INTERVIEW: Back to Love and Compassion with Brother Ali
by Paul T
The idealist part of me died circa 2003 while living in Southern California after returning from a year in Japan. Hip-Hop? It was something, which as one of ten non-whites in my small Illinois town, held me together. But since the mid-millennium, my hip-hop intake has been limited to relatable Phonte/Little Brother songs about divorces, lost relationships, and lost jobs; the Roots/Common/Talib Kweli – because it was what I listened to during my “growth” years; DJ Quik – because of the musicianship and hell, it just sounds good while driving in SoCal; and latter period J Dilla stuff – because as a former hip-hop head – I guess I was supposed to like it, even if I didn’t. Lately, I have been indulging on horrifically genius guilty pleasures like 2Chainz, Lil Wayne and Juicy J. I can’t help it. Quoting funny Lil’ Wayne lyrics on dates create more smiles and laughter than discussing serious “real” hip-hop that not many people have heard of. However, talking to Brother Ali of Rhymesayers Entertainment in the middle of last week brought back the idealist in me and caused me to remember why I loved (past tense intentional) hip-hop so much in the first place – even if that idealism died when I had to go to work two hours later.
I caught up with Brother Ali via telephone as he was on his way from Iowa City to Omaha on tour. He told me that the hip-hop music of the early 1980s such as Whodini, UTFO, and Grandmaster Flash made him interested in hip-hop, and that his influences are KRS-One, Rakim, Chuck D, and Ice Cube.
“My first show was when I was 8 years old,” he said, “it was at my Grandmother’s funeral.” “She was supportive, even when other family members looked at me like I was crazy.” Brother Ali informed me that while at his Grandmother’s funeral, when others went to eat, he grabbed the microphone, performed, and instantly knew that he wanted to be an MC. There were a couple of kids listening, and people trickle in from the dining area to listen. “I was not concerned about how they liked it; it just felt good to me,” he said, “I like hearing my voice on the microphone and being on stage – it just felt powerful.”
In his spare time, Brother Ali listens to Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Nina Simone, and Public Enemy among others. “I love music,” he said, “I live music all the time.” Brother Ali told me that he does not own a television. “I don’t watch TV.” “I will get the DVD of a show, if someone tells me that it is good.”
If he was not a hip-hop artist, Brother Ali would like to be a teacher. He taught kindergarten for a while at a Muslim school in Minneapolis. I always chuckled inside my mind, when artists, entertainers and professionals from lawyers to engineers think they can be a teacher. As a former teacher in South Central LA, I applaud their idealism and usually won’t discuss my mental and physical scars from trying to teach people who don’t want to be taught. Brother Ali was quite engaging that I didn’t take this road of discussion with him. We moved on to discuss the life of the independent hip-hop artist, and their audiences. I asked Ali about the challenges in the life of an independent hip-hop artist. He informed me that the most challenging aspect is “getting your voice heard.” “There is not a system in place for voices like mine to be heard,” he said. “We have to be on the road constantly,” he continued, “I can’t just live life and make music; I have to be a businessman too.” He explained that as independent artists; there is less support. “I spent an average of 10 months a year on the road,” he said, “and everything we have to do ourselves.” “The majority of our fans are still here with us, but others, we have to go out and create it.”
I asked him whether he felt like he was preaching to the choir or preaching to the converted. It was my way of asking how he felt about his audience – mostly white college kids or college educated hipsters with jobs. Interestingly, Ali knew exactly what I was asking him, without me having to be explicit. He said he has the “right audience.” I thought about what he said, and I agreed. His audience are going to be the ones who will be working and hiring other workers in the future. Regarding his audience and how they view hip-hop, he commented, “My challenge is to get the people who listen to me to actually hear me – to actually hear what I’m saying and not just hear what they want to hear.” He continued, “Music is about hope, but it is also about suffering.” “People who have more or rich people tune out the suffering, but they like the celebratory nature of it.” Ali continued to expand his thoughts regarding his music, “But I want you to understand the suffering part; even in happy songs – they are happy songs because we sing to keep from crying or committing suicide.” He concluded by telling me that often times, people who are privileged completely miss this point about music. “It is always a challenge, but that is the nature of the situation we are in.” Ali discussed the Blind Spot of Privilege. “The biggest indicator of privilege – is that you don’t have to think about it,” he said, “there is Blind spot about suffering – denying – it is a part of aspect of life that they don’t understand.” “But you can’t force people to understand,” he explained, “you just paint the clearest picture you can, that’s what I try to do.”
While the music aspect of our conversation was thought provoking, the discussion Brother Ali and I had on religion, society, and relationships was simply on another level. Brother Ali is a Caucasian Albino, who spent his formative years moving from town to town in Michigan, before settling in the Minneapolis area. He is also a practicing Muslim.
“I learned about it (Islam) through Malcolm X,” Brother Ali said, “I feel that he is the most sincere and honest person in the history of American life.” “Malcolm X said, ‘The only thing that can heal America was Islam’,” Brother Ali said, “Islam is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.” I discussed Christianity with Brother Ali, who feels that it is too broad of a religion. “I could not believe in original sin,” he said, “I don’t believe that humans are born sinful.” Ali also said that he could not believe that God was born as a form of a person. Brother Ali went on to tell me that people need to find out for themselves and be sincere about their beliefs. “Sincerity is the key, people should be sincere,” he said, “people should check out their reasons and motivations for doing things.” As a person who is going through some questioning about religion and humanity, the religious discussion made me ponder my own life and what I believed. I have read many interviews with artists, entertainers, and influential leaders – this was the first time someone ever used the word, “sincerity,” when discussing society. I wondered if Brother Ali is as sincere of an idealist he sounded. My questions would be answered in the affirmative later as we discussed humanity and compassion.
But first I wanted to address the sociological and political themes on his latest album, Mourning in America/Dreaming in Color. I asked Brother Ali what he would do if he was the President of the United States or a CEO of a major corporation. Brother Ali dismissed my question, but offered another viewpoint. “Rather than imagine or fantasize, we should look at the reality, in which we live,” he said, “we should care more about ourselves, and keep track and regain our moral compass.” Brother Ali continued, “We need to find meaning for our lives, and figure out the legacy that we want to leave behind.” We continued our discussion on people and humanity. “As people, we need to first care about what’s right, and care about people who are at the bottom,” he said, “we need to have dignity for all human beings and we need more dignity for people and justice, and work within that framework.”
Brother Ali discussed consumerism and material desires. “We need to check our own appetite – figure out what is authentic and original from artificial needs and artificial desires that make us consumers, and materialistic,” he said, “we need to check ourselves.” He elaborated, “Do I need to buy these things, do I need to support these things?” “We need to demand that human beings and human rights are respected,” he continued, “people should not starve or go without.” “We need to find that revolution within ourselves, and put more of a premium on humanity.”
The idealist that died somewhere in my mid 20s was listening intently, while the realist/cynic in me thought that this is impossible since only a small percentage of people in America feels this way. Brother Ali reminded me, “Everything worth something is difficult,” he said, “Nothing that is worth it is easy.” “This idea of instant gratification has caused too many people to suffer; many families suffered – so the world could be better.” He concluded, “We need to affirm the work of those that came before us – their sacrifice for freedom and comfort – we need to sacrifice what is less important for what is more important.” “The hard things, the difficult things are the most important things.”
Speaking of difficult things, I asked him about the challenges of being a husband and father in modern society since some of his songs discuss his recent marriage in 2008, and his son from his first marriage. Ali discussed joy and love in the oughts. “Our world is in need of joy and love,” he said, “we don’t have examples of it anymore.” “We sold love and joy for convenient and quick pleasures all across the board,” he continued, “we have given up what is truly sensual for fantasies, false ideas – for porn.” Before I could even think about my thoughts and actions on the subjects he spoke of, Brother Ali moved on to the topics of children and education. He stated, “We do not cultivate, we just train them to be successful in this mix up and rather corrupt world.” “We don’t foster love and hope,” he said, “we just train them to go get an ‘A,’ and don’t get in trouble.” “What about being great, and truly changing lives,” he continued, “this used to be in our society, but we let it go.” He concluded, “We need to see children for the precious human vessel that they are and not machines.”
I asked Brother Ali, “When did we let go of the idea of being great?” He said, “We had a built in self destructive mode from the beginning.” “All this land was from people who wanted to share it with us; we did not want to share, we wanted to own, and we force people to do work for free – then punish and discriminate,” he said. “We never healed our country’s devaluing of human life,” he continued, “We never healed.” “You cannot do that, unless you don’t care about humanity and we have gone further in that direction.”
My cynicism about people and relationships increased as I got older. I am not even sure that I believe in love and humanity anymore. I was struck by the honesty of Brother Ali’s words and shocked by the idealism of it. I never even bother asking him about groupies, drugs, and pleasures of life on the road. It was also rare to me for any entertainer to speak so bluntly about our nation’s scars from history.
Brother Ali and I talked about the current tour, and he informs me that he is performing with a 5 piece band and a horn section. He is excited about the live sound, and told me that while it is challenging, the payoff on this current tour is huge, as he has a sound that cannot be replicated. I asked him about his new album, in particular, what he would like the listener to get out of Mourning in America/Dreaming in Color. He said, “I would like to invite them back to humanity and love.” “Society has brought us to this point where there is no faith,” he continued, “everyone’s lives can be destroyed – except for people at the top.” “We need love, and courage to bring a solution to this society, which is compassion –finding compassion in society.”
Lastly, I asked him what he would like people who had never heard of him or his music to know. “My unique outlook on life,” he said, “my unique perspective on life – it is new and it is fresh.”
And the music? “It’s dope.”
For more information, tour dates, hit up Brother Ali’s website.