You’d be hard-pressed to find an MC who won’t boast when given the opportunity. Everything is larger than life — big cars, big money, big lifestyles — and he’ll spend the better part of a three-minute song making sure you don’t forget it. Yasiin Bey, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def, has plenty to brag about, but he made the decision a while back to keep his focus on music and, à la Grandmaster Flash, the message. Bey has a rare crossover appeal that never gets to his head: a hip-hop heavyweight with as much street cred in Hollywood as he has in the music industry. He’s an artist who earns critical admiration without so much as a whiff of self-importance. The guy plays an ex-con on Dexter and raps about math. And even if a portion of the audience knew him in name only, the more than 600 Obies who packed Hales Gym last Tuesday night received a vibrant introduction to Bey’s blend of modesty and legitimacy.
It’s worth noting that entertainment value was somewhat of a pretext for Bey’s presence at Oberlin. His performance followed a month of hate-related incidents that brought campus proceedings to a halt and catapulted the College into the national spotlight. Responses poured in from alumni, but one 1994 graduate with connections in the music industry decided to pull a few strings. Thanks to the organizing efforts of College junior Sam Brown, Bey and three up-and-coming Oberlin hip-hop artists were recruited for a concert aimed at reinvigorating the community. Bey, himself a vocal proponent of African-American empowerment, came to campus with a two-fold purpose: to put on an incredible show while promoting healing through music. He succeeded on both counts.
College sophomore Tony Gardner, rapping as Tony G, was eager to get the party started, taking the stage 15 minutes earlier than scheduled and delivering a series of carefree party raps. His lyrics were saturated with tales of sexual exploits and heavy drinking, which got the early arrivals chanting along, but his lyrics seemed incongruous with the evening’s premise, taking a lackadaisical stance against adversity instead of a fortitudinous one.
Not so for the next acts in line, College senior Gynarva Monroe, aka Van ’Go, and College junior Mike Braugher. A Second City native and proud of it, Van ’Go spat rhymes about the inner city with conviction. His flow was smooth and his words thoughtful, even when poking fun at himself. The inspiring crowd-pleaser “Welcome Home” received shouts of approval as College sophomore Mahalia Stover, a fellow Chicagoan, laid down soulful backing vocals. “My friend messaged me and said that this song got her through a hard time,” Van ’Go explained, and it was easy to see why.
Braugher’s concise set was enormously intense thanks to layered synth textures and boulder-crunching beats. He clearly felt the significance of his own poetry, too: At one point, he asked for respectful silence so that audience members could concentrate on the weight of “Americans Anonymous,” a verse condemning capitalism enveloped in clouds of ambient chords.
Van ’Go and Gardner bookended the show’s first half with a freestyle jam over a beatboxing Braugher, upon the suggestion of Master of Ceremonies Meeko Israel, a spoken word artist and Oberlin resident. The group’s camaraderie carried the groove long enough to build substantial hype for the main attraction before each artist retreated to the wings.
Once DJ Preservation finished prepping a monstrous turntable rig, Bey emerged amid a bath of red light. Clad in matching white shirt and pants with a baseball cap and sporting his trademark cherry red microphone, he resembled David Bowie’s Think White Duke onstage persona for the urban contingent. He wasn’t much for words, either — at least not without a backbeat. “My good friend told me what y’all were going through,” he said quietly before launching into “Cream of the Planet,” his 2010 collaboration with producer Ski Beatz. The song was an unusual choice of opener, but arguably the most fitting for the occasion (This is how we gotta live / Peace, power, understanding, no cowardice,” the chorus declares). Another understated sermon about the darkness in us all segued perfectly into the aptly titled, “The Light Is Not Afraid of the Dark.”
The rest of Bey’s largely improvised two-hour set weaved imaginatively through cuts from his entire solo career, including many tracks from his enormously popular 2009 release The Ecstatic. Bey seized every opportunity to tailor his acclaimed lyricism to the events in question, name-dropping peace and love a half dozen times on the meditative “Priority” alone. Other selections, like 2004’s “The Boogie Man Song” or the James Brown–sampling “Rock N Roll” from his 1999 solo debut, Black On Both Sides, broke form with their Motown-influenced, burnin’-up-the-dancefloor energy. Whether rhyming about black empowerment or Kenny G, Bey brought his A game.
When he really let loose, Bey’s onstage persona was electric. This worked to his advantage, since communication between MC and producer was shaky at best. DJ Preservation’s sonic manipulations often disrupted Bey mid-verse — instrumentals cut out 30 seconds in and records skipped due to shaking. These small distractions were frequent enough to kill the mood at inopportune moments. Bey remedied the situation with his invigorating dance moves: While Preservation was busy crafting a beat, he kept all eyes front and center by gyrating to funk samples like a bona fide soul man. The snippets occasionally bloomed into actual hip-hop tracks, much to the delight of the crowd.
If Yasiin Bey is trying to separate his current persona from that of Mos Def, he’ll have to try harder. As he nears 40, Bey has as much charisma as he did 20 years ago, and what’s more, he was willing to bring his music to a gym full of sweaty college students who were in dire need of some boom-bap — that’s why he’s one of the most likable guys in the business. Without upstaging the younger talent, Bey proved he’s still among the best. The most he gloated the whole night? “I’m super nice!”