by Rami Nashashibi
Among all the special and spectacular things associated with Takin’ It to the Streets 2010, nothing will leave a more lasting impact on me than the first and last five minutes of Mos Def’s inspiring performance. It was a defining moment for me that capped a ten-year odyssey of trying to secure one of hip hop’s most creative and brilliant lyricists. I first met Yasin Dante (Mos Def’s birth name) over a decade ago at a local show. In fact, I attended the show by invitation of his parents and later went backstage to talk to Mos Def about Takin’ It to the Streets. At the time, we were preparing for Takin’ It to the Streets 2001. I was in line behind a group of eager Mos Def fans bubbly with anticipation of meeting the rising star. I didn’t have to wait too long before Mos Def popped his head out of the dressing room and hollered, “Where the Muslims at?” To the annoyance of all those in front of us, I walked up to his room with a couple of other IMAN members with me. Upon entering, I found Mos Def sitting at a table with his brother, father, and mother – not the typical way a major recording artist and celebrity toured the country. We were greeted with all the warmth and hospitality of a close family gathering.
Throughout the decade, arranging Mos Def’s debut at Takin’ It to the Streets just never seemed to work out. Mos Def went from starring on Broadway to several big Hollywood movies and shied away from appearances that would invite others to see him as a public spokesperson for the Muslim community or Islam. But we never lost hope and continued to see Mos Def as the ideal headliner for Takin’ It to the Streets. When he finally walked onto the Streets 2010 main stage, donning a black and white kufi, trendy high-water dress pants, and zig-zag patterned suspenders, we knew it was going to be a special performance.
Mos Def was greeted by a sea of diverse and beautiful faces. When he extended the salutations of assalaamu alaikum (may peace be upon you), a crowd of thousands roared back in unison, “Wa alaikum as-salaam!” (and may peace also be upon you), prompting him to launch into a never-before-performed ballad around this universal greeting of peace. From there, he opened with “Wahid,” a track that will probably go down as the most creative and publically accessible reflection on the notion of Tawhid (God’s supreme and universal oneness) ever recorded by a Grammy Award-winning artist. Mos Def closed his performance with the widely-popular and internationally-loved “Umi Says.” As the final moments of a peaceful and radiant day faded away and before the call to the sunset prayer resounded across the neighborhood, Mos Def lit up the sky with the type of light that his mother instructed him to shine upon the world. For many of us, that light was simply a reflection of a greater light that illuminated the faces of so many that day, a transcending brightness that helped us, even for a moment, see past so many of the barriers that continue to confront and confound communities across the country and world.