'There Was Silence. It Was Understood': Reflections About 'yasiin bey: Negus,' the Listening Installation at the Brooklyn Museum

Photo: Panama Jackson

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece that was critical of “yasiin bey: Negus,” the traveling art exhibit/listening installation curated by yasiin bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def. My overarching point (perhaps fairly called “mean” in the comments on the actual piece, and disregarded as closed-minded on Facebook) was that the idea, and likely execution, is pretentious as hell, probably unnecessary and overly self-indulgent to the point of narcissism. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote:

And I hate to be that guy, but I’m totally about to be that guy: The idea that the album can only truly be appreciated by being experienced within the confines of specifically curated art is about as narcissistic as you can get. This is some Kanye-level shit, here, folks. And what does that say of his previous projects? Were they maximized in terms of output?

This is where the “too much talent can be a bad thing” comes into play. I’m sure Yasiin Bey is just trying to find new ways to create his art. He could be an artist and make music and then release it via traditional methods (streaming, retail, etc.), but in his heart, he’s created something that is an “experience.” So much so that it needs to be treated like the art he believes it is, which means it must be in a gallery somewhere.

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Realizing that maybe (sarcasm mine) it was unfair of me to judge art without actually experiencing it, on a recent trip to New York City for The Root 100 gala, I decided to do my due diligence and make the trek to Crown Heights to visit the Brooklyn Museum. That way, I could make an informed opinion about the exhibit. Maybe I was completely wrong (possible), or at least if my opinion was the same it’d be rooted in something. Here are some reflections and observations from “yasiin bey: Negus.”

1. I was a little bit surprised by the art installation part of the exhibit, namely because it was so sparse. I knew the general layout from reading about the entire experience—you listen in headphones, silent disco-style, and it runs 28 minutes; the listening is buttressed by art inspired by the music, which was created in 2015—so I didn’t go in entirely blind or anything, but I truly expected more than four art pieces along with the music.

Now, the pieces aren’t small; each one takes up a wall of the gallery space and upon entering (and after your phone is placed into a pouch so that you can NOT take pictures but, presumably, ALSO focus on the art and music undisturbed by the trappings of the outside world) is a wall explaining the project and its motivations. While I can’t remember verbatim the name of the pieces, I vividly remember them.

Of the four, (one entirely done by yasiin bey, one in collaboration with him), two were striking but I only genuinely liked one. The main yasiin bey piece—and in my mind, the focal point of the showing (it’s one inspired by both Henrietta Lacks and Nipsey Hussle)—managed to both impress me and leave me unmoved. I call it the focal point because while I was listening to the album, I was compelled to literally stare at it the whole time. Not because I wanted to, but because, well, there are only four pieces and I felt a need to look at something.

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2. This is a logistical thing: The installation runs 28 minutes (the length of the album). You buy a ticket (my ticket was $20) for a time slot on each hour of the day. They max out each time slot at 55 maximum attendees. They start the album at 15 minutes past the hour. So if you get there at say, 12 noon, like I did for my slot, you have 15 minutes to kill before you actually hear the album. I was entirely done reading everything and staring at the art with plenty of time before the music started, though there is a piano solo specifically created for the installation which plays before the album. I wonder if I’d gotten there at like 12:13 p.m. and looked at the art while listening to the album at the same time how it might have impacted my experience.

Photo: Panama Jackson
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3. I didn’t like the album—but it also sounded exactly how I expected it to sound. I won’t even say it’s not good; I did not think it was very good. I’m positive some folks would like it (or at least say they did). One of the other people there during my visit was doing his best to try to tap his foot on whatever beat he could find; I found it largely unlistenable. There was one song I might have listened to again (“Waves”), but I doubt it. That would have been an “I’m listening to this because it’s Mos Def” listen. But in case it isn’t clear: I didn’t enjoy the album. When I walked out, I very likely made the same face Nola Darling’s father made when he walked out of her exhibit at the end of season 2 of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series; he was not happy he seent what he saw.

4. To that end (and this isn’t exclusive to yasiin bey), if this wasn’t a yasiin bey album, nobody would say it was good. It’s an abrasive listen in the vein of Yeezus, with a lot of aggressive sounds and distorted drums and synths and keys that didn’t seem to fit but were jammed together anyway. This album, as it were, will ENTIRELY get all of its praise because of who made it, not for what it sounds like. Or at least, it would if it was available for release somewhere.

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5. At the same time, it is every bit of an arthouse album. SPOILER ALERT: There’s a scene in the movie Sorry To Bother You where Tessa Thompson’s character turns herself into an art exhibit with music playing and performs a poem while people throw things at her. I literally felt this is what the album was: performance art of that variety—minus the projectiles. I can imagine watching yasiin bey perform the album would be an entirely different experience than listening to it in a room surrounded by a few pieces of art, none of which enhanced my own personal listening experience.

6. I went to the noontime slot on Thursday. There were 12 people in the exhibit with me. There were two black men, including myself, three more men of varying ethnicity and five white women ranging all ages (including some women who looked to be in their 60s) and two who looked to be Asian women. Two women walked out. I don’t know why—maybe there was an emergency—but one of them definitely mouthed what looked like, “What is this?” before she and her homie left. I’m not sharing that to be an asshole but to illustrate something: I went specifically because I’m a fan of yasiin bey and hip-hop and largely because of Black on Both Sides, I will forever be obliged to give him my time and attention. For some, though, I think they were there to see an art installation they probably read about. All art isn’t created equal.

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7. Why a piece, or in this case, pieces of art were created rarely ever informs whether or not I’ll think something is good. It might make me respect the motivations and the process, but to quote Tupac, “...don’t have to bump this but please respect it…” Or more recently (or as recent as 20 years ago can be), “...if I don’t like it, I don’t like it, that don’t mean that I’m hatin’...” To that end, I respect what yasiin bey put together and the connections that inspired the music and art. I may not entirely get it, but that’s OK. That’s what makes artists artists. They see things where others do not and get inspired by stories and situations, etc. And does this type of exhibit/installation advance the culture of hip-hop? I’d have to say it does, even if I do think there is some pretense to it.

Also, I’m not sure how many other artists, save for maybe Kanye, could do this where it actually made some type of sense. I had a convo with a friend who went to see the exhibit and her takeaway was way different than mine; she loved it. We both agreed, however, that it was art and I do believe a gallery is the only place to listen to that album; I cannot imagine listening to it anywhere else.

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8. “There was silence. It was understood.”

That was a standout line that was part of one of the pieces of art for the installation. I fixated on that six-word combination. It says a whole lot with so little. It is also how I felt when the exhibit ended and we all walked out, silently. It was understood.

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About the author

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.