It was close to midnight when burly bodyguards finally led a TMT-capped figure to the club’s backstage area. He was a sort of tall fellow whose long-sleeved shirt hung off his wiry frame. Bodies hungrily pressed forward, necks craned, drinks were held aloft as a chant sprung from the people’s lips: “Ya-siin Bey! Ya-siin Bey! Ya-siin Bey!”
The drunker ones in the crowd had long taken to intermittently yelling this out as the DJ spun his records. They even called out “Mos Def!” Everyone had started streaming in as early as 5:30pm for the pre-party. With tickets at Kes. 5,000 (33£) this was a gig for the well-heeled, the super fans willing to make sacrifices and the people who knew someone who could get them on the guest list. And, being a Thursday night event, it was definitely for those who didn’t mind showing up at work the next day sleepy-eyed and/or with a hangover.
In the weeks leading up to this special edition of monthly Hip Hop event, Nairobi Rapsody, Kenya’s social media was awash with fan excitement and apprehension. Black Dante in Nairobi? No way. Sure, event organizer Buddha Blaze had successfully brought fellow Blackstar member Talib Kweli before but mention of a missed flight at a press conference held a day before the gig had caused a lot of hand wringing. Buddha Blaze had to post a picture of Yasiin with a Maasai shuka draped across his shoulders hours to the show to still the chatter.
Several local hip hop artists had been selected to curtain raise the event. First act, femcee Wangechi made way for rapper, Xtatic who tagged in Bamboo then Rabbit. They each had 15-minute sets. By 1am, the crowd had gotten pumped up, nodding and singing along to their familiar jams. Those on the front row had been tracking Yasiin’s movements through a glass window into the backstage. Cheers rose to ear-splitting roars when he finally leapt on stage with Ruby, his trusty red vintage carbon microphone. With younger brother and tour DJ Abdul on the decks, he began…to dance. This wasn’t the jig before the jam. He wasn’t even grooving to tracks from his vast catalogue. It was the beginning of the Yasiin Bey experience.
You could see on their faces that the audience was a little perplexed but they still bobbed their heads or swayed from side-to-side. The beats were dope but it was all very unusual. The sound system was terrible but when Yasiin started rapping and got into Ms. Fat Booty, the show turned into a sing-along. However, it soon switched back to Yasiin closing his eyes and shuffling his feet. Abdul would also switch up with Yasiin’s personal DJ, Samira bin Sharif. That meant one minute he’d be dancing to Fela, the next, McFadden & Whitehead or spitting rhymes but it was all good vibes. This was to be the night’s formula.
Once the fans figured it out, you could feel the various energies in the room change. Many synched with him and let loose but some couldn’t decide what to think about their rap idol so they stood still and stared while a few began to yell out song titles. Yasiin didn’t hesitate to remind the crowd that it wasn’t a request show, instead he urged the crowd to go with the flow and have a good time. Reminding them that he wasn’t about showbiz; that he was “just a human being”.
He is in fact an award-winning 41-year-old rapper, actor and activist with a long track record of breaking with convention. Acts such as making a name change and relocation from the US to explore “a country called earth” point to an artist refusing to be policed (or interviewed, actually.)
That’s why he was completely at ease backstage after the show.
Stripped down to a black vest from his “Visit Palestine” tee, Yasiin happily dug into a plate of fish fingers and chips, asked about Nairobi, signed album sleeves and greeted fans. He later told me that it’s always a shame when people are not dancing but his demeanor was that of a man at peace with himself. Yasiin expounded on the need for an artist to be truly free while sitting on a panel with Kenyan artists the next day:
“People are engaged for your perspective, or your experience, or what your experience has done to your perspective on yourself, on things, on the notion of living [and] what it means to be a human being. It’s more than money, these people are spending time to hear your thoughts and ideas. You have to reassert your humanity to an audience. You have to remind them that even though the audience leads the conversation, they can’t dictate what’s being said because it’s dishonest to you. It’s impossible to be everything to everybody. Someone is going to disagree with you but you have to say: ‘that’s not where I am right now’.”
Where he seemed to be though, was in a state of insatiable curiosity about the local arts scene.
Yasiin got together with Kenyan fashion duo, Velma and Oliver (2manysiblings) for a quick photo shoot at his hotel. His website acountrycalledearth had previously spotlighted the pair and Saturday morning saw them, accompanied by talented Kenyan photographer Sarah Waiswa, set up in his room for the impromptu session. It was their first meet up and both parties were a little nervous. With up-tempo music playing off Samira’s phone to set the mood, Yasiin laid out several tee and short combos on his bed. Finally emerging in checkered pants, snapback, Kenyan polo shirt, blue jacket and mismatched socks, Yasiin’s quirky style melded with the duo’s avant-garde aesthetic.
During the shoot, he revealed himself to be warm, funny and deeply interested in pan-Africanism and the creative economy. Yasiin half-joked about wanting to get an African passport soon. And how people like Harry Belafonte, The Kravitz family, Kanye, Beyonce and Jay Z should get them too. Yasiin kept enthusiastically pulling out clothes from his closet by various African designers he’d met and liked to partner with. Bonding with 2manysiblings as they exchanged notes on what’s hot but underappreciated on the continent, he went on to gift Oliver the polka dot LaurenceAirline creation he wore during the shoot.
He also couldn’t stop gushing over artist Cyrus Kabiru’s C-Stunners (unique eyewear made from found objects) when he visited his studio. He’d put on a pair, take off his snapback, change his mind and put it back on; pull a b-boy stance in front of the mirror, grin and ask a slew of questions about the piece. He also showed interest in Kabiru’s sculptures and paintings and spent much time walking around the studio.
But music wasn’t off his radar either. Twice hanging out at alternative club scenes, Yasiin ended up taking to the mic at a pop-up Afro-house event and giving a stellar hour-long performance. The crowd there required little prompting. They sang, cheered and occasionally climbing on stage to dance with him—once even a traditional drummer set up next to him and thumped his jembe to his tunes. Yasiin was up to his (now) familiar theatrics: breaking out some sweet footwork, pulling funny faces and encouraging everyone to live in the moment.
Seeing him spinning and spinning and spinning on stage that night reminded me of something he’d said earlier that day on the panel: “Art is not a standardized product. If you turn yourself into a commodity, a water-soluble version of yourself that can be imported into the machine, then you make yourself completely disposable.” You can’t bottle The Bey.