You're Gonna Serve Somebody
Rapper Mos Def says we all devote our lives to something. He's chosen Allah.
BY: Ali Asadullah
He puts special emphasis on the "anywhere." "It's about speaking out against oppression wherever you can," he continues. "If that's gonna be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being persecuted; or if it's gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia--you know, if people's basic human rights are being abused and violated, then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we're charged to be the leaders of humanity."
Mos' vehemence is somewhat rare in a hip-hop culture dominated by superficiality. Lyrics these days bet heavily on the financially successful triumvirate of sex, violence, and materialism. Mos Def credits his parents with guiding him away from such negative content. His father has been advising him on professional decisions for several years now. "My parents have been vocal and influential in all the decisions I made in my life," says Mos. "It made sense to me to include [my father] officially and to include my mother officially cause she'd been there from the beginning. You need to have that synergy--because who really cares the most about you?"
This family-oriented approach is most evident in Mos' choices about his management. His mother, Sheron, and father, Abdul Rahman--whom he refers to affectionately as Umi and Abi--handle everything, from media calls to general management and corporate strategy. Mos' brother tackles technical matters in the studio, and when it's time to hit the road, the entire clan travels together. "I just try to stay around the right people," says Mos. "I try to stay around family...[try] to stay around people who believe what I believe and [beg] Allah to help me."
His strategy has worked. After the critical acclaim for "Black on Both Sides," Mos was tapped by MTV last year for a recurring role on "The Lyricists Lounge Show." He also appeared in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" and ABC's "NYPD Blue." Then earlier this year, Nike gave its seal of approval by choosing his track "Umi Says" to score commercials launching Michael Jordan's "Brand Jordan" Nike division. "They just called and said, 'Mos, we'd like to use 'Umi Says,'" he says of the low-key negotiations. "That was it...I wasn't savvy in my presentation at all. It was very natural and plain.
"That's really just somebody in his organization or [Jordan] himself just really responding to the song," Mos says. The 30-second spots feature Jordan and other athletic standouts such as NBA stars Ray Allen and Eddie Jones, New York Yankee Derek Jeter, and world champion boxer Roy Jones Jr.
In speaking with Nike representatives, Mos raised his concern about allegations of sweatshop conditions at some of Nike's overseas plants. "I voiced pretty early on that the corporation has a little bit of a shadow cast on it, on its character," says Mos. "And it was something that was very personal to me. And we made a verbal agreement that they would make a donation to some community-based organization of my choice, to at least say that they're giving something back."
Giving back to the community is a high priority for Mos. Last spring, he performed at a benefit for breast cancer awareness in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and he will perform in Los Angeles at a benefit to support the legal defense fund of national Muslim leader and former Black Panther activist Imam Jamil al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), who is awaiting trial in Atlanta on controversial murder charges.
Social activity is part of Mos' mission as a person--as a Muslim--of conscience. "I'm just trying to do the best I can with what it is I have and begging Allah to help me."