What's in a name? Mos Def's 'Yasiin' a move away from rap

OPINION - Will it all pan out for Mos Def after 2012, when he officially becomes Yasiin? It just might, though at this point he's probably better off pursuing an acting career...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Have you heard the news? Mos Def won’t be answering to his name anymore.

Or at least he won’t once this year draws to a close. Blazing a trail once pioneered by the likes of Prince, Sean Combs and the athlete formerly known as Ron Artest, the conscious rapper and prolific actor recently announced his decision to inaugurate 2012 with the name Yasiin. In making this move, Mos Def finds himself in semi-distinguished company: the road to fame is littered with celebrities who grew tired of the names on which they’ve constructed their careers.

The Brooklyn-bred artist is best known for his 1999 breakout solo debut Black on Both Sides but has since moved on to more lucrative acting pursuits. Again, not exactly uncharted territory: as LL Cool J, Ice-T, DMX and 50 Cent can attest, nowadays the road to Hollywood begins in hip-hop. Rappers become actors with such brio that in many instances, they become more defined by their screen careers than the music that originally made them famous.

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Celebrity name-changes, and the attendant transitioning into a side career, have become so frequent that Mos Def’s announcement practically falls into the “dog bites man” category. But it’s an audacious move nonetheless, given the inextricable link between artists and the names by which most of their fans recognize them. In Mos’ case, it raises several interesting questions — like why now? Perhaps more importantly, is this a signal that his days as a rapper, already on a down curve despite his grassroots popularity and hipster mien, are pretty much finished?

Name changes are public relations maneuvers that either hark a career in decline, or the need to distance oneself from bad press. The most prominent example of a celebrity name switch belonged to the Purple Rocker, who in a famous feud with his record company and in a fit of pique, transitioned from the use of his royal moniker to a symbol with no known pronunciation.

Only after his dispute with Warner Brothers ended — and after taking the even more controversial step of branding himself a “slave” — did Prince ultimately go back to using the stage name that made him famous. The dramatic move earned Prince headlines, but not necessarily record sales&: it wasn’t until very recently that the Purple One was able to recapture the public’s imagination.
Athletes can often shed names without adverse consequences for their careers, simply because their fame is more contingent on their physical prowess. The newly christened Metta World Peace — a curiously in-apposite name given his history — had good reason to change his name: years of misspent youth left behind a wasteland of bad (and often unintentionally comedic) press.

Not unlike Artest, Chad Ochocinco (formerly Chad Johnson) has also become more famous for off-field antics and attention-getting stunts than his on-field abilities. Now that it seems he’s milked all that he can from the original move, Ochocinco is now contemplating yet another switch.

Hip-hop mogul Sean “Puff Daddy/P.Diddy/Swag” has changed his honorific so many times he’s become a monument to indecision. And ever heard of a guy named Sananda Maitreya? You’d be forgiven if you haven’t: in the late 80s he was once a rising star who signed his name as Terrence Trent D’Arby. Once hailed as the next big musical thing, the singer has singer has now been relegated to digital performances on MySpace.

For a rapper, a name is more than just a means of identification. It’s a brand identity. Musicians don’t just market music: they also sell themselves to a chosen demographic which, with any luck, repays that debt with its unwavering loyalty. Just as a name change from Levis, Ralph Lauren or Doritos wouldn’t go down well with consumers, Mos Def may see a backlash from fans that may not appreciate the humor and novelty imbued in his decision.

Mos Def is hardly Maitreya, but he doesn’t have a multi-million empire like Diddy to fall back on, either. All of which makes it look like his name change is in fact a means of lavation — washing away his rap identity and moving decisively toward a full-fledged acting career. Mos is a perennial headliner at Rock the Bells, which in and of itself is a sign that an artist is running the fade route.

His widely praised 1998 collaboration with Talib Kweli, Black Star, has left fans breathless with anticipation for a follow-up, but to no avail. Yet another sign that Mos Def appears exasperated with the life of a conscious rapper, one that often comes without the big record contracts and universal acclaim.

So what’s in a name anyway? If you’re a person whose livelihood depends on bigger things, not a whole lot. One of the best things about celebrity is its capacity for reinvention: stars can shed old personas to emerge anew, like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Will it all pan out for Mos Def after 2012, when he officially becomes Yasiin? It just might, though at this point he’s probably better off pursuing an acting career.