Mos Def may seem, to the casual observer, like a rare example of a musician successfully transitioning into acting, but in truth, his acclaimed music career did not take off until long after he'd cemented himself as a working actor. Nonetheless, the man has built both his music and film careers on a foundation of integrity, earning him critical praise and audience approval for both. His contributions to the underground hip-hop scene started with the 1996 single "Universal Magnetic," a rare example of introspection in a genre dominated by blustering and callousness. Def's film debut, however, came almost ten years before, when he appeared in the 1988 TV movie God Bless the Child at the age of 15. Then going by his birth name, Dante Terrell Smith, Mos Def landed appearances on shows like Here and Now, The Cosby Mysteries, Brooklyn South, Spin City, and NYPD Blue. The spots sustained his career throughout the '90s, as did his roles in feature films like Bamboozled and MTV's Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Slowly but steadily becoming a recognizable face in acting, Mos Def continued to take parts in high-quality films, even if this meant a lower profile for himself as an actor. His supporting roles in Monster's Ball, Brown Sugar, The Italian Job, and The Woodsman, however, garnered him attention on talent alone. In 2004, he co-starred in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made with Alan Rickman and was honored with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, along with Rickman. By the time Def appeared in 2005's Golden Globe award-winning HBO miniseries Lackawanna Blues alongside Terrence Howard and S. Epatha Merkerson, he was a recognized and sought-after face in film. Def soon afterward donned a British accent for a leading role in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, giving audiences a taste of his comedic skills -- which were also on display in his recurring role on the hit Comedy Central series Chappelle's Show, as well as Michel Gondry's retro comedy Be Kind, Rewind -- which found the actor playing a hapless video store clerk opposite Jack Black. Increasingly versatile, Def was just as effective as a key witness hoping to avoid assassination in Richard Donner's 16 Blocks as he was as legendary rock & roller Chuck Berry in 2008's Cadillac Records. Back on the small screen, Def's recurring role as the haunted Brother Sam on Showtime's Dexter found the actor earning even more critical praise in 2011.
Biography by Cammila Collar
- While still in high school, he got his first acting role in the 1988 made-for-TV movie God Bless the Child.
- In 1989, he landed a regular role as Nell Carter's son on the short-lived CBS sitcom You Take the Kids.
- In his early 20s, he changed his stage name to the shortened version of his favorite saying, "Most definitely."
- With the help of his brother and sister, he formed his first group, called UTD (Urban Thermo Dynamics). In 1994, the group released a single, "My King Fu."
- Released his first album, a collaborative effort titled Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are...Black Star in 1998. His solo album, Black on Both Sides, debuted one year later.
- In 1999, along with his rap duo partner, Kweli, he bought Nkiru Books and developed the Brooklyn-based bookstore into a not-for-profit company that supported literacy.
- Appeared on Broadway in 2002 in the two-character play Topdog/Underdog opposite Jeffrey Wright.
- Served as host and co-executive producer of HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.