Yasiin Bey, the Former Mos Def, on His Barclays Center Poem and Trying to Avoid Beef With Jay-Z

Recording Artist Yasiin Bey formely known as Mos Def backstage at the First Annual Indelible Festival produced by Jill Newman Productions held at Highline Ballroom on January 6, 2012 in New York City.
Photo: Terrence Jennings / Retna Ltd./Corbis

On Thursday, we wrote about the latest poem from Yasiin Bey — the former Mos Def. Titled “On center.stadium.status,” it’s a response to the opening of Barclays Center, written last September, on the day of the arena’s opening. Hesitant to have the piece perceived as an attack on Jay-Z, Barclay’s public face, Bey held off on letting it go for a while. Now that it’s out, Bey would like to expound on why. Below, in an extended transcript, Bey touches on Charles Bukowski, Wrestlemania, Harry Belafonte, Kanye West, Marty Markowitz, bootleg Rolling Stones T-shirts, and one or two other things.

Good night.

Good night?

Hey. Yes. Thanks for taking the time out. So, why poetry?
I’ve been writing for the better part of my life. Most of my poems have been published as musical compositions thus far. But lately I’ve been looking to just publish the ideas independent of the musical aspect. Publish my ideas independent of my physical voice. Let them stand on their own. I’m inspired by playwrights, novelists, poets: The value of language has been a lifelong passion of mine. I enjoy it. I’m good at it. I feel like I’m getting better. And I just want my words to live somewhere else, other than the stereo and the stage. I feel that it’s also a test to me: Can my words have impact without me reciting them to music?

Where’d you write “”?
I wrote that in New Orleans, on the day they were having the opening for Barclays. People were calling me and asking, “Are you gonna be there, are you gonna be there?“ And it just kind of came to me, rather quickly. I have been what some people might call an opponent to the stadium. I think the word opponent has many meanings. I was concerned about what the stadium’s presence in the community might do. I was concerned.

About what, exactly?
I saw one thing that was kind of a telling sign. I was on DeKalb Avenue and Flatbush, probably two months ago, and at the intersection I saw these not-quite-so-young men, in standing traffic, trying to sell bootleg Rolling Stones T-shirts. [Laughs] I thought, “This is the trickle-down economic effect of Barclays in the neighborhood?” I didn’t think of it as a positive.

I was actually pretty hesitant to have it published, because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued as some sort personal attack on Jay. In the world of hip-hop and certain parts of the media, you take a statement and you turn it into Wrestlemania, you make the Himalayas out of molehills. I wasn’t interested in that. I respect Jay. I have great respect for him. I’m a fan. I’m not a fan of everything [he does] but I don’t think you have to be a fan of everything that someone does to have respect for them. And you know, I’m from the town too. I’m from the same neighborhood, the same projects. My grandmothers, my moms, my uncles — my first five years in life were at Marcy Projects. If I can’t have an opinion, who can? So to quote Jay: “I’m bigging up my borough. I’m big enough to do it.”

It’s not a secret what happened. The narrative around a local boy done good, it has an emotional impact on me too. From looking out those small project windows thinking the world is moving by you and you’re never gonna be able to move with it, to being able to move the world? It’s a strong narrative in America. It inspires people and it touches people. I think people connected to that, and that swept some real issues under the rug. Jay became such an emotional centerpiece for the stadium, it almost felt sacrilegious to criticize it.

So you’re hoping the poem will make people more comfortable doing so?
You don’t wanna take away from someone’s victory lap. But I talk to people that felt the same way. People lost their homes, people lost their businesses. Triangle Sports, it took up a whole block, been there a hundred years — they gotta go! That’s the market. The Drake lyric, “money over everything”? I just don’t agree with that as a business process or a worldview or anything.

Have you had a chance to have a dialogue with Jay-Z about this?
No, I haven’t had a chance to have a dialogue with him. I saw him recently in Atlantic City, we spoke briefly. I also was speaking to Harry Belafonte, and I’m hoping that at some point in the future, I could get me, Mr. Belafonte, and Jay together to have a meeting of the minds.

You also reference Kanye’s “Big Brother” by borrowing that track’s lyric “stadium status.”
It’s taken from that song, but it also makes me think of the Charles Bukowski poem, “The Genius of the Crowd.” Some people would argue that when you get that many people in one room for anything, that it’s a dangerous kind of proposition. The logic is, the crowd that large will eat whatever’s offered. Even the chef. They’ll eat the food, the kitchen, the chef, the spoons, the forks. Each other. Some people just say that’s the nature of the crowd.

Are you hoping the poem spurs action behind it?
Ultimately, I’m voicing my own opinions, however unpopular they may be. In my experience I’ve heard my own ideas and feelings about the stadium echoed back to me. There’s a while where if I brought up the stadium at all a lot of people would groan: “Don’t bring it up, we’re trying to have a good day …”

I’d told Marty Markowitz, “Why don’t you just put it in Coney Island? You got the Brooklyn Cyclones, you got people coming from Jersey, Long Island, whatever. You go to Yankee Stadium — it ain’t in Soho. Get on the GW or whatever, the Van Wyck and you go to Yankee Stadium, you go to Shea.” Nah. They wanted it right there on On and Poppin’ Boulevard. But it’s already on and popping there!

And you know, for Barclays, they kind of got it on a song. They got the naming rights for a couple hundred mill and they get prime real estate on the exit and entry of the most populous borough in New York City. You’re talking about over the course of the year, millions of people passing through that corridor, and just psychologically, seeing Barclays when they leave and when they come home.

The stadium underpaid [Jay], in my opinion. You can’t buy that type of narrative. There’s no marketing team that’s gonna put that together. He had to live his life.

What do you want to see change?
My concern is, none of those people who built that stadium know what it’s like to grow up in the projects. And the people in the neighborhood don’t yet benefit from the stadium’s presence in the community. I would love for Barclays and the NBA and whoever else to prove me wrong, by engaging in the community, not just on some [surface] level for the photo op. But to really be concerned with enriching the lives of people in that community.

How so?
They should talk to people who are present and working in the community and care about the city as a whole. There was a lot that they could have done around Hurricane Sandy. Brooklyn Tech was the hosting place for the elderly people that had to leave their nursing homes, and it was volunteers out there helping elderly people in a dire situation. I would have loved to see Barclays as a bus shelter even, for people waiting for the bus during Sandy. I would have loved to see that! But that doesn’t mean things like that can’t happen. They have an opportunity to do good things from here on. You can’t tear it down. It’s there. But it can be a source of good, not just entertainment and commerce.

So is this part of an ongoing campaign?
I don’t wanna say it’s an ongoing campaign. That makes it sound like a crusade. My grandmother, she’s 93 years old, she spent 70 years of her life in that city. My mother’s born there, I’m born there, my sons and daughters, my uncles and aunts, my friends, my loved ones, my teachers. It’s my city. It’s home. I carry it with me everywhere I go. I love my city. It’s given me its best and its worst. I love it so much sometimes I cry. And when I wrote that poem, to be honest, I was heavy. It made me heavy. I felt sad.

Mos Def on His Barclays Center Poem and Jay-Z