Yasiin Bey, the actor, musician and rapper formerly known as Mos Def, was on a tour of Alserkal Avenue, the Dubai arts district, last December.
He stopped by the Third Line, a large, split-level gallery, where the co-founder, Sunny Rahbar came down to greet him after he heard he was visiting. They got to talking.
He told her about an album he'd recorded a few years ago, but that he had held off releasing. He wanted to find the right avenue for the work – a way to make people concentrate on the music rather than have it take second-place to their phones – and Rahbar mentioned that it sounded to her like a sound installation.
She mentioned a sound programme that she'd been putting together, EMIT, which could be the platform for an album as an artwork. “I gave him my card, and thought nothing of it,” she says. “The next day, he comes back to the gallery, and asks, ‘Do you want to do this with me?’”
The project is Negus: a composition that you can only hear once, by entering a dedicated listening space free from any distractions. Crucially, you have to surrender your phone – no sneaky WhatsApp chats, no peeks at Instagram, no Snapchatting your surroundings.
Gallery attendants provide lockable bags so you're phone is kept safe, which also means no one is able to record the music. The composition is to be listened to once, and once only.
“Yasiin was really clear that he wanted a one-time performance,” says Rahbar. “Something that you could not play again on Spotify and that wouldn’t be distributed by a record label. He felt that people don’t make the effort to listen to music, and he wanted to create the space where they had to.”
Bey recorded Negus, which comes from the word for "ruler" in one of the languages of Ethiopia, in 2015, but only conceived its particular viewing conditions in collaboration with Rahbar, who has produced the work as part of her new EMIT sound programme.
Not all visitors have been happy to give up their phones — even for short intervals of 15 minutes. “We’ve had people saying, but I have kids! What if they have to reach me?” Rahbar says. “I’ve been amazed by people’s dependence on them.”
Negus culminates this month at the Brooklyn Museum of Art — in Bey's home borough — where it is being played in its entirety of all 8 tracks. Bey's poetic lyrics on love and spirituality play against a soundtrack of ambient noise. The performance follows smaller shows at the Third Line this summer, Art Basel Hong Kong, and the Marrakech Art Fair, where it played in artist Hassan Hajjaj's riad.
“We’ve also added artistic responses to the sound piece,” says Rahbar. The well-known American artist Julie Mehretu is displaying works on paper, alongside pieces by Ala Ebtekar, José Parlá, and a textile work by Bey himself. The museum shop will sell merchandise, though not, of course, the album itself.
Bey's elusive profile also makes the piece stand out. He officially retired from his musical career in 2014 and moved for a time to South Africa, during which time he considered not only his work but the wider industry that he plays a part of, says Rahbar. "Now that he has come back, he’s much more intentional about how he wants to present his work,” she continues.
The decision to retire only deepened the mystique around the artist, who had multidisciplinary ambitions before it became a micro trend among hip-hop artists. In addition to his career as Mos Def, a name he has now disavowed, Bey has acted in a number of TV shows, plays and films, such as The Italian Job. He starred in the two-man play Top Dog / Underdog in 2002 in New York, in a performance of the underdog brother that I was lucky enough to catch, and still remember for its raw emotion.
In August 2018 he opened the Compound gallery in in the South Bronx, in a collaboration with the talent agent Free Richardson, in which the pair are creating a white-cube space that is welcoming to hip-hop and the visual culture that surrounds it.
For her part, Rahbar was also keen to try a new project. In 2006 Rahbar co-founded the Third Line, now the most internationally recognised contemporary art gallery in Dubai.
“What the Third Line did 15 years ago was to set up a platform for Middle Eastern artists who didn’t have one,” she says. “I was responding to why Arab, Iranian and North African artists weren’t represented in museums. I feel very proud that we were able to become one of now many critical spaces.”
“What I’m doing with Yasiin,” she continues, “is similar in spirit to what we did 15 years ago. I’m excited. It’s a new possibility to present music in another context.”
yasiin bey: Negus is at the Brooklyn Museum in New York until Sunday, January 26, 2020.