“The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis
Shining, like “Who on top of this?”
People was tusslin’, arguin’ and bustlin’
Gangstas of Gotham hardcore hustlin'”
Respiration – Black Star
It sounded too good to be true. A reunion, of sorts, featuring the elusive and mysterious Yasiin Bey, and his lyrical prodigy, Talib Kweli. The remarkable duo has been difficult to pin down, as each member has a wide breadth of creative outlets from which to express themselves. Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def, has been acting on and off, fortified his political stances, and had recently announced a retirement from music. Fortunately for all Hip-Hop fans, this was short-lived, and he has once again emerged to announce tour dates, including the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. Kweli can be seen and heard in the political and activism world, mixing it up with haters and aggressive debaters, on both sides of the aisle. Amidst the myriad of endeavors, these artists have made time to collaborate, and bring fans together for reminders of Hip-Hop at its best.
Yo, from the first to the last of it, delivery is passionate /
The whole and not the half of it, forecast and aftermath of it /
Projectile that them blasted with, accurate assassin shit /
Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth
Definition – Black Star
I had never been to The Anthem in Washington DC, and I was excited to learn that the show was planned for the new venue, on Friday, April 20th. I purchased a ticket in February, not knowing what to expect. The flier sported a few surprises, including several opening acts, and the announcement that ‘sounds (would be) provided by DJ Bee’. I crafted a short note to my friend Bee, in Norfolk, Virginia. It seemed that, for the first time, we would have an opportunity to meet in person. He and I had connected over Hip-Hop and art, more than two years ago. It would be icing on the cake to formally connect with him. Word of the show spread quickly, and many of my Hip-Hop family agreed to link up in April.
The event date neared and, coincidentally, I had been experimenting with drawing applications on an iPad. Using an Apple Pencil and the Procreate app, I was attempting to render my Hip-Hop heroes. The big difference between what I had been doing, and drawing/painting on a device, was that now there was no original artwork; the image resides on the device. Weird. Over the first months of 2018, I was immersed in learning to navigate the tools of digital art-making. I was attempting to achieve photo-realism, while simultaneously having my composition read like a traditional painting or drawing. I used every opportunity to experiment with techniques and new tools. It was important to become fluent in using this new technology. I spent scores of hours generating a new series of Hip-Hop imagery: Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, Redman, Method Man, Black Thought, RZA, Clyde Stubblefield, and the mighty Mos Def. I was gaining confidence, becoming more efficient, and marveling at the richness of the colors. It was while I was working on the Mos Def piece, that I heard about the Black Star show.
April 20th arrived, and the weather was shaping up to be ideal for checking out the Wharf in Southwest DC. I left work as soon as I could, and beat most of the normal Friday afternoon traffic. I wanted to get a good lay of the land, and it was important to assess the probability of getting backstage. I brought along a watercolor portrait, from 2014, and a few of the new prints. I had met Kweli a few months back, when he performed at the Howard Theatre. Tonight, it would be all about meeting Mos, and witnessing a rare performance from two of the best to do it.
A day before the event, I checked-in with those friends who would be meeting up at The Anthem – Malcolm, Mike from Philly, Liz from Philly, and Jeremy (DJ Boom) from WLVS. When Jeremy and I connected, he mentioned that he had press passes. He added that I would be his ‘Plus One’. I wasn’t sure what that would entail, but I began to imagine that this might smooth our path a bit. I thanked him profusely, and hoped that we could finagle a way to get Malcolm a pass too.
I was taking in the Wharf, and scouting a spot for food, when I spotted a guy wearing a ‘Fresh Radio’ sweatshirt. As I pointed to the shirt, and started to remark that I was hoping to meet DJ Bee tonight, I realized that it was the man, himself. When he saw me pointing, he furrowed his brow, anticipating a strange interaction. Instead, recognition spread across his face, and we both grinned. Wordlessly, we had figured it out. This was the meeting we had been planning. We agreed to meet up again, posed for a quick selfie, and we parted ways. He would be warming up the crowd, speaking with his hands! It would be great to see him perform.
I ended up meeting Malcolm and Meriem, only to double-back to the front doors of The Anthem to meet Jeremy. If he was providing a pass for me, I didn’t want to keep him waiting, or have him have to search for me. We linked up, and after a few snags on our way in, we found Jeremy’s contatct with the passes. The floor was filling with eager concert-goers, and we decided to take our new sticker-badges for a spin. As we approached the backstage entrance, we anticipated resistance, but a quick glance and a nod from a burly security guard lessened our concern. So far so good.
While the backstage area was dimly lit and mostly concrete, we were elated to be there. We had been told that ‘Mos Def wont sign anything’, and our expectations were a bit low. Still, standing at the base of the stairs, leading directly to the stage, it was obvious that any performer would have to walk right past us on their way. We began to relax a bit, and realized that we were free to come and go as we pleased. We found Tajuana, our friend from the Howard Theatre. She works security at both venues, and has always been supportive of our missions. She knows that we can be trusted, and seems to appreciate that we don’t push and shove, we are polite, and we will leave without argument, if the situation calls for it. She’s a real friend, and I always love to see her. She gave us a few tips about the schedule and the times, and we settled in near the area by the backstage curtain. We figured we would be in for a long wait, and I wanted to get Malcolm back here with us.
Before the show, when we realized that Malcolm would be watching the show from his seat, we agreed that I would take his copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X with me. In the off chance that I had a few minutes with Mos Def, I would certainly try to add to Malcolm’s impressive collection of signatures. It felt good to be trusted with such a treasured item.
The show had begun, with Bee amping up the crowd with Hip-Hop gold. The wings of the stage started to fill, and J Berd and Mad Squablz took turns priming the crowd with their unique brand of rhyming. It seemed that Squablz had about forty people in his camp. It was heart-warming to see that kind of support for a friend and family member.
Just as we settled in to enjoy the show, a lone, slight figure shuffled past, wearing a white hoodie. He was heading towards the stage, to take in the show. I realized quickly, that it was Yasiin Bey. There was no entourage, and no fanfare. I grabbed my painting, and got Jeremy’s attention. I didn’t want to rush up on him, but no one had realized he was there. Jeremy snatched up my painting, and put it in front of Yasiin. He glanced down at it, and I waited to be rebuffed. Instead, he quietly walked back into the light, looking for a place to set the painting down. Now everyone was following him; like a modern-day pied piper. He spied a red fire extinguisher box, jutting out from the wall. He delicately placed it on the box and began adding his artfully drawn signature to my painting. I was in awe that this was happening, and snapped to, when I noticed about fifteen people documenting the moment with all manner of video equipment and cameras. I finally remembered to take some of my own pictures, when he turned around. He signed Jeremy’s star-shaped record, and I prepared Malcolm’s book for a quick tag. When it was my turn, I explained that this was Malcolm’s book, for his son. I told him that he was in the seats, and that he gave me the book in the hopes that Yasiin Bey would add his name to the collection. He obliged, uttering softly, a single word – “Wow.”
I thanked him over and over again. We started to celebrate, and share the stories of the book and the paintings, when we realized that Bey seemed to be in no rush. He was lingering with the small crowd of photographers and performers. Although I still had my prints with me, I was worried that I’d appear greedy if I asked for another signature. Instead, I asked Jeremy to present the last piece to him. When he did, Bey graciously, and with purpose, walked over to the wall, and began writing on the print. I thought he was sharing song lyrics, but after the fact, I realized that he was recalling a memory. He wrote: …At some point in California I believe Black Though was present – Bey
I genuinely thought I was dreaming, as the scene unfolded so slowly and without interruption. At the last moment, I looked up to notice a clear, profile shadow on the wall, projected from a camera light. I finally remembered to take my camera out of my pocket and snapped flicks of the surreal scene. Little did I know, that several skilled photographers were much more prepared. Special thanks go to a new friend, Greg Boulden, as he used his special skills to capture these moments. Just incredible.
Amidst our small circle of congratulations, Jeremy and I made several new connections: Stephen Jones, of Artotorium (IG), photographer Greg Boulden, and performers Mad Squablz and J Berd (from Frederick, Maryland). It was all love and mutual appreciation. As we stood there, swapping stories, art, and handshakes, I noticed a woman giving assistance to a small Rastafari man, shuffling towards the stage. Immediately, I recognized the diminutive figure as Paul Hudson (H.R.), from the legendary, punk band Bad Brains. He figures heavily as a mentor and influencer of Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch from the Beastie Boys, and was photographed in the early days, by Glen E. Friedman. I asked a half dozen people if they knew, for sure, if it was him. I was in a Hip-Hop crowd, and no one knew what I was talking about. Ha!
He took a seat on the left side of the stage, and wore a slight smile along with his sunglasses and knit hat. I was sure it was him.
The opening acts each took their turn on stage, and Dead Prez brought the crowd up to a new level of excitement. It was time for Black Star. I moved to the far side of the stage, and found an incredible vantage point from which to watch the show. I was in my glory. As I looked around, I found myself in awe of the scene. A packed crowd to my right, Black Star performing directly in front of me, and a group of VIPs to my left. Apparently, they didn’t realize that there was a ton of room on the landing where I stood. As I scanned the group backstage, I noticed a familiar face. Is that – Tracy Morgan? I guess when a legendary group reunites for a special show, everyone shows up.
I quickly texted Malcolm to see if he’d want Tracy to sign the Malcolm X book. He responded enthusiastically in the affirmative, and I set to work.
We were directly behind the stage, when I approached Tracy. I explained that the book belonged to Malcolm, who was in the seats, and that the book was for his son. He signed his name next to Yasiin Bey, and I thanked him. I said “I’m glad you’re here.” He replied, “Thanks for having me.” It’s evident, that he loves to talk with people, and is glad to be alive.
As the show went on, I sidled up to the woman who had walked in with HR. I asked her if I was correct in my assumption. She assured me that it was him, and I took the opportunity to bring up a mutual acquaintance. Once she realized that my intentions were harmless, she introduced herself, as Laurie, a fellow artist, and HR’s wife. Embarrassed that I didn’t know the connection, I thanked her for her time, and gently asked if, after the show, I could request a photograph with HR. She said that he is usually accommodating to such requests, and that she’d try to make it happen. I tread lightly, knowing that he had recently undergone some major surgeries. I didn’t want to be a bother.
The show, ended, and Talib and Yasiin exited the stage with a path cleared to the stairway. While everyone clamored after them, I watched HR and Laurie walk slowly off the stage, behind them. Seemingly, the stars of the show had set the pick for a quiet, clear walk to the backstage area. While everyone had their heads turned to see Black Star, HR walked to the center of the room. There, Laurie spotted me, and introduced me to the man. I thanked him for being there, and hoped that he was feeling well. I mentioned that I am a big Beastie Boys fan, and brought up the fact that Adam Yauch was a huge fan of Bad Brains. HR lit up when I mentioned MCA, and I guess I did too. He put his arm around me, and we posed for a quick picture. This moment was an exclamation point to the night that had been such a bevy of special meetings.
I floated out to the main floor to connect with Malcolm. The place had largely emptied out, and every few seconds I would inadvertently step on a plastic cup, or concert flier. We met up in the center of the floor, and agreed to head outside. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face, as I rambled through the story of the night. Malcolm and Meriem were kind to listen to me attempt to piece together a coherent tale. My head was filled with an overwhelming number of images and memories. I hope that, by writing it down here, that I can recapture some of the magic that was April 20th, 2018, at The Anthem in DC. Thanks, Yasiin, Talib, Tracy Morgan, HR, Laurie, Jeremy Beaver, Stephen Jones, Greg Boulden, Mad Squablz, Dead Prez, Malcolm, Meriem, Mike and Liz from Philly, Saleem, Feed the Scene, and The Anthem for adding to my stories. I’m not sure where this Hip-Hop project is heading, but it has been an incredible ride. – AK