Speaker of the House: Mos Def
Waiting sucks. It especially sucks when you forget how annoyed you were about waiting for that person to begin with. You want to get riled up, but then they show up with some of the best swagger you’ve seen in a while. Striped Paul Smith socks, mustard-color Brooklyn Circus pants, Ale et Ange tie, Dunhill jacket and custom-made stingray loafers by Opening Ceremony for Mos Def (who now goes by Mos). Baller. Even more baller status than having Opening Ceremony customize a loafer for you? Turning that same loafer into a collaboration for the fashion coveters of America to purchase, of course.
Showing up in said outfit at Lincoln Center at 6:15 p.m. on an inappropriately warm October night, Mos is just as soft-spoken and kind-eyed as you’d expect him to be. He is apologetic and willing to leave the rest of his evening in our hands, even though he’s spent his past few months rehearsing 13 hours per day, 6 days per week. But this self-proclaimed drama nerd, who spends his spare time reading plays for fun, has no qualms about it. He’s perfecting not one but two roles for his latest performance, alongside former cast mate and Tony Award winner Jeffrey Wright in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, an epic directed by George C. Wolfe and set in 1801 New Orleans.
We proceeded to go downtown to the Buckler store, spoke about granola bars for a bit (he likes the chewy ones with a bit of apple in the center), and asked him to speak his mind. “I’m interesting, but I’m not so interesting,” he warns us. We’d like to kindly disagree.
Well, we know what kind of granola bars you like. Now tell us about your characters...
I play two extremely different characters: Murmur, who is Jacques Cornet’s slave, and I play Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, when the slaves revolted against France, and what was then Santa Domingo.
How do you think people will react to the play?
It’s very interesting because it’s definitely going to ruffle some sensibility. It’s saying shit about race and sexuality and class. The audience doesn’t want to hear it said like that; they’re not coming to the theater to have the truth told to them. But this is addressing the then, the now and the future. We’re going to get it together without being too damning and condemning. We break the fourth wall a lot by talking directly to the audience, so it kind of has this time machine element to it. People don’t know what the rules of the world are for 10 or 15 minutes of the play. “He’s black, hang on, but he’s white, but he’s not in control. Wait what are the rules?” That’s part of the fun.
Are you aware of the audience when that’s happening?
You can feel it, music or otherwise. You can’t let them get ahead of you. If you’re not in charge of the shit, even if it’s going badly, you’ve gotta be. Once they get in charge, it’s over, you’re fucked, there are too many of them. There’s always going to be more of them than you. I don’t want to make it sound like an “us versus them.” Somebody has to be in control. People in groups are not the same way that they are when they are individually.
Cast of 30 people sounds overwhelming. How has that experience been?
Human beings are amazing, motivated to no end. Good or bad, I’m never ceased to be amazed. It’s, like, wow, look at those people fucking working hard. That’s dope. There’s something really dignified and noble about what this play has to say. I get this feeling of heroism from looking at them. And you know, everyone involved is focused and dedicated to their work, and their craft and the story. I really feel like I’ll be a better artist, actor, and hopefully I’ll be a better human being after all this is said and done.
How is performing a play different than other art forms?
A play is living and evolving, so you discover more and more about what it’s about as you are doing it. But, you’re dealing with language at the end of the day. Whether I generate it or it’s generated by somebody else, this is language and ideas. And where I may be using my voice and sound to tell a story or narrative in music, I’m using my brain and my body and all of me in another type of way.
Have you always been a theater nerd?
Well I like to read, I like language. I like to communicate. I still like to read plays because they’re like novels, just concentrated. All action. I guess it’s a geeky thing to do, but I enjoy my geek.
Side note: The following is why we concluded that Mos should run for office at some point:
Were there a lot of rewrites while rehearsing?
There were some useful cuts that I had. It’s an unbelievable experience. It shows you that two heads are better than one and 30 are better than five. That’s one of the great things about America. When you go to other countries, there’s not a lot of diversity in the population base. That’s one of the things that makes America so strong. There’s a little bit of everybody here. But everybody here isn’t being given their fair share of their time on the town hall floor. Everyone’s supposed to get to their town hall floor to put their two cents in because you never know where you’re going to get a brilliant idea from. The idea you’re only going to get from one section of society is not right. It’s not like everyone that goes to Ivy League schools are coming up with all of the vital shit, or that they come up with the vital ideas and solutions and they have a monopoly on them.
Would you ever get involved in politics?
No. The basis of a campaign is how bad the other guy is. I mean it’s America’s fault that they’re doing that. There are innocent people in debt and they want you stressed out. This shit works all over the world the same way. Except in Europe, they make their own fucking pants. The question is: How many ideas do you have? Levi Strauss invented the jean. That’s fucking brilliant. Look at the things America invents. The iPhone! That shit’s crazy. Everything from the automobile was invented here. We’re like the fucking idea gurus. YouTube. If YouTube was made in Germany, they’d be “Blah, blah, blah, Youtube. What have you done?” And what does America do? Look at Detroit, the first place on planet Earth, where automobiles rolled out. But Detroit is fucking falling apart. We did everything from the telephone to the steam engine, and people can’t find jobs. People with brilliant ideas can’t find a place to work, can’t feed their families or keep their homes. Look at NOLA. The whole Port of NOLA is taken for granted. You know how many millions of dollars of business services came from the Mississippi River? And now they’re, like, please stop killing me... I’m hungry. This is bullshit. This is not the America that my grandpas and my grandmothers were fighting for.
And the media’s involvement?
I think the thing with politics is people get into what you’re like and that’s hard. What I do is my business. Mind your business, ’cause I mind my mind. I think that artists can get away with a certain type of shit that politicians can’t get away with. We get a little more opportunity to be human. It’s a cold game. I’m waiting for one of those real people to be, like, “How about, I’m just gonna start fucking you up right here? That’s the last time you’re gonna say something about me and my wife. That’s the last time you’re gonna say shit about my marriage. Fuck this election. ‘Didn’t you used to go out with Susie?’ Yes, what the fuck’s that got to do with the budget? Did Susie come to fix the budget? Then stop bringing her ass up. You’re just mad ’cause she don’t like you.”
But now that we knew how he felt about politics and heard about his play, we needed to be a bit more shallow. I mean, you saw the socks...
Tell us about some of your collaborations.
My first official design collaboration was with Converse. I did my own version of the Chuck Taylor, with the Brooklyn Bridge on the side. I was very proud of that design. Converse just wanted me to do an ad at first and I was, like, let’s do a shoe, and it happened. Now, I’m working with Nixon again, UNDRCRWN of course, and I have some cool projects coming out with Vans.
With all of these collaborations, do you think you want to start your own label?
I like what Hiroshi Fujiwara is doing in terms of design. It’s not just about design and a line but being able to work and collaborate with different companies or groups around certain types of projects or objects. So for me, it’s not really about just a clothing line, per se, but really, you know, about textiles, about housewares, moving into home design, and that sort of thing. You know, it’s a process.
How would you describe your style?
Clean... with a twist. Someone once said, “Cornell fresh.”
Do you have your suits made here in the States?
Yes. My suits are made here in the States. I’m having some basic silhouettes made based on Malcolm X suits. I’ve been really tempted to have the courage to transition into the Einstein black suit everyday. I’m not quite there yet. But I’m working my way there. I was thinking, OK, I do like some variety, so along with the basic silhouette, a few basic colors, a basic shirt, you can add variety with the socks and the ties. I thought about Einstein, and that was something that I really appreciated about him. Makes so much sense.
Food’s really important to us here at ANTENNA. Do you love food?
Love food. That’s why I moved to New Orleans.
That’s all we needed to know.
(This article originally appeared on the cover of the Winter 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)