“I’m in a good mood. A rare mood. That’s not to say it’s rare for me to be in a good mood. I’m half in a good mood and half in a rare mood.”
So spoke Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def, as he closed the Victoria SkaFest Saturday night with a relaxed, loosely structured set amid the glowing dusk of the Inner Harbour.
After nearly an entire day of travelling from Africa, an exhausted-looking Bey arrived for his headlining spot at Victoria’s SkaFest looking like an Muslim hip-hop featherweight reluctantly ready for a prize fight.
Donned in a hooded white robe, with a leather jacket, African-styled scarf, red kicks and a ball cap tucked under the hood, Bey took to the stage looking ready to get it over with, but nonetheless pulled out an energetic, enjoyable show.
Rarely a player in mainstream hip-hop, the artist formerly known as Mos Def has often been more of an enigma, forging his own way to creative challenges. Black Star, Bey’s collaboration with Talib Kweli (who is coming to Victoria Aug. 2), only ever put out one album despite their popularity, although another is rumoured.
He followed up his deliciously approachable solo debut, the essential Black on Both Sides, with the more dissonant, live-music backed The New Danger in 2004. Since then only two more albums have arisen, one bland (True Magic) and one a partial return to form (The Ecstatic).
Add to that his recent deeper immersion into his long-held Islamic faith and a public name change, and, well, Bey certainly walks to the beat of his own turntable.
One sensed this at the show, with only a few Bey’s tunes, such as Hip-Hop and Umi Says, stirring up the enthusiasm of a crowd hearing an old favourite. The rest of the night saw Bey dancing, hype man-ing and ripping through rhymes new and old, layered with oblique gems on the nature of life, love, God and hip-hop.
But it has to be said, the man has charm. What he occasionally lacks in cohesion or accessibility he makes up for in integrity, commitment and that trademark smile. When Bey is having fun, everyone is having fun. And the moments were Bey turned down the pious reflection and turned up the ole hip-hop energy were instantly infectious.
Although given the choice, sure, I would have loved a set loaded with Black on Both Sides tracks, but even when Bey is bringing out the new stuff, or the impenetrable, his trademark smile and stage presence gets everybody on board. I might not buy an album of the material we heard on Saturday, but I’m glad I was there to witness it.