Mos Def (/ /); born Dante Terrell Smith; December 11, 1974), also known by his recently used stage name Yasiin Bey (/ /), is an American hip hop recording artist, actor, comedian, and activist from Brooklyn, New York City, New York. Best known for his music, Mos Def embarked on his hip hop career in 1994, alongside his siblings in the short-lived rap group Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), after which he appeared on albums by Da Bush Babees and De La Soul. He subsequently formed the trio Black Star, alongside fellow Brooklyn-based rapper Talib Kweli, and Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek and released their eponymous debut album in 1998. He was a major force in late-1990s underground hip hop while under Rawkus Records. In 1999, Mos Def released his solo debut, Black on Both Sides, under Rawkus and Priority Records. His debut was followed by The New Danger (2004), True Magic (2006) and The Ecstatic (2009). The editors at About.com listed him as the 14th greatest emcee of all time on their "50 greatest MC's of our time" list.
Prior to his career in music, Mos Def first entered public life as a child actor, having played roles in television movies, sitcoms, and theater, some of which were under the name Dante Beze. At the age of 14, he appeared in the TV movie God Bless the Child, which aired on ABC in 1988. He played the oldest child in the 1990 family sitcom You Take the Kids, shortly before it was cancelled. In 1995, he played the character "Dante" in The Cosby Mysteries. Since the early 2000s, Mos Def has been well known for his roles in films such as Something the Lord Made, Next Day Air, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 16 Blocks, Be Kind Rewind, The Italian Job, Bamboozled and Brown Sugar, as well as for his portrayal of Brother Sam in the Showtime drama series Dexter. He is also known as the host of Def Poetry Jam, which aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007.
Dante Terrell Smith Bey was born in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Sheron Smith and Abdul Rahman. The eldest of 12 children and step-children, he was raised by his mother in Brooklyn, while his father lived in New Jersey.
Although his father was initially a member of the Nation of Islam and later followed Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who merged into mainstream Sunni Islam from the Nation, Mos Def was not exposed to Islam until the age of 13. At 19, he took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He is close friends with fellow Muslim rappers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (Q-Tip) of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest.
Mos Def attended middle school at Philippa Schuyler Middle School 383 in Bushwick, Brooklyn where he picked up his love for acting. After returning from filming You Take the Kids in Los Angeles, and getting into a relationship with an older girl, Mos Def dropped out of high school during sophomore year. Growing up in New York City during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, he has spoken about witnessing widespread instances of gang violence, theft and poverty in society, which he largely avoided by working on plays, Off-Off-Broadway and arts programs. In a particularly traumatic childhood experience, Mos Def witnessed his younger brother get hit by a car. The 5 year old Ilias Bey Born Denard Smith (DCQ), who Mos Def described as "my first partner in Hip Hop", was in a coma for 6 months. He credits his brother, parents, grandparents and fellow New Yorkers for being an inspiration in his life and work.
1994–1998: Beginnings with Rawkus and Black Star
Mos Def began his rap music career in 1994, forming the rap group UTD (or Urban Thermo Dynamics) along with younger brother DCQ (Ilias Bey; born Denard Smith) and younger sister Ces. In 2004, they released the album Manifest Destiny, their first and only release to date. The album features a compilation of previously unreleased and re-released tracks recorded during the original UTD run.
Mos Def signed with Rawkus Records and formed the rap group Black Star with Talib Kweli. The duo released an album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, in 1998. Mostly produced by Hi-Tek, the album featured the hit singles "Respiration" and "Definition", which would go on to be featured in VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop.
1999–2006: Black on Both Sides, The New Danger and True Magic
Mos Def released his solo debut album Black on Both Sides in 1999, also through Rawkus. Around this time he also contributed to the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie and Rawkus compilations Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing.
After the collapse of Rawkus records, he signed to Geffen Records, which released his second solo album The New Danger in 2004. The New Danger contained a mix of several musical genres, including soul, blues, and rock and roll, performed with his rock band Black Jack Johnson, which included members of the bands Bad Brains and Living Colour. The singles included "Sex, Love & Money" and the B-side "Ghetto Rock"; the latter went on to receive several Grammy Award nominations in 2004.
The song "Crime & Medicine" is a remake of GZA's 1995 single "Liquid Swords". Also, the track "Undeniable" samples a version of the Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield composition "Message from a Black Man". The song "Dollar Day" uses the same beat as Juvenile's "Nolia Clap".
2007–2011: GOOD Music and the genesis of Yasiin Bey
On November 7, 2007, Mos Def performed live in San Francisco at The Mezzanine venue. The performance was recorded for an upcoming "Live in Concert" DVD. During the event, he announced that he would be releasing a new album to be called The Ecstatic. He performed a number of new tracks; in later shows, he previewed tracks produced by Madlib and was rumored to be going to Kanye West for new material. Producer and fellow Def Poet Al Be Back revealed he would be producing on the album as well. The album was released on June 9, 2009; but only Madlib's production had made the cut, along with tracks by Preservation, The Neptunes, Mr. Flash, Madlib's brother Oh No, a song by J. Dilla, and Georgia Anne Muldrow.
Mos Def appears alongside Kanye West on the track "Two Words" from The College Dropout album, the track "Drunk And Hot Girls" and the bonus track "Good Night" off West's third major album, Graduation. In 2002, he released the 12" single Fine, which was featured in the Brown Sugar Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Mos Def also appears on the debut album from fellow New Yorkers Apollo Heights on a track titled, "Concern." In October, he signed a deal with Downtown Records and appeared on a remix to the song "D.A.N.C.E." by Justice. He appeared on Stephen Marley's debut album Mind Control on the song "Hey Baby." In 2009, he worked with Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan to produce the track "America" for K'naan's album Troubadour.
In April 2008, he appeared on the title track for a new album by The Roots entitled Rising Down. The new single, "Life In Marvelous Times", was made officially available through iTunes on November 4, 2008, and is available for stream on the Roots' website Okayplayer.
In April 2009, Mos Def traveled to South Africa for the first time where he performed with The Robert Glasper Experiment at the renowned Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He treated the South African audience with an encore introduced by his own rendition of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme", followed by a sneak preview of the track "M.D. (Doctor)"
In late 2009, Mos Def created his own clothing line with the "UNDRCRWN" brand called the "Mos Def Cut & Sew Collection." The items were released in select U.S. stores and almost exclusively on the UNDRCRWN website. 2009 also found Mos Def among the MCs aligning themselves with American entrepreneur Damon Dash's DD172 and collaborating with American blue rock band the Black Keys on the Blakroc album, a project headed by the Black Keys and Damon Dash. Mos Def appeared with Harlem-bred rapper Jim Jones and the Black Keys on the Late Show with David Letterman to perform the Blakroc track "Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)".
In March 2010, Mos Def's song "Quiet Dog Bite Hard" was featured in Palm's "Life moves fast. Don't miss a thing." campaign.
In September 2010, after appearing on Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Friday track "Lord Lord Lord", Mos Def confirmed he had signed with GOOD Music. Mos Def has been an active contributor to the recovery of the oil spill in the Gulf, performing concerts and raising money towards repairing its damages. In June 2010, he recorded a cover of the classic New Orleans song originally by Smokey Johnson, "It Ain't My Fault" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Lenny Kravitz and Trombone Shorty.
In September 2011, Mos Def announced that he planned to use the name Yasiin Bey instead of Mos Def beginning in 2012.
2012–present: resurgence of Black Star and revival of Mos Def moniker
In 2015, Mos Def featured on A$AP Rocky's second studio album At. Long. Last. ASAP on the track "Back Home" alongside Acyde and the deceased A$AP Yams. He again revived his stage name for two new songs in August 2015 titled "Basquiat Ghostwriter" & "Sensei on the Block".
In 2016, Mos Def announced his retirement from both the music and the film industry on Kanye West's website, he has stated once he'll retire in 2016 after releasing his final album. There is no release date for the album.
Beginnings as child actor
Prior to his career in music, Mos Def entered public life as a child actor, having played roles in television movies, sitcoms and theater, some of which were under the name Dante Beze. At the age of 14, he appeared in the TV movie God Bless the Child, starring Mare Winningham, which aired on ABC in 1988. He played the oldest child in the 1990 family sitcom, You Take the Kids, shortly before it was cancelled. In 1995, he played the character Dante, Bill Cosby's sidekick on the short-lived detective show, The Cosby Mysteries. In 1996, he also starred in a 1996 Visa check card commercial featuring Deion Sanders. In 1997 he had a small role alongside Michael Jackson in his short film and music video "Ghosts".
After brief appearances in Bamboozled and Monster's Ball, Mos Def played a rapper who is reluctant to sign to a major label in Brown Sugar. He was nominated for an Image Award and a Teen Choice Award.
In 2002, he played the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, a Tony-nominated and Pulitzer-winning Broadway play. He and co-star Jeffrey Wright won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Award for their joint performance. He played Left Ear in the 2003 film The Italian Job. That same year he appeared in the music video You Don't Know My Name of the song by Alicia Keys.
In television, Mos Def has appeared on NYPD Blue, on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show, and has hosted the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Def Poetry since its inception. The show's sixth season aired in 2007. He also appeared on the sitcom My Wife And Kids as the disabled friend of Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans).
Mos Def won "Best Actor, Independent Movie" at the 2005 Black Reel Awards for his portrayal of Detective Sgt. Lucas in The Woodsman. For his portrayal of Vivien Thomas in HBO's film Something the Lord Made, he was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award. He also played a bandleader in HBO's Lackawanna Blues. He then landed the role of Ford Prefect in the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In 2006, Mos Def appeared in Dave Chappelle's Block Party alongside Black Star partner Talib Kweli, while also contributing to the film's soundtrack. He was also featured as the banjo player in the Pixie Sketch" from Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, though his appearance was edited out of the DVD. He starred in the action film 16 Blocks alongside Bruce Willis and David Morse. He has a recurring guest role on Boondocks, starring as Gangstalicious. He is also set to be in Toussaint, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, opposite Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. He made a cameo appearance as himself in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In 2007, Mos Def narrated the PBS-broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves.
In 2008, Mos Def starred in the Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind, playing a video rental store employee whose best friend is played by co-star Jack Black. He also portrayed Chuck Berry in the film Cadillac Records, for which he was nominated for a Black Reel Award and an Image Award.
In 2009, he appeared in the House episode entitled "Locked In" as a patient suffering from locked-in syndrome. His performance was well-received, with E! saying that Mos Def "delivers an Emmy-worthy performance." He was also in the 2009 film Next Day Air.
In 2011, he began a multi-episode appearance on the sixth season of Showtime television series Dexter. He played Brother Sam, an ex-convict who has supposedly found religion despite finding himself in violent situations.
In January 2016, Mos Def announced his retirement from both the music and the film industry on Kanye West's website. In March 2016 it was announced that he had been attached to star in "his last live-action film", The Disconnected, a science fiction thriller dealing with policing, identity, and the intersection of technology and humanity.
Social and political views
In 2000, paired with Talib Kweli, Mos Def organized the Hip Hop for Respect project to speak out against police brutality. The project was created in response to the 1999 police shooting of Amadu Diallo, and sought to accumulate 41 artists to the roster, one to match each of the 41 gunshots fired on Diallo.
Mos Def is well known for his left-wing political views. In 2000, Mos Def performed a benefit concert for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In September 2005, Mos Def released the single "Katrina Clap", renamed "Dollar Day" for True Magic, (utilizing the instrumental for New Orleans rappers UTP's "Nolia Clap"). The song is a criticism of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. On the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, Mos Def pulled up in front of Radio City Music Hall on a flatbed truck and began performing the "Katrina Clap" single in front of a crowd that quickly gathered around him. He was subsequently arrested despite having a public performance permit in his possession.
In October 2006, Mos Def appeared on 4Real, a documentary television series. Appearing in the episode "City of God," he and the 4Real crew traveled to City of God, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to meet Brazilian MC MV Bill and learn about the crime and social problems of the community.
On September 7, 2007, Mos Def appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher where he spoke about racism against African Americans, citing the government response to Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six, and the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He appeared on Real Time again on March 27, 2009, and spoke about the risk of nuclear weapons.
In July 2013, Mos Def, under the new name Yasiin Bey, appeared in a short film released by the human rights organization Reprieve, depicting the forced-feeding methods used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. This transpired after a document containing the military instructions for the procedure was leaked.
About.com ranked him #14 on their list of the Top 50 MCs of Our Time, while The Source ranked him #23 on their list of the Top 50 Lyricists of All Time. AllMusic called him one of the most promising rappers to emerge in the late 1990s, as well as one of hip-hop's brightest hopes entering the 21st century. Mos Def has influenced numerous hip hop artists throughout his career, including Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, and Saigon. Kendrick Lamar has also mentioned Mos Def as a very early inspiration and someone he listened to "coming up" as a young rapper, though he denied being a part of the conscious rap movement.
Mos Def has six children with four women, including two with his first wife Maria Yepes.
Mos Def married Yepes in 1996, and has two daughters with her: Jauhara Smith and Chandani Smith. He filed for divorce from Yepes in 2006. The former couple made headlines when Yepes took Mos Def to court over failure in child-support obligations, paying $2,000 short of the monthly $10,000 he is ordered to pay.
On August 17, 2005, Mos Def traveled to Canada where he married music video model Alana Wyatt. Following a tumultuous relationship, the couple separated soon thereafter, but have not yet divorced. Wyatt published a tell-all book Breaking The Code Of Silence in January 2012.
His mother Sheron Smith, who goes by her nickname "Umi", has played an active role managing portions of her son's career. She is also a motivational speaker, and has authored the book Shine Your Light: A Life Skills Workbook, where she details her experience as a single-mother raising Def.
In January 2016, Mos Def was ordered to leave South Africa and not return for five years, having outstayed a tourist visa granted in May 2013. Also that month, he was charged with using an unrecognized World Passport and having lived illegally in South Africa since 2014. Mos Def had reportedly recruited Kanye West to help defend him, and posted a message on West's website announcing his retirement from show business.
- Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (with Talib Kweli as Black Star) (1998)
- Black on Both Sides (1999)
- Manifest Destiny (with Ces and DCQ as UTD) (2004)
- The New Danger (2004)
- True Magic (2006)
- The Ecstatic (2009)
- TBA (2016)
|1991||The Hard Way||Dead Romeos Gang Member|
|1998||Where's Marlowe?||Wilt Crawley|
|2000||Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme||Himself|
|Bamboozled||Big Blak Afrika||Also recorded a song for the movie's soundtrack with other members of the Mau Maus|
|Island of the Dead||Robbie J|
|2001||Carmen: A Hip Hopera||Lieutenant Miller|
|Monster's Ball||Ryrus Cooper|
|Civil Brand||Michael Meadows|
|Brown Sugar||Chris 'Cav' Anton Vichon|
|My Wife and Kids||Tommy||1 episode: Chair Man of the Board|
|2003||The Italian Job||Left Ear|
|2004||The Woodsman||Detective Lucas|
|Something the Lord Made||Vivien Thomas||Nominated – Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie|
Nominated – Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Nominated – Image Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Mini-Series or Television Movie
|2005||Lackawanna Blues||The Bandleader|
|The Boondocks (2005-2008)||Gangstalicious||Voice over for the animated series|
|The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy||Ford Prefect|
|2006||Dave Chappelle's Block Party||Himself|
|16 Blocks||Eddie Bunker|
|Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby||Himself||Cameo|
|Journey to the End of the Night||Wemba|
|2007||Prince Among Slaves||Narrator|
|2008||Be Kind Rewind||Mike|
|Cadillac Records||Chuck Berry|
|2009||Next Day Air||Eric|
|House||Lee||Season 5, Episode 19, "Locked In"|
|2010||I'm Still Here||Himself|
|Yo Gabba Gabba!||Super Mr. Superhero||Season 3, Episode 44, Superhero|
|2011||Dexter||Brother Sam||Season 6, recurring, (credited as "Mos" in 2 episodes, as "yasiin bey" in 3 episodes)|
|2013||Begin Again||Saul||as Yasiin Bey|
|2014||Life of Crime||Ordell Robbie||as Yasiin Bey|
|The Getaway||Himself||Season 2, Episode 7, in Morocco. as Yasiin Bey|
|2015||Amy||Himself||Credited as "yasiin bey"|
|2006||Mos Def||Source Awards||Nominated|
|2004||Civil Brand||Best Actor- Independent||Nominated|
|2004||The Italian Job||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Best Actor: T.V. Movie/Cable||Nominated|
|The Woodsman||Best Indie Actor||Won|
|2008||Cadillac Records||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|2004||Something the Lord Made||Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie||Nominated|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film||Nominated|
|2005||"Sex, Love & Money"||Best Urban/Alternative Performance||Nominated|
|2007||"Undeniable"||Best Rap Solo Performance||Nominated|
|The Ecstatic||Best Rap Album||Nominated|
|2011||"Stylo" (with Gorillaz and Bobby Womack)||Best Music Video||Nominated|
|2003||Brown Sugar||Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture||Nominated|
|2005||Something the Lord Made||Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special||Nominated|
|2009||Cadillac Records||Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture||Nominated|