When an artist puts out new music -- whether in the form of a single, EP or full album -- they want the most visibility they can get for the work, and they want it right away. In the modern streaming age, a musical work usually becomes available instantaneously, and a typical album release can span the world in less than a minute. That’s not the case with Yasiin Bey’s latest project.
The hip-hop legend formerly known as Mos Def recently released his first solo album in more than 10 years, Negus, but there was a catch: It can only be heard in one place. The album arrived in the form of a listening installation — an experience exploring a variety of artistic elements — at the Brooklyn Museum, in Bey’s hometown.
“Everyone’s definition of art is based on various components," Bey tells Billboard. "My personal relationship to art is on a spiritual level — it’s a means of communication."
Negus debuted at an art fair in Marrakech last year, then appeared at Art Basel Hong Kong back in March. Now, Negus is being heard in the U.S. — well, in one U.S. location, anyway. And good luck finding a leaked version -- per Bey’s wishes, the installation is a no-phone zone, with Yondr pouches and headphones handed out upon entering the gallery.
The cosmic, eight-track, 28-minute project cannot be paused, replayed or skipped, and will not be available on any digital platforms. In a time when streaming services have shaped the way we consume music, why go this route? “It felt necessary,” the 45-year-old says of Negus, whose production credits include Lord Tusk, Acyde and Steven Julien, while Sunny Rahbar, cofounder of Dubai’s The Third Line gallery, is a partner. “I was following a vision [that would allow me] to present a project and premiere my work in another medium outside of music — while also keeping music as a key component in the experience."
The dimly lit exhibition features artwork by José Parlá, Ala Ebtekar, Julie Mehretu and Bey himself, including his painting “Shakur the Beloved of the Eastern Band.” “I enjoyed watching Yasiin work. I saw him going into his zone. It was a really special thing to witness, to see him painting was musical,” Parlá said in an open conversation with Bey, Ebtekar, and Rahbar at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel recently.
“I followed my instinct and with the support of my collaborators and team we have been able to achieve my vision. I’m just grateful,” says Bey. Although the Brooklyn installation is only available for viewing until January 26, 2020, Negus will be presented in other venues internationally and in the U.S. Rahbar confirmed the next iteration of Negus will take place at the Fondation Miro in Barcelona.
Bey recently sat down with Billboard to discuss Negus and the creative process behind his recent art.
For those that have yet to experience Negus, how would you describe it?
Not to give it any description per se, apart from the joy and pleasure that I felt when I experienced the work and all of its components as it’s been expressed over this past year, to experience this evolution — I’m very pleased. It’s something that I enjoyed very much and, based on the response of other people who have been key to the creation of this installation, they enjoyed it as well. I think it’s something that many different types of people would enjoy and find useful.
You mentioned it took you almost all your life to release this project. Why was that?
Time is relative in my perspective. I feel like this particular project has been released at the best time, and I’m grateful for the process. It was the alignment of circumstances that seemed to fit together. For me, it feels like we’re in the presence of a field energy that is doing all that we needed to do. We get to preserve that energy and foster it to help it grow in the best way.
What was the process like when creating the “Shakur the Beloved of the Eastern Band” painting alongside José Parlá?
Shakur is the Arabic word for "grateful." The beloved is like a family. The theme of Jose and mine’s piece is gratitude. When I came into the studio, the canvas was there, black clear space, and Jose said, “Make whatever mark you want and we’ll go from there.” So I made a mark and then Jose wrote “thank you.” The idea became text-driven -- the words “thank you” are expressed in different fonts and languages.
The process was about real physical engagement with the work and the text. Every single element of it felt good and guided in a sense. The initial energy was free. It was a place without scrutiny and judgment. If I felt good about a shape, I kept going. There was a lot of exuberance around us. Sometimes at the same time we’d both be working on the canvas not even looking at each other, we were in our own world. That shit was dope, son. It was so much fun. I had such a good time. Of course it required work, all of this deliberation and real serious conversations, but I didn’t feel nerve-wracked about it. I felt urgency and importance.
It takes work to be in that zone. It’s not just a thing you do, there’s a way that you need to be in order to accomplish the work.
You mentioned that one of the elements of your “Pleasant” art piece was Nipsey Hussle. His portrait is printed on the left top hand corner, and the rest of the piece includes text you embroidered on hemp. Was it important for you to honor his legacy in this installation?
“Pleasant” alludes to different themes, including race, antiquity, science and divinity. I feel like his presence was complementary to the spirit of peace. He’s an artist and individual that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for, so that’s why I decided to feature his image in the piece. [I] hope his family is happy with it and can connect with it well.
Is this your favorite project to date?
Difficult to say. I don’t know what anyone who’s experienced it might say or how they might feel about the work, so I’m going to be mindful and leave it open for interpretation to the listener/viewer. I enjoyed it very much and am pleased that we have been able to establish it, and I’m looking forward to doing more. I created this in response to a vision, an intention in regard to artistic expression, and that’s the key priority. What other people take from that, what they value, they’re more than welcome.
Do you have any goals set for 2020?
Just taking it a day at a time.
What are you most happy about lately?
I am very happy with the way things have come together this year in many different areas. I’m grateful to be alive and able to work and be able to do what I love.
Will the rest of your music be tied to other mediums? Are you generally opposed to streaming platforms?
Right now I’m content with the way things are going. If opportunities arise to do things another way, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. This was always about finding another way to do something that’s not adversarial. I’m just happy I got to do it.