Actor and rap artist
Born Dante Terrell Smith, December 11, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Abdul (Abi) Rahman and Sheron (Umi) Smith.
Addresses: Record company —Geffen Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
Actor on television, including: God Bless the Child (movie), ABC, c. 1988; You Take the Kids, CBS, 1990-91; The Cosby Mysteries, NBC, 1994; NYPD Blue, ABC, 1997; Brooklyn South, 1997; Spin City, 1998; Carmen: A Hip- Hopera (movie), MTV, 2001; My Wife and Kids, ABC, 2002; Chappelle's Show, Comedy Central, 2003-04; Something The Lord Made (movie), HBO, 2004; Lackawanna Blues (movie), HBO, 2005. Album releases include: Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star, 1998; Black on Both Sides (solo), 1999; The New Danger (solo), 2004. Stage appearances include: Topdog/Underdog, Broadway, 2002. Film appearances include: The Hard Way, 1991; Where's Marlowe?, 1991; Bamboozled, 2000; Monster's Ball, 2001; Showtime, 2002; Civil Brand, 2002; Brown Sugar, 2002; The Italian Job, 2003; The Woodsman, 2004; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 2005.
Awards: Black Reel Award for best actor in an independent film, for The Woodsman, 2005.
In the entertainment industry there are plenty of performers who dabble in both music and film. Few, however, move so fluidly between the two as actor-rapper Mos Def, who has been hot on both
Speaking to New York magazine's Chris Norris, Hitchhiker film director Garth Jennings described the Mos Def enigma this way: "He's got this odd quality about him. A Zen-like presence that can be cool and weird and everything all at once. He'll have hit records one moment, then doing some live jazz thing one evening, then doing furniture design, then appearing in terrific plays—he just struck me as this extraordinary bloke that doesn't seem to be tied by anything."
Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The oldest of 12 kids (some sources say nine), Mos Def was raised by his mother, Sheron, whom he calls Umi, in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble Roosevelt housing project. His father, Abdul Rahman, whom he calls Abi, lived in neighboring New Jersey. Growing up, Mos Def made the most of his surroundings. Speaking to Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times, Mos Def characterized his neighborhood as "a bright valley with dark prospects." He said he believed his neighbors were good people with bad habits. Early on, Mos Def decided he would work hard and make a better life for himself. At one time, Mos Def thought about becoming a doctor or a minister. Filled with initiative, he filled his spare time reading. "I wanted to be informed. . I had a curious mind, so I wanted to do things that activated that challenge," he told Cromelin. "I wanted to get involved, I didn't want to just sit around and accept my surroundings."
Mos Def made his stage debut in fifth grade in a production of Marlo Thomas's Free to Be You and Me. He loved the experience and when he reached high school, he enrolled at a New York City performing arts magnet school. When Mos Def was a freshman, he landed his first real acting gig, starring in an ABC movie of the week called God Bless the Child in the late 1980s. At the age of 16 he earned the part of Nell Carter's son on the sitcom You Take the Kids, which ran from 1990 to 1991. Fresh out of high school Mos Def earned a role on the short-lived 1994 TV show The Cosby Mysteries. He later made appearances on NYPD Blue in 1997 and Spin City in 1998. Mos Def landed a few other roles as well and during this time used the name Dante Beze. After high school, his mom worked as his manager.
Though Mos Def was earning sporadic film and television roles, he began turning his attention toward music, which had also been a childhood passion. Mos Def began writing rhymes in grade school, at first as a desperate act of survival. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly 's Daniel Fierman, Mos Def acknowledged that he was a small and nerdy child who could barely hold his own on the basketball court. "I was a 99-punch kid," he joked. "If you hit on me 100 times, I'd be like, 'Okay, now I'm gonna break you.' So I had to do somethin' to be able to just survive around my neighbors, you know?" Entertaining would-be bullies with his witty rhymes offered some form of protection. When he was ten years old, Mos Def was enthralled by rap group Run-DMC's song "It's Like That." From that moment on, hip-hop played a significant role in Mos Def's life.
In his early 20s, he changed his name to Mos Def, which is short for his favorite affirmation—"most definitely"—which was his typical response when friends asked him if he wanted to hang out. Around this time Mos Def launched his first group, called Urban Thermal Dynamics, along with his siblings. They signed with a local label but never produced a record. Mos Def, however, began to carve out a name for himself among the Brooklyn hip-hop scene. In 1995, he met De La Soul's lyrical genius Maseo and was invited to perform on De La Soul's album Stakes Is High on the track "Big Brother Beat" in 1996. Mos Def also sang on 1996's "S.O.S.," a song produced by da Bush Babees. This exposure led to a record deal with Rawkus Records. At the time, Mos Def was working at a Brooklyn bookstore called N'kiru Books, alongside another aspiring rapper named Talib Kweli. They spent their time browsing the literature and later became co-owners of the bookstore.
The pair also worked together creating rhymes and in 1998 released a political yet playful album called Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star ; the space entity of the title is a cosmic phenomenon. It became a classic of the hip-hop underground. Just a year later, Mos Def released a solo album, Black on Both Sides, which had a jazzy, R&B flavor. The releases heightened Mos Def's notoriety and established him as a socially conscious, introspective, and insightful rap artist. In Black on Both Sides, which was certified gold, Mos Def makes references to the insults and injuries black men often feel at the hands of police officers. He also took time to question the amount of money allocated in the U.S. defense budget. The albums established Mos Def as a master of the art of conscious rap.
The reaction surprised Mos Def himself. "I was in L.A. right after the album came out and I'm on stage performing and I'm lookin' at people reciting words of the songs off the album," he told Entertainment Weekly 's Fierman. "And I'm like, 'Am I seein' this right? I know this record has not been out that long.'"
The albums created quite a buzz in the hip-hop world, but Mos Def left them behind to concentrate on acting once again. He earned roles in 2000's Bamboozled, which was directed by Spike Lee, 2001's Monster's Ball, starring Halle Berry, 2002's Brown Sugar, and 2004's The Woodsman. For his role in The Woodsman, Mos Def earned a Black Reel Award for best actor in an independent film.
All of the roles, though small, worked together to broaden and mature his acting skills. They also afforded him the opportunity to brush shoulders with industry heavyweights. In 2004 Mos Def established himself as a multidimensional actor in the HBO flick Something The Lord Made, playing pioneer heart surgeon Dr. Vivien Thomas. Mos Def earned critical acclaim for the role, along with Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.
In 2002 Mos Def became a theater star after landing on Broadway in a production of Topdog/Underdog. Starring in the production allowed him to work with renowned director George C. Wolfe in a play that won the author, Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize. Mos Def starred opposite Jeffrey Wright in the two-man show with the duo playing con-artist brothers. Even Mos Def realized this was a turning point in his career. "Actors would give their eye-teeth to work with people of this level," Mos Def acknowledged to the New York Times 's Robin Finn. "This is a major, major, major turning point, not just for me, but for the culture [T]his is one of those rare instances where something of a high artistic order is like at ground level, at street level, where Jay-Z and Puffy have come to the theater, where kids are coming to Broadway to watch this play." He was proud to inspire fellow African Americans to attend the play.
The play also showcased some of Mos Def's unseen talents. In one act, he had to do a striptease to a James Brown piece while removing several stolen suits lifted as part of his day's work. The play itself was filled with gritty lyricism, and Mos Def, with his background in smooth rap-delivery, nailed the lines. The playwright herself could not have been more pleased. "What's really cool about watching Mos onstage is that there's such a freedom to him," Parks told Rolling Stone 's Mark Binelli. "I'd guess it comes from a real inner strength—not a conceited-pride but a strong heart-center, like you say in yoga. A warrior spirit." For Mos Def, rapping and acting are almost the same thing. "I enjoy telling a story with all that I have—my mind, my body," he told Ebonny Fowler of Essence. For him, it is about connecting with the crowd, whether he is singing or acting.
During his spare time between performances Mos Def worked on a recording with his band Black Jack Johnson, named after the first African-American boxing champion, Jack Johnson. The group is composed of artists from Living Colour, Bad Brains, and Parliament-Funkadelic. Mos Def wants the group to make an album that is hip-hop rock.
In October of 2004 Mos Def released his long-awaited second solo album, The New Danger. It debuted on the Billboard album chart at number five. One Vibe magazine reviewer called the album "explosive, creative, political, experimental, [and] soulful." The reviewer went on to say, "Lyrically, the New Danger has cemented Mos in the upper eschelon of wordsmiths and album makers in this art that we call rap." Overall, reviews were mixed. The album featured backup from his new band venture, Black Jack Johnson. One single from the album, "Sex, Love & Money," earned a Grammy nomination for best alternative/urban performance.
The year 2005 found Mos Def back on the big screen, this time in a lead role, playing alien journalist Ford Prefect in the sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adams book of the same name. In a discussion with Jet 's Marti Yarbrough, Mos Def said that he was excited about his clever, imaginative, and playful character. "I get a chance to play a character that transcends certain boundaries whether it be racial or cosmic. He's a character that could have been played by any actor, black or white. I'm just grateful that I got a chance to do it, and I'm really excited and interested to see how people are going to receive it."
In an interview for Entertainment Weekly 's Must List in 2005, Mos Def said a new album was in the works. That year, he began filming the real-time action thriller, 16 Blocks, which co-starred Bruce Willis. Also in 2005, a 20-foot-tall image of Mos Def was unveiled in Brooklyn outside the Restoration Plaza shopping center as part of a cultural heritage exhibit to honor noteworthy natives who have found success. By being part of the display, Mos Def's image helps remind others that they, too, can rise above their circumstances. "I respect Mos Def," Brooklyn resident Naim Martin told the New York Times 's Jennifer Bleyer shortly after Mos Def's image appeared. "He shows that if you use your talent properly, you'll be all right."
Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Rawkus Records, 1998.
Black on Both Sides, Rawkus Records, 1999.
The New Danger, Geffen Records, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, April 12, 2002, p. 32; June 24/July 1, 2005, pp. 96-97.
Essence, July 2002, p. 74.
Jet, May 2, 2005, pp. 58-62.
Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2004, p. E45.
New York, May 2, 2005, pp. 85-86.
New York Times, April 19, 2002, p. B2; March 20, 2005, p. 146; May 2, 2005, p. E2.
Rolling Stone, May 23, 2002, p. 51.
Washington Post, October 13, 2004, p. C1.
"Mos Def: Biography," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/mos_def/bio.jhtml (April 23, 2005).
"Mos Def's New Danger," Vibe, http://www.vibe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=529 (April 23, 2005).