10 October 2021

"New World Water" by Mos Def (1999)

Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey) is one of the more interesting personalities in the history of hip-hop music for a number of reasons.  For instance he had a pretty notable acting career before blowing up as a rapper, having even worked directly with Bill Cosby for a spell.  So even though he may not on par with the likes of fellow rapper/actors Will Smith and Ice Cube, Mos has had a respectable Hollywood career nonetheless, with one of my personal favorites being 2003's The Italian Job - a heist film that served as sort of a prototype for what the Fast & Furious franchise would become.  Then of course there's the fact that he legally changed his name to the Quran-inspired Yasiin Bey over 10 years ago.  So it's obvious that Yasiin isn't conventional as far as rap stars go.  Like if he possessed the disposition of a gangsta rapper, he probably never would have had the opportunity to act alongside the family-friendly Coz to begin with.

Black on Both Sides, the 1999 Mos Def album that
features New World Water.

But honestly, I've never been a diehard Mos Def fan.  I remember when first he came out as part of Blackstar back in the day, that for some inexplicable reason their songs used to irritate me.  However I was heavily into Black on Both Sides (1999), his debut and signature album.  Well, I used to at least put a couple of songs from it on repeat, one of them being New World Water, which I would argue is not only Yasiin's best track but also one that is semi-prophetic.

This song came out in late-1999, a moment in history in which the Western consciousness was grappling with concepts like Armageddon, Y2K and similar types of global catastrophes perhaps moreso than any other time in history.  And it wasn't unusual for all sorts of people to chime in on such matters.  Well Mos Def, being one of the more intellectually-inclined rappers, decided to do so by focusing on water, a most-fundamental and undeniably-necessary aspect of our everyday lives.  And considering some of the things that's been going on as of late in places like the western United States, again, some of his words seem prophetic.

For instance Yasiin sets off the first verse alluding to flooding, which has been a major problem in America and other parts of the world this year.  And the reason Mos Def comes off as a prophet isn't necessarily because he foresaw such events.  But more importantly, he implies that they are being caused by karma, if you want to call it that, as in nature being upset as a result of the atrocities of the Middle Passage.  The Middle Passage was the era in transatlantic history in which millions of Africans were forcibly transported across the ocean as slaves, many of them being lost to the sea.  But it can also be said that, by extension, the rapper is talking about all human rights' atrocities but especially those that involved like water transport.

Later, he flips the topic from flooding to drought.  Even back then, in 1999, Yasiin was noting how some summers seemed particularly hot, as in experiencing a lack of rainfall.  The rapper believes that the situation will get even worse as time progresses, so he's like be wise and prepare now.  In fact Mos Def sounds a lot like an African or other Third World resident, talking about buying a personal water-storage unit, which is a common practice in places like the Motherland though not so much in the United States.  But there really isn't any such thing as a tank that will hold a "20 year" supply of water.  That'd be more along the lines of a personal lake.  And even then, if there's a really severe drought it would probably dry up anyhow.  Also, you wouldn't want to leave water stored in a tank for too long anyway.  But, I digress.  And ultimately the point Mos Def seems to be making is that in this materialistic world we live in, people's mind are more caught up on frivolous matters than what's truly important, such as water.

Another point he's obviously trying to make, as introduced in the chorus, is that the water which is given to the public is heavily imbued with chemicals.  We all know that the government tends to add different manmade substances to the public water supply in the name of making it safer for consumption.  But in this respect Mos sounds like a conspiracy theorist, i.e. claiming that there's no so many chemicals in the water that it is becoming unsafe.  But taking into account that he mentions "the water table", Yasiin is also speaking to more general environmental abuse and how such negatively affects the world's natural water supplies.

The first hook also touches upon the concept of water being sold.  To put this viewpoint into its proper perspective, let's speculate that maybe some 50 years ago, the idea of selling drinking water en masse may have seemed incredulous.  But instead in places like America, where Mos Def comes from, bottled water is a major, increasingly-growing business.  And so it is, honestly speaking, in many parts of the Third World also.  And what Yasiin is saying is that such is necessitated by the fact that natural water supplies have become too polluted to drink.

Then, the bulk of the second verse is dedicated to illustrating various ways in which water is vital to human existence, especially in the areas of health.  It's almost like Yasiin is arguing that people tend to forget just how valuable water actually is, which is why they misuse it.  And he is most directly making this statement against "Americans" and similar nations that have it in abundance.  And another way in which their lack of respect for water is manifest is by how greedy, capitalist countries can go about destroying waterbodies in other parts of the world in the name of profit.  But of course as illustrated above, they tend f*ck up their own waterways also.

Mos Def is right; sometimes big business be straight
fukin the water up.

In fact as detailed in the second chorus, the situation has now reached a point where we can't avoid water pollution even if we wanted to.  So on one hand it's like the government may be putting all types of chemicals into the water supply.  And on the other, there are the multitude of pollutants that find their way into waterbodies through various other human activities.  And the way Mos Def sees it, at the heart of the problem would be greed of the corporate variety.  As a matter of fact one of the big stories in the news as I'm writing this post is this major oil spill that recently happened off the coast of California.  But of course this is the same oil that is used to power our cars.  So instead of putting the onus on big business, if Bey wanted to be more realistic he would have included the consumer in this equation also.


One of the big headlines in American entertainment at the moment centers on Dave Chapelle's latest Netflix special, The Closer.  Well if you happen to watch the show and are familiar with Mos Def's voice/style, you will notice that he's the one who's rapping at the beginning the special.  The name of that track is Tribute, and officially it is a collaboration between Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli, aka Blackstar.  Even though the pair have only released one album together under the Blackstar moniker in 1998 and only one single thus far during the entire 21st century, it would seem that they have never officially broken up.  So it may be that the release of this track marks a new album Blackstar has coming out.  But under any circumstances Mos Def ripped it and apparently can still light up the mic, at the age of 47, if need be.

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