Mos Def and the Boogeyman

Rapper Mos Def is talented and politcally savvy, but he suffers from the same irrational distrust that afflicts so many young, black men.

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Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images for TFF

The subject line was ominous: "This is difficult to watch," it said. I probably shouldn't share with you what sort of video I was expecting to find upon opening the message, but I can tell you that the enclosed clip, though not what I imagined, was indeed difficult to watch, especially for a huge hip-hop fan like me.

If you like politics and have HBO, or are just into YouTube, perhaps you've seen the video of rapper Mos Def and author Christopher Hitchens, bookending Salman Rushdie and Bill Maher on Maher's talk show, engaged in a conversation about the Taliban. It is a conversation that quickly devolves into the sort of scene that usually precedes a shouting match, or even a fistfight. In and of itself, angry, televised ranting about politics is a vulgarity too often tolerated by Americans (a problem The Root has touched on before), but what made this heated bickering particularly cringe-worthy was the imbalance of it.

Mos Def was overwhelmed by men far more learned about the topic at hand than himself, and in the carnage that ensued, viewers were exposed to one of the sadder problems plaguing parts of the African-American community today: an immovable distrust of everything.

Without a doubt, for blacks in America, maintaining a cautious disposition is a good idea. Many African Americans who have let their guard down in the past have paid for it, sometimes dearly. But caution becomes problematic when it goes from simple self-preservation technique to worldview, something affecting a person’s every interaction. Like the shellshocked soldier who sees even his comrades as enemies, a person who has come to trust nothing is a danger to everything and everyone—most of all himself.

Shun the government completely, and you’ll miss out on the occasional JFKs of the world. Distrust the entirety of the mainstream media, and you’ll never be privy to the brilliant work of Woodward and Bernstein. You believe white people are out to get you? Then how to account for John Brown?

The true danger in mistrust is that it ultimately leads to fear, which in turn can lead to any number of negative outcomes. It was mistrust and fear just as much as it was a bullet that cut down Martin Luther King Jr., and it was mistrust and fear that caused black activist Kamau Kambon to proclaim on C-SPAN that the answer to the world’s problems is the extermination of all the whites. More recently, mistrust and fear mucked up what should have been a very simple interaction between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Cambridge police officer.

Luckily for Mos Def, thus far, his mistrust and fear have just made him look pretty silly on television.

It began innocently enough, with Mos calmly asking, "What are al-Qaeda and the Taliban's political ambitions?" It was an odd inquiry, as decades of violent attacks and fiery rhetoric from Osama bin Laden have clarified for most people the goals of those groups. Nevertheless, it was also a question for which Hitchens, Rushdie and—to a lesser extent—Maher, had a variety of answers:

  • The return of an Islamic empire
  • An ultra-puritan agenda
  • A fascist state
  • The death of all Jews, Hindus and secularists

In the end, Maher tied it all together, pointedly telling Mos, "They're bad motherf--kers!"