Black Star: Let's ALL Get Down!

“Astronomy (8th Light)” is the introductory song off Black Star’s self-entitled debut album from 1998. On it, hip-hop artists Mos Def and Talib Kweli (who comprise the duo of Black Star) offer their own definition of what “Black Star” stands for, with Mos Def (nowadays calling himself Yasiin Bey—don’t ask me why) initially introducing it as “a curious celestial phenomena” shining through the darkness of night. “What is Black Star?” continues Mos Def:

Is it the cat with the black shades, the black car?
Is it shinin’ from very far, to where you are?
It is commonplace and different
Intimate and distant
Fresher than an infant…

And so begins the first of many lyrically-dense, metaphor-heavy tracks from two of the most cerebral and gifted underground rappers in the history of the genre. Within three minutes of slick guitar riffs, whistling record scratches, and gentle-hitting drums, Mos Def and Talib Kweli paint a portrait that reveals not only the essence of their own selves but also the history of the Black race over the last several centuries. Here, Mos and Talib introduce a concept that will prevail through the entirety of the album—that of Black pride.

There is a genuine feeling of warmth and wisdom to be found in the delivery of Mos Def and Talib Kweli here—a welcoming chemistry that permeates the entire Black Star album. The rhyming skills of these two MCs are dazzling; somehow, their proverbs of positivity do not come off as cornily preachy or overly didactic. By contrast, this dynamic duo spins street tales that are at once familiar and realistic, but also fluid and encouraging at the same time. The jazz-influenced, old-school “chill” of the track feels just right: not overly bombastic or overwhelmingly self-indulgent, the beat remains understated enough for Mos and Talib to spit their intelligent bars while still remaining a highlight.

The viewpoints of Mos and Talib throughout “Astronomy (8th Light)” and the rest of the album stem directly from the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the legendary activist who advocated the rights of Black people all around the world in the first half of the 21st Century. In fact, the title “Black Star” itself is derived from the shipping line created by Garvey himself in 1919 to transport goods, and eventually African-Americans, to Africa. The awareness of Black heritage and identity are reflected in lyrics like:

Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?
Black like the slave ship belly that brought us here
Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears
That leave Black faces well-traveled with years

Don’t get the wrong idea from those few lines, though. The message of the song is not that of stirring up derisiveness from suffering of years past—quite the contrary, actually. The true intention of the track is to uplift; indeed, Mos and Talib are heard throughout the song encouraging: “Now Black people unite, and let’s ALL GET DOWN!” Truth be told, the real message of “8th Light” goes deeper and even broader than just Black pride, and branches out into a much more overarching and all-encompassing viewpoint on the generally-dividing topic of religion. The message lies in the following lyrics delivered by Mos midway through the song:

Some man wan ask “Who am I?”
I simply reply, “The U.N.I., V.E.R.S.A.L. Magnetic”
Work to respect the angelic, climb the mountaintop
And tell it till the valley’s enveloped

Not only is this a reference to Mos Def’s first single, these lyrics also shed light on what all religions, despite the differences they may indeed carry, actually hold in common: That of a Supreme, Universal Force above everything and everyone, and therefore uniting all people as one underneath this Supreme Force. This message of solidarity via religious harmony reminds me of a conversation I had with my homie Tyler—no, not The Creator, that’d be too akward—just a few weeks ago. I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but Tyler, despite his deep spirituality, prescribes no affiliation to any specific religion. As we discussed the current situation in the Middle East, I brought up the long-running (and in my opinion unnecessary) animosity between Jews, Muslims, and Christians throughout history.

As I told Tyler, these three religions all share similarities thanks to the fact that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all went to the same high school. Wait—is that news to some of y'all? Damn, get up out from under that rock: their exploits at Hypocrite High are fairly well documented. See, Moses had this really neat science experiment of legitimately splitting water that made the science teachers on hire feel really inadequate. So, they basically voted to request for him to leave the school, and he took a lot of his gang—they called them “Jews” for laughs—with him, much to the delight of the teachers—I know, they’re some bastards, right? Yeah, Moses and his gang were actually headed to a very promising high school just a few towns away, but apparently their GPS kept on fucking up and they ended up going in circles for a whole semester. Meanwhile, Jesus is back at Hypocrite High, confusing the hell out of—and pissing off further—all of his teachers because he would never stop asking really difficult questions. Plus, he had this really new philosophy called “Being nice to people” that didn’t set well with the rest of the local gangs, so they ALL ran Jesus out of the town as well. Notice a pattern yet? Well, Muhammad didn’t have to worry as much because he was always in the dark recesses of the library, with his face constantly buried in a book—which is actually funnier ‘cause he couldn’t read. That is, until one day he came out sayin’ he’d been visited by a Martian who he claimed gave him the Answer to Life. Of course, Hypocrite High wasn’t havin' another crazy nigga up in their system, so they kicked him out too. The followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (no matter how much they might not want to necessarily accept it) are brothers—a family fighting amongst themselves. The Bible details a scenario where God talks directly to Abraham, promising him that descendants would rival that of the night stars in number. Like I asked Tyler, “Why can we all not work together? Why do we have to dim our own light?”

This same longing for religious tolerance and unity resounds throughout “Astronomy (8th Light)”, with such lyrics as “the Creator love all creatures!”(; “Black like the veil that the muslimina wear” (referencing the custom of female followers of Islam covering the majority of their face and therefore negating potential lust); “it’s the third eye vision” (referencing the Hindu tradition of the mystical “eye of enlightenment”); “five side dimension” (alluding to the Five Pillars of Islam); “the 8th Light is gonna shine bright tonight” (harping upon the eight-candled Menorah, renowned in Jewish culture).; and “like the prophet love Khadija” (a reference to the first wife of Islam’s founder, Muhammad).

And this brings me back to my conversation with Tyler. As Mos Def and Talib Kweli demonstrated in “Astronomy (8th Light)”, people are all one people, at the end of the day. Regardless of whether you follow the Five Pillars of Islam, the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the teachings of Jesus, or—like Rick Ross—the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there is a Universal Magnetic force uniting us all. And that point is truly enlightening.

Now everybody hop on the one, the sounds of the two
It’s the third eye vision, five side dimension
The 8th Light is gonna shine bright tonight!

—Mos Def & Talib Kweli