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Culture, Music

Place To Be

by Dudumalingani Mqombothi / 13.01.2014

“I write on anything that will accept ink”, Yasiin Bey, other wise known as Mos Def, says, “whenever I need the solitude to do that. I like writing. But it can be frustrating”. He makes this statement at a meet and greet session a day before his New Year’s Eve gig at Zula Bar on Long Street, Cape Town. Yasiin Bey, along side the gigs organizer Whosane, South African poet Lebo Mashile and Cape Town based Illiterate Skills were all in attendance to answer all our question; groupie or music orientated.

The meet and greet went on for over four hours. The entire time Yasiin beguiles the audiences, as if somehow by magic, with his eloquence and knowledge of South Africa. In answering each question he pauses and rearranges his thoughts, giving each question utmost dedication before breaking into an impassioned monologue. “Africa is the place to be”, he says, “but it is Africans who do not realise that”. He tells the audience to take a stance against society ills and make a difference in someone’s life. He tells them that you can have all the talent in the world but it you are mean to other people you are nothing. Cheers and claps go for so long that they drown his next sentence. The discussion veers into integrity in the music industry. Whosane, the organiser of the gig, chirps in to announce that the gig is not sponsored by any alcoholic brands. To make fine a point he shares a story about Yasiin Bey. “Yasiin once requested that a bar be closed down in a club before going on stage”. And that concludes the session.

On the day of the event, I arrive to a hot and crowded Zula Bar. Sweat rushes down everyone’s face and because hands are in perpetual suspension in the air, the sweat, unattended, falls to the floor. I scream out aloud but as soon as the scream escapes my mouth it meets other screams that constantly hang in the air and I doubt that I screamed at all. I also arrive to Illiterate Skills’ last song and they are gone in a moment. Zaki Ibrahim, Lebo Mashile and Whosane also perform, prepping the crowd for Yasiin Bey.

The crowd is instructed to make its way peacefully upstairs to where Yasiin Bey will be performing. We do, moaning, mumbling and screaming epithets. Yasiin comes on stage, dressed in his off white Muslim robe, carrying a basket with flowers. He throws the flowers into the crowd. The flowers land on someone’s head and descend to the abyss of the sweaty floor and dancing shoes and there they die. He fixes his vintage red microphone into the microphone cables and taps it, as if to awaken it. His set inhabits the past, present and the future. He swings with flair but with no visible order between his old songs, to new and to some songs that are firmly in the future. He resuscitates Biggie Smalls by performing ‘Juicy’ and has the crowd rapping along with him. His set is an hour long, a meddle of song after song, tossing a few words to the audience, galloping water, and at one point asking that the crowd be given water because it is hot.

He waves at the crowd to the backdrop of an electro song jazzed up with a mellow piano but he does not leave the stage as yet.

mos def copy

He swings his arms from left to right and when he cannot extend them any further from his own body; he flings them in the air to allow them to float. And he begins again the same process with more precision. When the piano stops playing and begins again a few seconds later, he does not miss it. And then when the piano stops playing and a section of drums or a guitar dominates the composition of the song he moves his body in an animated manner. Somehow each gesture looks distinct. It is not due to planned choreography but because something else has taken over Yasiin Bey. He blows kisses to the crowd. And goes back to playing his piano. He flings his arms again and watches them as they return to him. And then after minutes of dancing violently on stage, whatever possessed him is cast out and he returns to himself. He faintly waves and disappears behind a black curtain, leaving the crowd with only memories because memories don’t leave like people do and he is a travelling man, moving through space and time.

What is left on stage is a dj, a mixing sound, speakers, and bottles of water. There is no piano, drums or guitar. There never was. Not on stage at least, but they existed inside Yasiin Bey.

Mos Def

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