Mos Def Was Arrested in South Africa for Using a ‘World Passport.’ Yes, That’s a Real Thing.

Mos Def Was Arrested in South Africa for Using a ‘World Passport.’ Yes, That’s a Real Thing.

When American rapper Mos Def tried to board a flight from South Africa to Ethiopia last weekend, officials at the airport in Cape Town scoffed at the identification document he provided. Then they confiscated it and refused to let him board his flight.

That’s because Mos Def, who was born Dante Smith but now goes by the name Yasiin Bey, is a U.S. citizen who entered South Africa on an American passport, but was trying to leave on a World Passport — a little-known document issued by the World Service Authority in Washington, D.C.

The tiff over his documents didn’t end at the airport: According to a representative for Bey, who spoke to Foreign Policy by phone Friday and asked not to be identified by name, he was arrested at his South African rental home Wednesday morning, then kept in detention for two nights before being released on bail Friday. The rapper obtained the passport last month but never used it before last weekend. 

He added that it remains unclear what South Africa alleges Bey did wrong, but maintained that despite news reports indicating otherwise, Bey was in South Africa legally and did not intend to deceive anyone when he tried to travel to Addis Ababa with his new passport. Other reports indicate he was arrested at the airport in South Africa, has renounced his American citizenship, and was trying to leave with his family. 

“He wanted to start using the World Passport because it’s more representative of his personal ideals and philosophies,” the representative told FP. He said Bey, whose lyrics often touch on issues of social justice, has been disheartened by the way police have treated young black men in the United States.  That, and “just the whole idea of the world as being a unified place a place without borders or boundaries” made Bey prefer the World Passport over his American one. One of Bey’s recent projects reflects that belief: He has helped build A Country Called Earth, a website that uses art, writing, and music to challenge conventional ideas about borders and nationalities.

The World Service Authority, which issues the passports, was started by Garry Davis, a U.S. Army flier who manned a bomber aircraft during World War II. In 1948, he renounced his American citizenship to signal his disenchantment with the ways nation-states encouraged war. From then until his death in 2013, Davis remained stateless, and spent decades advocating for a world government that would abandon borders to promote peace. Today, there are some 750,000 people who hold World Passports, though many of them live in developing countries where they had difficulty obtaining other official documents.

David Gallup, president and general counsel for the World Service Authority, told FP in a phone call Friday that Americans who obtain the passports often do so just because they believe in the private organization’s mission to spread peace by recognizing all humans belong to one family, and that any borders dividing people are man-made. It is not mandatory to renounce your citizenship in order to obtain a World Passport.

He also said upwards of 180 countries and territories have recognized the passport on various occasions, even if most do not publicly advertise that they do. Among those that have previously recognized the documents, he said, is South Africa, which issued another World Passport holder a visa as recently as August. Gallup added that although Mos Def applied for the passport himself, other American celebrities also hold World Passports, though many of them are honorary and were issued without being requested. Among them? Oprah Winfrey and even President Barack Obama, who Gallup said was mailed one in November 2008.

According to Gallup, Davis “wanted to see us move beyond the borders we created for ourselves, borders that are fictional and nation-states that are fictional.” In the case of Mos Def, Gallup said whether the arrest was due to a visa issue or a passport issue, it was disappointing to watch a state that broke free from apartheid infringe on another world citizen’s ability to travel freely.

“South Africa might call the World Passport fictional, but really South Africa is fictional,” he said.  “To have a leader like Nelson Mandela who fought for so many years to free the people there, it’s kind of sad the country is treating a fellow human being as a criminal. That’s wrong.”

Bey’s representative echoed that sentiment Friday. “It’s interesting that South Africa is where this is happening,” he said. “South Africa went through hell, came out of it, and is trying to make heaven.”

Still, if there’s anyone who isn’t surprised this happened, it might be Bey himself.  In his 1999 track, “Mr. Nigga,” Bey recounts another time he was mistreated at the airport, when a flight attendant found him in first class and figured he had the wrong seat.

“Like, late night I’m on a first class flight/The only brother in sight, the flight attendant catch fright/I sit down in my seat, 2C/She approach officially, talking about, ‘Excuse me’/Her lips curl up into a tight space/Cause she don’t believe that I’m in the right place/Showed her my boarding pass, and then she sort of gasped/Put an extra lime in my water glass.”

And if he really is stuck in South Africa without a working passport, here’s the song he once remixed but probably won’t be singing anytime soon:

Image Credit: Mark Horton/Wire Image