Showbox, Dead Nation and Reign City Present: Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) with Lilla & Raz Simone | Showbox Market | Wednesday, October 8, 2014
One could argue that it is hard to be innovative when it comes to rap music. It might even be harder to be innovative when performing rap music. Most musicians stand on stage, hold the mic, walk around a little bit, and then take a pause to say, “How y’all feel?” This is not bad of course. There is nothing wrong with just performing your songs; that’s what people are there to see, after all.
But Raz Simone impressed me by stepping out of the box and, in this case, off the stage to do something that never even crossed my mind until I saw it with my own eyes. Midway through his opening set last Wednesday night at Showbox at the Market, he hopped off stage after he had been working the entire room, and asked the crowd to gather in a circle. He rapped passionately in the middle of the floor, the highlight being when he performed his love letter to Seattle — a cover of Adele’s “Hometown Glory” — standing eye-to-eye with the audience. He hugged people in the crowd, jumped up and down and even finished his set by being hoisted up, literally on the shoulders of the people he was performing for. Call me sentimental, but this gave me a lot of hope for rap music in general and made me proud of Seattle rap in particular.
Raz Simone’s flow is interesting, his voice sounds great, his lyrical content is honest without showboating, and it’s clear why he opened for an artist like Yasiin Bey. But his performance says something about what rap should aspire back to: being about the people in your audience and engaging them fully, with your whole heart.
Which leads me to Yasiin Bey (formerly known of course as Mos Def). Brooklyn’s own Dante Smith: world traveler, actor, rap poet, and fashion extraordinaire. He was all of these things during his set. Yasiin graced the stage clad in an Ethiopian scarf and stylish hat. He was legitimately amped to be there and the crowd was equally happy to receive him. He spoke of his travels, shared many musings and sang his heart out (which remains one of his many strengths).
I’ve always been a fan from back in the day but not enough to know all the words to his songs and, unfortunately, this did not bode well for my concert experience. See, Yasiin is a cool personality. He is a rap celebrity, inheritor of a great reputation for his innovative music, which is totally accurate and valid, but if you are not a diehard stan it might be a challenge to feel fully included in his show. He raps with a special mic named, “Goldie,” which looks really cool and vintage; the only problem is that it made it almost impossible to understand him very well. I had to strain to catch his innovative rhymes.
The crowd did not mind, though, and I was pleased by the music alone, sans rap. His black and white visuals of various New York City scenes was dope and totally matched the cool guy, jazzy, hip-but-not-hipster aesthetic that has always worked for him. Though in some ways that presentation is also a negative: it was a bit too cool for me, even though rapping under red lights is uber cool and his non-musical asides were totally hilarious, weird and interesting. I felt like I was spending 60 minutes with a personality, not a performer.
That said, much respect to Yasiin Bey for taking the time out to rap Biggie’s “Juicy” and play Slick Rick — I am always a sucker for hip-hop homage. And, even though I felt like something was missing from the performance, the highlight was “Umi Says,” a song I literally could not love more. In a form of poetic justice which serves his genius, the words basically summed up how I felt about seeing him live for the first time: “I ain’t no perfect man / I’m trying to do, the best that I can.”