And he’s very, very good at it.
The track “Supermagic” begins with a speech from Muslim civil rights activist Malcolm X:
“You're living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution
a time where there's got to be a change.
People in power have misused it
and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built
and the only way is going to be built is with extreme methods
and I for one will join with anyone, don't care what color you are
as long as you want change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."
And for me, this is the thesis of his album (The Ecstatic). Track after track, he reminds us that Islam is a political religion and so we must, as Muslims, be conscious and aware of the world around us.
In the track called “Embassy”, he begins with a friendly captain speaking to the passengers: “This is your captain speaking with some information on your flight...” The captain’s voice creepily morphs and mutates as he says: “Couple little facts here, I’m packing a colt king cobra, a 357 calibre fire arm... capable of.... putting a hole in human flesh the size of the Grand Canyon...” His voice returns to normal as he finishes off: “The Grand Canyon, which by the way is visible on the left side of the plane...”
It sent a chill up my spine the first time I heard it.
The tracks and beats he samples are eerie, and reminiscent of an old-time Persian or Punjabi movie. Mos Def has one of the most recognizable voices in the music industry, and Slick Rick, who is featured in the track “Auditorium,” has one of the strangest. Auditorium is probably my favourite track from the entire album and the most memorable part of it is Slick Rick singing about being an American soldier in Iraq:
“It's the patch. I'm a soldier in the middle of Iraq
We'll say about noonish,
comin out the whip and ookin at me curious
A young iraqi kid
“What's wrong G? Hungry?”
“No, give me my oil and get the **** out of my country!
And in Arabian, barkin other stuff till his mom's come grab him
And they walk off in a rush
Feelin’ like I pissed on a wound”
“Wahid” is probably the most overtly religious song on the album. Most of the other content reads more like a metaphor. The lyrics are mesmerizing and overpowering, and really just prove why Mos Def is a cut above the rest in hip hop.
“Fret not, ghetto world, guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
but when all is said and done
There's only La ila ha illallaaah”
"Quiet Dog Bite Hard" is particularly interesting in that it samples a speech by Femi Kuti, an award winning Nigerian musician that comes from a lineage of politically conscious artists (his father is forefather of the afrobeat genre, and human rights activist Fela Kuti). Nigeria is a hot bed of inter-ethnic and inter-religious civil war, and it’s really interesting and germane that he would choose to share Kuti’s words with the listener. One of Mos Def’s continuous projects is his attempt to empower black people around the world (we all remember his 1999 album “Black on Both Sides”). And Kuti, singer of “Blackman Know Yourself”, is an active member in the same project of making of black people aware of their potentials and their diverse histories.
It’s hard to go wrong with this album. You will learn something new with every track, and it will put issues in both a local Brooklyn/Bronx context, but also in a global pan-African context.