Yasiin Bey’s arrest highlights the complexity of ‘traveling while black’

Yasiin Bey, popularly (and formerly) known as Mos Def, has been released on bail and is to appear in court on March 8, following the decision of the Department of Home Affairs. The rapper and actor was arrested on January 18, six days after allegedly violating immigration laws by presenting a ‘world passport’ which authorities classified as ‘false identification’, at the Cape Town International Airport from where he attempted to exit the country. In addition, authorities say the rapper’s family had overstayed their visitor’s permit, which was issued in 2013 and expired in 2014.

The South African government subsequently placed Bey under detention and supervision, preventing him from making a trip to Addis Ababa for the Selam Music Festival. Bey was ordered to leave the country within 14 days, after which he will be banned from re-entering for the next five years. According to the Home Affairs department, he may plead for leniency.

Yasiin Bey: Citizen of the world?

The document which got Yasiin Bey into trouble with South African immigration authorities is the World Government of World Citizens Passport. This passport is issued by the World Service Authority (WSA), a non-profit organisation based in the United States, and is supported by the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. However, the document is not accepted in most countries based on the fact that it is not issued by a legitimate [specific] government authority.

In 2013, it was rumoured that Bey, who was born Dante Terrell Smith, renounced his U.S. citizenship after he was denied reentry into the country for unknown legal reasons. He thereafter took up the identity of ‘citizen of the world’, deciding to take up residence in South Africa where he felt a “good vibe” after a visit in 2009.

This type of ‘feeling’ represents a crucial part in the creation of the WSA document which identifies anyone who “lives intellectually, physically, and morally in the present”.

Separately, this is not the first time that Bey has requested a new form of identification to promote his ‘self’. In 2011 he announced his intention to drop the popular moniker ‘Mos Def’ and publicly answer to ‘Yasiin Bey’. His announcement followed the fears that  ‘Mos Def’ was being treated as a product rather than as a person.

A country called Earth, everywhere

Bey is not alone in his quest for a ‘borderless’ self-identification. Garry Davis founded the World Government of World Citizens organisation in 1953, after he too decided that he wanted to be identified as a human being, and not the subject of a nation. The idea is equally supported by individuals who view Bey as a hero, and believe that a new, global system in which people are simply recognised for who they are and not where they come from, is possible.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) a pan-Africanist organisation condemn the South Africans authorities and how they have handled Yasiin Bey. They advocate that Africans from the diaspora should be allowed to visit the continent freely, particularly if they posed no threat, and ask the Ministry of Home Affairs to withdraw all the charges placed against Yasiin Bey.

According to Bey, the South African authorities had accepted the World passport in the past. Director-General Mkluseni Apleni of Home Affairs released an official briefing today which detailed the factors surrounding Bey’s arrest, and counter his claims that the country accepts the world passport. South Africa is not listed among the six countries that supposedly accept the liberal travel document officially, according to the WSA.

Yesterday, Kanye West posted a phone message which Bey sent to him over the internet, in which he asked the SA government to release him and his family. In the message – a freestyle rap – Bey claims that he had not broken any law, but was being treated like a criminal. Thus, his detention in South Africa is unjust, unlawful, and illogical. This is the first time Bey has spoken out since he was detained.

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