Mos Def | Privilege, Pain and Politics

Trigger Warning: The video is quite distressing and not for the faint hearted.

Early this morning I stumbled upon the following video by Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly, or more commonly know as, Mos Def.

It was a disturbing reenactment of what those held at Guantanamo allegedly have to go through. The suggestion being that the detainees at Gitmo who are on hunger strike are force fed in the manner demonstrated by Yasin made me feel very uncomfortable. Not only for the way it was portrayed but a certain discomfort I have with celebrities being the spokespersons for those who cannot otherwise speak. That same discomfort I see when I hear George Clooney being a mouthpiece for Sudan, Bono for any part of Subsaharan Africa and even Angelina Jolie speaking at the G8 summit with her concerns for refugees.

I hasten to add that I believe all the aforementioned celebrities have every right to leverage their perceived positions of power for their respective causes and activism. We live in a culture that reinforces such beliefs. There are those who will probably be alerted to and financially supportive of those causes as a result of said celebrity. I guess what grates me is the notion that a celebrity voice will be representative of those who are suffering in some way.

Then earlier today I saw a tweet that kind of addressed my discomfort.

This was followed by another tweet by the same author that hit me right in the gut.

This is where the rubber hits the road for me.

There is nothing wrong with “names” being able to address their respective causes, but there is a bigger picture to be addressed here methinks. Not a one off mouthpiece but a constant collective activism for a cause or the holding of certain people, mainly politicians, responsible for the things that caused these problems in the first place. It is disturbing that the causes as opposed to the systems can easily be swept under the carpet. Way too easily.

Is Obama going to close Gitmo because of Yasiin’s video?
Will the Western countries who crippled post colonial Africa with debt and political subterfuge change their policies because of Bono and a concert?
Will KONY 2012 capture a wanted warlord and bring a sense of relief to Uganda or just make Youtube and a couple of campaigners in Washington and New York happy?
Will we spend as much time focusing on Angelina’s plight for refugees as we do on the fact she had a double masectomy?

I get Yasiin’s video. I really do. It is disturbing and his record shows he is not one to shy away from controversial activism. Yet when I think of another rapper’s way of addressing inequality and American injustice my heart goes out to Immortal Technique who helped Afghan children to be housed without the same publicity or corporate funding.

Often when we try to speak for the voiceless, without their permission, we end up speaking only in our own voice. In a brilliant article The Problem with Speaking for Others, the author Linda Martin Alcoff warns of the dangers of our own agendas and privilege seeping in when we desire to become the messenger for others. In and of itself it is not a bad thing to speak for other people but the danger lies in the fact that the messenger and those who receive the message may think that this version is the only truth.

Often it cannot be further from the truth than we care to admit.

65 thoughts on “Mos Def | Privilege, Pain and Politics

  1. Clearly Yasiin Bey had has something to say about Guantanamo and had an idea of how to say it. What do you think he should have done instead?

  2. Dave, I think this is a fascinating piece and I like your viewpoint, but I feel like you’re a bit harsh on Mos Def here. If this came from someone who raps about bling and women all day, I think there’d be more of an issue, but Mos Def has always been conscious in his lyrics and his actions (from my less than complete understanding of both). The people who ought to be challenged are the likes of Bono, who could near as solve the debt crises of some African countries if only he paid his fair share of taxes – or challenge him instead for the fact that he comes up with fascile bullshit like “hold your mobile phones in the air and we’ll change the world” at gigs, which doesnt challenge or educate in any way. Or you could challenge those whose art chooses NOT to raise awareness of any issues? He’s also consciously doing this under his own name. If you or I were in the position to raise awareness like that, I’d like to think we’d both rise to the challenge of what was obviously less glamorous than promoting a new single on Comic Relief.

  3. Thanks for your feedback Graham. I realise I am being a bit harsh on Mos Def but I do stand my ground on this one.
    I think like other artistes/campaigners who will create a platform for such empathy should be commended, but there is also room for critique. Like Kony2012 we are made much more aware but what next? How does it play out? Will it garner more action than a click and like on social media?
    Again my comparitor was Immortal Technique. He criticised his government and their behaviour and then followed up through raising awareness and actually doing something to address the point he was making people aware of. It doesn’t take away from Mos work just that it makes me question those who wish to speak on other people’s behalf

  4. I see what your’re saying but I think you have quite a pessimistic outlook. Your politicians certainly aren’t going to do anything about social injustice and African poverty. Mos def and other celebs are perhaps acting to communicate the issue. Does ths do harm or raise awareness?

  5. Rappers Imortal Technique and Mos Def are real Hip Hoppers. They know we are one. Therefore, when they speak out on these issues they are expressing their own oppression. The biggest myth ever sold is the idea that we are some how seperate from one another. These two rappers seek to wake up the mind. When you watch this video you can feel the pain of the detainees. You feel others pain because something in you is very similar to them. It is called your soul. Pay attention most to the feelings these rappers evoke, than secondly analyze their lyrics. They are fighting for justice to give our land (the earth) back to its rightful owners – us. As, Lennon put it – “all the people.”

    But, yes No one can tell the story of a man’s life as well as the man himself. Nonetheless, that’s not a good enough reason to not speak about oppression….esp when the greatest rappers understand the power of words so well.

  6. Why pessimistic? It is a reality. I prefer the term pragmatic myself.
    African poverty can be dealt a blow by opening trade opportunities and other countries/businesses/NGOs allowing Africans to fend for themselves without trying to tell them what to do. Bono would say he is trying to raise awareness.
    Again the article suggests I have no problem with people raising awareness but my concern is about being someone else’s voice.

  7. Reblogged this on finding development and commented:
    This is a great perspective. I think it’s important that people be given a voice, but that no one should ever fight to be heard over the voices of the people who are living the experience in question.

  8. Informative, thanks for sharing, seems mos def has reinvented himself. To say he will have revalence in Obama’s politics; highly unlikely.

  9. @Grahamallcott’s comment, “Dave, I think this is a fascinating piece and I like your viewpoint, but I feel like you’re a bit harsh on Mos Def here. If this came from someone who raps about bling and women all day, I think there’d be more of an issue, but Mos Def has always been conscious in his lyrics and his actions (from my less than complete understanding of both). The people who ought to be challenged are the likes of Bono, who could near as solve the debt crises of some African countries if only he paid his fair share of taxes – or challenge him instead for the fact that he comes up with fascile bullshit like “hold your mobile phones in the air and we’ll change the world” at gigs, which doesnt challenge or educate in any way. Or you could challenge those whose art chooses NOT to raise awareness of any issues? He’s also consciously doing this under his own name. If you or I were in the position to raise awareness like that, I’d like to think we’d both rise to the challenge of what was obviously less glamorous than promoting a new single on Comic Relief.”..>>>
    * I couldn’t agree MORE with you on this one Grahamallcott! And while I can appreciate the author’s “opinion” of this topic; I totally disagree with their stance. As someone in an earlier post(for some reason I can’t reply to posts on this blog..) correctly stated; is it fair to think that JUST because a person is a celebrity they don’t also have a desire to speak OUT? Nope that’s NOT fair at all..I , for one, commend them(especially Mos Def for using his real name..) for DOing more than just living their OWN lives; and trying to help others who even the author admits are voiceLESS. I’d like to think more of us would do the same; IF we had the leverage/power/money to do so. Heck I’m an activist for social rights and I’m not even a celebrity..There are after all many celebrities whose hearts is in the right place; they’ve just also got the money to attract attention from STARgazers. I see people as people..I don’t get all starry eyed just because someone makes a ton of money . I’m of the belief that ONE voice can make a difference; just as one vote can. And I’m very glad that Mos Def has never forgotten that…He appears to be a very conscientious brother; and has been consistent in that stance from as far back as I can recall. I daresay any of us know IF the voiceless don’t appreciate; someone in the spotlight speaking for “their” cause.

  10. @bernasvibe I guess that is the beauty of debate, that we can articulate our differences.
    Please note just because I take issue with it not once did I say celebrities or others couldn’t speak out.

  11. Not debating anything on this end..Just stating my opinion..I did say, for the record , I could “appreciate” your stance..Even though I totally disagree with it. And what I did note is your stance at all..From your stance I got the general “gist” you didn’t have to “say” celebrities couldn’t speak out..Just inferred that mayhaps it wasn’t the “right” thing to speak for the voiceless.

  12. I completely agree. This is why that whole stint that a lot of celebrities did not too long ago, to raise awareness to hunger and poverty by eating as a poor person eats for a week, really bothered me to a high degree. I mean I understand the sentiment and that they were only trying to help. But as a poor person who legitimately has gone hungry and still does from time to time, I felt insulted and I couldn’t explain why. Until I read this. This makes a lot of sense.

  13. I get what your saying, and all good points. But, it comes down to their goals, really. Are they making money? Not OK, unless they give every cent to the cause. Are they using their celebrity to change policy? Doubtful, because it doesn’t work. Are they using their celebrity to raise awareness? Most likely. Does it work? Absolutely. If you had thousands of people watching you and cared about a cause, what would you do? What could you do, really? Throwing money at it can hurts the cause, keep in mind. So, you use what you’ve got. I’m cool with that..

  14. I forgot to add – personally, I don’t need allies to suffer for their causes to believe they are allies, either. It doesn’t mean more to me if they feel the pain, whatever the pain may be. I don’t need to stab myself to prove that I don’t want others being stabbed (or tortured, starved, whatever…). All they really have to do, for me, is show up. In this case, the suffering he put himself through was, in itself, the reason the issue got attention so, well played, I guess. But, not necessary.

  15. I understand your critique and I genuinely wish we didn’t live in a celebrity driven culture – but it is also important to have a better understanding of what the gov’t is doing to people in guantanamo. For as many musicians who spend their time sponsoring self-destructive bullshit made by rich white people, this is a guy is standing up for what is right. I think it’s a move in the right direction.

  16. …. I’m perplexed. I want to comment, but where to start and from what perspective? Great post first of all. I see what you’re saying in the fact that nothing significant is done after a public demonstration by a celebrity for some cause. Obama isn’t going to roll his sleeves up and say “Okay you know what? Because Mos Def went through that I’m going to close this prison down.” Its just not going to happen that way. So again I agree with your stand point. But what I believe the intended purpose of the celebrity demonstrations is to rally a people around a known face who are maybe misinformed, disinterested, or just don’t know about the condition of other people around our globe. Rallied around a cause, a community with a purpose can do mighty things, even change legislation. So I see where they’re coming from as well. The problem occurs when the people find out what action they must take in order to make policy change. We want to get involved in the change initially, but a perception that “the cause” will require too much effort will deter most people after the reactions of the celebrity demonstration. Its commonly known that the American people are afraid of their government and government has absolutely no fear of the people. But when will the people realize that our fear empowers the government? As the people we should be demanding policy change. And if a celebrity or a known face wants to head up the project so be it. But if we want something done on a global scale, we need to do it full force, no fear, all in or don’t get involved at all. Im not sure if I said all that was on my mind when I saw the video and read the post, but I will say big ups to you and your information. Beautiful writing.

  17. The celeb you address are like wing of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony to help spread it tentacles… most def on the other hand slash at its claws.

  18. I was doing a search to see what, if any, were the known psychological repercussions of living under surveillance. I came across a couple of different articles that spoke of the limiting of our own thoughts and actions because of the surveillance, which I think any of us could guess. What I found interesting was that it spoke of an increased level of criticism towards the behavior of others. We feel more compelled to force others to conform. The likelihood of even adults ‘tattling’ on other adults to reinforce the conformity increased, as well.

    Would it benefit us to be conscious of that natural inclination and aim at supporting anyone who is trying to tell a truth in any way they can find to tell it?

  19. That is timid iconsidering such slaughter that goes on thousands being killed by drone
    strikes alone (unmanned armed remote contolled aircraft) which includes hundreds of
    children killed . People being kidnapped / tortured and killed by the USA govt worldwide
    their crime be their voicing their protest at the crimes committed by the USA military.

    A USA has adapted to a lifestyle of being in constant conflict resulting in millions being
    slaughtered / man woman child shown no mercy /such horror in bringing a river of tears.

    Brain development of americans has all but stopped a situation now where mind is but
    the controlling factor mind having takenover their senses unto the worst aspects of
    what humans capable of committing / international law domestic law abandoned /the
    people stripped of all rights /one disagreeing with govt policy means being imprisoned.

    It is a dire situation for humanity a USA is as a rabid dog set loose in a childrens play

    area during playtime / the result heartbreaking /children mauled torn to pieces / their
    pitiful cries for help being heartlessly ignored go unheeded by both USA govt as media.

    A USA govt / military / in their blind ambition to be the worlds master / but bringing
    ever more darkened times of appalling crimes / where human life regarded in having
    no value / the greed lust of power & wealth of the material has made mind supreme
    the brain is all but on shutdown compassion mercy replaced by fear torture & death.

  20. I so get your point about people speaking for those who suffer, and that if they do this without permission they end up speaking only for themselves. Good point. And I so get your point that it is worth asking what these sometimes flagrant displays have achieved. Good point. And I agree that it is worth asking ourselves, What next? Right on.
    But some of us cannot get to Gitmo to ask permission to speak for those imprisoned without charge. And some of us cannot speak Syrian to ask the refugees for permission to speak for those whose homes have been destroyed. And some of us only know how to write poems or sing songs or paint pictures or stand in the street with a placard, so when we feel powerless in the face of adversity and suffering that is what we do. When we empathise with the suffering of complete strangers we do what we can do to help because we are human beings. We make documentaries or write letters or make YouTube videos displaying the graphic horror we are protesting about. If everyone who wanted to speak waited for permission first, nothing would ever be done. If everyone who wanted to act waited for permission nothing would ever be done. No wrong was ever righted by waiting for permission to speak. No war was ever ended by waiting for permission to stop fighting. No freedom was ever won by waiting for it to be given. We must do what we can do. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.

  21. @bonsaimartin I think there is room for both. Expressive voices to highlight a point through activism and/or artistry but also expressive voices to be very aware that questioning such activity does not negate but rather calls it to accountability. Of course we don’t need express permission to speak out on someone else’s behalf but we should also be cognizant that when we do speak out what is at play is privilege. When KONY2012 went viral there were hundreds of other voices already speaking on behalf of Uganda which before were muted and still are. When I attended TED Global 2007 the journalist Andrew Mwenda was heckled and interrupted by Bono who felt uncomfortable with his interpretation of his reality of the problem with Aid. Recently Bill Gates did the same with Dambisa Moyo.

    I am not suggesting Yasiin’s video is comparable to those but the common thread is privilege. As my friend beautifully quoted “privilege dictates which voices are heard and which aren’t, which voices are refiltered to make them more palatable and which are presented as expressed.” While Yasiin gets to demonstrate his concern do any of us know any of the Gitmo detainees by name or their legal standing? Or what can be done about them?

    If all we are left with is artistic outrage then evil has already triumphed.

  22. This is an interesting perspective. I felt something akin to this, though I did not know to articulate it this way, when talking about the poverty and pains of some of my students. The stories are raw and human and really compelling, but am furthering a cause for education or perpetuating stereotypes? I knew I was uncomforatable, it just took me reading this post to clearly see why. Thanks.

  23. Great post. So much to think about. A lot of good comments, too – I hope I’m not totally repeating something.
    I had those two icky feelings when I watched this video the other day, too. You wrote, “Often when we try to speak for the voiceless, without their permission, we end up speaking only in our own voice.” And not only is that voice so often so far from the truth, but it’s also often really self-righteous. It’s a fine line to walk, because yeah, a Bono concert gets a lot of money and exposure for a cause that may otherwise have none, but it definitely weirds me out a bit when people make such a big show of taking on or trying out (or “stealing”) the pain of others. I’m sure their compassion really FEELS real, that their hearts really FEEL like they’re bleeding, but the fact that – whether they intend to or not – they get a huge popularity boost undermines that a little in my book. Is what they’re doing wrong? I don’t know. I don’t think so. The fact that someone’s only knowledge of Darfur (e.g.) is that it’s “that one Bono cause” isn’t Bono’s fault, and he’s using his status to change that. Hate the game (read: ignorance/celebrity culture/etc), not the player, right? Anyway, it’s not very straightforward at all. Thanks for helping me think about it.

  24. The icky factor is more about us than it is about the celebrities that have good intentions. If we want change to follow, that is on the public; Mo Def did his part so it is we that have to step up. Corey Booker got a lot of heat for the SNAP challenge but it is up to the *voters* to make the difference. He didn’t set out to fix the problem, nor to speak for the food insecure; he just called attention to it. That’s all he set out to do and he did it well. Judging celebrities for not carrying the ball all the way isn’t fair, nor for taking the mic (unless they don’t give it back), nor is deciding the ethical implications of it – it isn’t righteous for anyone other than the prisoners to judge Mo Def. It’s simply not our call. Also, I want to be careful about judging celebrities like Bono, for example, who may be a bad ally in our eyes (paternalism, historical colonialism issues there) but really, how do the people in Africa feel about it? Are we projecting our own standards, yet hypocritically attempting to speak for a people of an entirely different continent? Johnny Depp is marketing his movie, Lone Ranger, right now. There has been a lot of griping about misrepresentation of Indians, but so few actually did the research to find that Johnny himself consulted with the Commanche tribe and was adopted as one of their own. (not that Indians are a monolithic group with one unified opinion) Now, Depp is talking about purchasing Wounded Knee to give back to the Sioux, which some find problematic for many reasons ( Is this exploitation and marketing for the movie, paternalistic, or is it symbolic for a white man to give the stolen land back? I’ll leave the judging to the Sioux.

  25. Yeah, rippleforward, that’s a really good point about the ick being our problem, not Bono’s (whose Troubled “ethnicity” hardly makes him a likely candidate for paternalism) – though just because celebrities have “good intentions” doesn’t peremptorily absolve them of wrongdoing (“road to hell is paved…,” etc.).

    Also well-said about going so far in our condemnation of people speaking for others/Others that we end up guilty of the same self-righteous misrepresentation. So yes, we have to be careful of passing judgement. But like Dave implies, there’s nothing wrong with questioning and thinking/talking critically about these things. Indeed, it’s our responsibility to do so. It’s such a fine line (and I speak for myself here) between judging and thinking critically. We – I – have to give up so many entrenched ways of thinking, betray the presence of so many prejudices I didn’t ask for and hate to admit. Admissions that I am hypocritical and on unsteady ground are tough to make – but so necessary when we’re talking about morality and ethics in the modern world.

  26. Thank you for bringing this up, I appreciate your perspective tremendously. I found out about this video through Twitter conversations-bordering-feuds about how Yasiin Bey “stealing their pain.” While I resonate with the aforementioned sentiment, I also know that this issue has been going on for so long but has never gotten this much traction until the video. In a world where celebrity culture trumps almost everything else in the media, how can we bring issues such as this to light?

  27. Wow. Wow. Wow. What an exceptional post. The tweets you reference and your own further insight into this all-too-common situation was perfect. I feel terribly uncomfortable when celebrities lend their voice to a particular campaign, issue, or plight, but could never explain in a clear and concise manner as to why. What I do often find myself wondering however, is what will happen as a result of the celebrity campaigns? Because although the issue might remain in the public eye for a week, soon it will be forgotten while the issue remains… 😦

  28. Excellent post. You’re unique voice is well heard. I’ve often pondered something very similar in dealings with activism for others. However, not sure if someone has already mentioned this (there are a lot of messages here), but perhaps there is a slight difference (for me, at least) between singers/song writers and actors. Especially for ever talented Yasiin Bey, who, as you’ve stated, doesn’t shy around activism. Actors, as I see it, become someone else; while singers/song writers express who they are, what they see. In the end, you’re spot on, in making the voiceless heard we typically voice our own thoughts that may or may not express fully how the other feels.

  29. While reading this article I had Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in the back of my head the entire time. While intentions are often well purposed, we as humans, tend to fall short in implementing change when we do not properly think things through and plan. Thanks for mentioning the ethics article. It’s one that applies to all social groups. I’d encourage everyone to read it at some point!

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