Mos Def and The Amino Alkaline Orchestra with Gil Scott-Heron
Carnegie Hall/JVC Jazz Festival 2008
New York, New York
Saturday, June 28, 2008
On Saturday, June 28, 2008 the JVC Jazz Festival brought Brooklyn's own renaissance man, Dante Smith, a.k.a. Mos Def, to town with his big band Amino Alkaline Orchestra, featuring special guest Gil Scott-Heron. Mos Def's Amino Akaline-The Watermelon Syndicate rocked the dome of Carnegie Hall for a diverse audience of what seemed like thousands. The show opened with the featured performer's twenty-three piece band walking onto the stage with the image of the late, legendary radio man, talk show host, and activist, Petey Greene, shown overhead on a large screen above the stage, eating watermelon. Petey Greene urged the audience to eat and enjoy; perhaps a metaphor for the evening to come.
Once his band was in place, Mos Def seemed to glide smoothly on the stage, to the roar of shouts and applause. The young rapper, poet and thespian wore a white sailor cap, a long white t-shirt and multi- colored shorts that nearly came to his ankles. The ever unpredictable and charming rapper, greeted the crowd and jokingly said to an audience member in the front row, "What? You don't like my shorts?" The crowd laughed. The band started up with classic jazz, bebop and blues sounds, as he sipped water and prepared to deliver his rhymes. The twenty-three piece ensemble included an impressive horn section, keyboards, guitar, drums, and an all-female string section, which Def pointed out as comprising "very beautiful and talented women."
At a time when critics and artists alike have questioned whether hip hop is dead, one of the genre's own manages to bridge hip hop, jazz and blues in a most elegant way, while keeping it real. Mos Def announced at the beginning of the show, "We put this band together because we love music. It's something we wanted to see going on that wasn't." When Mos started singing the early '90's R&B song "Poison" by Bell , Biv and Devoe, the crowd went wild. The audience bobbed their heads and sang along when Mos covered the Pharcyde's "Passing Me By" and Stevie Wonder's "That Girl." He showed the masterful emcee skills that he is known for when he rhymed lines in succession, from several classic hip hop songs by artists such KRS-1 and Eric B. & Rakim. Amino Alkaline meanwhile gave concert go-ers of all ages something to enjoy as the band covered tunes from Busta Rhymes' "Gimme Some More" to Mongo Santamaria's "Afro-Blue." Along with Def they also paid tribute to James Brown and Fela. Def himself appeared to be in musical heaven as he scatted and sang the lyrics to Fela's "No Agreement" while praising Barack Obama's goal to become the first African- American President. A refreshing moment in the show was the rapper's duet with Renee Neufville (formerly of Zhané) on the Eurythmics' song "Sweet Dreams."
You could feel the love and energy in the air as several audience members throughout the concert called to Mos Def, saying, "I love you!" and "We love you!" Halfway through Mos' performance, an audience member shouted, "Do 'Umi Says'!" Def paused, faced the audience, and replied humorously, "Thank you for your interest, but not now. See we got this thing called a set list and rehearsals. For your sake and ours." The audience laughed once again.
At one point Def gave shout outs to "New Orleans" and "Wayne Carter" for Carter's newly released album, which has recently sold one million copies. In between songs, Def told stories and shared his artistic vision with the audience, "I'm from Brooklyn, New York. Starting a band is an excuse to have a gang. If you gon' bang, bang for freedom," he said. And then he held his red, black and green flag high above his head. After this introduction, he delivered a rap acapella, written by Jay Electronica, an artist he admires who is from New Orleans.
It was fitting that Mos Def, one of hip hop's most recognized, and Gil Scott Heron, considered a "Godfather" of rap and spoken word poetry (most famous for his 1970's poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"), joined for this occasion. When Heron walked onto the stage, the audience rose to their feet, honoring a man they know has given the world his soul through song and music, while battling some of the most challenging times of his life. Heron took center stage, waving to the audience as he began to praise "this young man," referring to Mos Def, and advised the audience in a loving, and fatherly voice to, "Look for things in life that are going to lift you up, keep you going." He then walked to stage right and sat down next to the keyboard player, waiting for Def to finish his song. The latter, clearly moved by the kind words Heron bestowed upon him, was momentarily speechless. He turned away from the audience, and the crowd began to clap for him. After the emotional moment was over, Def said to the crowd, "There's a line in one of Suzan Lori-Parks' plays that says, 'You're only yourself when no one is watching.' But who's really themselves nowadays when everyone's watching? If you can be yourself when everyone's watching, it really doesn't matter who's watching." Profound. Everyone in the audience quietly weighed the message he was trying to convey. Shortly afterwards, Gil Scott-Heron left his seat to join Mos Def in a duet.
Def got the crowd energized when he called out all of the different boroughs, during his duet with Heron on the song "New York City." Thereafter, the song-poet told a story of a time when he and former band mate Brian Jackson were in a rehearsal and a lady they knew brought a "bad boy" by for them to babysit. "Neither Brian nor I knew anything about four-year olds, we hadn't been four in a long time," he said. "His name was Bobby and this boy was bad. But when Brian started playing the keyboards, little Bobby calmed down. That's what he needed. We were trying to come up with a title for this song we were working on, then, we decided to name it 'Song for Bobby." He proceeded to sing the song, making his voice go high, then low, as if to help us remember a time when love and music were all people needed to feel free. Mos Def joined in and by the end of the song the two stars were hugging one another like father and son. Before long, the elder of the pair waved and said good-bye to the audience during what was an undeniably powerful and historic moment featuring two musical icons. Def remarked to the audience, "I'm feeling a little farklempt, I have to do something gangster now." He continued to perform newly composed songs.
Toward the end of the concert, as the band played, Mos Def chanted the words, "Love, love the message is this...peace, peace the message is this." His final song was "Umi Says," which was just what the audience asked for. Unlike his flowing entrance onto the stage at the beginning, Mos ended the show with an aggressive stomp of his foot and flung his mic to the floor, perhaps feeling he had accomplished what few in hip hop have: Mos Def had conquered Carnegie Hall and did it his way. And the last thing he said was, "Eat your watermelon. Don't be afraid to be yourself."
What's next for Mos Def? Publication of a book titled Black, 2.0, scheduled for fall 2008 (by The Doubleday Publishing Group) and a September concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Def is a musician who resists categorization, someone who inspires young people to want to play a musical instrument and to study jazz and all of its permutationsfor wisdom and enlightenment as much as proficiency. May he continue to shine his light on the world.