That Time Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) Tried to Leave a South Africa with a World Passport
June 11, 2016
So, last January, there was a kerfluffle at a South African airport when Yasiin Bey attempted to leave with what authorities deemed a fake passport. A bit of news coverage like this and this allowed us to shake our heads at his latest antics. Bey reached out to his real friend, Kanye West, who shared a recorded phone call from the former on his website, so we got to hear Bey's side of the issue.
In this call, Bey pleads for attention to his case, saying that he's been detained in his residence as a result of his attempt to use this passport, he argues for the legitimacy of the World Passport, which has, upon my cursory google search, a pretty long history, and finally, he makes an argument for the right to travel freely. What's of interest to me, as an Africana Studies scholar who reads and writes about migration and transnationalism, is the postnational discourse that Bey engages in on the call.
"At this present time, I am currently in Capetown, South Africa and I am being prevented from leaving unjustly, unlawfully and without any logical reason. They're saying that they want to deport my family; they're making false claims against me. Some of these government officials even in the press are making false claims against me saying that my travel document I was traveling with is fictitious, which it is not. Anyone can do the research about the world passport, it is not a fictitious document. It is not meant to deceive or derive unlawful benefit from any nation-state at all. In fact, the world passport has been accepted here on numerous occasions in South Africa and Port Johannesburg and Cape Town as early as 1996 and as late as 2015 and you can see the stamps, they're there at the World Service Authority for anyone to investigate."
Yasiin Bey is a migratory subject of the African diaspora. He has what some might call “passport privilege;” documentation that is not affordable or accessible to many people, and that allows him relative freedom of movement. He also has a public profile that probably affords him some measure of protection from a more serious form of detainment than being surveilled and interrogated at his residence in South Africa. Whatever the circumstances of his Visa status (reports state that his Visa lapsed) and apparent inability to use a national issue passport this January may be, the discourse that he engages over the course of his ten and a half minute recorded phone call to Kanye is that of postnationalism.
In a seemingly freestyled call for a boycott of South Africa, he insists on the need for, “A country called 'earth' everywhere, a country called 'earth' everywhere.” His use of the World Passport reflects his belief in freedom of movement and domicile that is unencumbered by national borders or the policies of nation states. He says, “I just want to go home and I don't live in America and I have a right to domicile wherever I please without fear and without interference.” A cursory investigation of the World Passport and the World Service Authority reveals that his postnationalist rhetoric mirrors their own:
"The World Passport represents the inalienable human right of freedom of travel on planet Earth. Therefore it is premised on the fundamental oneness or unity of the human community. In modern times, the passport has become a symbol of national sovereignty and control by each nation-state. That control works both for citizens within a nation and all others outside. All nations thus collude in the system of control of travel rather than its freedom. If freedom of travel is one of the essential marks of the liberated human being, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then the very acceptance of a national passport is the mark of the slave, serf or subject. The World Passport is therefore a meaningful symbol and sometimes powerful tool for the implementation of the fundamental human right of freedom of travel. By its very existence it challenges the exclusive assumption of sovereignty of the nation-state system. It is designed however to conform to nation-state requirements for travel documents. It does not, however, indicate the nationality of its bearer, only his/her birthplace. It is therefore a neutral, apolitical document of identity and potential travel document. A passport gains credibility only by its acceptance by authorities other than the issuing agent. The World Passport in this respect has a track record of over 60 years acceptance since it was first issued. Today over 160 countries have visaed it on a case-by-case basis. In short, the World Passport represents the one world we all live in and on."
The World Service Authority, founded as a nonprofit organization in 1954, claims, as does Bey in his phone call, that its passport has been accepted in airports in the past. It is clear that attempting to travel with this passport is a deliberate attempt to support and further the organization’s mission with regard to world citizenship by pushing for increasingly recognized legitimacy of its travel document.
Now, am I getting ready to go sign up for my very own World Passport? Not so fast. It is always interesting to know, though, of another organization doing the work of challenging arbitrary constructions like borders and nations for decades, and that people are joining in their work by bringing international attention to its mission. Is this organization as legitimate as some of those working on the citizenship crisis of the Haitian/Dominican border, spurred most recently by La Sentencia that rendered so many Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless? I'm not sure. I know though, that I often think about the public dimensions of the academic work that I do, and when the latest Yasiin Bey happening, um, happened, I just had to chew on it for awhile.