“Negus” is a royal title in the Ethiopian Semitic languages. It denotes the elite, the exclusive, that which is beyond the every-man. It evokes power. Respect. Maybe even a little bit of fear. It is, therefore, a fitting title for Yasiin Bey’s new project. One of the founding principles of hip-hop is the principle that music should be by the people for the people and about the people. Negus, to put it lightly, spits in the face of that hip-hop tradition.
Despite that, Negus is a significant project because of its implications and potential ramifications. This project, even more than Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize for Damn represents the change in how the world is thinking about hip-hop. Quite simply put, Negus is bigger than hip-hop.
Negus, has very little in common with the democratized way most people are used to experiencing hip-hop. This exclusivity alchemizes what would have been an album, a commodity, into an artistic experience, a luxury. It is hard to gain access to, practically impossible for most people, especially the people who have long made up Bey’s fanbase.
While it is difficult to reconcile his apparent tossing-aside of his longtime supporters, it is also important to recognize that this project cements hip-hop as a significant artistic endeavor. The fact that galleries across the globe have an interest in putting on this project shows a level of recognition heretofore unseen of hip-hop as art.
This project is actively expanding what hip-hop means and what it can be. In undertaking this project, Bey is creating a whole new way to absorb, experience, and perform hip-hop. Of course I want to hear these eight new tracks, and of course I won’t be able to, but I’m ok with that if it means that Yasiin Bey has the opportunity to forge a path for hip-hop into the hallowed halls of fine art.
Fine art needs hip-hop, it needs its social action, its direct delivery, and especially the myriad voices that hip-hop gives strength and power to, today more than ever. The art world is one of the least equal and most discriminatory parts of global culture. Its acceptance of Bey is a sign that it is changing; a beacon of hope for what may be to come. There are countless rappers whose tracks don’t sell but have extremely important things to say: this project creates a precedent for them and potentially space for them to express their art.
This project is, in my mind, given credence from the legacies of two crucial post-modern artists: Joseph Beuys and John Cage. Both bent the boundaries between what was and wasn’t art and are part of the reason for the artistic world we live in today. Negus has the power and the potential to be just as revolutionary. I, personally, can’t wait not to see it.