yasiin bey: Negus yasiin bey: Negus presents the latest recording by Brooklyn-born artist yasiin bey, on the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking album Black on Both Sides and ten years after his most recent release, The Ecstatic.
Originally recorded in London in 2015, Negus was later conceived as a time-limited listening experience. It has been presented around the world, with each sound recording and related installation tailored to its unique environment. Arranged for the Brooklyn Museum with producers Lord Tusk and Steven Julien, Negus is accompanied by newly commissioned artworks by visual artists Ala Ebtekar and José Parlá, as well as existing work by Julie Mehretu and a large textile mural by bey. This gallery also includes original music by the celebrated pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.
With origins in New York City, hip-hop is one of the most globally influential musical styles and quintessentially American art forms of the last century. Brooklyn has long been a home to the artists who crafted and continue to innovate on the genre—and by extension shape the cultural landscape of the United States. As one of the artists who catapulted hip-hop into mainstream consciousness, bey has fearlessly broadened its boundaries throughout his multi-decade career.
Negus refers to the story of ˛Alämayyähu Tewodros, a nineteenth-century Ethiopian prince, and other figures throughout history who, according to the artist, have led noble lives. More expansive than a one-time, static recording, Negus is a collaborative listening installation that reimagines the possibilities of hip-hop as an art form.
yasiin bey: Negus is organized in collaboration with The Third Line and is curated by Lauren Argentina Zelaya, Director of Public Programs, Brooklyn Museum. This iteration of the Negus suite was co-produced by Lord Tusk and Steven Julien.
A Note on Language Negus (pronounced nuh-goose) takes its name from neguś, the word for “king” or “ruler” in Ge'ez, an ancient South Semitic language now used primarily in religious ceremonies in Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the last five years, the word has been appropriated by several U.S. rappers. For example, on his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar launched the term neguś into the national consciousness when, at the end of the song “I,” he freestyles, “Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia / N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; king royalty—wait listen / N-E-G-U-S description: black emperor, king, ruler.” Bronx rapper YC the Cynic and the late Brooklyn rapper Capital Steez of the Pro Era collective also have songs titled “Negus.” Ethiopian cultural critics, including writer Abel Shifferaw, have commented on this contemporary American use.
This installation refers to a constellation of historical and contemporary figures who, from the artist’s point of view, have led noble lives, including:
Prince ˛Alämayyähu Tewodros (1861–1879)
˛Alämayyähu Tewodros was a nineteenth-century Ethiopian prince and son of Emperor Tewodros II and Empress Tru Wärq Wbe. Known as Ethiopia’s first modern ruler, ˛Alämayyähu’s father, Tewodros II, unified several kingdoms into one empire and made strides to abolish the feudal system and restructure and modernize the military. His restructuring was controversial within the local nobility, prompting him to write to Queen Victoria asking for an alliance with Great Britain. He never received a reply. In retaliation, Tewodros II held British missionaries and envoys hostage. When Britain attempted to free the prisoners, Ethiopian nobles collaborated with the British in an attack on the royal stronghold of Mäqdäla, in 1868. When asked to surrender, in an act of defiance and pride the Emperor took his own life rather than accept defeat. His last act transformed the often-disliked Tewodros II into a national hero.
Shortly after the death of ˛Alämayyähu’s father, his mother died, leaving him an orphan at the age of seven, when he was relocated to England. While the nature of his removal from his homeland is contested, historical sources indicate that ˛Alämayyähu was brought to England on his father's instructions. Regardless, some interpret it as a kidnapping. In addition, while the British returned hundreds of objects to Ethiopian churches that were looted by Tewodros II, hundreds of others made the journey to England in one of the largest removals of stolen artifacts in Ethiopia’s history. ˛Alämayyähu was welcomed into Queen Victoria’s circle and became the subject of several portraits by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (one of which serves as a visual for Negus). ˛Alämayyähu died of a lung condition at the age of 18, and at the Queen’s request was buried at Windsor Castle. His story continues to inspire contemporary Ethiopian artists, and there is an active campaign by politicians, scholars, activists, and artists for the repatriation of his remains and the objects that were taken by the British. Some objects have been returned, while others remain contested.
Nipsey Hussle (1985–2019)
Nipsey Hussle was a Grammy Award–nominated rapper, community organizer, and entrepreneur from Los Angeles whose music career emerged in the mid-2000s. He was known for his work organizing against gun violence and actively supported revitalization efforts for schools and the development of community centers in his native Crenshaw neighborhood of South Los Angeles. He founded a coworking space there, as well as his brand’s flagship store, Marathon Clothing, with the goal of providing spaces for young people to gather, learn, and bridge culture and technology. Before he lost his life to gun violence outside Marathon Clothing, he intended to expand his vision by increasing access to science, technology, and math education.
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951)
Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant) was a tobacco farmer whose cancer cells became the source of the first immortalized human cell line, widely regarded as one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Now known as the HeLa cell line, Lacks's cells were taken without her consent during her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and continue to be used in medical research today. Her story has dramatically changed how the medical field sources cells from patients and led to increased dialogue in the United States about ethics and the agency of patients.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (b. 1923)
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a pianist, composer, and Ethiopian Orthodox nun. Born to a privileged family in Addis Abäba, she began her training in classical music at age six. As a young woman, she and several family members were displaced after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, in 1935. After studying classical piano in Cairo, she declined a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London in order to follow her faith and return to her roots in northern Ethiopia. There, she entered the Guishen Maryam monastery, where she became a nun at the age of 21 and began composing music for violin, piano, and organ concerto.
Trained in Western classical music, Guèbrou has created a unique style infused with influences from Mahlet, ancient Ethiopian Orthodox chants, and is most well-known for her solo album released in 2006 as a part of the Ethiopiques series. She continues to make music in Jerusalem where she has lived since 1984. Her Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou Music Foundation provides access to music education for children in Jerusalem and globally.
yasiin bey (b. 1973)
Born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, yasiin bey is a multidisciplinary artist. Known for his heavy use of live instrumentation and socially conscious lyrics, bey is widely recognized as one of the most influential musical artists in recent decades. He has been making music since 1994 and first gained national acclaim when he formed the underground hip-hop duo Black Star, in 1997, alongside Talib Kweli, and shortly after with the release of his culture-shifting solo debut, Black on Both Sides.
In addition to his work as a musician, bey is an Emmy Award–nominated actor, with an expansive repertoire, including roles in films such as Bamboozled (2000), Brown Sugar (2002), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), 16 Blocks (2006), and Be Kind Rewind (2008), among others.