter, suggested that I started working on bigger dimensions. I began working on sketches on my own. I was quite happy with those dimensions, I did a full-on themed book. It’s going to be the subject of another solo show that we’re planning, playing with dimensions, going from intimate notebook dimensions to a larger scale. Long story short, it was a lot of different things I was working on at that time. Working with Unknown Union on fashion in Capetown, recording with A Tribe Called Red, and really discovering an enthusiasm for a new way of communicating as an artist, via visual art, painting. I had encouragement from people around me, I had time and resources, so I just started to do it and I really liked what I was producing. It was well responded to, so I continued, and I felt there was a way to combine those interests and those ways of communicating.

It’s been interesting to see how you take control of parts of your career. I’ve seen you at shows being upset with people using their phones, so tonight you had Yondr pouches. I spoke to Robert Glasper about you recently, and he said that you didn’t like streaming–

It’s not that I don’t like streaming. This is a thing that comes up, at least in relation to this project, and perhaps some of my experience with the recording industry of the world as it pertains to music specifically. To be candid and clear, I don’t dislike streaming per se, as a technology in and of itself. I think there’s some room for some amendment there, in terms of delivery and pay and all of those types of areas, and other areas as well. With that being said, me and my team are not doing this in opposition to something, per se, a structure or a means of distribution. We’re cultivating an environment where we can express our work and where people can experience our work, on par with the environment that we have experienced other work that we really enjoyed.

So for us, this is all very organic. It’s new for the audience and other people, and for many people, the exposure is totally plausible. It’s not like we’re alone working in this area of sound and the so-called fine art world. There are numerous artists that are working in that way at this present moment and for the last number of years, and it seems it’s going to be a growing number of artists working in that way. It’s not a polemic of gallery or intimate settings versus streaming, it’s not that. If people see something here in terms of a model, so to speak, of how to present their works or a specific project, then that’s fine. We’re not evangelical about it, either. We’re not posetizing like “you need to do it this way.” Every artist and individual has a specific set of needs. For some people, the streaming platforms are perfect and suitable. Other people may do a mix of the two, or one or the other. To each their own. I have no vendetta, no score to settle, or statement to make… This is not some type of divining rod, or line in the sand. Not for me at all.

You were speaking about how you got a lot of encouragement from friends to look at visual art as a medium–

Not look at it, but to make my own visual art. I’ve been a fan of visual art and painters like Ellen Gallagher, Rico Gatson, Arthur Jafa, Julie Mehretu my hero, and other masters. (Jean-Michael) Basquiat, (Edgar) Degas, and new friends as well. Anuar Khalifi, a beautiful painter of Morrocan descent out of Barcelona, and also being just over the past year, exposed to more visual artists because of the work with negus and Sunny’s (Rahbar) gallery, Third Line (based in Dubai). I’ve always taken the general interest in that expression. It was just a place, over the past four to five years, to start working in that medium.

You’ve been a master at music for a while. So what kind of challenge was it to become adept at visual art to the point that you were happy with it?

What was happening was really, I was just working off of instinct. For me, as I was thinking about it, I was just looking to avoid anything contrived. Just making the most natural, fluid motion that I could, and composing around that. In essence—Thester Gates—who’s another great artist I admire a lot and who I had the opportunity to speak with recently, was explaining to me that it’s just another place for composition. Music is a zone for composition, MCing is a zone for composition, and painting is another zone for composition, figuring out where things go, how you place them, working with shape and light and color, and different materials. I was using everything that I responded to and brought me enthusiasm, that I had a genuine interest in, and putting it in that space. Joining the music with it has been a great thrill for me. Beyond a thrill, it’s been a zone of revelation for me, artistically and personally. I’m fortunate. It’s a natural progression of my life as a human being and as a creative person in the world. I’m grateful, thrilled and honored to be doing it in my town at an esteemed institution. I’m having a wonderful time.

The visual piece that struck me the most was on the right side, when you walk in, with Henrietta Lacks’ cells and a photograph of Nipsey Hussle. What was the inspiration behind that?

I’ve long liked textiles and murals. I wanted to do something to have mural scale but was actually fairly portable. The Pleasant is a big piece, it’s 63 feet long, at least six and a half feet high, if not more. The scale of it is big, but because it has a tactile quality to it, it has an intimate quality to it. The phrase “the blood of Jesus Christ, the crips of Jesus Christ, the tribes of Jesus Christ” occurred to me as well from learning about the Henrietta Lacks story. This scientific focus on her cellular structure, and how that cosmic information was exploited. The reason why it was exploited. There’s a lot of different things inside that piece. From my perspective—not leading anybody, just my point of view—a lot of themes of eternity, lineage, and legacy, in a zone beyond race. Whatever her cellular composition was and is, is very unique to her, but it’s also a quality in that cellular structure that is arguably present in my group of people. And maybe others, but it certainly feels at times that it’s a type of very eerie, in my feeling, focus on people. Not just so-called non-white people, but people as units of scientific study. Which has its benefits, but it also has a side of it that feels very minimizing. It reduces the value of a human being down to their cellular data or content. It tells you something about a person, but not everything, and probably not even the most vital thing.

There’s also this notion that certain of us could very well possibly be connected to divine figures and characters of history by blood. I find that intriguing. It’s about race without being about race, it’s about science without being about science. It’s about blood and beyond blood. To me, those cells exhibited in that way look like something cosmic, the cosmic reality being reflected inside of a human being. In fact, I’ve heard it said by people of knowledge or knowing, that the cosmos are alive in each and every living thing. I find that interesting and intriguing as well and motivating. So it’s an opportunity to express that idea in a grand way that also feels welcoming. [Regarding the script on the piece] I love cursive, my grandmother wrote in cursive exclusively. The shapes of the alphabets underneath the phrase were created by my daughter. (smiles) I really love that piece, and I like how it works in concert with the other pieces on display here. I hope I didn’t talk too long there, but I really enjoy that work.

Where does Nipsey come into play in that piece, in relation to all you said about Henrietta Lacks?

Including Nipsey felt like making a connection to another expression of Christ energy. Particularly being that he’s of East African origin, and their approach to the cosmology of Jesus Christ, I find it really interesting. I’ve read things that there’s a belief among certain people in that region who practice Christianity that the eucharist is within them, that their collective body is the body of Christ. I find that really interesting. Forgive any error I’m making in my analysis in their belief system or cosmology. I feel like Nipsey as a figure, in modern time, is a strong, present vibrant manifestation of a modern-day negus. His presence is not an isolated phenomenon. When you talk about him, you have to consider the global context that he fills. East African heritage, his upbringing in Los Angeles, his connection to street and gang culture, his evolution to not just a recording or creative artist, but in essence, a community leader, which makes him very, very dynamic. His example is transcending even his skill set, or his talent, which I find really interesting. So thematically, his presence is a link referencing genealogy, mostly experience of what makes us who we are. How does our environmental circumstance have the power to shape us on a cellular level, even? It’s all of those things. But if you don’t connect to the work off the top those things are not interesting to you. For me, I connected to it visually.

Two years ago, you said you were going to retire from music. What inspired that, and do you still feel that way?

The statement that I made was that I was “retiring from the recording industry as currently assembled,” and Hollywood. I made no statement about ceasing to be a creative being. I understand why people hear that you’re not working in these large-format mediums, and that’s it. Personally, on the interior, I always had the notion I was going to do something. I was pretty frustrated at that time with different practices that I saw prevailing in terms of business, just the general environment didn’t feel inviting to me. It didn’t feel like a joyful or pleasant place to work. I enjoyed the work, but certain elements of the industry engagement really didn’t appeal to me on a business or personal level. So I said, “Okay, it’s time to do something else.” Some might say it’s premature, or maybe uttered in frustration. But certain parts of it were. It was frustration about a lot of different things happening at that time. But I have every intention of continuing to work and create.

You said that time wasn’t inviting, but I’ve seen you perform three times this year–twice with Glasper, once tonight–and all three times, you looked like you were having the time of your life. Smiling a lot, laughing a lot.

I really enjoy the group of people I’m working with. I enjoy the work they create, I enjoy their company on a personal level. Many of them are some of my dearest and closest friends. I enjoy seeing the audiences enjoy it, I enjoy being able to be present to enjoy it myself. I’m feeling really, really good. People are saying "this is the most I’ve seen a person work who retired three years ago."

I’ve gotta ask a couple of questions as a fan. Are we ever gonna get–

Black Star.

Well, I was first going to ask about the Mannie Fresh record.

All of that is on deck, and you know what? It’s interesting because it’s similar to the process with negus. I have these really special projects. I still have them—Black Star, Mannie Fresh, stuff with me and DOOM on the low. I have stuff with me and Madlib, I work with Glasper and Trill. But it’s all for me, and solely for me, it’s about a matter of placement. Where things go. For me, these works are living organisms. Putting them in the proper environment is just as key as making useful work. So for me, where it goes is just as important as what it is, particularly at this point. To some degree or another, it’s always been that way for me. Who are our partners in this? What are our shared objectives and goals? How are we looking at this? Are we making the same movie, film, album, concert? What are the principles of importance to us as a group? Individually, but as we come together to do this thing because all of it is a collaborative and community effort. None of this happens in a vacuum; it requires the effort of a lot of people, and many people attached to those people. It’s this ecosystem, and that’s why I’ve been very careful, particularly with the works over the last six to seven years, since 2011-2012. Where are we putting what we do? Let’s really explore the options available to us, be patient, and pick the most suitable situation that achieves good aims that we can all participate in, feel good about, and leave feeling good about. We want to have success, we want it to be viable business, we want clear proof of concept. We want to be proud of what we do. But at the same time, it’s no rush. As it’s been said to me, things of quality have no fear of time. It feels like it’s all coming together.

Some of those things I didn’t even know you were working on. A record with DOOM?

I have some unreleased music with DOOM, and I have unreleased material that I’ve been doing at different performances and venues, which I do like to do. I like to be able to write something and perform it shortly thereafter. It shows the body of the work, really putting it out there to engage with the audience that’s never heard it before. They have to come with another sort of openness to it. It’s that visceral response. After the first four to eight bars, if they’re with you, they’re with you. If they’re not, they’re not. So you get to see how the work connects. And even when it doesn’t quite connect, it’s just small adjustments that needed to be made, nothing major.

The Ecstatic has become my favorite album of yours in recent years, and it’s not on streaming services anymore. Was that something intentional that you did, or was that a label situation?

The ownership of that album has come out of the hands of the corporation that owned it, previously. That’s why it’s not there anymore. But there’s still opportunities for people to hear it in other mediums, and the team is putting those things together. We’re quite happy to be in the position to present that particular project in another dynamic way. Perhaps there’s a situation with streaming services, of course, the platform offerings, that are amenable to what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to do. As I said to you before, I think there’s room to adjust whatever elements there that may be causing friction or tension between the technology strata and people in the creative field, or the people who are making content as opposed to people who make the algorithms and the content that these things are shared over.

But I’m really encouraged. I’m happy that people are still interested in what I’m doing, and still interested in the things that I have done. It feels really good to be in that position. And I’m working on some things that I think are really exciting. By the time I talk about it, it’s already present. But everything I say, I try to do. But it’s coming together. Certain things I’ve tried, they haven’t worked, or they got soft starts. But I’m an explorer, you know? (smiles) Let’s have an adventure, and see what we can discover. We already know what we know, let’s find what we can discover. That can be a bit scary at times, but I think it’s working out.

Main Image Credit: Kolin Mendez