Brother Ali. Albino. Muslim. Midwest hip-hop legend. Confused yet? Don’t worry, it takes about five tracks for all of this to sink in. Ali was an emcee-in-waiting at nine-years old, and by 13 he knew his life would be spent on the business end of a mic. From being kicked out of his mother’s house at 17, never graduating high school, and being a young father, he professes his champion status but never shies away from telling the stories we hide behind forced smiles, away from the prying eyes of others. Brother Ali is the truth. It’s church. It’s gospel. It’s rap music that goes beyond just the bars and measures. It’s a call to action. What Ali does is a clinic of what hip-hop is capable of.
Brother Ali got hooked on hip-hop at an early age. In low-income housing, Ali spent a lot of time at the end of the cul-de-sac with a pair of brothers that lived hip-hop as break dancers and beat boys. It was an encounter with a rap legend at 13 that really cemented Brother Ali’s passion.
“When I was 13, I met KRS-One. I saw him speak at Michigan State University. During the Q&A part I asked him to sign a book he had published. He brought me on stage, talked to me, and asked me questions. Between the lecture and meeting him, it was life changing for me.”
It’s never been easy for him, though. You might think that joining a legendary label like Rhymesayers would be a ticket to stardom, but it’s a struggle every day. It is a battle for him to create, be productive, tour, and balance a growing family. He’s never satisfied creatively and has a laundry list of things he wants to improve on.
“There is a whole lot left to be desired. I’m not lavish. There are times when I’m not even comfortable. I have enough money to live when I’m active, but I don’t have enough money socked away to just be when I take a break, when it comes to my family’s finances. There is still a lot to do. The biggest problem I have is when I take too long between albums...I’m not 100% comfortable. I’m not 100% stable. There are still long periods of time when my family doesn’t have insurance. I still have big tax bills; I struggle to pay my taxes.”
His music covers the spectrum of human experience. “Tight Rope” highlights the struggles of a closeted gay teen, a culturally conflicted Somalian in America, and a child of divorced parents who use affection as a weapon. “The Travelers” highlights the plight of African slaves being kidnapped, transported, and sold in America. “Walking Away” is the story of Ali moving on from a destructive relationship despite the deep love that kept him there.
On the flip side is a track like “Fresh Air.” It’s a celebration of all his happiness. Ali explains that he is the luckiest SOB that ever lived, has the most beautiful children, and is blessed to have a great wife and a fulfilling career. “Good Lord” marvels at the fan response to Ali just speaking from his heart and the love he gets for it. “Bad Motherfucker Pt. II,” well, it’s just a mean track about his growing up to be an emcee you don’t want to play with.
“Sometimes you talk about your relationship with somebody and that relationship deteriorates, and that becomes a sore point. There were a couple things on this one [the next album] where my wife was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you should really be comfortable saying that.’ There were a couple things I went back and changed. There is stuff in this album that is going to be problematic for people. I just know that. Sometimes relationships come to an end in life, and they don’t always end well. I know there is one song in particular that I’m going to catch hell over.”
It’s not just mean-mugging emcees and jilted lovers that Ali has to contend with after releasing an album. “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” off of The Undisputed Truth, got the attention of someone else...the U.S. government.
“Right around the time that ‘Uncle Sam Goddamn’ hit the first million views [on YouTube] the Department of Homeland Security stepped in and froze the Rhymesayers bank account and seized some of my money. I was forced to register with them and give them all of my information so that they can track me and the people that work with me. I’ve had some difficulty traveling to other countries; particularly the Middle East. It just takes longer for my paperwork to go through.”
Ali is hitting the road, yet again, to support his upcoming album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. Ali will be touring the U.S. and Canada from August through the end of October. Brother Ali isn’t bringing a DJ as support. He is reuniting with the band from his Hip-Hop Live tour, Blank Tape Beloved. Live is the only way to see hip-hop, in my opinion.
Brother Ali is excited about the openers and supporting acts on the Mourning in America tour, too:
“The main support [for this tour] is Homeboy Sandman. He’s probably my favorite lyricist out there now. He’s out of New York and he’s on Stones Throw Records. It’s a label that feels a little like a sister label to us [Rhymesayers] in a way...For most of the tour, the openers will be a group out of Colorado, The Reminders. They’re a husband and wife team that gets compared to the Fugees...They are really big on the Muslim hip-hop circuit...They have the ability to speak to a much broader audience. Their music is like mine. We’re Muslim, and we talk about the way feel, live, and see thing, but it’s not Muslim music per say. They are dear friends of mine, so I’m really glad to have them on the tour, too.”
Brother Ali is not done yet. His discography shows a hunger to get better, go bigger, and accomplish more. It’s not about bottle service brawls, getting shots, or copping bitches. There are multi layered concepts at every turn of every album. You can hear in every track that the place he comes from is genuine, and unapologetic; if not a little uncomfortable at times. There is nothing fake or pretentious about the man, and the content reflects that.
He does what he does because he loves it. Taking inspiration from the world around him, and the life he lives, he puts his own flavor on things to which we can all relate. As he says, “I think what I am saying to them now is that the world is bigger. It’s a bigger place and I’ve had a chance to see it, and I am inviting you to see the bigger world for what it is.” He shares his world, his experience with the listener. He’s here to entertain, but a little call to action never hurt anybody either. OK, it has, but Brother Ali is prepared to suffer a little for what’s right, what’s just, and what’s in his heart. That’s not just rap, that’s respectable.
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color will drop on September 18th.
For information on upcoming tour dates for Brother Ali’s tour starting August 11th visit www.rhymesayers.com
Check out projectpoppycock.com for the complete interview with Brother Ali. He talks more about his next album, his support of the Occupy movement, and more about the American dream and our struggles as a country to be in practice what we are in theory.
About the Author
Project: Poppycock, a digital experiment in collaborative writing and open dialogue. He is the author of two books, Doggy Paddling in the Deep End andWhat!? I Said, "With All Due Respect!" Both books are available through his blog, projectpoppycock.com (click on "The Bookstore"). All profits from the sales benefit charities at donorschoose.org. Follow Wesley on Twitter @myownfalseidol